Sex Ed Through Stories: Helping Our Kids Acquire Healthy Shame
“If there is such a thing as genuine sex education, it consists in teaching children not to discard shame but to acquire it.” (Roger Scruton)
Let’s Talk About Sex… in Church
A few years ago I attended a Sunday school class that was designed for both teens and their parents. The topic was sex. Make that talking about sex—or rather, trying to talk about sex. I admired the bravery of the facilitators, and the gentleness with which they spoke. But what I remembered most from the class wasn’t actually anything the speakers said: it was the uniform reaction of the parents and adolescents alike toward having conversations with one another about sex. Everyone felt hesitant and embarrassed; everyone felt some kind of shame about exposing such private, personal, and deeply meaningful things through explicit words to others within the family (I know this because every person who shared their feelings aloud with the group said so). Folks felt differently when it came to frank talks between friends or spouses (plenty admitted this was easier and more common), but dread about The Talk between parents and teens was universal.
Our hesitation seemed to be at odds with the message we were getting, that being candid and unreserved about the birds and the bees is a parental necessity. The world is inundated with sexually explicit material, after all, and we have to talk openly with our kids before they start Googling for answers. I remember thinking, Sheesh, why can’t I get over myself and just start bringing these things up with my teen? What’s wrong with me? The long and the short of it was that I felt ashamed for feeling shame.
My shyness in talking with my kids about sex didn’t come from guilt over wrongdoing, but from a sense of privacy, a desire to not mess things up, and an intuition that sometimes “less is more.” And yet, my embarrassment was being portrayed as a problem to be fixed and overcome, rather than a signal with an important meaning. Apparently my ability to be a good parent partly hinged on whether I could conquer my bashfulness.
Despite the sense of pressure in the room, I knew that sexual shame could take different forms, plenty of which don’t involve sin or guilt at all. Some parents hesitate to bring up the birds and the bees because they know that no kid wants to accidentally imagine their parents having sex. Nor do parents want to force their way past a child’s inner ewww, gross boundary (since that red flag is a feeling they’ll need to obey in the future to protect themselves from harm). Some parents hesitate out of fear that raising concerns over their teens’ temptations and inexperience will convey a negative message of distrust in their kids, instead of a positive message of guidance. Kids may hesitate to ask questions about sex out of fear that their parents will judge them for having such thoughts or desires.
According to philosopher Roger Scruton, sexual shame of this sort comes not from guilt over wrongdoing, but from reluctance. It’s the reluctance to do wrong, as well as the reluctance to suffer wrong, including the wrong of being judged as a mere body, an object, a mechanism, instead of being seen as a whole person, a subject. This sense of the honor due to oneself, the sexual shame we call by other names—privacy, modesty, decency, embarrassment—is a kind of “shield emotion” that protects us from abuse, sexual predators, and profanation. It’s a vital internal force that keeps us from transgressing against others, and it also acts as an early warning system to protect us from violation. We can’t flip a switch and turn it off, nor should we try. Viewed in this light, the universal embarrassment of that Sunday school class was actually a sign of emotional and spiritual health: our protective “shame reflexes” were in good working order.
Why “Healthy Shame” Is Not an Oxymoron
At one point during the class, the parents were asked, “What do you wish your parents had done differently in talking with you about sex?” It didn’t take me long to find my answer: nothing. My parents did a great job—they never gave me The Talk. They let me read How You Got to Be You around the age of nine or ten. My mom answered honestly (and very briefly) any questions I got up the nerve to ask her over the years. My parents loved each other deeply, and they flirted with each other openly and often in front of us kids; I liked it so much I never even groaned. They exposed us to books and movies that showed the sexes interacting in healthy (and unhealthy) ways. They seldom made a sermon out of movies that depicted people’s sexual indiscretions; they let the stories speak for themselves. All the technical bits about sex that went beyond what I could ask my mother were easy enough to find on my own in books (I doubt I’m the only kid who pilfered their parents’ 1970s copy of The Joy of Sex off a back shelf on a night they were out).
Having seen real love flourish between my parents—knowing the strength and fidelity of their bond and the fact that sex played a role in that—made it easy for my young conscience to recognize that sex outside of one-man-and-one-woman-for-life broke with a beautiful pattern. My parents didn’t need to spell out a list of “thou shalt nots” for me (or if they did, it was infrequent enough that I have no memories of it). Through family life, regular church attendance, Bible reading, literature, and film, I was immersed in a vision of beauty, of how-things-ought-to-be, of marriage, family, and community as a whole (in which the part that is sex is situated and intricately connected). The explicit guidelines about sexual conduct that I heard in church never seemed arbitary or repressive to me: they seemed obvious. As part of a complex living system that is both embodied and communal, sexual taboos couldn’t be flouted without affecting the whole (which I loved).
