Faith and Sexuality

An Interview with Lyndsey Godwin

Sally Steenland sits down with Lyndsey Godwin to discuss faith and sexuality, and how they intersect and inform one another.

SOURCE: Lyndsey Godwin

Lyndsey Godwin, director of education and training at Planned Parenthood of Middle and East Tennessee, shows her support for women’s health and reproductive justice.

Listen to the interview (mp3)

This interview is the second in a series profiling the leaders of the Faith and Reproductive Justice Leadership Institute launched in March, which seeks to highlight and strengthen the important work of faith-based leaders working for reproductive justice. You can see more on this project here.

Lyndsey Godwin is the director of education and training at Planned Parenthood of Middle and East Tennessee. Through her work with local schools, community groups, and faith communities, Lyndsey has educated thousands of teens and adults on a variety of sexuality topics, including parent trainings and teen retreats. Lyndsey received a master’s degree in divinity from Vanderbilt University with a focus on the religious ethics of sex, gender, and sexuality. She has continued to work with the Carpenter Program in Gender, Religion and Sexuality at Vanderbilt and recently helped design and organize focus groups with local religious leaders on issues of sexuality. Lyndsey is currently seeking ordination.

Sally Steenland: I’d like to start off by asking about a recently passed bill that has put Tennessee in the headlines because of its radical nature. It requires that sex ed curriculums discourage students from “gateway sexual activity” and also requires teaching the consequences of nonmarital sexual activity. Can you tell us what’s going on here? How did the bill get passed, and what is behind it?

Lyndsey Godwin: I can try. In the same way that “gateway sexual activity” is ambivalent, some of how it happened is a little ambivalent. But we know, and we know this nationally as well, that issues around reproductive justice—issues that have anything to do with Planned Parenthood, sex, sexuality, or gender—have been hot-button issues politically in Tennessee and nationally. This bill has been a way of flexing political muscle for a number of our legislators.

It has been a particularly issue-driven legislative season for Tennessee. This is a piece of that broader puzzle. Some of the history behind it goes to an instance in a Knoxville city school and one in a Nashville city school where parents had issues with the curriculum. Those issues were picked up by a local organization, the Eagle Forum, and other local conservative groups, who ran with them. They created the legislation and found legislators to support it.

Interestingly, when we’ve had conversations with some of the legislators who supported the bill—when you ask them what “gateway sexual activity” means, or why it is important to not talk about anything in terms of sexual health—one of the things they keep coming back to is that having any conversations about sexuality is like “starting a leaf fire in your yard” [and] once it gets going, you can’t stop it.

SS: Is it your sense that the bill and those views represent the average person in Tennessee, or do you think it is radical even for a conservative state?

LG: I work in schools with educators and teens, and they tell me that this has no bearing on what people want and need. We know that nearly 90 percent of adults in the South support a broad sense of sexuality education in schools. This includes conversations about abstinence but also education to help equip teens with knowledge to protect themselves and have healthy relationships. We also know that in Tennessee, by their senior year [of high school] 68 percent of girls have had sex. So a bill that absolutely denies that and actually mandates that teachers cannot discuss sexual activity or equip their students with skills and information around protecting themselves in sexual activity does not match reality.

SS: As a sexuality educator in Tennessee, what is the message you bring? What are the values messages for people of faith, who want to raise their kids in a moral way but also want to keep them safe?

LG: It depends on what a person’s values are—that’s where we come from. We want each family and person to clarify their own values so they can make decisions to match them. It could mean any number of faith beliefs and decisions.

It also means parents talking to their kids. It means guardians, families, communities, and faith communities talking about sex. That is what I would like to see more of—having more conversations about sexuality and faith and how they intersect and inform one another. As a Planned Parenthood educator, one of my first goals is to help people clarify their own values so that they can make decisions based on them.

We know in terms of comprehensive sex ed that telling folks that abstinence is the best option—how to do that while also saying if you choose to have sex, here is how you protect yourself—we know that these things can go hand in hand and together can delay sexual activity and help people have safer interactions when they do choose to have sex. So parents get a little freaked out because they’re afraid they’re giving mixed messages, but giving all of that information helps a young person make a good, informed decision.

SS: What you have on your side is research and facts showing that kids are safer and delay sexual activity with a more comprehensive approach to sex ed. Sometimes, though, facts aren’t persuasive when they bump up against a values system. When you’re talking to parents or educators, are the facts persuasive?

LG: They can be. What I think is more persuasive is giving parents tools to start conversations. What happens for a lot of folks with any issue about a developing teen that may be controversial—drugs, alcohol, even driving or dating—oftentimes we “tell,” and we don’t listen or ask or start a conversation. What young people really need are people to have conversations with. So when we’re working with parents and faith communities, what we want to do is encourage folks to listen more, have more conversations, and put the facts in context with values. I fully support a parent saying, “I want you to wait until marriage” because I get why that decision is healthy. I fully support that decision because it is the best way to prevent an unplanned pregnancy or sexually transmitted infection. But that has to be coupled with “I trust you to make this decision, and here is the other information that may help you.”

