Teen-age Sexuality and Public Morality

by Allen J. Moore

Dr. Moore is acting dean of the School of Theology at Claremont, California.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, September 9-16, 1987, p. 747. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The church needs to help teen-agers become more aware of the social and ethical consequences of sexual activities. Sexual practices can never be examined and understood independently of other social factors. Sexual behavior is intertwined with issues of education, economics, politics, national security and employment.

We are a sexually active society, and teen-agers are no exception. The Moral Right may have won some battles at the ballot box, but there is little evidence that those victories have led to more restrictive sexual behavior. Evidence suggests that even the rise of AIDS has not resulted in a major shift in sexual habits. Rather than reinforcing a moral emphasis upon abstinence, AIDS has shifted concern to what is called "safe sex": increased care in choosing sexual partners, along with the habitual use of condoms. Most teen-agers are not yet preoccupied with AIDS, but the public discussion of it has brought talk of sexuality and contraceptives out in the open.

What is often overlooked in discussions of teen-age sexuality is that the young are not the creators of the sexual revolution. Rather, they are the recipients of a sexual heritage that actually dates to the turn of the century. As the Kinsey studies demonstrated (1948 and 1953) , the sexual revolution in fact began with the generation born after 1900 (with the most far-reaching changes occurring among women). It was the great-grandmothers of today’s teen-agers who ushered in more liberal views of sexuality.

Sexual practices can never be examined and understood independently of other social factors. Moralists often do not recognize the complex ways in which sexual behavior is intertwined with issues of education, economics, politics, national security and employment. For example, the mothers of the vast majority of the children born out of wedlock are racial minority teen-agers who come from broken families living below the poverty level. Most of these teen-age mothers were themselves children of unmarried mothers. To take another example, women’s greater sexual freedom is in part due to improved birth-control methods, which have given women the ability to separate their sexual desires from reproduction. The sexual liberation of women can also be correlated with their struggle for political freedom and social equality.

There are, however, particular ethical issues related to teen-age sexuality that need to be addressed. Teenagers are not morally ready to make decisions about sexual intercourse. They generally are not emotionally ready to make judgments about the quality of intimate relationships, and they have not reached a level of maturity to take responsibility for their actions. The sociological evidence on abandonment, furthermore, makes it clear that teen-agers are not prepared to take social and economic responsibility for the birth of a baby.

Young people today are socially pressured to be sexually active long before they have been prepared educationally and psychologically to cope with the deeply personal and highly charged nature of sexuality. The mass media are filled with romantic images of male-female relationships, and the myth prevails that "to be carried away" by one’s sexual urges is a sure sign of love, which justifies sexual interaction. Just as serious is the way our society’s images of being male and being female demean the larger moral significance of sexuality. A teen-age boy faces the social pressure to "score" and, in so doing, he reduces his partner to a sexual object. And a teenage girl absorbs the idea that a woman is someone who is sexually desirable to a man; her worth lies in her value as a sexual commodity and her ability to control the male with the sexual favors she provides.

Sexual morality in our time must address these factors underlying teen-age behavior. Sexual morality needs to offer a clear articulation of the meaning of interpersonal love and the need for justice in all aspects of human life. Youth need to know that sex does not need to be the determinant force in human life. The church’s particular challenge in this context is to articulate the view that sexual intercourse is not a casual venture but a special form of intimacy that calls for an ongoing relationship and concern for one another as well as for the new life that might emerge.

These findings do not suggest that white and middle-class teens are not sexually active, but that birth-control and family-planning services are generally more available to them. While it is true that 80 to 90 per cent of all births out of wedlock are to black teen-agers, and that half of all black children live in female-headed families, it is also the case that black males form the largest unemployed group in the total population, and are the lowest-paid of employed males. The cycle of single motherhood within black communities is related to the ways in which minorities continue to be marginalized in our society, and continue to live at the poverty level. White teenagers, especially of the middle class, more often have available to them the social resources by which the consequences of their sexual activity can be minimized, either through abortion or adoption. (We should note that black children born out of wedlock are seldom adopted. In some communities there are 40 times more black children than white children available for adoption.)

The "profamily" policies of the current administration are designed to take away public support from those who are most in need of social and medical services. The programs adhere to the middle-class ideology which sees each family as sufficient for meeting its own needs. What is missing from this view is a sense of a larger community in which the welfare of all persons is a shared responsibility. Repeated efforts are made to regulate sexual behavior by punitive measures, such as the "squeal" regulation that would require a medical facility to inform parents when an underage girl seeks medical help if she is pregnant or if she wants to obtain contraceptives. A similar invasion of civil rights is implicit in the initiative to require doctors to report to the Department of Health persons infected with the AIDS virus, and in the proposed restrictions that would prohibit any family planning institution receiving federal funds from informing clients of the availability of abortion services.

These legal efforts are not designed to help people develop positive attitudes about sexuality or to take more responsibility for their sexual behavior. Instead they impose punishment by withdrawing human services that could help people to cope more effectively with problems arising from their sexuality.

Policies based on negatives are irresponsible, particularly in an age in which we have so much knowledge and understanding of human sexuality. One aspect of these restrictive policies is the belief that sex is inherently wrong and that individuals should be left with the consequences of their "mistake." Such a basis for public policy is not consistent with either a humanitarian tradition or a Christian view, nor does it acknowledge the diversity of beliefs that exist concerning the role of sex in human life.

