Margaret Talbot, writing in the latest New Yorker, has a fascinating piece about evangelical teenagers' sexual attitudes and practices. It begins by noting that the news of and reaction to Bristol Palin's pregnancy shocked liberals. They expected evangelical voters to freak out over the news rather than be unfazed by it:
Palin's family drama, delegates said, was similar to the experience of many socially conservative Christian families. As Marlys Popma, the head of evangelical outreach for the McCain campaign, told National Review, "There hasn't been one evangelical family that hasn't gone through some sort of situation." In fact, it was Popma's own "crisis pregnancy" that had brought her into the movement in the first place.
During the campaign, the media has largely respected calls to treat Bristol Palin's pregnancy as a private matter.
Um, excuse me? That last line, the first sentence of the article's second paragraph, is laughable. The Atlantic, for instance, has responded to Andrew Sullivan's deranged, disturbing and unhinged Palin uterus watch not by firing him, denouncing him or suggesting he get help but by rewarding him with continued employment. You might recall Hanna Rosin referring to Palin's "wreck of a home life" in Slate or Jacob Weisberg arguing in Newsweek for the morality of abortion using Bristol's unborn child as a hook. Christianity Today has a worthwhile editorial about the media frenzy surrounding the pregnancy.
If the media have decided to tone down the constant attacks on Palin's parenting, her decision to campaign in light of her daughter's pregnancy, the allegations that she forced her daughter to continue her pregnancy and get married . . . if it's true they have decided to tone it down, it's only because they so thoroughly exhausted the topic that they can't maintain the same amount of coverage.
Here's what the Columbia Journalism Review noted of the early coverage:
The New York Times found three ways to mention, above-the-fold on A1 today, that McCain's running-mate's 17-year-old daughter is pregnant.
It's one thing for the media to have behaved the way they've behaved during this campaign season. It's entirely another to lie about it.
Anyway, the New Yorker article says that social liberals support sex education and don't mind teenagers having sex but would regard their teenage daughter's pregnancy as devastating news. Social conservatives, we are told, advocate abstinence-only education and denounce premarital sex but are unruffled if a teenager becomes pregnant, so long as she doesn't abort her child. The article aims to look at the latter issue.
Mark Regnerus, a sociologist at the University of Texas at Austin, has studied the issue and finds that while the vast majority of white evangelicals adolescents (74 percent) believe in abstaining from sex before marriage, they are more sexually active than Mormons, mainline Protestants and Jews. And they have sex earlier than any group other than Black Protestants. The article looks at differences in contraception use according to religious views and the effectiveness of abstinence pledges.
One of the most interesting parts of the article is the report that while abstinence pledgers delay sex 18 months longer than non-pledgers, abstinence pledges' effectiveness collapses if more than 30 percent of the school takes them. It's interesting, but a bit over-written. To wit:
With such a fragile formula, it's hard to imagine how educators can ever get it right: once the self-proclaimed virgin clique hits the thirty-one-per-cent mark, suddenly it's Sodom and Gomorrah.
Anyway, Talbot wrote a balanced piece that looks at the issue from many sides. For instance, the earlier report about evangelical sexual debuts is followed up by the revelation that actual religious practice makes a difference:
Religious belief apparently does make a potent difference in behavior for one group of evangelical teen-agers: those who score highest on measures of religiosity--such as how often they go to church, or how often they pray at home. But many Americans who identify themselves as evangelicals, and who hold socially conservative beliefs, aren't deeply observant.
And even more important than actual religiosity, Regnerus argues, is how embedded teenagers are in their networks of friends, families and institutions that reinforce the goal of delaying sex:
A church, of course, isn't the only way to provide a cohesive sense of community. Close-knit families make a difference. Teen-agers who live with both biological parents are more likely to be virgins than those who do not. And adolescents who say that their families understand them, pay attention to their concerns, and have fun with them are more likely to delay intercourse, regardless of religiosity.
There is much, much more. Talbot packs the essay with information. But it is somewhat obvious that she doesn't quite get the Christian theology of the body. This paragraph made me wish that the entire essay had been written by Lauren Winner rather than just include her quotes:
Evangelicals could start, perhaps, by trying to untangle the contradictory portrayals of sex that they offer to teen-agers. In the Shelby Knox documentary, a youth pastor, addressing an assembly of teens, defines intercourse as "what two dogs do out on the street corner--they just bump and grind awhile, boom boom boom." Yet a typical evangelical text aimed at young people, "Every Young Woman's Battle," by Shannon Ethridge and Stephen Arterburn, portrays sex between two virgins as an ethereal communion of innocent souls: "physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual pleasure beyond description." Neither is the most realistic or helpful view for a young person to take into marriage, as a few advocates of abstinence acknowledge. The savvy young Christian writer Lauren Winner, in her book "Real Sex: The Naked Truth About Chastity," writes, "Rather than spending our unmarried years stewarding and disciplining our desires, we have become ashamed of them. We persuade ourselves that the desires themselves are horrible. This can have real consequences if we do get married." Teenagers and single adults are "told over and over not to have sex, but no one ever encourages" them "to be bodily or sensual in some appropriate way"--getting to know and appreciate what their bodies can do through sports, especially for girls, or even thinking sensually about something like food. Winner goes on, "This doesn't mean, of course, that if only the church sponsored more softball leagues, everyone would stay on the chaste straight and narrow. But it does mean that the church ought to cultivate ways of teaching Christians to live in their bodies well--so that unmarried folks can still be bodily people, even though they're not having sex, and so that married people can give themselves to sex freely."
It's clear that the youth pastor is talking about sex outside of marriage and the evangelical text is about sex within marriage. And that distinction makes perfect sense. Glossing over it or viewing it as a contradiction is just clueless. Anyway, I find Winner's perspective provocative and engaging and, though I've already read Real Sex, I wish we could get even more of it. The article gets pretty preachy at the end but it's still a worthwhile read. It's just that it has a curious lack of understanding of Christian sexual views for being so focused on criticizing them.