The Physical Self

Amanda Metskas

Many parents, whether religious or nonreligious, are uncomfortable talking with their kids about body issues, including sexuality. Although the questions that secular parents have about sexuality may not differ from those of religious parents, the answers that secular parents seek, informed as they are by different principles, are often different.

Because secular parents forgo the easy answers that some religious parents rely on—"Wait until marriage because that's what God wants"—the question of what to tell kids about sex becomes more complex.

Being nonreligious obviously doesn't mean rejecting moral values in general or sexual morality in particular—but lacking handy catchphrases, it can be more difficult to articulate the values that do inform our decision making. Some nonreligious parents, having been raised in a religious sexual ethic, reject that ethic along with its religious clothing. Others who have rejected religious belief still retain some or all of the moral messages about sexual behavior that they were taught as children.

Life in Lubbock, Texas, taught me two things: One is that God loves you and you're going to burn in hell. The other is that sex is the most awful, filthy thing on Earth, and you should save it for someone you love.

-Butch Hancock, country singer/songwriter

It's not surprising that so many of us have psychological obstacles to the topic of sex. Perhaps our parents never talked with us about it, or perhaps they sent the message that sex was dirty and shameful. It can be hard to get beyond the ways in which we were raised so we can approach the topic more straightforwardly with our own kids.

Step one in shaking loose those unhelpful messages is to frame sex in naturalistic terms. Far from being "the most filthy, awful thing on Earth," sex is an essential fact of our existence. Every one of your direct ancestors had sex— and thank Zeus for that, or this book would have one less reader. That religion could turn the central requirement of life on Earth into something shameful is a good candidate for the single most perverse and twisted of our inheritances from religious thought. Countless generations of boys have been driven into despairing shame as the naturally irresistible urge to masturbate was portrayed as "self-abuse" or "onanism." Church opposition to sensible contraception and family planning has kept millions in destitute poverty, while the enforced celibacy of priests led to the abuse of children—those least likely to tell. The point of this list is not just to criticize religion but to point out that whether it comes from their religious background or from our cultural Puritanism, even nonreligious parents bring many of these distorted and misinformed notions of sexuality into their own lives and their own parenting.

These messages have now found their way into national policy. Over $176 million has been poured into the promotion of abstinence-only sex education, despite studies indicating that a majority of kids taking a virginity pledge fail to keep the pledge, are more likely to have unprotected sex than non-pledgers when they do have sex, and are equally likely to contract STDs.1

Rather than pursuing vague notions of sin and satanic temptation, non-religious parents can ground their sexual values in a reason-based consideration of consequences. Sex should be abstained from when the risk of adverse consequences is great. And teen pregnancy is, by almost any measure, an adverse consequence, leading to higher school dropout rates, lower income potential, and severely reduced assets and increased risks for the child.2 Fortunately, teen pregnancy is on the decline. According the Guttmacher Institute's 2006 report, teen pregnancy rates are down 36 percent from 1990 to the lowest level in thirty years. Fourteen percent of this decrease is attributed to teens waiting longer to have sex; the other 86 percent is the result of improved contraceptive use.3

Percentage decline in teen pregnancy between 1990 and 2002: 36% Percentage of decline due to delaying sex or having sex less often: 14% Percentage of decline due to increased use of contraceptives: 86%4 Total federal funding of abstinence-only sex education programs in 2006: $176 million

Federal programs promoting comprehensive sex ed, including contraceptive use: 0

Average age of first sex for students in abstinence-only programs: 14.9 years

Average age for students not in abstinence-only programs: 14.9 years5

Percentage of U.S. teens receiving abstinence-only sex education in 1995: 9%

Percentage receiving abstinence-only sex education in 2002: 21-24%6 U.S. sex education teachers teaching abstinence-only in 1988: 1 in 50 U.S. sex education teachers teaching abstinence-only in 1999: 1 in 47 Proportion of U.S. sex ed teachers who believe students should be taught about contraception: 9 in 10 Proportion prohibited by law from doing so: 1 in 48

In a nutshell: "To date, no abstinence program of the type eligible for funding under the federal government's $176 million abstinence-only-until-marriage program has been found in a methodologically rigorous study to positively impact teen sexual behavior. Therefore, there is no evidence base to support continued investments of public funds in abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. A substantial majority of the comprehensive sex education programs reviewed—which receive no dedicated federal funding—are effective. The positive outcomes included delaying the initiation of sex, reducing the frequency of sex, reducing the number of sexual partners and increasing condom or contraceptive use."

—from "Emerging Answers 2007," a study by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy

In addition to being insufficiently prepared for parenthood, a 15-year-old is almost always insufficiently prepared for the emotional and social complexities of sexual relationships. It is these concerns about real-world consequences, rather than some strange distrust of bodily pleasure, that should guide the sexual education of our children—an opinion shared by most professional health and sexuality educators.

In addition to issues of sexuality, parents must help kids navigate more general issues surrounding body image, health, gender identity, sexual orientation, and drug use. This chapter provides questions and answers, activities, and resources for talking with kids about the many topics related to the physical self. While each of these topics could be (and is) addressed in whole books, this chapter is intended as an introduction to these issues that can point secular parents to some of the many other resources out there that will be more consistent with their secular values and approach to parenting.

Not every topic that could be addressed here will be. Questions about how to answer your kid's questions about where babies come from, how to talk to your kids about the changes their bodies are experiencing during puberty, and how to recognize the signs of an eating disorder and get treatment, for example, are not included, in part because so many excellent resources are now easily available for these topics. Our focus is on those issues over which religious and secular parenting approaches might differ.

There is neither need nor justification for a separate set of ethics related to sexuality or a separate set of principles to guide decision making about sex. The principles are the same as for other areas of life, centering on responsibility, consequences, honesty, and consistency. These and other humanistic virtues can help us guide our children toward a healthy and happy understanding of the physical self and their obligations to it.

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