Beyond Abstinence-Only

Speaking Out on Adolescent Sexuality

Religious leaders lay out guidelines for faith communities to promote adolescent sexual health in an open, honest, and safe manner.

The United States may be raising some of the most sexually confused adolescents in the world. Movies, advertising, web sites, music, and television shows give teens the message that “everyone is doing it,” while the official policy of the federal government and 46 states is abstinence-only until marriage. And most parents, schools, and religious institutions say little to nothing to adolescents about their sexual behaviors, sexual orientation, and sexual health, even though one recent report revealed that the vast majority of Americans have been having sex before marriage for decades.

Caught between “just do it” and “just say no,” with little moral guidance for making healthy decisions, more than six in 10 adolescents engage in sexual intercourse by the time they leave high school. Each year, about 800,000 of them become pregnant and approximately 25 percent contract a sexually transmitted disease.

The Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing is therefore releasing a new “Open Letter to Religious Leaders on Adolescent Sexuality,” the first theological statement of its kind by any group of religious leaders to address adolescent sexuality openly and honestly. The Open Letter recognizes the sexual rights of adolescents, including their right to full, accurate information and to acceptance within the faith community, regardless of the sexual decisions they have made. The Open Letter also lays out specific actions that faith communities need to take to promote those rights, including:

  • Supporting parents in teaching children and adolescents about sexuality.
  • Creating an honest, open environment for discussion of sexuality issues, including age- appropriate sexuality education for youth in the context of faith values.
  • Collaborating with community organizations to promote adolescent sexual health.
  • Recognizing the sexual diversity of adolescents in their congregations, including those who are sexually active and those who are gay and lesbian.

The Open Letter was developed at a colloquium sponsored by the Religious Institute, including theologians and ordained clergy from Jewish, Baptist, Brethren, Episcopal, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, United Church of Christ, and Unitarian Universalist perspectives.

These theologians are calling on religious communities to recognize the realities of today’s adolescents, who reach puberty earlier and marry later than any other generation in history. Religious institutions must do a better job of helping adolescents make responsible and informed choices about their sexual behavior. After all, religious institutions serve more teens than any other agency in the community except the public schools, and they are the only ones specifically empowered to offer values-based education to children outside of the home. As schools have become more restricted in what they can teach about sexuality, religious institutions must provide more comprehensive information in a values context.

Yet most religious institutions are either silent on these issues or fail to provide the guidance or information teenagers need to make healthy moral decisions. Fewer than 10 national denominations have curricula addressing adolescent sexuality. Only the “Our Whole Lives” program created by the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ and the new “Sacred Choices” program of the Union for Reform Judaism provide comprehensive information about sexual decision-making, sexual behaviors beyond abstinence, and sexual orientation.

Meanwhile, the Southern Baptist Association’s “True Love Waits” program developed the concept of “abstinence pledges,” which has been adapted for schools and churches across the country. Research has shown that pledgers have higher rates of oral and anal sex than non-pledgers and lower rates of condom and contraceptive use when they break their pledges—which 88 percent of them do.

It is time for all faith communities to move beyond “chastity in singleness” to recognize the sexual rights of adolescents and help them discern their readiness for mature sexual relationships.

The United States has provided more than a billion dollars for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs in the last decade, but no funding for comprehensive sexuality education. As religious leaders, we have a responsibility to speak out against educational programs that deny young people the medically accurate information they need to protect themselves and others. We must also oppose parental notification and consent laws that restrict teens’ access to life-saving reproductive health services.

Stepping up to our responsibilities in this area requires a strong commitment and new types of training. In most churches, synagogues, and mosques, human sexuality remains shrouded in silence. The majority of our clergy receive little or no training in seminary to address sexuality issues in their congregations, particularly adolescent sexuality. We hope that the new “Open Letter to Religious Leaders on Adolescent Sexuality” will encourage not only dialogue but action. “Just Say No” can no longer be accepted as a moral response.

The Reverend Debra W. Haffner is the Director of the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing and an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister endorsed by the Unitarian Church in Westport, CT, as its community minister. The Religious Institute is a multifaith organization dedicated to advocating for sexual health, education and justice in faith communities and society. More than 2,600 religious leaders from more than 40 faith traditions endorse its Religious Declaration on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.