The policies of the profamily program are based on the idea that the problems arising from teen-age sexual activity are moral rather than social. The approach that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is taking toward teen pregnancy is that premarital sex is morally wrong and that the best prevention is sexual abstinence. Title XX -- the "chastity" law -- passed by Congress in 1981 provides funds to groups, including certain church groups, that support programs of sexual abstinence among youth.

A growing coalition of conservative political leaders, religious groups and government officials is leading the attack against publicly supported programs of sex education, school-based health centers, guidance programs in family planning, and other activities designed to address the sexual needs of youth from both a social and a health perspective. Operating under the myth that sexual involvement is always delayed until marriage and that the family is the only normal setting for child-rearing, this coalition opposes programs of "optional parenthood" in which having a child is a matter of choice rather than of chance. The coalition is also unwilling to recognize the extent to which young people are engaged in sexual activity and the need they have for more accurate information and guidance in making sexual decisions. Gary Bauer, undersecretary of education and chairman of a White House task force on the American family, has been quoted as saying that his group’s goal is "to tell children [that premarital sex] is wrong and explain why it’s bad for them -- not to teach them so much about sex that they can engage in it in early adolescence."

The issue is not that sexual abstinence should not be recommended but, as sex-researchers Masters and Johnson have pointed out, that the recommendation is not always practical for all teen-agers. Not all teen-agers respond positively to moral absolutes, especially at a time when they are seeking to establish their independence. Most teens already know the traditional moral attitudes toward sex. What they do not understand as yet is the true nature of sexual desire and how to give direction to that desire, which at their age is normal and natural. What is sometimes assumed by the profamily policies is that sex education and frank and open discussions of the facts of sexuality will contribute to increased teenage sexual activity. In fact, the contrary is true.

A Canadian study of pregnant teen-agers found that these girls were so fearful of sex that they had avoided learning about sexual behavior and family planning. In fact, most of them never expected to have sexual intercourse. They were not without morals; but sex was something they could not really talk about or face honestly. One may conclude from this study that moral prohibitions do not ensure sexual abstinence and may only reinforce teen-agers’ urge to act out their sexual desires.

The belief that young people will learn from their mistakes seems also to be a myth. Several studies of young unmarried mothers have found that between 20 and 25 per cent became pregnant again within two years (with the rate going much higher among certain minority groups) The repeat of pregnancy appears to be related to a lack of knowledge about the risks of sexual intercourse, limited opportunity for further education, boredom with homelife, and the unavailability of a strong female support group.

Although peer pressures are especially great at this age, youth generally act out what they perceive to be adult values. Studies have found that young people’s values are more continuous with those held by the important adults in their lives than is generally believed. To be effective, moral programs of education need to be consistent with the actual practices and attitudes of the larger society, and to be constant with the behavior of the adults that young people emulate. Adults are sometimes more conservative about sexual values in their adulthood than they were in their youth. Many parents and other adults expect from young people behavior that they themselves rejected during their own teen years. Partly because some adults are threatened by the sexual energy of youth, and partly because the behavior of teens can give rise to unresolved guilt, adults can be very oppressive and unrealistic in their expectations.

At a time when there is growing controversy over sex education, and when attempts are under way to curb family planning and the options for abortions, mainline churches have become intimidated by the Religious Right. They have found it increasingly difficult to talk openly and honestly about sexual issues, and seem to have become virtually powerless to provide leadership in matters of sexuality. A decade ago many mainline churches were engaged in articulating the virtues of the sexual revolution, formulating significant and far-reaching theological pronouncements on the central issues of sexuality, and experimenting with some new and imaginative programs of sex education. The churches seem to have lost their prophetic nerve in matters of sexual morality and have forgotten how to affirm the mystery and goodness of sex. Teen-agers (especially those who are most marginal to the church) need the church to be with them in their sexuality.

The church must play a role in helping youth find constructive solutions to the ambiguities and confusions of sex. Particular attention should be paid to their pastoral care, but churches also need to advocate revisions in sex-education programs, with special focus on how to make sexual decisions. Past programs all too often assumed answers and did not allow young people the opportunity to practice making their own decisions within a safe climate. The church needs to make teen-agers more aware that sexual activities are not exclusively private affairs, but that they have social and ethical consequences.

The problems of teen-age sexuality and the fact that conservative political and religious groups have put these problems on their agendas suggest that it is urgent for mainline denominations and liberal churches to recover a credible voice in matters of human sexuality -- both the ethical and the practical. Churches need to become more active in the shaping of public policies having to do with sex. Programs are needed that will go beyond a negative reinforcement of the moral code to address the total human needs of young people. Our country’s experience (as well as that of other progressive nations) has taught us that social solutions can be found to serve the health and welfare needs of people, enabling them to live better lives. For such programs to work we must be willing to pay the financial cost and to live with the ambiguity that we will never have perfect solutions.

The sexual ethics of young people today is a paradigm of how difficult it is to make moral judgments or to find ready answers to complicated moral questions. Christian social ethics goes beyond prescriptive behavior of what is essentially right or essentially wrong. It has to do with public standards that allow for all persons to participate in a just social order and in a community in which the promises of a good life may be a realized hope for all. The issue of chastity is only one aspect of the larger sexual conundrum that confronts teens. The other side is the kind of ethical norms that the church and society can articulate that will support those, including teens, who may, for whatever reason, deviate from "acceptable moral behavior" and engage in sexual relations prior to marriage.

What Max Weber calls an ethic of responsibility includes the challenge to find just and helpful social policies in order that a society can be responsive to the hurts and needs of people in a practical and realistic way. Christian social ethics therefore requires a view of human fulfillment and hope that will support young people in concrete ways in the sexual crisis that has engulfed them and the society of which they are a part.