Growing up in the ’90s, I was exposed to my fair share of evangelical purity culture, a phenomenon whose heavy-handedness traumatized plenty of my peers. Despite the fact that purity culture and sexual liberation are opposites, they share a common error: they make sex too important. Both movements assume the Freudian belief that sexual expression is central to identity, hence their common obsession over sex. I have a feeling that my parents’ “light touch” on sexual matters protected me from legalism just as much as it protected me from the broader culture’s sexual license.
Even if my parents had initiated frank talks with me about sex, I’m not sure it would have added much value to my growing moral intuition (though it definitely would have increased the awkwardness). My sexual morals were more caught than taught. This implicit knowledge worked its way deep into my conscience and desires, kindling a robust internal motivation for the good. Like many of us, I suffered my way through the humiliation of co-ed health class in my public school, with its diagrams, videos, and vocab lists (that’s CLIT-or-is, class—doesn’t that sound like a flower? Now let’s move on to a video demonstration of self-exams for tes-TIC-cular cancer!) and did my best to not pay attention. It was obvious to me that nothing I really needed to know about sex could be learned at school.
These two things—the universal shyness of the parents and teens in that Sunday school class, and my own parents’ implicit “beauty first” approach to sex ed that didn’t transgress our joint sense of modesty—were important signals to me. The idea that all shame is bad and must be rejected couldn’t possibly be the whole story. I began reading The Ethics of Beauty by Timothy Patitsas and found that his description of “healthy shame” perfectly matched my intuition and experiences. Patitsas writes that shame is:
The broader name for the energy of the soul that senses our proper limits in our relationships with God and Man in order to connect us with our neighbor.… Shame is an energy at once of connection and privacy, of openness and concealedness, of closeness and distance.
In this view, the experience of shame is inherently relational and hierarchical. Unhealthy shame leads us inward to moral self-obsession and downward to despair and excommunication. This is the kind of shame that therapists and pastors view as an enemy: it’s wielded by one person against another as a kind of manipulation; it’s the experience of group shunning; it’s our self-flagellation over our failures and flaws. Although most evangelicals think of shame in wholly negative terms like these, we can’t reject shame entirely, for it shares roots with the sacred; it’s the way we recognize it. The shameless person “has no antennae by which they can relate to other human beings or to God. They are just a wrecking ball,” Patitsas says. Lacking receptors for detecting both sin and glory, people who have no shame are either more likely to harm others, or to be taken advantage of by others. Shamelessness unchecked leads to pathology and trauma (a brief dip into the music of Billie Elish—a Grammy-winning artist who recently lamented that her brain was “destroyed” by porn addiction—is case in point).
Healthy shame, however, leads us upward and outward to worship of God and connection with others. If we lose this healthy shame, we lose our ability to love what is better than us (all things sacred, and God himself); we lose awe, reverence, wonder, worship, and repentance. If we lose healthy shame, we also lose the ability to hate what is unworthy of us (sin and evil). Healthy shame is the way that we calibrate our being to that of others, keeping us humble, human, compassionate, and sane.
Especially when it comes to sexuality, we can’t ignore the warning signal of our own modesty and shyness by plowing through shame with aggressive candor in the name of “authenticity,” or in the rush to head off porn at the pass, or even in the name of the gospel. We have to find a path between being prudes and being prurient, between the legalistic, unhealthy shame of kissing dating goodbye and the shamelessness of Mark Driscoll’s salacious sermons (or for that matter, the public school system’s shameless reduction of sex ed to diagrams, condoms, consent, and personal preference). If proper shame is what Patitsas claims—“the glow of a worshipping and healthy human soul,” the “sine qua non of a spiritually developed person”—then Christians should take care to avoid quashing the growth of healthy shame within their children, especially as it appears in their burgeoning sexual awareness. If we don’t get shame right, we’re not going to get sex right. Add on whatever rules, logistics, and biology that your conscience nudges you toward on the other side, but the best first step in sex ed is learning healthy shame.
True Sexual Desire Is Desire for a Person
In his article “Shameless and Loveless,” Roger Scruton writes that shame is not “an inhibition to be discarded, but an integral part of the human condition. It is the emotion without which true sexual desire cannot develop, and if there is such a thing as genuine sex education, it consists in teaching children not to discard shame but to acquire it.” Healthy shame and genuine sexual desire go hand in hand: both require the ability to recognize the glory of another human being and to honor them accordingly.
