If this series is new to you, check out the intro post that describes why it’s important for youth pastors to carefully think through how our ministries might affect LGBTQ+ students (and those who love them). For this post we’ll focus on how what we say about sex might affect LGBTQ+ students, and think through how to be intentional by using more inclusive language. Although I’ll be using the sex talk as a particular context, I hope you find these suggestions helpful outside of “The Talk”, because the topics of sex and gender come up far more often than we may even be aware.
I understand that there are many youth pastors who avoid any official “Sex Talk” for various reasons, but I believe there is still a place for some form of sex education in the church. When there is silence on a major topic, we communicate that the topic is taboo. So when we don’t discuss sex directly in our youth groups, we tend to paint sex, sexuality, and often even our bodies as dirty, shameful and inappropriate for church conversation. That alone should be reason to intentionally clarify some things instead of leaving important questions up to assumptive and whispered answers. What’s more, I believe the church has something unique to bring to the discussion. Even in the best case scenario, where we have full confidence that our youth are receiving quality sex ed in their schools or homes, our spiritual community has an opportunity to add and affirm the spiritual component to sex and sexuality.
So, why talk about sex ed in a blog series about LGBTQ+ students? Because most of the time, sex ed is not crafted with LGBTQ+ students in mind, and this has had devastating results. We all know how easy it is for youth to “check out” during a discussion or sermon that they can’t relate to. The same is true for kids who don’t find their sex ed relatable or applicable, as LGBTQ+ students often do during heteronormative sex talks. This is a problem, because LGBTQ+ youth need good sex education just as much as any other teen does.
When you speak about sex and gender, is everyone represented in the examples you use? How are you reinforcing stereotypes, and how do you make room for those who don’t fit into your stereotypes? Here are a list things that are commonly said or done in youth group sex talks that do more harm than good. Avoiding these mistakes will not only help more youth feel included in the conversation, it will also remove barriers that prevent youth from belonging and hearing the gospel.
AVOID assuming who is attracted to whom. Basically, don’t assume everyone is straight. For example, when you want to make a statement like, “girls, when your boyfriends…” or “guys, when you see a hot girl”, instead try, “when the person you’re dating” or “when your crush shows up”. If you are someone who affirms same-sex marriage, you might want to intentionally include a same-sex couple in your teaching examples. This is also applicable to casual conversations with youth; instead of asking someone if they have a boyfriend or girlfriend, try asking if they are dating or seeing anyone. If you are not someone who personally affirms same-sex marriage, using gender neutral terms does not force you to change your beliefs, but it is a simple way to extend hospitality to someone outside of the heteronormative experience. These simple shifts in your language can become subtle hints that you are a safe person for LGBTQ+ students to talk to.
AVOID gendering teens’ experiences. Very few life experiences are exclusively limited to one sex or the other, but so often, especially in church, we overemphasize sex difference. I once was a part of a sex talk where the boys and girls were separated to talk about “gendered issues”, which meant that the girls talked about body image and the boys talked about masturbation and pornography, as if all of these topics are not applicable to nearly every teenager: male, female, and anyone in between. When we reinforce this stereotype, we intensify the shame for a girl who masturbates or a boy who has body image issues, communicating that there is something especially wrong with them. Reinforcing gender stereotypes is not helpful for anyone, but it can be especially confusing and damaging to any transgender or genderqueer youth in your group. Important topics of conversation are usually useful for any teenager, and unnecessarily gendering interests or experiences does more harm than good. We can avoid this by allowing youth to describe their experiences instead of prescribing what experiences they should have based on their gender.
A quick note about forming gendered groups like the one I described above. Certainly some youth feel excluded when they are asked to choose the boys’ or girls’ group, but I don’t think that it is necessarily something to avoid all the time. Often the motivation for splitting into gendered groups is to create a safe space for sharing. If you have teens who do not identify strongly with one gender (agender, bi-gender, androgyn, or third gender are a few ways youth might describe themselves), what might create a safe space for them to have a more vulnerable conversation? Consider asking your group how they might feel most comfortable sharing, and create your small groups based on their answers. If you allow your students to ask their questions anonymously ahead of time, this might eliminate your need to break into groups at all.
