By Frank Wessling
How do you teach abstinence? The question rises because of some recent research claiming that so-called “abstinence only” sex education works only in the very short term. Do you simply say “Abstinence is better than indulgence, so don’t do it,” whatever “it” may be?
Don’t lie. Don’t take something that doesn’t belong to you. Don’t get sexual without marriage vows. Don’t cut corners. Don’t abuse your little brother. It all sounds like the Ten Commandments that we’ve had for millennia, but the record for them isn’t good. Is that because of poor teaching?
Does it mean we should give up; quit trying to push that boulder up the hill of human perversity?
We won’t give up trying to teach the young, but maybe a change of emphasis is needed — a change from abstinence to expression as the focus. Perhaps even a retrieval and renewed understanding of that old virtue, chastity, which is not, repeat not, the same thing as abstinence or celibacy. Chastity is a positive attribute which has much more to do with simple human dignity and respect.
The people who pooh-pooh abstinence as the primary focus in sex education have a point. It’s hard to sell a negative — in this case a don’t-do. And it’s especially hard when the behavior we want the kids to avoid is being sold all around them as the best thing God ever made.
In Catholic circles we’ve tended to act on this awareness. We’ve emphasized the virtues, and on teaching a discipline of action, not denial. We look at what makes a complete human being and say, OK, here’s what such a person has and here is the practice that enables you to reach that condition yourself. Then we talk about the particulars, like truth-telling and justice and self-control and growth through study.
We want to present everything under the aspect of the good, because all of creation is good. Then children can begin to understand that there is a hierarchy of goods, different degrees of value, all of which may be attained but not all at once and not immediately. One chooses, not between good and evil necessarily, but among goods that are meant to be sorted carefully for their place in a scale of values.
Too much of sex education, including some abstinence-only efforts, is about avoiding pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease. Is this what children really need from us to build them up? Don’t they, instead, need help in building and maintaining healthy friendships; dignified work and activities to gain skills and see vocational options; parents and other adults who clearly care for them and model the complete adult?
When it comes to those famous biblical commandments, we tend to forget that the first one, the most important, is a positive. It tells us to worship large, not small; to focus our faith in the greatest hope, the most magnificent aspirations. Don’t let small goods dim the light of the greatest good. Keep stretching to let God fill us with goodness and joy beyond imagining.