A paediatric colleague and I have become increasingly aware in our Newcastle clinics and schools of how much our young people are suffering from the consequences of sex outside marriage and the disintegration of home life. As you will read below, we believe that safe(r) sex teaching has contributed to this by promoting sex at a younger age and outside a moral framework. Our desire is to see this ungodly teaching replaced by one from a Christian perspective in order to help rebuild the family in our society.
With this in mind, in 2002 we formed a charity called Lovewise, together with a local secondary school head teacher. Its aim is to encourage young people to consider the blessings of marriage and the rightness and benefits of keeping sex for marriage. It sends presenters, including two medical students, into schools and youth groups using Powerpoint, video interviews and personal testimonies. So far we have been invited into 15 schools and six youth groups mostly in north east England but we are in the process of setting up further UK teams. Our material is also available for individual class teachers and youth group leaders. There is a range of presentations for different ages and some with greater biblical content especially for church youth groups.
Before giving some details of our material it may be helpful to review the moral and educational context of our time.
A short history of sexual ethics
Something very serious has happened to our society in the last 50 years. For at least four centuries UK rates of births outside of marriage have stayed below 7%. Since the 1950s there has been an unprecedented rise to 41.4% in 2003. For 500 years our society believed that marriage was the right place for bringing up children and that sexual activity should be limited to marriage, since one lead inevitably to the other without contraception and abortion. Now we no longer believe this is so.
It is impossible to overestimate the importance of the God-ordained family based on marriage. It is the building block and microcosm of society in which an individual should first experience love, security and discipline. The Bible reminds us that its breakdown or dysfunction will affect many – those responsible, their spouses, their family (eg Eli and his sons in 1 Samuel 1-5) and the wider society (eg Sodom in Genesis 18,19). Today's sociological studies confirm the Bible's sternest warnings. Family breakdown damages almost everything we care about – for example, the health of families and the discipline of children, the sexual identity of children and the life of the unborn. Anthropological and historical studies observe the weakening and collapse of a society within one or two generations when it forsakes marriage and sexual restraint.
How did this disastrous change come about? This has been a keen subject of debate amongst sociologists. Is it the freedom given by contraception, which is able to separate procreation from sexual union? Or the earning power of women, which has allowed them to pay for child care and dispense with a husband? Or has the ingenuity of man simply created a new, seemingly freer and more flexible way of living?
In fact it is primarily none of these. The change has been moral, although undoubtedly these other factors have had their influence. Society has dispensed with God's command to honour heterosexual marriage and keep sexual intimacy for this life-long, exclusive relationship.
The change has been gradual but steady. Victorian England was generally renowned for modesty and a high respect for marriage. Great public shame was associated with extra-marital sex. By the turn of the 20th century a few individuals, such as London's Bloomsbury set (a group of artists and writers including Virginia Woolf), were willing to promote and parade publicly a life free from what they considered to be the straitjacket of Victorian morals. It often involved both extramarital and bisexual activity. But most of society viewed them as eccentric Bohemians living shameful and dangerous lives.
The current climate
How different it is now! What was eccentric and shameful has become mainstream and acceptable. Leaders in the influential spheres of politics, media, teaching and medicine now actively promote the acceptability, and often the benefit of all kinds of 'units' other than the family based on marriage. Given the wayward lifestyles of some of our leaders we must suspect that their motivation for promoting alternative family models and sexual licence comes from a desire to affirm their own actions by promoting it in others.
Instead of following the pattern revealed by God, in the haunting words of Judges 21:25, 'everyone does as he sees fit'. In a society that so prizes pleasure, sex is promoted as a recreation and shame is rarely sensed. Rather than a deep and loving manifestation of appreciation and commitment in marriage, sexual intimacy is given and taken whenever and with whomever we choose. Here is a quote from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office when asked if they were willing to support the traditional family:
The Government's support for a broader and more inclusive definition of families was enhanced last year by the successful passage of the Civil Partnership Act 2004. This legislation will offer same-sex couples the option of legal recognition for their relationships and parity of treatment with opposite-sex couples who marry. The Government's introduction of civil partnerships reinforces the view that successful families do not fit one model. Same-sex couples' families are as deserving of respect and support as other families.
It is clear from this that the desire to undermine marriage is not limited to political argument. It has extended to the introduction of a range of laws that support other 'models' and threaten marriage.
There is strong pressure in our schools, hospitals and the political establishment not to be seen to support marriage or argue against premarital sexual activity. If you dare to disagree with those who advocate that 'anything goes' you are likely to be described as judgmental. Be prepared to stand your ground, remembering that in so doing you are acting as an ambassador for God's ways. Many will silently agree with you, though too intimidated to say so.
Tragically adults haven't felt it sufficient to limit promotion of such a philosophy to themselves. They have also sought to encourage the young and impressionable to consider other sexual and family 'models'. Those in misguided authority have then attempted to limit the damage that such wayward lifestyles inevitably cause. Such approaches include 'safer sex' teaching, in which condom use and access is promoted, with the aim of reducing the physical consequences of extramarital sex – unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections (STIs). As you will see below such teaching has the effect of actually perpetuating the lifestyles that have caused the damage.