AVOID idolizing virginity. This does not mean we need to assume that every teenager is having all the sex, and it does not mean we need to throw out values like abstinence or self-control. However, when we only focus on virginity we risk losing not only the LGBTQ+ students (who may have a different definition of virginity than you are using) but also the kids who have already had sex. Virginity is really a strange concept; it often feels like a pass/fail test that does nothing more than make “failures” feel bad about themselves. If we’re not careful, we communicate that salvation is dependent on a person’s sexual experience (or lack thereof). One of my favourite blogs on the subject is by Jamie the Very Worst Missionary, who makes a distinction between virginity and purity and focuses on developing self-control. Dianna Anderson has also written extensively on the negative effects of purity culture on her blog, and in her book, “Damaged Goods”.
AVOID sloppy definitions. Continuing on from the last paragraph, one of the reasons many LGBTQ+ youth feel left out of our church conversations about virginity is that 99% of the time, we’re talking about penis-in-vagina sex. This exclusive focus is also having a negative effect on straight kids who, in order for girls to “remain virgins,” are having more anal and oral sex. Meanwhile, gay kids are regularly having straight sex to try to prove (to themselves or others) that they are not gay. These are the comically tragic results of focusing so much of our energy into preventing kids from having sex. Instead, we could be talking about what we actually mean when we talk about sex, and why sex matters. We could be asking our youth how they interpret these various sex acts as expressing different levels of intimacy. We could be empowering our youth to understand the rights they have, and the simple, but crucial concept of consent. We could be talking about the beauty, purpose and importance of sex, and help youth make good, informed decisions for themselves (which may not be the decisions we ourselves would make).
AVOID making marriage the ultimate goal. This is such a strange one that I have heard implied in so many youth group sermons. Don’t get me wrong, I am married, and it’s one of the best decisions I ever made, but some pastors make marriage sound almost like a prerequisite for entering the Kingdom of Heaven. Rarely do we teach about the many and varied versions of family presented to us in scripture, not to mention the fact that Jesus was never married. When we idolize virginity, marriage becomes the ultimate goal and consolation prize for waiting: “Don’t have sex yet, but when you’re married you can have all the sex you want!” This message is harmful enough for cisgender straight kids, but for LGBTQ+ youth – especially in a church that would ask them to remain celibate – this message may make them feel even more lonely and hopeless. The bare-minimum good news of the kingdom is that all are welcome, regardless of relationship status!
If you are about to talk about sex, gender and sexuality with your youth group, you might want to ask yourself some more general questions about your motivations and goals. What do you hope the youth will take away from your meeting? What assumptions do you have about your youth? How can you avoid presenting your assumptions as expectations? What are the common experiences that we can focus on? What is the good news for both the straightest and the gayest kid? What is the good news for both the transgender and cisgender youth? Along with your hopes and goals, what are your fears around this conversation? What expectations does your senior pastor have? What expectations do your parents have? What are ways that you can prepare the parents to continue to have these conversations at home?
Many youth pastors take the “Sex Talk” as a chance to talk about LGBTQ+ realities more generally. Have you ever asked your youth whether they think your group is a safe space for their LGBTQ+ friends? I would caution against planning a sex talk that avoids all conversation about LGBTQ+ people. Saying nothing will likely communicate far more condemnation than you mean.
A good place to start is with some basic educational tools. I am a big fan of using the genderbread person to make distinctions between attraction, sexuality and gender identity. Another starting place would be with intimacy and relationship – or even a conversation about what it means to be God’s image bearers – allowing the conversation about sexuality to flow out of these larger theological concepts. If you would like some help in framing your discussion, or some resources to include voices in your conversation that are not already represented in your group, feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org