Volumne 5 No. 2
Rethinking Sexual Ethics For Youth and Others
By Marvin Ellison,
a Christian ethicist, I give a resounding "two cheers!"
to Bishop Joseph Gerry's pastoral letter to Catholic
young people, "Teens Encouraged to Choose Faith,
Not Sex," that appeared in the Portland Press
Herald (March 17, 2001, 1B). The Bishop deserves
credit for getting much right about values and human
The first cheer
the Bishop gotten right? Young people (along with adults)
need ongoing dialogue about human sexuality, its meaning
and place in their lives. Direct conversation is called
for about using this gift responsibly to strengthen communication
and respect for self and others - as well as honest talk
about how its misuse harms, exploits, and alienates.
Productive dialogue requires access to scientifically
sound information along with an ethical framework: what
the Bishop calls a "moral compass."
A second cheer
it is incumbent upon churches, synagogues, and mosques
to ffer age-appropriate sexuality education to younger
people and, I dare say, adults. I agree with the Bishop
that congregations are ideal places to offer value-based
sexuality education. Faith-based programs can easily
complement what parents do at home. To my mind, a sexual
ethic must attend to the pleasures, as well as the dangers,
of sexuality and keep both in perspective. When young
people remain ignorant about sexuality, they are at greater
risk of being harmed and doing harm. Such risks run especially
high in this culture that is saturated with sexualized
imagery and in which bodies, especially female bodies,
are so flagrantly commodified and objectified.
An added thought
the Bishop has it right: dialogue is in order, and faith
communities have an important leadership role to exercise.
But I find myself parting ways with the good bishop about
the moral compass.
religions have only reinforced the fear, shame, and guilt
that many experience about bodily pleasure (including
masturbation) and sexual passion. In the Protestant tradition,
I witness how the gap widens between the Church's traditional
teaching - that the exclusive moral norm is heterosexual,
marital, and procreative sex - and how most people, including
most people of faith, actually live their lives.
Marvin M. Ellison, co-chair
of the Maine Interfaith Council for Reproductive Choices,
spoke in mid-June on a Religion Counts panel at
the United Nations/UNICEF conference on the rights of
children. The panel was part of the Third Preparatory
Committee for the United Nations Special Session of
the General Assembly on Children.
Debra W.Haffner, one of the Participating Scholars of The Consultation, is an expert on adolescent sexuality. In her book, Beyond the Big Talk: Every Parent's Guide to Raising Sexually Healthy Teens (New Market Press, New York 2001), she acknowledges that the advent of sexual maturity is "terrifying" to most parents. Yet she shows that communication between adolescents and parents - however uncomfortable - tends to delay the time of first intercourse. The issue is serious. 1 in 4 adolescents who have coital sex get a sexually transmitted disease.Half the teens in high school have had sexual intercourse. This book is reassuring and realistic.