There is a difference, Scruton says, between “randiness” and sexual desire. The feeling of being randy is an objectless animal instinct without direction, but true sexual desire isn’t a desire for sex, it’s a desire for another person, a particular person. Sexual desire is directed from one’s inner subject toward another subject, of a sort that will brook no substitutes, and thrives as a kind of reciprocal self-donation. “It is an interpersonal experience, for which we are accountable and which we understand as a gift,” Scruton writes. “Shame, hesitation, tenderness, and revulsion all lie incipient within it, and everything depends upon the mutual self-giving of the participants.”
One of the best things we can do for our kids is to convey to them that sex is a consecration of another person, and that is one of the many reasons why it is reserved for the sacrament of marriage. True sexual desire is inseparable from the beloved spouse. We can demonstrate this for our kids by cultivating a loving, faithful marriage, by providing an atmosphere in which mom and dad’s connection with each other is palpable, in which their sex life is the best kept secret in the house. Kids will benefit from the afterglow whether they recognize its source or not. When it comes to forming our kids’ consciences, a good marriage is worth a thousand explicit cautionary talks.
Why Being “Cool about Sex” Spells the Death of Erotic Love
Our children are at a far greater risk today of being traumatically introduced to sex through witnessing violent and perverted porn in their tweens,1 than they are from having a baby out of wedlock.2 The average age of first exposure to porn is between 8 and 11, and 94 percent of kids have seen porn by the age of 14 (all it takes is one Google search gone wrong to fall into that abyss). This erodes their understanding of what normal sexual relationships look like.3 “In pornography, desire is detached from love, and attached to the mute machinery of sex,” Scruton writes.
This is damaging to adults in just the same way that modern sex education is damaging to children. For it undermines the possibility of real erotic love, which comes only when the sexual act is hedged round with prohibitions, and offered as a gift and an existential commitment.
Our culture is desperate to be “Cool About Sex,” which is a euphemism for judgment-free shamelessness (“If two or more adults consent to it, whatever it is, no one else is entitled to an opinion”4). And yet, it’s not only Christians who intuit that losing our shame means losing our capacity to love. Oxford professor Amia Srinivasan, in her essay “Talking to My Students About Porn,” says that many young adults are jaded, weary of the degraded things they’ve seen, almost too afraid to hope that real love and genuine sexual intimacy could be a part of their lives, after a steady stream of porn viewing and perverted porn-mimicking experiences. “Having grown up with the all-you-can-eat buffet of internet porn, these young people pine for romance and intimacy—experiences that require the full and enthusiastic participation of another human being,” writes journalist Helen Lewis. Porn use doesn’t indicate that someone’s sexual desire is too strong; it shows their sexual desire (a desire for another person for whom you are willing to make sacrifices) is actually too weak. Healthy shame can strengthen it.
Our kids need their imaginations to be immersed in images of true sexual desire, which—unlike the cheap, consumptive substitute of porn—has the quality of an adventure, a drama, a romance with high stakes. Real sexual desire is risky, difficult, fraught, emotionally costly, and will probably involve humiliation and suffering at one point or another, because its trajectory and goal is one of radical, intimate hospitality—a.k.a. marriage. Real sexual desire results in the vowing of one’s whole life to someone of the other gender (who will fundamentally remain a mystery to you), as well as a willingness to welcome “little crying strangers” into your life who will require even more self-sacrifice from you—not to mention all of the familial and community responsibilities the couple will jointly shoulder from here on out. Marriage is much more than an avenue for achieving a “sanctified orgasm.” We’re playing with fire when we marry: Saint Paul refers to this “one flesh” union as a participation in the ultimate metaphysical mystery of the love between Christ and the church (Eph. 5:31–32). Clearly, “love, marriage, and the baby in the baby carriage” are not for the faint of heart. Porn is.
Internet filters may help to keep out some of the bad stuff, but our kids also need symbols and stories of true love in which they can situate their God-given sexual desires, and even strengthen them, in the sense I spoke of earlier. Shutting the door on porn isn’t enough: we have to open up the door to beauty and goodness.
Sex Ed Through Stories (or, the Beauty of Blushing)
Back in that Sunday school class, one of the teens said it was easier to talk with his parents about sex after a communal movie night. Joint viewing of a film that raised issues or questions on sexuality seemed to be a good on-ramp into a (slightly less awkward) conversation. The movie spoke first, providing something concrete out there to focus on and talk about. This afforded a sense of covering for the sexual lives of the family in the room, like a modesty panel for the mind.
