Are Americans too uptight about sex?  What is the Law of Chastity designed to avoid or prevent?  Teen pregnancy?  Self-esteem issues?  Teens manipulating one another for gratification?

I recently read a fascinating article about how families handle teen sexuality in the Netherlands.  Americans generally view the Dutch as over-the-top permissive, which they are by our standards, but the Dutch would hasten to show that while they place fewer restrictions on behavior, they actually have better results than the US in things like teen pregnancy rates, teen self-image, and drug usage.  Do we do more damage than good by our restrictive parenting styles (and sexually restrictive laws about age of consent)?  Or are the Dutch just beneficiaries of their smaller, richer population?  Do we need to legislate morality because of the weakest and poorest among us?  And is American prudery and unhealthy sexual cultural the root cause for the church’s very specific instructions on standards?  Does this approach create a downside in lack of personal accountability, education, ability to make good choices, and critical thinking skills?  Have the Dutch beat us at solving society’s sexual problems?

As I read the article, I was particularly struck by a few observations:

  1. Trustworthy Teens.  The article states that the Dutch treat teens as trusted, emerging adults versus children to be protected.  They assume that sexual experience will naturally occur in the teen years, and they allow their teens to explore their sexuality without applying guilt or protective restrictions.  They educate both sexes to be safe and how to express love and avoid heartbreak.
  2. War of the Sexes.  In the US, we foster the idea that girls fall in love but boys use sex for gratification.  We do not focus on both sexes having the same interest in healthy relationships and loving commitment.  Most of our justification of chastity paints promiscuous girls as victims of poor self-esteem who fall prey to boys who only want one thing from them, and once that is given, “Why buy the cow when you get the milk for free?”  Consider all the phrases we use  that point to these unhealthy notions of male-female roles:  “love ’em and leave ’em,” jokes about boys wanting to find girls with “daddy issues,” and movies ad nauseum that show how men should manipulate women to get sex and how women should manipulate men to get commitment.
  3. Agreements, Not Rules.  The article contrasted the American tendency to set rules or limits on teen behaviors through things like curfews with the Dutch parenting style.  The Dutch prefer to use mutual agreements with their teens rather than rules; I find this very appealing and applicable to how we run the church.  For example, we teach that we are a covenant-making church, but we don’t talk much about the individuality of our covenants as agreements with God; we’ve made most of our covenants cookie-cutter one-size-fits-all rather than mutual agreements with God.  We often think of rules and “standards” that govern and limit behavior rather than recognizing members as adult children of God who are making personal commitments that may even be unique and not prescribed by church norms or leaders.
  4. Mi Casa Es Su Casa.  I was a bit blown away to read that 2/3 of Dutch parents green light opposite sex sleepovers with their teens!  I’m 43 years old, and I’m not sure I would be comfortable doing it at my parents’ house.  Yet, this is certainly one way of putting your money where your mouth is and getting the message across that there is nothing dirty or shameful about sex.  Mormons aside, I have a hard time imagining many Americans embracing this norm, so hard-coded is our aversion to teen sex. We’ve become obsessed with proving that someone is “of age,” meaning that there is no middle ground.
  5. Zero to Sixty Overnight.  The article suggests that our all-or-nothing attitude about sex (zero before marriage – anything goes after) is psychologically unhealthy.  There are many, many steps between hand-holding and intercourse, to say nothing of the fancy rope tricks with odd sounding euphemistic names that are de rigeur in gross out sex comedies.  There has been plenty of discussion in the ‘nacle about the difficulties people experienced in their marriages due to total lack of sexual experience before marriage.
  6. Preggers.  The teen pregnancy rate in the US is much higher than in the Netherlands.  Personally, I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that it’s a tiny country with more uniform standards of education that does not have our socio-economic diversity.  But I also think it begs another question that I’ll end with in my concluding paragraph.
  7. Shame = Fun.  That which we resist, persists. We hide sex away and make it shameful, so like a speakeasy during the prohibition darker forces take over its distribution.  Additionally, for those who slip up in their effort to remain chaste until marriage, their feelings of shame and guilt are forever jumbled up psychologically with sexual enjoyment.  An article on atheism and sexual pleasure shared some interesting statistics related to this.  Basically, everyone’s doing it, but atheists are enjoying it while it just makes the religious people feel regret.  😦  Reported feelings of sexual guilt were highest among Mormons at 8.2 out of 10, whereas atheists and agnostics only felt 4.7 and 4.8 out of 10 on the guilt-ometer.  As Darrel Ray who conducted the poll remarked:  “‘Of course, they have to return to their religion to get forgiveness. It’s like the church gives you the disease, then offers you a fake cure.”  Ouch!  Of course, this strikes me as a great pickup line. . .

Underlying this discussion, one wonders what the purpose of the Law of Chastity is.  Clearly from the time it was originally revealed to Moses to about the 1960s, it related to paternity; fidelity to a single partner not only made questions of inheritance clearer, but significantly reduced the spreading of STDs.  Is chastity mostly outdated due to readily available, reliable birth control?  Without the concerns of disease and pregnancy, most of our chastity rhetoric revolves around preserving self-esteem and the institution of marriage as a place to raise children.  Making young women the guardians of virtue is only necessary when culture teaches that “boys will be boys” and “good girls don’t.”  Is the Law of Chastity as we teach it in the LDS church primarily an American value rather than a universal moral code?  Is the Dutch solution smarter and more effective at achieving the same ends?

Can people (as the Dutch are claiming), even teens, have healthy happy committed sex lives outside of marriage without the byproducts of disease, unwanted pregnancy, hookup culture, depression, and ill advised marriages?  Are Americans just too prudish to have developed a healthy view of sex?  I find the Dutch model intriguing sociologically.  Yet, there are a few sticking points for me as well:

  • We live in a broader culture that is the product of time.  Moving to a more permissive model doesn’t mean that the healthy behaviors emerge overnight. 
    • It would be the work of many decades to get parents to the point where they are comfortable with different messaging for teens regarding sexuality.  Many parents don’t even talk to their kids about sex – at all! 
    • It also might require repealing the age of consent legislation. 
    • Movie and TV shows, which often set the culture by example, would have to put forward a more neutral, healthy view of male-female sexual dynamics.  Many of today’s rom-coms would become quaint.
  • The Law of Chasity has a benefit for boys as well as girls in the church.  It takes the pressure off of them to pretend to be more sexually experienced than they are.  It creates a separate subculture of teen sexual behavior within the church that is vastly different from the culture that exists elsewhere.  For example, contrast the dating culture at BYU with the hookup culture of every other university on the planet.
  • The Law of Chastity does encourage marriage vs. other forms of long-term commitment as a pre-cursor to sex.  Of course, the downside is that horny engaged Mormons can only wait about 3 weeks maximum between proposal and marriage or risk having to re-send invitations.
  • Teens still have developing brains and may struggle with good decision making in relationships.  Even if they have safe, consensual sexual experiences, they may reap emotional consequences for such committed relationships at a young age.  It can be difficult to extricate oneself from emotional entanglements even as an adult, much less as a teen, if it happens that the relationship is not in their best interest.  Personally, I’m glad I don’t have to live with the kind of person I was attracted to as a teenager for the rest of my life!