Evangelicals are nothing if not susceptible to fads, so it’s no surprise that in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, when we were all reeling from the Sexual Revolution of the ‘60s, we launched a slate of programs to discourage teens from having sex, including True Love Waits and the Silver Ring Thing. Teens were told that if they signed an abstinence pledge and followed the Biblical model of abstinence until marriage, their sex lives would be better and their marriages would be stronger.

We obey the Law, not because we are promised temporal benefits for doing so (though we may be), but because there is true joy in submission to a Good God and in a life lived in harmony with His Good Creation.To many eyes, True Love Waits and similar programs seem like a good idea. Teen sex is a problem, so why not promote abstinence with a “cool” program that speaks their language and encourages them to commit to a Christian sexual ethic?

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work.

The programs’ ineffectiveness can be inferred from the blogosphere, where there’s no shortage of individuals enumerating their reasons for rejecting them (here are a few), but their failure is pretty clearly confirmed by the available data as well. If the programs’ primary goal is to prevent premarital sex, they’re no better than nothing. If their secondary goal is to prevent teen pregnancy and the spread of STIs, they’re actually worse than nothing (because teens who have made the pledge are less likely to use birth control when engaging in intercourse).

When an activity in which the Church is engaged is both ineffective and such an easy punching bag for those who have rejected and/or been harmed by the faith, it seems valuable to understand where things went so wrong, so allow me to propose an analogy.

To truly understand the failure of these purity programs, it would be beneficial to compare them to that other abstinence program that came to prominence in the late 20th century: Drug Abuse Resistance Education, or D.A.R.E. Arguably the most lasting impact of Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” initiative, the program dispatches uniformed police officers to schools around the country to boost kids’ self-esteem, teach them the dangers of drugs, and make them sign a “drug-free” pledge. It’s a hugely popular program.

It also doesn’t work.

Numerous studies have found that not only does D.A.R.E. fail to discourage drug abuse, it might actually make kids more likely to abuse drugs. You can insert your own Orwellian conspiracy theory here, but the fact that such a popular anti-drug program may increase drug use should raise at least a few eyebrows. Why does this happen? It’s difficult to quantify, but a handful of theories have been suggested.

In the first place, D.A.R.E. may actually exaggerate peer pressure. Many of the children who go through the D.A.R.E. program have never even heard of drugs before, let alone felt pressured to use them. By teaching kids about drugs and peer pressure, not only does D.A.R.E. supply kids with information they wouldn’t have otherwise had about mind-altering substances, it also strongly implies that they’ll have to start taking drugs if they want to fit in.

Just as importantly, though, D.A.R.E. exaggerates the dangers of drugs. While it might seem counterintuitive that exaggerating a substance’s danger encourages its use, keep in mind that teenagers are rebellious by nature. While exaggerating the dangers may deter some, those who do try drugs will find that the dire warnings were less than completely honest, leading them to question everything they’ve been told.

Finally, we should probably question the wisdom of the drug-free pledge itself. By encouraging kids to sign a commitment to never use drugs, we’re actually sorting kids into arbitrary categories. Those who sign the pledge now see themselves as “drug-free,” and after they’ve broken that commitment once, what motivation would they have to stop there?

The parallels with True Love Waits et al. should be clear: Purity programs exaggerate the pressure teens experience to lose their virginity, exaggerate the consequences of losing one’s virginity, and communicate an implicit (or even explicit!) all-is-lost message with regards to its loss.

Those last two are particularly important, since a prominent message of purity programs is that, in sex, you “give away part of yourself,” not only injuring your body and soul in the moment, but severely damaging your chances at a satisfying marriage as well. And while there may be a degree of truth to this claim — St. Paul certainly regarded sexual sin as in its own class — it’s worth noting that it’s both (a) an entirely subjective claim and (b) an entirely hedonistic claim.

