How can you make sure that the messages your kids hear in youth group about sex won’t be harmful ones?

One of my big passions is helping sort through the messages about sex that we get in evangelical culture and throwing out the harmful ones and keeping the helpful ones. That’s why we changed the podcast name to Bare Marriage–bare because it’s about sex often, yes, but also because it’s about stripping away the bad stuff.

We were talking on the podcast last week with Rachel Joy Welcher about her new book Talking Back to Purity Culture. To reiterate, we both believe in an orthodox biblical sexual ethic–meaning that we do believe God intends sex for marriage. However, the way that we’ve taught this to teens often has many shame messages that are “extras”, and not necessary, and do more harm than good. 

Messages like:

  • All boys lust, and so girls have to watch what they wear to protect boys from sin
  • Boys won’t be able to control themselves like girls do, and so girls need to make sure that the relationship never goes too far
  • Your worth is in your purity
  • Purity  = virginity, which is so problematic on many levels. What about sexual assault victims? And isn’t this a shaming message about sex overall? Plus it’s not in line with the Bible, which does not only look at sexual sin. 

Besides, as I said on the podcast: 

Purity Podcast

Listen to the podcast here!

And read more about things that scare me about purity culture, too. 

After that conversation, a woman emailed me asking:

My oldest is in junior high youth group and I also help lead our senior youth. After listening to and reading your stuff I am so very keen for my kids NOT to hear the Every Man’s Battle version of this stuff and so I have plans to meet with the junior high leaders as well as our youth pastor and my team leaders to nail down exactly what we will be teaching our youth on this topic. 

I have a pretty sinking feeling that the vibe at junior high will be much more leaning towards the things we hate… a focus on girl’s modesty and boys basically doing their best to avoid the problem rather than ever actually address it and encourage them to treat girls with respect. My question is, what questions should I be asking of this leadership and how can I challenge their thinking on this if needed? I do not want to have to counter unhealthy teaching at home if I can avoid it, I would love to see a more healthy culture cultivated on this topic and am very happy to try and lay some of the groundwork, I’m just not sure how to go about it exactly.

Great question! And as we strip away the bad teachings we’ve been given, i’ve become more and more convinced that this starts in junior high and high school. We need to start teaching the right things then. 

So let me give some quick thoughts:

How do we help our kids get good messages at youth group?

1. Always keep talking to them at home and let them know what you want them to know

Always, always be your kids’ main source of information about sex. My kids got a really large dose of purity culture at youth group and from reading Brio magazine, but they’ve said that the reason it didn’t impact them that much was because we talked so much at home. 

Besides, even if your youth group itself is okay, often the worst messages kids get are at those youth rallies teens go to (I know that’s the only place I was ever exposed to super unhealthy teaching, and my girls said it was always worse there for them, too). 

We’ve tried to make this easy for you by creating The Whole Story course, a video based course that moms use with their daughters or dads use with their sons. My girls are on the girls’ videos, and my sons-in-law and television personality Sheldon Neil are on the boys’. We’re hoping to create a youth group and Christian school version in the not-too-distant future, but we have so much on our plates right now!

Are you terrified to give your kids “the talk?”

We want to help. So we created The Whole Story: an online video-based course to help parents tell their children about sex, puberty, and growing up.

Let us start those awkward conversations, so you can finish them!

2. Volunteer at Youth Group

Keith and I have led two youth programs in our adult lives, and volunteered at others. I can tell you that most youth leaders love volunteers that are reliable, and that mentor kids other than their own. When you volunteer and build that relationship, you’ll have far more influence over the slant of what is taught. 

So it sounds like this mom is doing everything right!

3. Share the long-term effects of unhealthy teaching

In our new book The Great Sex Rescue, we look at how believing certain common evangelical teachings in high school ends up hurting future marriages–beliefs like “all men struggle with lust”; “boys will want to push your sexual boundaries”, etc. etc. It’s all laid out there. 

The book doesn’t launch yet, but it’s all available for pre-order! I think it’s going to be such an amazing resource.

What if you're NOT the problem with your sex life?

What if the messages that you've been taught have messed things up--and what if there's a way to escape these toxic teachings?

It's time for a Great Sex Rescue.