What's wrong with 'safer sex'?
Condom promotion is usually presented to unmarried young people without any mention of marriage as the right context for sexual intimacy. The teacher, an authority figure for the pupils, is expected to affirm immoral sexual activity. Should a Christian teacher (or doctor) share any part of this? Paul clearly warns Timothy, 'do not share in the sins of others. Keep yourself pure.'
The teaching involves holding out to them the (false) expectation that they can 'safely' avoid the consequences of sexual immorality, thereby removing an important deterrent. This goes against the biblical principle that sinful acts have bad consequences (though sometimes God enables us to treat the consequences after the act as a sign of his grace). As you will read below, the condom has been ineffective in preventing these bad physical and emotional consequences. We should not be surprised at this because the Bible reminds us that such prevention is a vain hope. 'Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.'
In addition to deterrent removal, such teaching can promote sexual activity in another way by provoking sexual thoughts and encouraging young people to consider the sexual act in isolation outside the emotional, relational and social context of marriage. A recent study supports the contention that condom promotion increases sexual activity and therefore 'risky' behaviour.
Has condom promotion been effective?
Has condom promotion prevented STIs or unwanted pregnancies? Teaching has never been more widespread and condoms have never been more available, yet STI rates are rising dramatically in all age groups. Rates for chlamydia have risen threefold in the last eight years. 70% of chlamydia infection in women is asymptomatic and infection can lead to later infertility by damaging the fallopian tubes. Teenage conception rates are probably as high as ever (though complete figures are impossible to obtain since the introduction of the 'morning-after pill').
Why has condom promotion been so unsuccessful in limiting damage from sexual immorality? Many reliable studies show that even when used well, condoms are not very effective in limiting STI spread. There are good mechanical (1.5-3% breakage or slippage rate) and biological reasons (some viruses like warts and herpes are found outside the area of the condom).[13,14] In addition, however well advertised and available condoms are, teenagers are simply poor at using them. Even intensive campaigns in the UK consider 'last intercourse usage rates' of 67% to be as high as can be expected. But perhaps more importantly such teaching has increased premarital sexual activity for reasons stated above, thus increasing STIs and unwanted pregnancies.
Consider a young man attending a 'safer sex' class with his female classmates. The teacher carefully avoids the words right and wrong (except that it is wrong to be forced to do anything against your will) in order not to appear judgmental about the future sexual inclinations of those who attend. There is no mention of marriage (or even romance, which has been another victim of this very functional approach to sex). The teacher's main theme is 'safety'. Most time is spent in group practicals applying condoms to cucumber phalluses. From this teaching he understandably concludes that sex is a pleasurable recreational activity that he and his female peers can enjoy without any responsibility or after effects. And a female classmate has been robbed of any excuse for resisting his advances. If such teaching were truthful (which it is not!) she can no longer justify looking for commitment nor excuse herself because she fears being left 'holding the baby' or with a nasty discharge.
Such is the situation for our young people in many schools today. Should we be surprised that the number of sexual partners for teenagers is rising dramatically with a resultant explosion of STIs? How much longer should we listen to yearly claims that success is just round the corner if funding were sufficient, condom access improved and teaching intensified? Surely now is the time to reply in no uncertain terms that our young people have paid a high price in a 20 year experiment that has been a colossal failure.
A godly alternative
God wants something very different taught to our children. He wants them to know of his design and desire in relationships. The alternative to 'safer sex' teaching is often termed 'abstinence education' especially in the US where it is funded by central government. In practice some but not all abstinence programmes in the US promote marriage in a moral context. Amongst Christians there is a debate about whether abstinence is the correct term for God-honouring relationships education since this negative word is applied to a message that is positive at heart. Some prefer the word chastity to abstinence since this implies a positive desire to honour God and marriage by seeking sexual purity.
There has been heated debate recently in the medical press about whether abstinence education works. Observers who are so reluctant to recognise the glaring failure of safer sex seem scornful of any evidence that abstinence programmes work. Two years ago Britain's Chief Medical Officer wrote that 'evidence does not exist to suggest that abstinence approaches are effective'.16 At one level few are foolish enough to dispute the self-evident truth that if people uniformly followed abstinence until faithful monogamy then STIs would disappear. Those who oppose abstinence simply predict that young people will pay no attention to the exhortation to self-control or ideas of right and wrong and so need protection from the consequences. Inconsistently, programmes with a moral message about smoking, drugs or alcohol are considered appropriate and effective.
reasons for the failure of condom promotion
most adolescents do not want or do not remember to use condoms, especially when drunk
many STIs, especially warts and herpes, are transmitted outside the area of condom coverage
breakage or slippage is common, especially when used by adolescents
condoms don't protect the heart
condom promotion increases sexual activity by promising to remove deterrents (of STIs and pregnancy), promoting sexual thoughts and avoiding teaching self-control
In fact there is good evidence that individual abstinence programmes have been effective. Even the most cautious analysis ascribes to them some of the striking reduction in US national teenage birth, abortion and sexual activity rates.[17,18] There is also strong evidence that abstinence promotion has contributed to the low levels of HIV in the young of Uganda in contrast to neighbouring countries who have not benefited from such a government programme. Such evidence is well reviewed by Stammers.