We are in the business of equipping teens. We need to equip them to become fully functional, healthy adults, but we don’t do that well when it comes to sex and sexuality. That is where the misstep is. We aren’t listening, we aren’t having conversations. We’re saying, “Don’t have sex,” or we’re not talking about it.

SS: You are a person of faith, and you fully support parents saying to their kids, “I want you to wait until you get married before you have sex.” You also work for Planned Parenthood, which in some conservative places has a diabolical reputation. In the early part of this year, your Planned Parenthood was threatened with losing funding, and some of your local partnerships were nearly canceled.

LG: I think that is an ongoing struggle for Planned Parenthood but also for any person or organization trying to speak honestly about sexuality and gender issues in terms of faith. For all of the things that have happened this spring around Planned Parenthood and reproductive health, there has been this continual politicized push to narrowly define what Planned Parenthood does—to say that we are about abortion and are encouraging people to have sex.

We work hard to prevent unplanned pregnancies and to help people clarify their own values. So what happened is there were political things people were trying to push on us. It’s hard because having the in depth faith conversations requires sitting down and listening, not just speaking in broad strokes.

SS: When those threats come to Planned Parenthood, do you have community support?

LG: We have a lot of community support in terms of partners, individuals, and faith communities. One instance: We worked closely with National Public Television this fall to film the last portion of their children’s health crisis series. The last part of the series is focused on sexuality. They came to us because we’re experts in providing sexuality education and working with youth. We were going to partner with Rocket Town, which is a faith-based youth service organization. We had conversations up front with Rocket Town and National Public Television to say, “This is what we are doing, we are part of this partnership, and we would love to have our kickoff event here.”

Then in the last minute there was pushback from some of the Tennessee Right to Life and folks we didn’t have contact with. Some of the higher-ups within the organization decided they were not able to continue to partner with us because of that perception. I think what we struggle with is getting past that perception.

SS: When you talk with faith communities, parents, and students about faith and sexuality, what are some attitudes you come across? How rare or common is it for parents to talk with their kids about these issues?

LG: We often assume people don’t want to have these conversations, and I think people do want to have them. I think young folks want to talk more about sex in their faith communities, but it has been so stigmatized that people don’t know how. That is what I run into most when I’m talking to folks of faith. People want to talk about sexual decision making, they want to talk about healthy relationships. They what to make sure teens are equipped with information. But many of them don’t just don’t know how, and it’s uncomfortable and awkward for a lot of folks.

SS: If on the one hand kids get cultural messages of hookups and one-night stands that go counter to their values, and on the other hand get “just say no” messages, those aren’t great choices.

LG: A place to start is talking about respect as a value and an ethic. Respect for oneself and respect for one’s relationship with the sacred—respect for the person you may be in relationship with. How do we build that respect, and how do we act that respect out? I meet a lot of adults who think teens don’t know what they’re doing. But when I’m in a classroom, I have teens who are able to give me thoughtful analyses of what a healthy relationship looks like and what they really want for themselves. But they are not given space to say those things. One of the comparisons I’ve heard is with abstinence-only sex ed and teaching somebody to drive a car. It would be like saying, “Driving a car is scary and you might die. So the only way to protect yourself is to not drive.” That is what driver’s education would look like if you applied abstinence-only education to it.

SS: It will kill you.

LG: Right, so to apply that to our sexual lives—we are all sexual beings. We are born as sexual beings and sacred beings. We all have attractions. We get excited. We have relationships. So for us to not talk about those aspects of our humanity in ways that are constructive is doing us a disservice and keeps us from having healthy relationships.

SS: I like what you say about “sacred” and “sexuality” because you rarely hear those two words in the same sentence. I want to ask about your teaching. Are you in the public schools?

LG: I can only speak for Planned Parenthood of Middle and East Tennessee because each Planned Parenthood affiliate is different. For our national office, we are an approved resource for the metro-national public schools and have been a longtime partner. There are a number of teachers in the district who call on us to either add to what they’re doing in the classroom or to do a good amount of the sexuality education that they’re required to do by law.

We’re experts at it because it’s what we do. We’ve developed a curriculum called “Promoting Healthy Decisions,” where we’ve used abstinence as a centerpiece but also talk about anatomy, pregnancy, birth control, sexually transmitted infections, as well as decision making, communication, and refusal skills. We also do professional training, working with parents and community partners.

In terms of the current bill, because in those conversations we’re following an evidence-based curriculum that requires talking about “gateway sexual activities,” it’s questionable if what—if anything—we’ll be able to do. And that means that teachers who have relied on us for decades won’t be able to partner with us with any longer.

SS: When does the bill take effect?

LG: The governor has not signed it yet, although the House and the Senate have both passed it. We do not have any word from the governor. If he signs it, it would take effect the next school year.

SS: I would like to go back to Planned Parenthood, which is not a faith-based organization. It is a health provider and works with women. But you have a faith outreach position that is connected to your sexual education work. Why is it important for organizations such as Planned Parenthood to partner with faith organizations and communities?

