I was listening to a Radio 1 late-night phone-in on the radio a few weeks ago, whilst driving. The subject was relationships, sex, and sexually transmitted diseases. The idea was that any question could be asked and that a straight-talking, honest answer would be given. The expert was well informed and engaged with the people phoning in with care, compassion and real clarity. I was impressed. What stood out for me was the fundamental stance of the speaker, which I think sums up the view/policy/ thinking behind sex-advice these days: use a condom. The more I listened, the more I agreed. To engage in unsafe sexual activity with someone without knowing their sexual history is inviting trouble. If people are going to sleep around, then use a condom.
But then one listener asked a question that got my attention: ‘some people say that sex feels better without a condom. Is that right? Or am I not wearing it properly?’ to which the following reply was given: ‘No that’s wrong. Sexual satisfaction and pleasure is just the same with a condom. If it isn’t, then you’re probably not using the condom properly. No. It’s a myth. Sex feels just the same.’ When she said this, I blurted out loud to the radio: ‘that’s not true! You’re wrong!’
I still think she was wrong. In fact any sexually experienced person knows she was wrong. My wife and I have used condoms on many occasions. I know many couples who have. The sex is ok. In fact often pretty good. But it’s better without. Every time.
So, what was going on here? Why the dishonest answer? For the rest of the car journey I thought about it and the conclusion I came to was this: she thought that if young people really knew that sex without a condom felt better than sex with a condom, they wouldn’t use them. And that, of course, would undermine the foundation of sex advice to young people for the last 25 years: use a condom – and that would never do. So, despite advertising itself as a phone-in telling the truth about sex, telling people to use a condom became more important than telling the truth.
If you have to lie in order to justify any view or policy about anything, then it’s likely there is a problem with the policy. In this case, the lie exposed the fact that, for all the wisdom of telling some people to use a condom, it’s not a sufficient basis for sex-advice. More is needed if young people are to make really wise and informed sexual choices. The question is: what is needed? What advice should be given?
One answer that is often dismissed as out-dated is the ethics of the Christian faith – for they offer a challenging but rewarding vision for sex which deserves to be heard again.
Christian ethics suggest that the best sex is shared within the context of a committed married relationship. They highlight the importance of friendship and intimacy in all relationships, and particularly in all sexual expression. Clearly the idea of abstinence before marriage and fidelity within marriage is a challenge, but a positive one. Interestingly the bible tells many stories of people who fail to live up to its sexual standards, suggesting that it is not easy. But the bible also has much to say about forgiveness for past failures, offering the possibility of a fresh start.
If Christian ethics became the basis for 21st century sex advice offered to young people, the foundational message would no longer simply be: use a condom. Instead it would need 3 prior components: 1) the best sex is expressed in marriage; 2) sex is worth waiting for in marriage; 3) if you can’t wait, use a condom.
The social benefits of this advice – were it embraced by the nation – would be massive. The number of teenage pregancies, abortions and sexually transmitted diseases, would all plummet. But the personal benefits should not be underestimated either – in encouraging more stable relationships, stronger marriages and stable families.
But there are some obvious hurdles to get over if this advice is to be taken seriously. First, it would need sex advisers, as much as young people, to be convinced that marriage is the best place for sex – and that married people have good and fulfilling sex. The impression is often given that couples stop having sex when they get married. I suspect this is wrong! To counter this, adults and parents who have a healthy sex life should not to be embarrassed to say so. It seems to me that sexual frolicking in marriage could do with much more championing!
Second, it would require a cultural change in the UK, especially in the way sex-advice is given in places like schools, teenage magazines and in the broader media. In particular, the attitude of girls might be crucial. Being less quickly aroused than young men, girls would need to sensitively but firmly encourage their boyfriends to maintain boundaries when the sparks of passion are ignited. (I suspect this is a role that most married women historically took for generations before the days of reliable contraception, and probably were taught by mothers and grandmothers, so this would not be a new!).
Third, there is the obvious problem that telling young people to wait doesn’t sound very attractive, especially when the message given for the last 30 years has been otherwise. To encourage waiting just sounds negative. Like you are a kill-joy. What is needed is a much more fun, positive message, so that the benefits of abstinence are heard. If this can be communicated clearly, passionately and with real humour by positive role-models, then maybe its wisdom could be embraced and discovered by a whole new generation.
Use a condom should only be part of the sex advice given to young people today. There are 2 other crucial elements that need to be heard first: 1) marriage is the best place for sex, and 2) sex in marriage is worth waiting for – so there are great benefits in taking things slowly.
So, any suggestions on how to communicate abstinence in a positive way? Let me propose a slogan that might capture people’s imagination. How about: ‘don’t come too soon’?