Starting tomorrow we’ll have a download available that you can show pastors that gives a quick snapshot of the effects of some of these teachings, and gives a scorecard of some of our Christian bestsellers. I think this will be really handy to give to youth pastors (and pastors). It’s available for anyone who has pre-ordered. Just forward me your receipt or a screenshot of  your order or whatever you have to show that you’ve pre-ordered, and we’ll send it along! 

We’re not set up to do that today, but if you don’t want to miss it, just forward me your receipt now and we’ll get it to you tomorrow when it’s live!

Forward Sheila your pre-order receipt for The Great Sex Rescue!

Want the report that gives a scorecard of our best-selling sex & marriage books on how they handle healthy sexual teaching; a list of the common teachings that hurt sex (and their effects); and how we can reframe how we talk about sex? Just email me your receipt!

We’ve just finished our survey of men, and I can tell you that the messages that hurt women’s sexuality hurt men’s too–and the magnitude is even greater for some of them (especially the “all men lust” message). When boys are taught this in high school, sexual dysfunction goes up, porn use goes up, and sexual satisfaction goes down while selfishness increases. It’s bad. I don’t have those numbers ready to share, because we’re working on another book with them, but suffice it to say, NONE of the fruit of this is good. We’ll be talking about it in next week’s podcast!

4. Offer alternative ways of talking about sex

One of the problems that leaders have when you say, “the all men lust message is harmful” is that they reply, “but all men DO lust!”

Now, that’s not empirically true, but nevertheless, they often balk because at some level, there is a kernel of truth. That’s where you can show people how to reframe these messages. For instance, 

Instead of saying…

All men struggle with lust; it’s every man’s battle

You can say…

Many people struggle with lust, and often, but not always, boys more than girls. But many people also don’t. And we know that God is able to help us. This is a battle you can win! 

See the difference?

And also, I think reframing the whole way we talk about this stuff so that it’s less focused on the sin-willpower spectrum and it’s more focused on respect. 

I think a far better message for boys to hear, for instance, is something like:

When you’re tempted towards lust, just remind yourself, “she’s not for me like that right now”, and then ask, “how can I show her respect?”

Instead of being focused on “I must try not to sin,” try to focus on, “I am going to respect her.”

Oh, and one more tip: Don’t say, “tell yourself she’s someone’s sister” or “tell yourself she’s someone’s daughter.” That implies that her worth is still based on her relationship to other people like me, rather than just for who she is. She deserves respect regardless, because of who she is, and the whole “she’s someone’s daughter” teaches us that people only have worth in their relationship to others, not because they’re made in the image of God.

Again, in The Great Sex Rescue we have so many examples of how we can talk about modesty, lust, porn, and other problems in a healthy way rather than an unhealthy way.

5. Talk about things other than sex and porn and lust

One of the reasons my girls found youth rallies ridiculous is that all they ever talked about was sexual struggles or struggles with self-harm and addictions. Yes, those things are important–but they’re not the whole story. They wanted to go deeper with God; to figure out what prayer really looked like; to figure out how to find your calling; to figure out how to do big things for God.

And it seemed like youth rallies only saw them as walking hormones.

I’ve shared before that I know one young man in his twenties who started watching porn because of youth group. They were always talking about porn and how guys struggle with it, and he didn’t struggle. He actually liked treating women with respect.

But after a while he started wondering if he was a real man. So he started dabbling in porn.

It only lasted a few years, because he realized he was treating women differently. But it never would have started had the youth group not talked about porn all the time.

So, yes, it’s important to reframe how we talk about sex and lust. But it’s also important that this is not the main thing the youth group is focused on!

All right, those are my main points for helping youth groups talk about sex well.

It’s okay to have a meeting with the youth group leader to talk about these issues, or to talk to other parents as well.

Again, I think The Great Sex Rescue will be an awesome resource for this, and hopefully we’ll create more of The Whole Story soon. But I’m so glad to see people taking the healthy messages I’m trying to share down to the youth group level!

5 Ways to Make Sure Your Church Youth Group Talks about Sex Well

Let me know–did your youth group, or your kids’ youth group, handle this well or badly? Did you ever talk to a youth leader about this? Let’s talk in the comments!

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Founder of To Love, Honor and Vacuum

Sheila is determined to help Christians find BIBLICAL, HEALTHY, EVIDENCE-BASED help for their marriage. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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