We can help kids understand why it is meaningful to save sex for true love.
- True stories are a way to convey the dangers of premature sex and the rewards of waiting.
- Parents can help kids develop a vision of why it makes sense to save sexual intimacy for a truly committed love relationship.
- More teens and college students are choosing not to have sex. Faith-based convictions may help to support that decision.
Valentine's Day is a good time to talk with kids about love — and sex. If you have a teen growing up in today's sexual culture, any day is a good day to talk about it. Studies show that parents can make a positive difference if we step up to the plate in this crucial area.
Stories Can Help
True stories can be a way into that conversation. After a recent talk I gave to high school parents, a mother spoke to me privately. She said that her daughter, a sophomore at the school, had not been herself that week. She was agitated. The mother kept asking her what was wrong. Finally, it spilled out:
There's this boy at school. A junior. This week I talked to him — not flirting or anything, just being friendly. The next day he sexted me.
The mother said, "I am bringing up good girls. I want them to find good boys. But I worry, will they be able to find virtuous boys in today's world?"
If you shared that story with your teenager, it would be an opportunity to ask, "How much of this kind of thing goes on at your school? What do guys think when they do this?"
Here are three stories from young people.
"Becky" is 23:
I lost my virginity when I was 15. My boyfriend and I thought we loved each other. But once we started having sex, it completely destroyed any love we had. I felt he was no longer interested in spending time with me — he was interested in spending time with my body.
"Brian" is a college senior:
I first had intercourse with my girlfriend when we were 15. I'd been going with her for almost a year, and I loved her very much. She was friendly, outgoing, and charismatic. We'd done everything but have intercourse. Then one night, she asked if we could go all the way, so we did.
A few days later, we broke up. It was the most painful time of my life. I had opened up to her more than anybody, even my parents. I was depressed and nervous. I dropped out of sports. In college, I've had mostly one-night stands. I'm afraid of falling in love.
"Kathy," 22, shared a different kind of a story:
High school and college were the best years of my life. No to sex meant yes to fun. My reputation as a virgin got out fast. I had better grades, more dates, and good, quality friendships. Guys knew they didn't have to perform for me. We could concentrate on getting to know each other and having a great time.
Stories like these convey a lot, quickly, about the downside of premature sex and the benefits of waiting. Stories stick.
Offer a Vision of Love and Sex
Young people also need a vision to think about love and sex that will ground them and make their decisions solid. It's not enough just to encourage them to "wait." That's too vague; they want to know what they're waiting for.
Suppose you'd like to encourage them to wait until they're in a truly committed love relationship. Historically, of course, we've called that marriage. How could you make a case for waiting until then in a way that appeals to their intelligence? Here's one approach:
Although many people today treat it casually, actually sex is so special it deserves a special home. It's most emotionally safe, most meaningful, and most fulfilling, when it's part of something bigger — a continuing, committed love relationship.
When you're married, you have that kind of relationship. Your sexual intimacy expresses your total commitment to each other. Understood in this way, the ultimate intimacy belongs within the ultimate commitment.
"What Do You Think About Premarital Sex?"
Some years ago, I visited a Catholic high school and was invited to sit in on an ethics class. That day they were discussing sex. At one point, a girl turned to me unexpectedly and asked, "What do you think about premarital sex?" I took a deep breath and replied:
Well, to answer that question, it helps to ask, what is the intrinsic meaning of sexual intercourse? When you have sex with someone, you're being as physically intimate as it is possible to be with another human being. You can't get any closer than that.
When you're married, sexual intercourse symbolizes and strengthens a bigger union: your total commitment to each other. You join your bodies because you've joined your lives. In body language, sex says to the other person, "I give myself to you completely."
When you're married, that's really true. But if you have sex before you've committed yourself to the other person in marriage, it's as if you're lying with your body. It's like saying, "I give myself to you completely — but not really."
After the class, the girl who had asked the question said to me, "I've never heard anyone talk like that about sex. Now I know what I think."
What Does God Think About Sex?
Just as religions worldwide teach the Golden Rule (treat others as you want to be treated), there's also a surprising degree of consensus about sex: God created it, he thinks it's good, and he meant it for marriage. Here, for example, is Judaism's teaching, as explained by Rabbi Isaac Frank:
Rabbinic teaching for at least 2,500 years has consistently opposed premarital sex. Judaism enshrines sexual intercourse as a sanctified element in the most intimate and meaningful relationship between two human beings: the sacred marriage bond.
