Saturday, August 01, 2009

Let's Talk About Sex, Baby


Christianity Today has an interesting piece about encouraging Christians to marry at a young age. The first few paragraphs are particularly thought provoking:

Virginity pledges. Chastity balls. Courtship. Side hugs. Guarding your heart. Evangelical discourse on sex is more conservative than I've ever seen it. Parents and pastors and youth group leaders told us not to do it before we got married. Why? Because the Bible says so. Yet that simple message didn't go very far in shaping our sexual decision-making.

So they kicked it up a notch and staked a battle over virginity, with pledges of abstinence and accountability structures to maintain the power of the imperative to not do what many of us felt like doing. Some of us failed, but we could become "born again virgins." Virginity mattered. But sex can be had in other ways, and many of us got creative.

Then they told us that oral sex was still sex. It could spread disease, and it would make you feel bad. "Sex will be so much better if you wait until your wedding night," they urged. If we could hold out, they said, it would be worth it. The sheer glory of consummation would knock our socks off.

Such is the prevailing discourse of abstinence culture in contemporary American evangelicalism. It might sound like I devalue abstinence. I don't. The problem is that not all abstainers end up happy or go on to the great sex lives they were promised. Nor do all indulgers become miserable or marital train wrecks. More simply, however, I have found that few evangelicals accomplish what their pastors and parents wanted them to. (Read the whole thing here).

This Christianity Today essay inspired me to post about the concept of sex education in the Baha'i community. The following quote sums up Baha'i sexual ethics nicely:

"Chastity implies both before and after marriage an unsullied, chaste sex life. Before marriage absolutely chaste, after marriage absolutely faithful to one's chosen companion. Faithful in all sexual acts, faithful in word and in deed." (From a letter dated 28 September 1941 written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to an individual believer)

For religions that promote this kind of standard, the very notion of sex education may appear paradoxical, if not heretical. Certainly, the secular version of sex education that dominates the societies in which many of us live can come across as undermining of practice of chastity. Is there such a thing as a "chaste" sex education? If so, how is it different from secular sex education? Who is responsible for providing sex education in a Baha'i context?

I'm no expert on this subject, but I've been pondering it for many years and wanted to put some ideas out there for people to respond to. The first idea is that a comprehensive approach to sex education in the Baha'i community would be based on the three kinds of education described by 'Abdu'l-Baha:

"...education is of three kinds: material, human and spiritual. Material education is concerned with the progress and development of the body, through gaining its sustenance, its material comfort and ease. This education is common to animals and man. Human education signifies civilization and progress -- that is to say, government, administration, charitable works, trades, arts and handicrafts, sciences, great inventions and discoveries and elaborate institutions, which are the activities essential to man as distinguished from the animal. Divine education is that of the Kingdom of God: it consists in acquiring divine perfections, and this is true education; for in this state man becomes the focus of divine blessings, the manifestation of the words, "Let Us make man in Our image, and after Our likeness."[1] This is the goal of the world of humanity." [1 Cf. Gen. 1:26.] (Abdu'l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, p. 7)

Material sex education would involve the areas covered in secular sex education such as providing accurate, scientific information about the biology of sexuality. Human sex education would include information and analysis regarding the role of sexuality in promoting an ever advancing civilization such as the historical, social, cultural and economic implications of sex. Divine sex education would explore sexuality in light of the reality and nobility of the soul, fulfilling the purpose of life, and the continuance of God's covenant with humanity.

In addition, I think that sex education in the Baha'i community should be based upon the following principles:

1. Sex education is inseparable from marriage education. Sex is a part of marriage, so it needs to be a part of Baha'i discourse about marriage, preparation for marriage, and ongoing education during marriage.

2. The emphasis should be on love rather than fear. In this case loving God, loving oneself (including one's body) and loving others (including their bodies).

3. Everyone should be included, not just the young and single. The practice of chastity is a lifelong challenge which does not end simply because someone gets old or gets married.

4. The emphasis should be on compassion rather than condemnation. Chastity is not an easy practice. When people are having trouble they need love, not judgment.

I believe Baha'is have a real opportunity to learn how to educate people about sex while maintaining a commitment to promoting a chaste and holy life. Healthy sexuality is too important to leave to chance or to rely on secular institutions to promote.

"The world today is submerged, amongst other things, in an over-exaggeration of the importance of physical love, and a dearth of spiritual values. In as far as possible the believers should try to realize this and rise above the level of their fellow-men who are, typical of all decadent periods in history, placing so much over-emphasis on the purely physical side of mating...This is one of the many fields in which it is incumbent on the Bahá'ís to set the example and lead the way..." (From a letter dated 28 September 1941 written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to an individual believer)






24 comments:

  1. Anonymous10:29 AM

    I really love the idea that there are three kinds of education and this applies to everything.
    Sex spiritual education.
    Sex material education.
    Sex human education...
    and then what happens when this balance is in inbalance.
    patti

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    Replies
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  2. Anonymous10:38 AM

    Dear Phillipe,
    Brilliant!
    Judith W.

