The Pope’s guide to sex education

Amoris Laetitia.
Amoris Laetitia.
Image: Reuters/Gary Cameron
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Around the world, sex education is nonexistent for many. Even in the US, where sex isn’t as taboo as elsewhere, around half of states have a policy of teaching abstinence.

Abstinence programs teach kids to stay virgins until marriage, and that the only true form of safe sex is to not have it. Yet research suggests that abstinence-only education doesn’t decrease teen pregnancy. In his recent budget proposals, US president Obama recommended cutting $10 million of funding for abstinence-only education programs.

In his letter on love and family, Pope Francis would appear to agree. In the 263-page document, released today, he embraces same-sex couples while rejecting their unions as “marriages,” condemns the sexual abuse of children, and argues for better sex education. He writes:

The Second Vatican Council spoke of the need for “a positive and prudent sex education” to be imparted to children and adolescents “as they grow older,” with “due weight being given to the advances in the psychological, pedogogical and didactic sciences.” We may well ask ourselves if our educational institutions have taken up this challenge.

Here’s a brief look at what a Pope-positive sex education program might look like:

“Modesty” is still important

Modesty is a natural means whereby we defend our personal privacy and prevent ourselves from being turned into objects to be used. Without a sense of modesty, affection and sexuality can be reduced to an obsession with genitality and unhealthy behaviours that distort our capacity for love….

The concept of modesty may seem a bit antiquated, writes the pope, but it needs new life. He says, modesty is meant to protect people from obsessing over body parts.

“Safe sex” is a misnomer

Frequently, sex education deals primarily with “protection” through the practice of “safe sex.” Such expressions convey a negative attitude towards the natural procreative finality of sexuality, as if an eventual child were an enemy to be protected against. This way of thinking promotes narcissism and aggressivity in place of acceptance.

“Safe sex” is actually a weird term, writes Pope Francis, because it distorts one of the main reasons to have sex, which is to have children.

Masturbation has unintended consequences

It is always irresponsible to invite adolescents to toy with their bodies and their desires, as if they possessed the maturity, values, mutual commitment and goals proper to marriage. They end up being blithely encouraged to use other persons as an means of fulfilling their needs or limitations.

Pope Francis suggests that teaching kids to focus only on their own desires draws a line between their bodies and the bodies of others, which risks turning others into mere vessels for pleasure.

Kids are overloaded by messages about sex

It is not helpful to overwhelm them with data without also helping them to develop a critical sense in dealing with the onslaught of new ideas and suggestions, the flood of pornography and the overload of stimuli that can deform sexuality. Young people need to realize that they are bombarded by messages that are not beneficial for their growth towards maturity.

Bombarding kids with facts and stimuli is not as useful, says the pope, as teaching them to think critically about all the messages they receive about sex.

Kids should embrace their biology

Beyond the understandable difficulties which individuals may experience, the young need to be helped to accept their own body as it was created, for “thinking that we enjoy absolute power over our own bodies turns, often subtly, into thinking that we enjoy absolute power over creation… An appreciation of our body as male or female is also necessary for our own self-awareness in an encounter with others different from ourselves.”

Elsewhere in the pope’s letter he suggests that choosing gender is against the will of God, writing, “Let us not fall into the sin of trying to replace the Creator. We are creatures, and not omnipotent. Creation is prior to us and must be received as a gift.” In his section on sex ed, he again emphasizes the importance of the biology we’re born with, casting choices of gender in terms of hubris.

Sexual giving should be reciprocal

Every form of sexual submission must be clearly rejected.

In one section the pope writes that any interpretation of religious texts as saying wives should submit sexually to their husbands is false. He argues for mutually giving sexual partnerships.

The value of virginity is not absolute

Rather than speak absolutely of the superiority of virginity, it should be enough to point out that the different states of life complement one another, and consequently that some can be more perfect in one way and others in another.

Though he doesn’t come right out and say it’s fine to have sex before marriage, Pope Francis writes that though “virginity is a form of love,” that doesn’t mean sexual abstinence is definitely superior.