So, if you have religious faith, by all means, bring that into the conversation about sex. Here's how one Catholic father did that with his 14-year-old son:
It might seem old-fashioned these days to talk about waiting until marriage to have sexual relations. But Jesus was pretty clear about this. In chapter 7 of Mark's Gospel, he names "fornication" — sexual intercourse between unmarried persons — as one of a number of serious sins. By contrast, he says that a man and a wife are "one flesh," meaning one in spirit and one in body.
Married people have their own human personalities, of course, but in a deep way, they're united. The problem with sex before marriage is that is separates sexual union from the total union it's supposed to be part of. When sex is part of marriage, it's something that's holy and blessed by God. Sex, after all, was God's idea — his gift to us.
Research finds that young people people who have religious reasons to wait are, in fact, more likely to do so.
The Youth Risk Behavior Survey: "Fewer Teens Are Having Sex"
In 2002, Newsweek magazine did a cover story on the "new virginity" among teenagers. The biannual federal Youth Risk Behavior Survey had just delivered good news: For the first time in 25 years, a majority of high school students (54.4 percent) said that they had never had sexual intercourse.
Since then, the percentage of high school virgins has continued to rise — at last report (2019), to 61 percent of boys and 63 percent of girls. Moreover, only 24 percent of all students say they are "currently sexually active."
Statistics like these tell a very different story from the picture presented on popular TV shows like Euphoria and Riverdale. Whereas those fictional shows depict an increasingly sexualized high school scene, the reality is just the opposite: More and more teens are choosing not to have sex.
Even at some colleges, chaste romantic relationships and waiting for marriage are gaining more traction. A growing number of campuses now have chapters that are part of a national "Love and Fidelity" network. As part of Valentine's Day, some sponsor panels that invite college students to consider questions like: What kinds of relationships have the potential to lead to real love? and What kinds of relationships help you find the person you'd like to marry?
These panels typically include young married couples who explain why they waited to have sex and student couples dating but not engaging in sexual intimacy.
"But What if I've Already Had Sex?"
The Newsweek story on the new virginity included examples of teens who had had sex but were making a fresh start. Lucian Shulte said his parents had taught him the importance of chastity, and he had always planned to "wait until marriage." But then, one summer night, he found himself with a girl who was very willing— and they had intercourse. It was over in a hurry and lacked any sense of intimacy. He said:
In the movies, when people have sex, it's always romantic. Physically, it felt good, but emotionally it felt really awkward. I was worried that our relationship was now going to be a lot more serious than it was before. It was like, "Now what is she going to expect from me?"
Lucian felt guilty about what he had done. He also worried about pregnancy and disease. He promised himself: Never again. Now, as a college student, he's still faithful to that decision. He says:
I'm looking forward to intimacy with my wife, someone I'll truly love and want to spend the rest of my life with. It sounds corny, but it's for real.
Kids should never think, "It's too late for me." They can't change the past, but they can choose the future.
Finally, don't be tempted to dodge this issue because you're afraid your kids might ask, "What did you do?" We can say:
Like every other kid, I made my share of mistakes. You don't need to know them. It's my job as your [mother/father] to help you make wise decisions — ones that will help you make a good life and avoid doing things you'll regret.
Thomas Lickona. "Talking to Teens About Love and Sex." Psychology Today blog (February 12, 2022).
Reprinted with permission from the author, Thomas Lickona, Ph.D.
Thomas Lickona, Ph.D., is a psychologist and educator who has been called "the father of modern character education." A professor of education emeritus at State University of New York, Cortland, he is the founding director of the Center for the Fourth and Fifth Rs (Respect and Responsibility) and is the author of How to Raise Kind Kids: And Get Respect, Gratitude, and a Happier Family in the Bargain, Character Matters: How to Help Our Children Develop Good Judgment, Integrity, and Other Essential Virtues and Educating for Character. He has also written Raising Good Children and co-authored Sex, Love and You. Tom Lickona is on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Education Resource Center. Visit his web site here.Copyright © 2022 Thomas Lickona, Ph.D.
back to top