By Alex Macias
My daughter seems to bring up the weightiest of topics when we’re in the middle of our most hectic commutes. For example, a few weeks ago, as I was heaving groceries up two flights of stairs while holding a baby, she smiled slyly and said, “Mommy, guess what’s growing?” “What?” I asked and turned to see that she was pointing to her chest. “Your heart?” “No,” she said raising her eyebrows a couple times to hint that this was indeed provocative. “Boobs.”
I was completely unprepared for that comment. She’s four, friends.
We had a good laugh, but later I thought about what is starting to happen. She is discovering herself. She’s realizing that bodies are of importance.
I grew up in a church context that perhaps was not aware of how terrified of bodies it was. As a teenage girl, I consistently heard the message of maintaining sexual purity. Not engaging in sexual activity, not putting yourself in a situation that would leave you susceptible to wanted or unwanted sexual advances, and not causing your brother to stumble because of your body were frequent topics for discussion. Parts of these discussions were practical, sure. But whether or not it was intended, the message was abundantly clear to the young women: our bodies were both in danger and dangerous.
And this idea often led to many other ideas circulating in the teenage crowd. Among them, it was understood that sex is bad and that the female body is something to be ashamed of especially when being aware of or expressing sexuality. The implications are disheartening. Even grown women feel responsible for male bad behavior, feel worthless if they can’t uphold the definition of purity, equate virginity with salvation, or fear sexual intimacy in committed relationships.
When I began working in a group home for helping teenage girls and their families experiencing crises, another idea joined the bunch: men don’t care about you if you have a sexual relationship. Now this was certainly a different context from my own churched experience. Whereas I had been in a community that treated sexuality as a disease, these girls were often coming from an environment that was oversexed – sometimes willingly and, probably equally often, unwillingly. Many of these girls had been used and abused horribly, and so I absolutely believe that it was important to denounce what violence they may have suffered. I do not want to make light of trauma. But I also think that the idea of men as the enemy is not sufficient. I often heard, “It’s not the same for guys. They aren’t as emotionally connected to sex as we are.” But this is not a biblical idea. It’s a societal idea. With fewer physical and cultural consequences, men are often given the ok to treat sexuality flippantly in a way that women are not, but there is no biblical justification for giving men a free pass to disassociate sex from emotions and spiritual health. To do so is a sign of spiritual ill health, and to expect this from men is to dehumanize them.
Now I totally get the urge to scare teenagers a little to get them to understand the severity of the consequences – hormones are coursing through their veins(!) and it is a heavy topic. But let’s check our language and remember our goal. Is the church’s role just about preventing teenagers from having sex? Or is it grander in scale? Is it more about urging them to live into the reality that they are children of the living God? I imagine that if we communicated that first, we’d have healthier expressions of sexuality. It’s time we saw each other as human beings with bodies, feelings, and longings and encourage our young people to be comfortable in their bodies because each human being is a creature – a creature shaped and formed in the image of God.
One weekend at the group home, I was required to take the houseful of girls to a talk that Josh McDowell was giving on sexuality. I say required, because if I had had the choice there is no way I would have taken them myself. Being engaged but not yet married, and therefore not out of sexual purity scrutiny waters at the time, I was utterly sick of hearing about purity. (After all, this was the high point for I Kissed Dating Goodbye, purity rings, and the term “born-again virgin.”) So I came to the event fully prepared to hate the presentation as well as the rest of the conversation that would surely follow. But he went and surprised me. He talked not about purity but about being cherished. His message directed to the young women in the audience was essentially this: don’t be with a man who isn’t interested in nurturing and protecting the person that you are. Amen, Josh.
The talk with my daughter is coming. I knew it again last week, when I was behind the wheel competing for the few parking spaces in my neighborhood that weren’t encrusted in frozen snow and she asked “Mommy, how did the baby get in your tummy?” I suspect this will be an ongoing talk that changes as the questions become more complex. I’m just hoping that each conversation can start with “My love, you are a person whose heart, mind, and body are so precious.”