Forbidden Fruit: Sex & Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers

Forbidden Fruit: Sex & Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers

Forbidden Fruit: Sex & Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers

Forbidden Fruit: Sex & Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers

Synopsis

Americans remain deeply ambivalent about teenage sexuality. Many presume that such uneasiness is rooted in religion. But how exactly does religion contribute to the formation of teenagers' sexual values and actions? What difference, if any, does religion make in adolescents' sexual attitudes and behaviors? Are abstinence pledges effective? What does it mean to be "emotionally ready" for sex? Who expresses regrets about their sexual activity and why? Tackling these and other questions, Forbidden Fruit tells the definitive story of the sexual values and practices of American teenagers, paying particular attention to how participating in organized religion shapes sexual decision-making. Merging analyses of three national surveys with stories drawn from interviews with over 250 teenagers across America, Mark Regnerus reviews how young people learn-and what they know-about sex from their parents, schools, peers and other sources. He examines what experiences teens profess to have had, and how they make sense of these experiences in light of their own identities as religious, moral, and responsible persons. Religion can and does matter, Regnerus finds, but religious claims are often swamped by other compelling sexual scripts. Particularly interesting is the emergence of what Regnerus calls a new middle class sexual morality which has little to do with a desire for virginity but nevertheless shuns intercourse in order to avoid risks associated with pregnancy and STDs. And strikingly, evangelical teens aren't less sexually active than their non-evangelical counterparts, they just tend to feel guiltier about it. In fact, Regnerus finds that few religious teens have internalized or are even able to articulate the sexual ethic taught by their denominations. The only-and largely ineffective-sexual message most religious teens are getting is, "Don't do it until you're married." Ultimately, Regnerus concludes, religion may influence adolescent sexual behavior, but it rarely motivates sexual decision making.

Excerpt

If there is a developmental trajectory for anything during adolescence, it is sex. Nothing—not smoking, drinking, drug use, nor any form of delinquency— compares to the rapid commencement of paired sexual practices during the latter half of adolescence. In an average day, at least 7,000 American teenagers experience sexual intercourse for the first time. Nearly every human being finds his or her way to it eventually, but few have by age 13 and most have before the age of 20. Some do so unwillingly. Without analyzing any data on adolescent sex, it is obvious that something significant is going on developmentally, biologically, socially, and culturally to make sexual intercourse attractive enough that roughly one-third to one-half of all young Americans try it for the first time—in spite of its physical and emotional risks—within the span of about two to three years (between ages 16 and 18).

Numbers do not help us to properly interpret and understand adolescent sexuality today. Media accounts of teenagers’ sexual attitudes, motivations, and behavior do not always clarify matters. One could conclude from several recent news features that today’s adolescents are much more into oral sex than ever before (Halpern-Felsher et al. 2005), that abstinence pledgers are more likely to have anal sex than those who don’t pledge (Connolly in the Washington Post, March 19, 2005), that there is a trend toward bisexuality among high school girls (Irvine on “CBS News,” September 16, 2005), or that we have actually overestimated just how sexualized adolescents really are (Brooks in the New York Times, April 17, 2005). We are receiving mixed messages, for sure.

The entertainment industry, on the other hand, is largely unconcerned with what real adolescents are doing. Movie and television producers opt to stimulate youthful sexual expression and to glamorize emerging sexuality. Pornographic Web sites feature “just barely legal” teens supposedly bursting with pent-up, “forbidden” sexual desire. Video games come rated by how . . .

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