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Teen Sex: The Holy vs.Humanistic Approach

How do secular humanists look at teenage sexuality?

Co-authored with David Niose, president of the American Humanist Association

With all the harsh rhetoric of the culture wars, it's easy to forget that secular humanists and conservative Christians share much common ground—even in the sensitive realm of parenting and education. After all, in one way or another, who doesn't want their kids to be well-adjusted, honest, and hard-working?

In some areas, however—such as the teaching of evolution, school prayer, and church-state separation—major ideological differences separate these two camps. And perhaps the most pointed example of this contrast involves premarital sex, particularly as it relates to teens.

The conservative Christian view on teen premarital sex is simple and straightforward. It's wrong; sinful. And the unyielding nature of this approach explains why such Christians lobby incessantly against public school sex education that goes beyond teaching (preaching?) abstinence, despite all the studies now demonstrating that "abstinence-only" programs serve not to decrease but increase the risk of pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).

For example, a September 2009 study in the Sexuality Research and Social Policy Journal reported that most abstinence programs fail to delay sexual initiation, while more comprehensive programs show a positive impact, including postponing sexual activity and increasing contraceptive use. Complementing these findings is a January 2007 study published in the American Journal of Public Health which concluded that declining teen pregnancy rates in the U.S. were primarily attributable to improved contraception (and not to abstinence-only education).

As opposed to conservative Christian beliefs about pre-marital sex, the secular humanist view—which is atheistic or, better, non-theistic—doesn't start with "pre-ordained" assumptions about right and wrong but attempts to understand this basic libidinal drive holistically. By seeing sexuality not from the perspective of established religious dogma, but from a bio-socio-cultural vantage point, humanists endeavor to help young people better grasp the complex nature of sexual intimacy. To prompt them to consider the various ramifications—ethical and otherwise—of unrestrainedly letting loose their libido. And to have them question whether giving unmitigated expression to their erotic impulses is finally in their best interests.

Gloria Steinem (an American Humanist Association award winner) has argued—similar to other humanists—for comprehensive sex education, stressing that abstinence-only-until-marriage programs fail to arm teenagers with the essential knowledge required to protect themselves against STDs and pregnancy. And Alice Walker (1997 AHA Humanist of the Year) echoed the general view of humanists when she stated that sexuality should be acknowledged, affirmed, and even celebrated—and that the practice of punishing young women for enjoying sex is both damaging and counterproductive. Her position calls not for permissiveness as such, but for a healthier understanding of sexuality as a natural phenomenon—not a double-edged "gift" from God, tempting us to stray even as it ensures procreation.

Humanists' respect for our basic nature (sexual or otherwise) leads them to search for solutions consonant with who we actually are—rather than prescribing some artificially decreed, or "unnatural," code of conduct, which can bend us out of shape and lead to frustrating feelings of deprivation and unfulfillment. What humanists see as "naturalistic solutions" certainly consider the personal constraints requisite for maintaining a civilized society. But they also affirm that individual and social welfare are complementary, and that personal fulfillment (even while necessitating a certain amount of restraint and self-control) is best achieved through first understanding what is inherent about human nature. Not in a biblical sense, but scientifically. Solutions that result from such an approach are designed to affirm universal values—independent of custom and tradition, time and place.

Much conservative religious dogma approaches sexuality (especially unmarried, teenage sexuality) as inherently objectionable, base and ignoble. Humanists, however, avoid taking such unquestioned, categorical positions. What's ideal to them is that which—in a flexible, non-authoritarian way—complies with The Golden Rule (attempting to honor everyone, and shame no one). This fundamental, overarching ethical tenet—which transcends all historical, religious, and philosophical biases—aspires to integrate the pure with the pragmatic and, above all, "do no harm" to anyone (including one's self).

Moreover, not simply in matters of sexuality but in all areas of ethics and morality, humanism strives to put as few limits on personal freedom and self-expression as possible. At the same time, the positions taken by humanists (see http://www.americanhumanist.org/Who_We_Are/About_Humanism ) are ever-mindful of the need to protect society from being trampled upon by rash or rampant hedonism—or anything else that doesn't sufficiently respect the humanity of all of us.

