Studies indicate that teen sexual activity dwindles in the summer and then increases in the fall as school reconvenes and teens spend more time together. That’s why as the school year gets under way, one topic that should be included among discussions of class schedules, textbooks and sports equipment at the dinner table and in Catholic schools is the “why” and “how” of living chastity in our secular culture.
When I appeared on the now-extinct “Sally Jessy Raphael” television program years ago, Sally told me that my work speaking to young people about chastity was “like holding a cup underneath a waterfall.” But, in fact, today the majority of young people in the U.S. are not sexually active. The 2009 “Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey” of the Centers for Disease Control revealed that 54% of 15- to 19-year-olds in the U.S. are virgins. In addition, 65.8% of young people had not been sexually active in the three months preceding the survey.
Effective chastity formation makes a lasting impact on teens, regardless of whether they’ve been sexually active in the past. The Archdiocese of Chicago’s Chastity Education Initiative ( see related story) has reached more than 130,000 people in seven years and has seen a tremendous response from teens, parents, teachers and catechists. From my experience, I believe that four aspects are crucial for the message to take root: solid content, a good “messenger,” follow-up and, if possible, parental involvement. If a school or parish provides chastity formation with these four elements, its chance of long-term success is great.
Teens need to know why it’s important to live chastely and how to do it. Otherwise, they won’t be motivated. It’s not enough to provide watered-down content or “scare the pants off them” with photographs of sexually transmitted diseases. They need solid spiritual food to sustain them for the battle and the right weapons to succeed. Each school and parish has an obligation to provide their young people with a high-quality formation in chastity. The following are some tried-and-true approaches for a variety of budgets.
1) The Ice Cream Cone: An Effective Witness Talk (and Existing Curriculum)
Every school and parish should be able to provide at least one presentation — one powerful “witness talk” on chastity — on an annual basis. With the “John Paul II Generation” young adults taking on leadership positions in the Church, it’s likely that your parish, school or diocese employs one or two happy, loving young adults who could give this witness effectively.
The personal witness is key because it provides credibility. It shows teens that living chastity is not only possible; it’s also the happiest, most fulfilling decision they can make. Part of the witness talk should include the young adults sharing why they choose this virtue daily and how they live it out. With love, honesty and humor, this witness talk can be the best hour of formation your school or parish provides. The witness talk could be supplemented by whatever content about chastity is included in the parish or school’s existing religious education curriculum. This content is typically woefully inadequate, however, so the witness talk is essential.
For larger budgets, I believe Jason Evert (pictured above) is the most outstanding chastity speaker in the nation. The Archdiocese of Chicago brings him in annually to give all-school assemblies at numerous Catholic high schools. If you have the resources and can get on his schedule, do it! But if not, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. There are young adults in your community who can give a wonderful witness on chastity to your youth.
2) The Hot Fudge Sundae: Witness Talk and Parent Program
Parents have a tremendous impact on their teens’ sexual decisions. While some parents have confided to me that they feel inadequate in this area, studies reveal that parents are the most powerful influence on teens’ choices about sex — greater than friends, media and other sources. It’s time well spent to provide a presentation for parents on how to lovingly communicate the expectation of chastity on a regular basis and provide their teens with the structure to support a chaste lifestyle.
A few simple tips can be effective. Most teen pregnancies are conceived between 3 and 5pm at someone’s home while the adults are still at work. My parents had a rule that I couldn’t be at someone’s home with a member of the opposite sex if a parent was not present. Another helpful concept is the “floating” curfew, a curfew based on planned activities for the evening. A 9pm curfew isn’t effective if a teen is parked in a car in a remote location with his girlfriend starting at 6:30. And knowing who your kids are hanging out with is essential: Age difference (a senior dating a freshman) is a prime indicator of sexual activity, as is alcohol and drug use.
3) The Banana Split: Witness Talk, Parent Program and Dedicated Curriculum
While an inspiring witness talk and well-equipped parents go a long way, a robust curriculum provides important follow-up. The Theology of the Body for Teens curriculum gives young people the “why behind the what” of the Church’s teachings on a wide range of sexuality issues. It not only discusses chastity in relationships, but also addresses tough topics like gay “marriage,” masturbation and pornography — topics teens have questions about that many adults aren’t comfortable answering. Other good curricula, especially for public schools, are Game Plan for junior-high students and Navigator for high schools. These reinforce the chastity message using secular language, including good formation on marriage. Workbooks cost money, but they’re tools the students can take with them.
It makes sense for Catholic schools, religious education programs and youth ministry groups to provide concrete, substantive education and formation in chastity. It’s a core part of our faith, essential to living in a state of grace, and helpful to parents in raising young people who will practice the Catholic faith for years to come.
Mary-Louise Kurey is the former director of the Respect Life Office for the Archdiocese of Chicago. She has spoken about chastity to more than 160,000 teens and young adults in 23 states and made the issue her platform as Miss Wisconsin and a Miss America Finalist.