March 2008 –Teenagers and sex. This day and time it’s rare to find one without the other, and young evangelicals are no exception. Sociology professor Mark Regnerus has proof.
In his recent book, titled Forbidden Fruit: Sex & Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers, Regnerus reports the findings of 250 interviews and three national surveys, all related to teenage sexuality and religion.
“Forbidden Fruit tells the definitive story of the sexual values and practices of American teenagers, paying particular attention to how participating in organized religion shapes sexual decision making,” according to the book jacket.
What relationship does religion have to a teen’s sexual values? Are teens’ behaviors affected by religion? Are abstinence pledges effective? What does the concept of emotional readiness mean?
Regnerus tackles such questions and begins the book by explaining the rationale for his studies. After all, connecting religion to sexual behavior doesn’t seem as logical as finding a correlation between sex and peer pressure or sex and body image.
However, Regnerus writes: “First, religion and sexuality tap basic drives. … Second, religion – together with peers, parents, and the media – remains a primary socialization agent of children and adolescents. … Third, sex is a sphere of human behavior high in religious applicability.”
Regnerus’ studies are in-depth and some of his findings startling.
For example, he says evangelical teens are slightly more sexually active than are their non-evangelical peers.
Boundless.org sums up Regnerus’ findings: “[W]hereas non-evangelical teens have sex for the first time at age 16.7, the average age for evangelical teens is 16.3. Even worse, evangelical teens are more likely to have had three or more sexual partners (13.7%) than their non-evangelical peers (8.9%).”
In addition, World Magazine writer and culture critic Gene Edward Veith cites the same study and adds: “Some 80% of teenagers who say they have been ‘born again’ agree that sex outside of marriage is morally wrong. Still, as many as two-thirds of them violate their own beliefs in their actual behavior.”
Why? There is a disconnect between their heads and their hearts, and perhaps between the church and its teachings.
The professor’s insights boil down to the fact that most religious teens have not internalized nor are they able to articulate the sexual ethic taught by their own denominations. Evangelical teens don’t have sex less than their non-evangelical friends; they just feel guiltier about it.
This is evident in one of Regnerus’ 12 key findings: “[R]eligion affects adolescents’ sexual attitudes and motivations more than their actions.”
Forbidden Fruit also found that: “[E]vangelical Protestant youth may hold less sexually permissive attitudes than most other religious youth, but they are not the last to lose their virginity, on average. Not even close.”
He deems this key finding to be “most interesting and ironic” because it reveals that evangelical teens are above average in their sexual activity patterns.
“There are several plausible explanations for this anomaly, but I give most weight to the clash of cultures that evangelical adolescents are experiencing: they are urged to drink deeply from the waters of American individualism and its self-focused pleasure ethic, yet they are asked to value time-honored religious traditions like family and chastity,” Regnerus explains.
“They attempt to do both (while other religious groups don’t attempt this), and serving two masters is difficult,” he adds.
So what does all this mean? To put it bluntly, the teachings of the church are lacking, although not without value – as seen in Regnerus’ claim that “[r]eligiosity almost always makes a difference. … But just because it makes a difference does not mean that religion motivates adolescents’ sexual decision making.”
Regnerus explains that a teen’s religious involvement alone doesn’t necessarily equate religious influence on the teen’s sexual behavior. Something more must be involved. That something is a “network of like-minded friends, family and authorities who (a) teach and enable comprehensive religious perspectives about sexuality … (b) offer desexualized time and space and provide reinforcement of parental values. …”
In other words, teens need a pure community of true believers who teach the truth about sex – including the beauty of it in marriage.
“Churches used to teach and exemplify self-control, the necessity of keeping one’s emotions in check, the discipline of self-denial and mortification of the flesh,” Veith writes in an article titled “Sex and the Evangelical Teen.”
“Today the typical evangelical church, in its example and practice, cultivates ‘letting go,’ emotionalism, self-fulfillment, and an odd religious sensuality,” he adds.
With that in mind, Veith believes that many “evangelical” teens still need to be evangelized and brought closer to Christ, “so that a growing faith can bear fruit in good conduct” – the conduct of sexual purity.
Teens & Sex: How Should We Teach Them? by Pul David Tripp (New Growth Press, 2000)
Sex 180: The Next Revolution by Chip Ingram and Tim Walker (Baker Books, 2005)