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  3. Anonymous11:26 AM

    This area is a veritable minefield. I teach high school students math. I have no training in sex ed yet sometimes am required to deliver it or help deliver it. I can cope with the embarassment factor but school policy is wooly and sometimes contradictory and I don't want to go against my principles or come across as judgemental.

    For example, I originally thought that linking sex to marriage would be pretty uncontroversial until it was pointed out that half the children had parents who were not married and several teachers were co-habiting.

    I agree totally with what you say but a sad reality is that, within the Bahai community is that we cannot switch off the outside influences, the society, the media, peer pressure etc. We live our lives in the real world and when it comes to sex, all sorts of messages seem to be piped to us on a daily basis, loudly. Of course we should not give up but this is not an easy battle.

    Pauline

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  4. Hi Phillipe, What a great, thought provoking post! I read the Christianity Today article, and also some of the links they referred to. Amazing to see that the issues faced in the Christian community are the same issues faced by Baha'is. I have read blog articles and a book by Dawn Eden regarding the Catholic concept of chastity which is remarkably similar to Baha'i (I've even read some of John Paul IIs writings).
    I'd love to see more discussion on this. I'm a Baha'i single (widowed) so I face these issues in my own demographic. Sometimes it appears that the Baha'i concept of relationships/marriage is in such contrast to popular society it's extremely discouraging! I enjoyed reading a Christian viewpoint and seeing the similarity.
    I agree very much with you on this point: "Sex education is inseparable from marriage education".

    Thanks so much for this post, hope to see more discussion.

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  5. Hi Phillipe, One more thought, I'd love to see some discussion on the concrete ways we bring this about. Do these topics become part of our Junior Youth Groups? How do we go about doing this?

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  6. Rebecca5:31 AM

    Hi Philippe, I have been reading your interesting blog for some weeks now and appreciate your posts a lot. I realised after a while that we met in the Holy Land in 2005!

    My two cents in no particular order about this interesting topic:

    - Abstinence is not chastity. Chastity is not only about not having sex outside marriage, it is so much wider, it implies purity of thought, of behavior, of language, of human interaction with friends, spouse etc.. with all the corrolary: cleanliness, healthy eating, humility, etc..
    - Emphasising abstinence tends to unecessarily increase the relative importance of sex in one's life.

    - Chastity implies a complete change in the way men and women interact. The whole romance, dating thing, valentine, boy-friend/girl friend concept is for me totally contradictory with chastity. It focuses on exclusive relationships.
    - Rather education from the earlier age should concentrate on a inclusive concept of frienship, about creating meaningful relationships! Afterall we are supposed to have sex with only one person, our spouse, and have hundreds of friends with whom we do not have sex!
    - Being chaste is a life long battle to keep one of the strongest human instinct under control so that we can lead meaningful lives without being controled by our urges.

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  7. Phillipe, what you have done here is invaluable. I happen to know and be a fan of Mark Regnerus so I was especially pleased to see you "riff" on his piece. But the seeds of a Bahai approach to sex ed that you lay out here are really terrific. I say that as a new Bahai, as a mother of two small children, and as someone who works in the marriage/family field -- and who, given all those factors, has spent a lot of time thinking about how I'm going to live and teach the Baha'i approach to marriage, family, and sex. I hope you do more on this. And thank you!

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  8. Anonymous9:59 AM

    Dear Pauline,
    Greetings!
    Don't give up on bringing a Baha'i perspective, whether direct or indirect, to your work with teens. The secret, perhaps, is to suspend all judgmental thoughts and really, really care about them, their true selves.

    I was faced with similar obstacles when I facilitated a teen mother's program--way back in the 80's. For starters, my program was a two year project financed by a Catholic Agency. As part of my job responsibilities, In what was described as the preventive piece, I was to conduct a session with all junior high and high school students, going from gym class to gym class in various schools.
    My instructions were:
    "talk about preventing teen pregnancy, but without mentioning sex, or contraception." Hmmm.

    After a while, I realized that it was I, not the agency, and not current societal mores, that was my own worst obstacle to having real and meaningful discussions. These sessions proved to be a wonderful teaching lesson for me.

    I found, still find, groups of adolescent boys intimidating. The following was my worst nightmare come true:
    45 unruly young men age 14 to 15, all of whom had been left back in school at least once, all labeled special education because of behavioral problems, facing me. You can be sure I called on 'Abdu'l-Baha continually throught this session! It proved to be very productive, very real, and I was very touched when they spontaneously gave me a standing ovation at the close of the hour.
    Judith W

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  9. Hi Phillipe, great comment thread, I love to see this.

    Rebecca, I found your comment very insightful: "The whole romance, dating thing, valentine, boy-friend/girl friend concept is for me totally contradictory with chastity. It focuses on exclusive relationships.
    - Rather education from the earlier age should concentrate on a inclusive concept of frienship, about creating meaningful relationships!" I'd like to think about how we create a "Baha'i culture" especially in regards to relationships/partner selection. And I agree with you, it can't be the boyfriend/girlfriend pattern. These temporary superficially intimate relationships are the norm, and it just doesn't seem to be the Baha'i way of life.

    Elizabeth, I read your book well before I knew you were a Baha'i, and I enjoyed it immensely. Looking forward to hearing more from you in the future....

