While not every high school teacher regularly dons a purple stole, most of us have heard our share of confessions. In none of these remorse-filled conversations is there more poignancy than when the student realizes that his or her sexual choices are leading to one dead end after another. The popular message that has seduced this teenager is simple: the only moral issue in the world of recreational sex is consent. There is no cultural support for chastity, so sexual intercourse is as much a part of many teens’ social lives as kissing was 50 years ago. This is certainly not true of every adolescent, but casual sex crosses into every group in a high school—you can find it among the intellectuals, the athletes, the artists and the disaffected.
When I first realized the immensity of this problem, I was so stunned that for a fleeting moment I was tempted to suggest that we set a goldfish bowl of condoms out on the school counselor’s coffee table with an invitation to “Take one!” But sanity returned with lightning speed, because I realized that there is no prophylactic for a broken heart. There is no “safe sex,” because nothing protects us from the self-disgust that can deaden our capacity for real intimacy. Recreational sex creates a world of the used and the users, a naked hell that leaves one convinced that love is illusion and fidelity a joke. If you become adept at taking off your clothes (especially at an early age) while emotional nakedness eludes you, then emptiness will be your only bedfellow. Your desolation is complete. St. Paul knew what he was talking about when he advised us that the “wages of sin are death.”
This is, of course, all the bad news. And if you minister to young people, it will not be news at all. But teens caught in this nightmare can wake up, and it is for this reason that I make a two-part plea:
First, we who are responsible for the spiritual formation of young people have got to be more intentional, more vocal, more explicit about promoting chastity. And frankly, we have got to give them some advice about how chastity can be lived. We have to arm our adolescents with psychological as well as sexual savvy.
Second, we have to help teens recover their virginity. We have to give them hope. We have to assure them that although their physical virginity is lost, virginity at its core is a commitment to a certain kind of loving, and that commitment can be recovered and renewed. We have to offer them the wisdom and the healing that will make it possible for them to make different sexual choices in the future.
In a wonderful open letter to Georgetown University students, the campus minister Mary Patricia Barth Fourqurean reminded her readers of what Aristotle said about bravery and wondered if the same thing might also be said of “the chaste”: “The brave are found where bravery is honored” (Nicomachean Ethics, Bk. III). As Ms. Barth Fourqurean points out, if we as a culture and as a church do not applaud chastity, can we be surprised that our young do not value it?
Think for a moment: when was the last time that you heard a homily or a retreat talk on chastity? When in a classroom was chastity lauded along with Martin Luther King Jr.’s commitment to nonviolent social change or Mother Teresa’s passion for the poor?
For many reasons, loving the “generic” neighbor can be preached or taught much more easily than asking the down-and-dirty questions about how we relate to people sexually.
We have made sexual morality a private matter, so private that we refrain from saying too much about it for fear of being intrusive. Some of this hesitancy is understandable. Pious people for centuries have made a habit of promoting chastity as a way of avoiding sex altogether. All passion was bad, all pleasure questionable—enough to tie any conscientious Christian into scrupulous knots!
Sadly, though, in the decades since the Second Vatican Council, we have not found a way to honor the paradox of human sexuality without collapsing it. Our sexual needs, desires and impulses are part and parcel of being human: they are good, holy, God-given. But just like any of our senses, our sexual desires have the capacity both to enrich our lives and to wound us. Our society’s acceptance of recreational sex has trivialized sexuality, but it has not diminished its power. We can walk around our thoroughly modern homes sure that we have domesticated fire until a spark from a frayed wire burns our house to the ground. So, too, men and women can pretend that the decision to “sleep together” (don’t you love the absurdity of that euphemism?) has no more moral content than a tennis date until a heart gets broken or a baby is conceived. Sex is glorious and sex is dangerous. What it is not—and never will be—is safe. We have got to convince teenagers of this—and be patient if they scoff at the message. My experience over the last 15 years of sex education and spiritual direction with teenage males has told me that they do hear what we say—and yes, they do think about it—even if their original, public reaction may be one of disbelief.
Our conversation with these young people needs to be couched in such a way that the love relationship the teen cherishes is obviously also valued by the adult. The message must be clear: I believe you are capable of real intimacy; this is not just “puppy love.” But let’s talk about how it’s going. What are you feeling? What do you hope for in this relationship? Teenagers (even teenage males) do want to talk to an adult about their love lives. It is a mysterious, confusing experience, this loving the opposite sex, and they do long to air what delights them, what frightens them, what makes them feel very grown-up. And surprisingly, if they trust you, you can ask a teen some down-to-earth questions—for example, how much time do you and your beloved spend alone in his house or hers?