I immediately resonated with his experience, and realized that this was something my parents had done with me, and that I was already doing this with my kids without having been fully aware of it. Sex education starts with stories about people, because true sexual desire is about loving communion between persons, not about friction between their parts (as Scruton aptly puts it).
Like my parents did for me, I curate the movies my kids are allowed to watch. I have a long list of films that I’m slowly working through with my teenage daughter. Plenty of them are just for fun, but others are intentionally part of sex ed (though of course I don’t tell her so). All of the best ones highlight the importance of shame—the role that it plays in transforming characters out of patterns that are unworthy of them, freeing them to fall in love with the goodness, glory, and beauty of a worthy partner (worthy because they too have healthy shame). Our watch list skews heavily toward screen adaptations of British novels and plays, from Shakespeare to Austen, from Dickens to Bronte, Gaskell, Trollope, Hardy, and Eliot. Nothing beats a Victorian period-piece drama when it comes to examples of healthy sexual shame and its connection to the capacity for genuine erotic love. When it’s done right, there’s nothing more sexy than modesty.
Sex—with the wedding as its typical narrative stand-in—has repentance and humility as its prerequisites in classic tales. Anne Shirley can’t receive and enjoy Gilbert Blythe’s love until she drops her pride and stubbornness and chooses to forgive him. There’s no hope for Lizzie Bennet and Mr. Darcy until they are thoroughly ashamed of their pride and prejudice; his second proposal (and her acceptance) sound as much like a confessional as a declaration of love. Shakespeare’s Beatrice and Benedick must surrender their sharp swords of wit and insult before they can shake hands as friends: they must sink to the level of fools before they can marry. Emma Woodhouse must take Mr. Knightly’s rebuke of her conduct to heart and become a kinder woman before she can recognize how much he loves her, and how much she loves him. Bathsheba Everdeen must choose whether to marry the man who flatters her vanity, the man whom she can wrap around her little finger, or the man bold enough to say to her face, “Your actions were unworthy of you.”
Plenty of healthy shame to go around in these older stories, functioning as the narrow path to redemptive love and romance, and as the deeper meaning of all those “antiquated” gestures of courtesy and chivalry. Shame naturally expresses itself in rituals and “liturgies of love,” and without healthy shame, courtship dies. The rom coms of today simply can’t compete with stories like these, traditional tales that help us to both articulate and inhabit our ideals. It’s hard to find modern movies that handle shame well (While You Were Sleeping is one of the few that nails it). When I watch newer movies with my daughter, they often function as examples of what not to do.
Healthy shame implies some kind of hierarchy, with an archetype at the pinnacle: one man and one woman for life, an ideal we simultaneously love and feel judged by—an ideal many of us (whether by intention, circumstance, or tragedy) don’t live up to. The American democratic temperament shies away from hierarchy, veering casual at best, inverted or shameless at worst. We’re all tempted to seek consolation by dethroning the ideal and kicking it to curb, but this doesn’t heal the wound the way that grace can.5
In their shamelessness, modern movies also tend to portray the “mute machinery of sex” and indiscriminate, spontaneous randiness, rather than true sexual desire. Most of the movies I pick don’t have sex scenes (well, they don’t in written form, though some film directors fill in the blanks), and yet I consider them to be genuinely erotic because the stakes are serious: marriage and sex are existential commitments.
Every scene in which a man and a woman notice each other from afar and begin to orbit one another; each time they talk, flirt, sing a duet, dance, argue, ridicule, propose, reject, rebuke, rescue, kiss, conceive, or work side by side, we witness the dynamic of the sexes—the intermingling of shame and love, the dance between connection and privacy, openness and concealedness, closeness and distance. Surrounded by a world of shameless porn and an attitude in the church that sees all shame as unhealthy, what our kids need—what we adults need—is to remember that it is a holy thing, a beautiful thing, to blush.
1. “What’s the Average Age of a Child’s First Exposure to Porn?”
2. Between 1991 and 2015, the teen birth rate dropped 64%, CDC, “About Teen Pregnancy”
3. “Why are Middle Schoolers Sexually Harassing Each Other So Much?”
4. “The Problem with Being Cool About Sex” by Helen Lewis, in The Atlantic.
5. I borrowed some of the ideas in this paragraph from Pastor Paul VanderKlay in his YouTube video Why “Marriage Equality” Means the Death of Protestant Churches (time stamp 2:16:48).