Perceiving human sexuality from a viewpoint grounded both in science and nature—as opposed, that is, to some pre-ordained, or "consecrated," fundamentalist Christian viewpoint—humanists search out all relevant information (and seek to verify it) before arriving at a decision. Ethical criteria are definitely part of the equation here—and, at that, perhaps the ultimate part. But such criteria are still considered in the context of undeniable human realities.

This counter-to-nature mating delay can best be understood as tied to the enormous social, economic, and technological changes that have taken place in our modern era. Before then, mating occurred "naturally"—at, or soon after, puberty. Only in modern industrial society do humans find themselves in cultures requiring an unnaturally extended period of sexual dormancy.

Think of it. What could be more antithetical to our nature?! Nonetheless, these facts aren't meant to imply that teen sex should be encouraged simply because that's what's natural. Acknowledging our inborn sexual proclivities hardly constitutes an endorsement of hedonistic romps. But such recognition does represent a good starting point for a productive—and compassionate—discussion of the many intricate issues linked to premarital sex.

We also need to consider, however, that as human animals we've developed technology that has completely transformed our environment. Not only have we constructed highly complex technological societies (with, as already mentioned, economic and social systems that encourage postponing sexual reproduction well into adulthood), we've also developed the remarkable ability to control our reproductive lives through reliable (and easily obtainable) birth control. As a consequence, many of us enjoy unprecedented material comfort and convenience—without the burden of undesired reproductive obligations.

But, alas, our advanced technology and material riches (comparatively speaking, at least) have hardly brought us a utopia. Perhaps because of the dominance of our economic, corporate, and media cultures, our fundamental nature—biological, psychological, and sexual—has, in many respects, not so much been nurtured as it has been exploited. The same systems that provide unprecedented abundance can also rob us of what we most crave spiritually (or, as some humanists would prefer to put it, non-materially). And they can actually discourage us (and have discouraged us) from living our lives with intelligence and discernment—from acting in what, finally, is in our best interests.

This is nothing short of tragic. For in many ways contemporary society would seem to offer us the best opportunity to achieve personal fulfillment in so many areas of life (including the sexual). Nonetheless, we seem to inhabit a socio-political environment that often fails to produce a population "adult enough" to seek such fulfillment—let alone achieve it. Attention spans get shorter, instant gratification predominates, intellectual inquiry is often downplayed (or even ridiculed), and meaningful relationships that might have been never really develop. Living in such a society, it's not at all surprising that for a great many individuals a mature understanding of intimacy is sadly lacking. Yet who would deny that wisely mentoring our adolescent children about how best to deal with their budding sexuality is crucial to good parenting?

In short, such parents would be examining the situation in a multi-faceted way: developmentally, psycho-socially, and ethically. Without adhering to any traditional faith, caring and responsible parents would yet have much to consider in talking with their child. But they wouldn't begin and end simply by condemning the child because they judged their behavior reprehensible, shameful, or "unholy."

Ironically, though from a different vantage point (and probably with greater tolerance for some teen sexual experimentation), humanist parents would reach pretty much the same conclusion as would their conservative Christian counterparts. That is, both sets of parents would strongly prefer that their child wasn't sexually active. And, of course, that when they did express their sexuality, they did so prudently—and with a more grown-up understanding of what they were getting themselves into. Virtually all parents (whether they're able to articulate it or not) hope that their children will develop the ability to grasp the various ramifications not simply of sexual intimacy but of more general relational intimacy.

The difference, then, between the secular humanist and the conservative Christian viewpoint toward teen sexuality is not so much in the conclusions they arrive at, but in how these conclusions are reached. To secular humanists, matters of shame, divine judgment, or biblical reference do not factor into the deliberative process. Rather, they investigate questions of teen sexuality primarily from scientifically studying nature, with answers derived not from theology but from the natural world. Basic human drives are recognized and respected. But in the end, they evaluate all natural impulses (however strong, tempting, or erotic) in the larger context of core individual and societal needs. And intellect—as opposed to faith—is employed to prepare them, as parents, to provide the best possible guidance for their children.

Note: Since its original publication in Psychologytoday.com, this post has been reprinted in Elements of Argument: A Text and Reader, Annette T. Rottenberg & Donna Haisty Winchell, eds. (Boston: Bedford/St.Martin's, 2012).

----- As always, I (LFS) invite readers to follow my psychological and philosophical reflections on Twitter.

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