The subjectivity is key here, because what is or isn’t emotionally satisfying is ultimately a matter of personal preference. Certainly plenty of individuals have engaged in premarital sex and found it ultimately empty and unsatisfying, but just as many have done the same thing and liked it quite a bit — just as plenty of drug abusers have otherwise functional lives. After all, the reason sin is popular is because it’s often quite a bit of fun.

However, whether an act feels satisfying or feels vexing is ultimately immaterial to whether the act itself is moral or immoral. That premarital sex has damaged some marriages and psyches is no more proof of its immorality than the fact that it has failed to damage others is proof of its acceptability. Worse, when we tell teens that the ultimate purpose of chaste behavior is to make sex and marriage satisfying, we invite them to judge every act in pragmatically hedonistic terms. In one of the posts I’ve linked to above, for instance, the author writes:

We were all trying so hard to live up to an ideal driven by guilt, shame and conservative politics which ignored human emotions. After a long, long time I realized I wasn’t a bad person. Of course, I still would have promoted abstinence as I was heartbroken from the whole experience, just like they had warned me. Then I realized something else: that was the reason I felt bad.

Once I gradually started letting go of the idea of virginity being so special and important I didn’t feel as bad. I saw the positive aspects of sex. I wasn’t less of a person. He didn’t lose anything so why should I have?

First True Love Waits taught the author that a given act was moral or immoral based on her emotional reaction to it. Then, when she realized that purity culture itself made her feel bad, she abandoned it in favor of a more (from her perspective) emotionally satisfying brand of libertinism. We can do better than this.

The antidote, I would think, is to offer a moral system more consistent and objective than one based on simple human happiness — and conveniently, this is what those of us in the Church believe ourselves to have. For Christians, a given act is moral not (merely) because it results in human happiness, but because it’s consistent with both the nature of an eternal, unchanging God and His design for His creation. We obey the Law, not because we are promised temporal benefits for doing so (though we may be), but because there is true joy in submission to a Good God and in a life lived in harmony with His Good Creation.

Perhaps that’s a message that sounds like it won’t “sell” — especially to teens — but should that really surprise us? A life following Christ is a life of self-denial, and He Himself admitted its appeal was pretty limited. To imagine that we can somehow make sexual piety cool to legions of teens is hubris in the extreme.

For all its good points, one of the most glaring weaknesses of the Evangelical-led “conservative resurgence” of the ’80s (which directly led to things like True Love Waits and D.A.R.E.) was its vast historical shortsightedness (ironic for a movement that branded itself “conservative,” but I digress). Premarital sex, drug use, and other things were regarded as New Problems that had been invented in the ’60s and were threatening for the first time to invade the idyllic existence of Real Americans, rather than being examples of the sin that had been with us since the Fall (as anyone who’s read Genesis will tell you).

The solution, as has always been the case, is to preach that the Law’s power to damn has been broken. Sin has been conquered and is no longer a specter to be feared, but something for which forgiveness is freely offered. A single infraction will doom neither your sex life nor your soul — not because it’s harmless, but because God is merciful. Furthermore, there’s no moral category known as a “virgin.”

There are only those under the Law and those under Grace.


5 Comments

  1. Another reason programs like these fail is, I think, because parents and church leaders often see them as replacements to real and genuine relationships between generations. Talking about sex can be uncomfortable so, instead of facing the discomfort and forging a relationship with their son/daughter/young people that allows them have open and honest discussions about it, they buy a prepackaged program that handles all of it and then consider it done.

    In the meantime, no trust has been established, no relationship built, so when the young person finds himself/herself struggling to keep that pledge, they have no one to go to for support or counsel. In their minds and the minds of their parents/leaders it was settled and taken care of when they signed that pledge, put on that ring, or stood in front of the church and received everyone’s attention and applause. There’s nothing to talk about anymore. Now you either sink or swim and you’re placed in the no-win situation of either meeting everyone’s minimum expectations or damning yourself.

  2. It’s sort of ironic that the people who had all the fun they wanted in the 60s started paying it forward and restricting their kids lives so much in the 80s/90s…

    This article is excellent and a good starting spot for many more conversations.

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