Proof of efficacy is not the predominant issue for the Christian as it is for the utilitarian secularist. We teach something because we understand it is right to do so. God often calls his children to proclaim his ways without expecting a favourable response or outcome. That said, if God's ways are heeded, we can be sure that they 'work' because living according to our maker's instructions generally brings health and blessing.
Is it ever right to combine abstinence with condom promotion?
At first sight there is a logical and emotional appeal in combining the promotion of sexual abstinence to everyone with the safety net of the condom to those who won't abstain. This is known as the 'abstinence plus' approach in the US. However, condom promotion to the unmarried in an amoral context is always wrong for the reasons outlined above whether alone or in combination with another message. Also, inevitably abstinence and safer sex messages contradict each other. For example, abstinence education is aspiring them to purity and self-control whereas a safer sex message anticipates and therefore affirms a lack of both (except inconsistently in the self-control needed to put the condom on in the heat of the moment). Finally, as I hope I have already convinced you, condom promotion does not work for the reasons summarised in the box.
What does Lovewise teach?
Ideally intimate issues of sexuality should be modelled and taught by a child's parents. Sadly such teaching is often avoided or unhelpful. So what can we provide as a substitute? We have thought long and hard about exactly how we should present a godly perspective on relationships. Here are some themes and responses to our presentations from our first two years 'on the road'. You may notice that the themes cover all aspects of God's word -his creation, moral law, judgment and grace.
Upholding God-given boundaries for sex
Many are raised in homes where there are few rules on how to conduct themselves in relationships. Many are pressurised to go further physically than they wish (especially girls). We talk about how media and peer-pressure contribute to this. Most younger pupils seem willing to accept that God made marriage and sex. Some are surprised to find Christians saying that sex is good; many find it harder to accept that God intends sex to be kept for marriage. Nevertheless, we sense a relief that there are boundaries and some are pleased to hear that they are not being 'cold' or awkward if they long for and insist upon life-long commitment before giving themselves physically.
Encouraging pupils to aspire to marriage and parenthood
Few of them have received any clear guidance on what kind of family future they should look forward to. We use a clip of a wedding ceremony to explain the nature of marriage. Whilst we try to be sensitive to the varied family background of pupils, we do not want the mistakes of a previous generation to be foisted on the next. Interestingly, despite the poor press that marriage gets, the majority of our pupils in Years 8 to 11 (13-16 years old) still hope to marry at some stage. We explain the superior nature of marriage compared to living together in terms of duration, fidelity and childrens' upbringing. Rather than the safe(r) sex perspective of pregnancy avoidance, we explain the great privilege of sharing in the creation of new life and the joy of parenthood in marriage.
Considering the consequences of sex outside marriage
We show them a photo of a pregnant woman and a man with AIDS to remind them that choices that they make in relationships can have life and death consequences. We explain how the condom has been made widely available, but how it has failed to afford the protection promised. They are surprised to hear about studies that show a wide range of protection for different infections (little or none for warts and herpes, 40% for chlamydia, 90% for HIV). We also tell them about the long term consequences of STIs. We explain that the majority of couples seeking infertility treatment have evidence of past chlamydia infection, and 50% of vulval cancer and 25% of oral cancer.
Holding out God's offer of forgiveness and a fresh start
How hopeless it would be if we simply held up God's commands without his response to our disobedience. Though we haven't yet had any obvious response to our simple explanation of the Cross, we know that many need to hear of God's grace as they wrestle with guilt, pain and low self esteem from past mistakes. We encourage those who have made mistakes to ask God's forgiveness and make a new start.
Offering practical advice
We give them help on how to avoid sexual intimacy whilst going out. This includes the need for self-control, the dangers of alcohol and provocation through dress, behaviour and pornography We have very little idea of the effects of our presentations on the pupils, although occasional comments give us encouragement. Many teachers thank us for teaching what they know is true but fear to teach themselves in the current philosophical climate. We give the presentations in faith remembering the power of God's word and the Lord's reminder of the harvest from seed that we scatter, which grows night and day independent of us!
Can you help?
We would like to see similar teams going into schools and youth groups in other cities in the UK. We see this as the best way to ensure that teaching is consistent and given with authority and conviction. Are you or do you know of others who might be interested in being a presenter? Or are you a youth group leader who might be able to use our material? In either case you will need to be able to sign our code of practice and statement of faith.
Over the last 50 years Christians have been compromisingly quiet amidst the moral decay of our country. Do we hunger and thirst for the righteousness of our children, many of whom face a moral assault in our schools? God has shown us his ways that will direct, bless, protect and convict -we surely have a responsibility to share them. Though you might think that our approach is remote from the minds of young people, we have generally been encouraged at how interested and engaged our listeners have been. We have found open doors in schools and ears ready to listen. Would you be willing to join us in seizing hold of this great opportunity? If so please contact us at the address shown:
25 Brandling Place South
Newcastle Upon Tyne