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)