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  10. Of course, as Baha'is we are encouraged to marry while young. Shoghi Effendi noted even in 1940 the increasing trend to delay marriage, using financial hardships or instability as an excuse.

    So often today we see people delaying marriage into their thirties or forties, considering it no longer a part of a normal life but a matter of restrictions and complications. Perhaps as Baha'is we should teach how marriage is a wonderful teaching instrument - where else is it absolutely necessary to acquire the art of loving compromise, of sometimes subsuming your "rights" to the needs or wishes of another... and enjoying it.

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  11. Anonymous11:03 AM

    Well Phillip, sounds like you and Rebecca have he making of a new conference.

    Excellent ideas and insight!

    Ayesha (TN)

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  12. Phillipe12:33 PM

    Ayesha, it's been a long time. Hope all is well with you and if there is a conference hope you're right there with us.

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  13. I feel I'm coming into this late, as so many wonderful comments have already been made, but I still wanted to add a few thoughts.

    Along with many others above I'd like to talk about chastity as being so much MORE than abstinence. It is about having pure thoughts and deeds and so often I perceive in American society the underlying idea that you can think anything as long as your Actions are socially permitable. People have come to see pornography as mainstream and something "everyone" does and believe that it has no effect upon them. Even those of religious background who preach abstinence rarely would go so far as to talk about banishing unpure thoughts.

    Yet our religion teaches that chastity is a virtue--like truthfulness, kindness, and generosity. We must believe that the effects of this virtue upon our soul are similarly beneficial to those of other virtues. That just as we may build our character through exercising truthfulness and become worthy of the trust of others, and that they may feel the effects of our kindness and generosity-- that our chastity will also build our character and help us purify our soul. While our society, and sadly oftentimes the religions within it, may see this as stringent deprivation and that the only "character growth" we may experience is because of our suffering (which many religions seem to encourage), I think we instead look at it as an opportunity to act and think in a pure manner. This being with the understanding that what God has prescribed as our Divine Physician is what will make us healthiest and happiest. (I sometimes lovingly think of it as the Ultimate meal plan--the only one you can trust is actually healthy and actually will do what it promises.) I think the focus of the beauty of chastity, as a cornerstone to achieving "pure and goodly deeds... commendable and seemly conduct" should be so much more than any idea of deprivation.

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  14. Anonymous5:34 PM

    In addition, I think that sex education in the Baha'i community should be based upon the following principles:

    1. Sex education is inseparable from marriage education. Sex is a part of marriage, so it needs to be a part of Baha'i discourse about marriage, preparation for marriage, and ongoing education during marriage.

    2. The emphasis should be on love rather than fear. In this case loving God, loving oneself (including one's body) and loving others (including their bodies).

    3. Everyone should be included, not just the young and single. The practice of chastity is a lifelong challenge which does not end simply because someone gets old or gets married.

    4. The emphasis should be on compassion rather than condemnation. Chastity is not an easy practice. When people are having trouble they need love, not judgment.

    Amen! Step 4 is absolutely necessary for all of us to remember and to put into practice. All of us struggle simply because we are infallible and we need to be loving to ourselves and others. I've rarely seen people change because they were harshly criticized but I've seen people change with love, acceptance and compassion.

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  15. Absolutely fantastic ideas presented here! As a Baha'i homeschooling mother of two, I am thrilled with this outline of three-fold chastity education & intend to utilize these ideas in my children's ongoing education. Thank you, truly, I can't repay such a gift!

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  16. This was a great read. I've often though of this subject. Specially because I think we need to talk about it to understand it and to learn how to maintain chastity. Specially because chastity isn't just about sex. It's about our character, how we see people, how we talk to them, how we serve humanity and on and on. To make it just about the phisical is a diservice. It is why I really appreciate your brakdown into phisical, social and spiritual.

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  17. Anonymous7:58 PM

    JB - Being in a community that has a pregnant Baha'i teen is like having an elephant in the living room and asking people not to see it. As the youth leader I applaud you for having the courage to discuss this topic, cause it seems our discussing abstinence only is not working. Great article

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  18. I never post on articles I read, but I wanted to respond to the Anonymous post above me regarding the pregnant Baha'i teen. We had a similar situation in our Baha'i community, but I will never forget the impact that it had on me to see the community rally around her and support her. When I arrived at her baby shower to find a dozen old Persian Baha'i ladies in the kitchen preparing food and giving her mothering advice, I felt a pride and thankfulness for the compassion that Baha'u'llah requires of his followers that I will never forget. Think of Abdu'l-Baha (or the example of Christ!). Such great spiritual teachers continually emphasized the necessity of love for ALL people and constant humility. We are not on this earth to judge one another, but to practice kindness and compassion towards our fellow human beings who are trying their best to make it through life as peacefully as possible. Our Baha'i communities are learning how to adapt to these challenges and I commend you, Anonymous, for contributing to that learning process.

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  19. Anonymous8:59 PM

    Dear you touched where you have to touch

    Bravo great illuminating article

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  22. I like the idea presented in the article above! However, the world is getting crazy because of an unlimited exaggeration of the importance of physical love.

    ReplyDelete