Handled with tact, the implication does not have to be that teenagers are passion-driven maniacs, but it is helpful to acknowledge that sexual intimacy does have its own momentum, and they should not be surprised if, over time, one thing appears to lead to another. By discussing it with an adult, the young couple can be invited to make other choices, to realize that certain situations will by their very nature make remaining chaste more difficult. So, have they talked about it? Can they spend more time with groups of friends or do something else in their social life so that sexual restraint is not a constant stress?
Teachers and counselors can also talk appreciatively to students about the differences between real love and infatuation. This may seem like an obvious distinction, but many a rush to consummation occurs because adolescents honestly believe that, just like in the movies, their passionate reaction to the beloved must mean that this person is the ultimate, eternal “love of my life.” When the infatuation fades and Prince or Princess Charming is deposed, inexperienced teens can become disillusioned and appalled that they were so “clueless.”
Without intervention, what opens next is the wide path to promiscuity. Either the young person believes that love is a joke, and therefore chastity makes no sense, or that love has escaped me this time but I will find it. And frankly, the popular wisdom in the dating world is that to find love, one must be sexually available. Either way, whether from bitterness or desperation, the merry-go-round of sexual partners now begins—and with it, the deadening of heart and soul that confuses young people even more. As absurd as it seems, at this point adolescents can believe that their sexual path is now set: virginity once lost is gone forever. They do not realize that forgiveness and recovery are possible for the “non-virgins” among us!
Happily, the Christian tradition is filled with much wisdom to guide such recovery. Sin wounds, and when dealing with people whose present suffering has been caused by their sexual choices, the pastoral minister or the confessor needs to discover how and where this person’s capacity to love has been scarred. Not surprisingly, the damage tends to exist in both the person’s self-love and in his or her ability to reverence the opposite sex. Whether they are experiencing the bitterness of an ended love affair or simply gagging from the memory of their promiscuity, our “recovering non-virgins” need to feel the love and forgiveness of others. Ultimately, they need to know the God who forgives them and is pursuing them so faithfully.
Beyond this critical reconciliation, our sexually wounded teens need to do as St. Ignatius Loyola advises and recognize their patterns of desolation and their patterns of consolation. As any living, breathing (and honest) human being can testify, sexual temptation is an integral part of life. Handling one’s sexuality in a wise way requires significant self-knowledge: know your patterns. In times of consolation, Ignatius would tell us, we are most “ourselves”: most true to our deepest hopes, desires, commitments—most effortlessly capable of loving God and others—and, most likely to make good decisions. So, what brings you to that space? Who brings you there? What are you doing, what are you enjoying, what are you working on when you breathe that especially blest air?
Conversely, St. Ignatius would say that in desolation we are least ourselves—we are likely to feel alienated from those we love, distant from God and unknown (and annoying) to ourselves. We are prey to unsettling feelings that lead us to make rotten decisions. Again, St. Ignatius is promoting self-knowledge: as with consolation, recognize your patterns of desolation. What has brought you to this nadir? How have you been spending your time? What have you been doing or reading? What music have you been listening to? Who have you been with?
The point of understanding your patterns of desolation is that, with practice and prayer, a person can develop a “flashing light” that will begin to blink in one’s consciousness as one treads this less than healthy path. There is a great acronym in the 12-step literature that captures this wisdom: HALT: Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired. The message here is obvious: if one is desolate, if one is out of sorts, hungry, angry, lonely or tired, one is apt to fall prey to one’s compulsions (we all have them). So stop; attend to what you really need. And, especially, pray to regain your interior composure.
This wisdom is invaluable when working with young people, because they often think that sexual morality springs from a sort of “stiff upper lip” willpower. This approach to changing one’s sexual habits can spell disaster, especially if recreational sex has been a regular part of the weekend scene. Never doubt it: for some teens, casual sex has been fun, pleasurable and an ego boost. To make different moral choices they need much more than a cold shower.
There is, alas, no spiritual laminate available to any of us, but to teens attempting to reverence their own bodies and the bodies of others, “know yourself” can be a great asset. HALT, too, can be helpful wisdom. Recognize when you are in a bad space; know when you need rest or food or a listening ear. When in consolation, consider what situations make it more likely for you to use or be used sexually. What do you really need when you are choosing casual sex as your anodyne? And remember, the exuberant God who created our sexuality wants it to be a source of joy, not a weapon that wounds us.