LG: Part of it for me goes back to the idea that we are all sacred, created in the image of God—and we are sexual beings. Those are intrinsic parts of what it means to be human. Also our staff are folks of faith; our clients are folks of faith. People don’t leave their morals and values and faith when they come in to get birth control or sexuality education training. It’s crucial that we continue to bridge those gaps and talk about what it means to be human, to be a sexual being, and a beloved child of God. That is why it is crucial to continue to build those relationships and build up that work.

Also the work we do is about justice. It’s about community justice, challenging systems of oppression, allowing individuals the right and dignity to make their own decisions, and protect their own health and the health of their families and partners. These are all moral and sacred issues. All of those things necessitate partnerships between faith communities and Planned Parenthood.

SS: What is it like working with faith leaders? When you were at Vanderbilt, you did focus groups with local faith leaders. What did you learn from them?

LG: In the same way that there is a wide range of what it means to be faithful, there is a wide range of what folks are comfortable with and where they are in terms of sexuality issues. In the focus groups, the message that was incredibly clear is that clergy and faith leaders are desperate for spaces to talk about the intersection of faith and sexuality. That may mean things like sex ed or abortion, but it also means safe spaces to have conversations on healthy relationships—or to talk about unhealthy relationships and abuse. It means safe spaces to talk about gender identity or sexual orientation or what to do when a congregant comes out to you. Safe spaces to talk about marriage and what the expectations are. Safe spaces to even talk with other clergy about interpersonal relationships or when someone is being harassed or treated a certain way because of their gender.

SS: So there is a hunger to talk. What do clergy most need? Is it skills and content?

LG: For the clergy I spoke with, the first thing they need is safe space to name the things that are concerns. Before they could get to skills and language, they need a safe space to say, “OK, I can talk about sex ed,” “My congregant just hit on me,” or “This teen just came to me.” And also the space to say, “It is OK to talk about being a sexual being as part of also being a faithful person.”

And then there is a whole other level of more community conversations, more national conversation, and more folks saying, “I’m a person of faith, and I claim something different than a loud voice in a conservative movement.” There are skills and tools and curriculum and prayers that people need.

SS: You talked earlier about sexuality education being part of justice work. In the Faith and Reproductive Justice Leadership Institute that you are a part of at CAP, how do you talk about reproductive justice? How does that term come to life for you?

LG: That is a huge question.

SS: There is no right or wrong answer!

LG: For me reproductive justice is a lens and a way that I look at systematic injustice that also includes race, gender, class, ethnicity, faith, and other things. My entry point is to look at each person and recognize the sacred within them and allow them the faith and dignity and access to make healthy choices—whether that means they come out as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender or queer, or a gender identity that doesn’t fit the normative pattern. Whether it means they are a teen trying to navigate pressure from their partner. Whether it means they are a woman who needs to make a decision about her pregnancy. All of these are intersecting realities that, at their core, need recognition of the dignity of each person and allowing them to make decisions that honor their relationship with the sacred. And for me, justice is creating the space, community, and systems that honor that for each person.

SS: One last question. Discouraging things have been happening with the radical abstinence-only bill that passed in Tennessee. Planned Parenthood has had some rough times. Does it seem like you are pushing a rock up a steep hill? Are there some encouraging things that make you think, “Oh, there is a little breeze at my back?”

LG: I have three answers to this question. One answer, and sort of the most basic, is that the things that give me hope are the day-to-day interactions I have, whether with a community partner or just a casual conversation where someone says, “Thank you for doing this work” or for taking a stand.

More often, it is when I’m working with youth or someone we’re educating, and they say, “Oh, now this makes sense,” or “I didn’t know that, and that totally just changed my mind or the way I’m looking at this.” Those are things that give me hope because it goes back to relationships and the dignity of each person and making sure that part of that dignity is their ability to have information and make good decisions.

In terms of the broader political culture of Tennessee right now, it’s likely to feel like this for a while. I know this is work that I’m called to do and needs to be done. In some ways, this becomes a new normal. The metaphor I’ve been using a lot lately is that it is similar to the stages of grief that people go through when they’ve lost someone. There is anger and denial and bargaining. There are all these things you go through when you are trying to figure out how to hold your ground and stand your place in the world. At some point, you hit a sense of “OK, this is my new normal, this is what I’ll be working in, and I will continue to do this work on a one-on-one basis, on a community basis, and continue to build conversations and relationships, and try to create space where people are listening to each other—where at heart we see the other person, even if it’s somebody we totally disagree with, as a beloved child of God and are able to start there instead of at places of anger and hatred.”

SS: It’s persevering—it’s carrying on when things don’t go your way. LG: Yes, it is a continual conversation, and I think that is the third piece for me. I hold on to Martin Luther King Jr.’s idea that the arc of our lives and of humanity bends towards justice, and we need to work towards a beloved community of grace. It’s not pretty sometimes, and it’s frustrating and tiring, but it is what it means to be in community, to be human, and to figure out what it means to be loving.

SS: We each do our part, and you do your part every day. Thank you, Lyndsey, for the work you are doing.

LG: Thanks, I appreciate that.

Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. For more on this initiative, please see its project page.

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Sally Steenland

Former Former Director, Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative