I am hoping that this post will serve as an educational experience for those who don’t understand first-hand how religion poisons the well of sexuality. Perhaps this will be a voice of solidarity for those who already know too well the toxic relationship that fundamentalist Christian churches have with sex. I also want this to become a learning experience for me as I begin to explore this avenue of inquiry which I avoided like the plague for so long.
In this post I’d like to show how the church inadvertently sexualizes children in a misguided attempt to protect them from something they were never equipped to understand.
Don’t think about that thing we talk about all the time
The most common way I witnessed this sexualization was through the problematizing of otherwise innocuous activities as potential roads to sexual impropriety. Did you ever hear that line “Dancing leads to sex?” It is a popular tactic by churches seeking to minimize the contact teenagers have with members of the opposite sex. Even though this sounds like yet another horrible reboot of the movie Footloose, there really is a concern among some churches that dancing could prove too much for teenagers to handle amidst the struggle with hormones and biological/psychological urges.
Dancing, unfortunately, was just one aspect of life that was sexualized. I remember distinctly at Bible camp that male and female swim periods were kept separate and held at two distinct times. If that sounds this strange, just wait… it gets worse. Not only were the swim periods separate — as if kids would just start randomly having sex in front of smaller children and adult supervisors — but all members of the opposite gender were forced to stay away from the premises so as not to be tempted by the sultry sights in the roped off swimming area of the lake.
More than that, women and girls were supposed to cover up with t-shirts or shorts so as not to reveal too much skin to the males — who weren’t even present! They swam in what must have been uncomfortable attire just so they wouldn’t be mistaken for objects of desire by men and boys. Let that sink in if you will. It was the woman’s responsibility not to tempt the man. Seems like that old trope never dies.
As I got older it became quite clear to me that if the church was trying to keep teenagers from hooking up, it was doing a poor job of it. By doing everything in its power to keep girls and boys separated, the church in reality ensured the teens would do the very thing that they were trying to prohibit. If you spend all your time telling someone they can’t do something, doesn’t the allure of that thing become much more attractive to the ones being prohibited from doing it?
Beyond teaching children that their bodies are metaphorical temples belonging to an Invisible Supervisor, the church did nothing to actually teach children about sex. Sex was this forbidden activity that had all sorts of negative connotations for teenagers, so the best solution the church could come up with to curtail the interest of its youngest members in having intercourse was abstinence.
When you spend all of your time telling people something is bad without ever really explaining what that thing you are describing is, you aren’t setting them up to succeed… you’re setting them up for failure. By defining an expanding list of activities that don’t have anything to do with sex, you further sexualize young people who are still children.
Since you can’t stop thinking about it, better get married
Should it come as a surprise that a system which essentially encourages people to view others as objects of desire actually encourages early sexual behavior? That is what people are taught from a very young age: a member of the opposite sex is inescapably linked to sexual activity. How could this not be so? To the hyper-religious, every activity with someone of the opposite sex is a pathway to fornication. How many people marry far too young just so they can legitimately explore these feelings that the church has been repressing since childhood?
Marriage, no matter your sexuality, is not something to take lightly. Walking down the aisle merely to legitimate the act of having sex is a recipe for disaster. I know not every fundamentalist Christian gets married for this reason, but it’s still a problem that should no longer be ignored.
This says nothing of the harm that this paternalistic system does while propping up structures of misogyny and homophobia, as well as sustaining a discourse that continues to look at gender in the binary. It’s a system that does not actually take into account what is going on with people’s bodies and minds. Instead it insists on propping up its own puritanical structure as a mechanism for control.
Where the Church fails, others succeed
While the church seeks to tighten its chokehold, its youth are still exploring their own sexuality. The main difference between these youth and those outside of these rigid and dogmatic institutions is that people outside of fundamentalist Christianity are arming their children with more useful information about sex.
What is sex? What are your options for protection? What is rape? What is consent? What is sexuality? These are all questions that parents should be able to have with their children to help them become more comfortable and healthy in their sexuality. This approach seems far more likely to succeed than telling kids that everything leads to sex, so just avoid each other and all will be sorted in the end. Sexuality is part of the human condition. It exists across a spectrum of gender and sexual identities; to deny this simply harms children.
It helps no one to superimpose sexuality onto any and every activity in which males and females come in to contact with each other. Sexualizing these activities — and in the process, our teenagers — does nothing to prevent them from having sexual urges. I think there are nefarious reasons to why the church has such a grip on the sexuality of its “flock,” but I also recognize that the parents involved are trying to do what is best for their children.
If we really want to protect our children, we cannot pretend that they aren’t struggling with sexuality while simultaneously sexualizing everything they do. We serve our children better when we recognize that they are (gasp) going through much of the same things we went through when we were their age.
I don’t have any specific prescriptive solutions giving your child the healthiest relationship with his/her sexuality. I think it is safe to say that no singular approach exists that works for all children (in or outside of religion). I’m not a parent, I’m not a sex therapist, or a child therapist. But I was a child controlled by the same misguided approach to sex policing. As a male, I was sexualized by those tasked with controlling the sexuality of teenagers and young adults. I know what a profoundly negative effect this has had on me as an adult.
What seems clear is that denying and repressing sexuality by making everything and everyone sexual is not the way to do it. Perhaps if the church would adopt less Footloose and more dancing in swimsuits, a healthier, more realistic approach to sexuality could be obtained.
[Image Source: Adobe Stock]