Teen Culture/Uncategorized

Reshaping the Purity Conversation

Nothing says Valentine’s Day like a blog about purity culture, am I right? 

Most people probably would rather stick to the happy, butterfly-inducing feelings that are more often associated with this lovey-dovey holiday, but I am not most people. I’ve been accompanying teens through Catholic Youth Ministry for 10+ years and, without a doubt, the topic of sexual purity is one of the most recurring topics in that space. Chastity talks, purity rings, men’s and women’s sessions, dating fasts, the “how far is too far?” question, virginity pledges … it seems like there is and has been a never-ending quest for framing this topic in new ways as each new generation of teens sits in our pews and attends youth ministry events. And truthfully, it’s not always the most cheerful or simple topic. 

While most (if not all) of the broaches to this topic of sexual purity are well-intentioned, it is really easy to derail into territory that is either unhelpful or even hurtful. It’s not that the youth ministry conversation on purity is too much (too ambitious, too unrealistic, or otherwise) … it’s that it is, in fact, too little. Catholic writer Simcha Fisher says it really well:

“But too often, Catholic parents dig in, just telling kids to save sex for marriage, period. Perhaps they teach their kids to avoid the occasions of sin like the saints, but they’ve never taught them how. They’ve never taught their kids what to do if they have, like billions of teenagers before them, gotten carried away by desire, or what to do if they themselves have good intentions but their [partners] do not. They’ve never taught them how to navigate that minefield of conscience, desire, and external pressure. They send their [teenagers] out entirely unequipped.”

This brutal honesty is exactly what we need if we are going to help Gen-Z navigate sexuality in a healthy, well-integrated, and Catholic way. This is a generation that is willing to dig deeper, ask tougher questions, and push back on the old narratives that resonated with previous generations — yours and mine included. 

I don’t have a one-step, one-blog-post solution to this, nor do I have anywhere near a comprehensive solution to the concerns Fisher (and other Catholics and Christians) are raising about how we teach sexuality to young people. However, I do hope to offer some insights on some of the common pitfalls of the “purity” conversation, as well as offer some new directions for how to begin this conversation with Gen-Z.

“Watch what you wear so you don’t tempt others.”

Why it’s problematic for Gen-Z: While this is perhaps one of the most common ideas perpetuated in Christian/Catholic groups looking to raise up the next generation of virtuous youth, today’s teens could be turned off with how this is often pointed only at women and girls and rarely applied to men and boys. Additionally, today’s teenagers might be more averse to what this ideology suggests: that if or when men make inappropriate sexual advances at women or girls — anything from staring inappropriately or catcalling, to the extreme and horrific occasions of sexual assault/violence — it is her fault for choosing to dress the way she did. It places the burden of shame on women because it implies that men did the sinful thing as a result of *her* choice of clothing. 

Try this instead: Ask your daughters what they think about what they wear, how they make decisions about their outfits, and how they would evaluate the modesty of their day-to-day wardrobe. Challenge them to think about what it practically looks like to hold the tension between not being guilty of inappropriate reactions to what they wear while also respecting their own worth and dignity through their wardrobe. Have a similar conversation with your sons, asking them what they think about how girls their age dress, how that impacts them, and what challenges they face as a result. Encourage them to name concrete ways to hold up the dignity of the women in their lives and respect them regardless of what they are wearing — like looking them in the eye, listening to them intently, and affirming their qualities beyond physical appearance. Finally, remind both female and male teens that physical/outward appearance could never justify their decision to objectify, hypersexualize, hurt, or otherwise disrespect a person.

“If you are in a one-on-one situation with someone of the opposite sex, sexual temptation is inevitable, so you should avoid it altogether.”

Why it’s problematic for Gen-Z: For a generation that is proud of the way they are defying gender conventions and stereotypes, this kind of thinking reeks of “outdated.” Additionally, since this is a generation that is engaging in sexual relationships at a lower rate and later age than the generations before them, it would seem silly to suggest that girls and boys hanging out alone will *only* lead to sex. Furthermore, it fails young people by inadvertently teaching them that they are fundamentally incapable of having any kind of relationship with the opposite sex that isn’t sexually driven. This narrative creates fear around meaningful friendships/relationships with people of the opposite sex and contributes to a culture of distrust between women and men, something that this generation is likely keen to undo given their thoughts about gender as a whole. 

Try this instead: Young people need to be reminded — or told for the first time — that they are not in any way subjects to an unstoppable sex drive (even if it does feel that way at times — hormones are a crazy thing). Teens need to know that there is absolutely such a thing as having healthy, meaningful, non-sexual relationships with people they are attracted to. Teenagers should be encouraged to seek those kinds of interactions in which they learn about each others’ perspectives, practice listening to each other, and otherwise learn to have meaningful interactions with someone they are either dating or getting to know. And if that sounds too cheesy, point them to some fun date ideas here! Be sure to communicate with hope that your teens are fully capable of fostering deep and meaningful relationships with each other without having to be sexual. 

“Impure thoughts, lustful thoughts, and sexual desire are all the same thing: sinful and wrong, so stop it immediately!”

Why it’s problematic for Gen-Z: Alright, so people probably don’t say this *exact* thing, but hear me out. While this is a generally sexually inactive generation, Gen-Z teens are still as much sexual beings as the rest of us. They live in a time where sexuality is much more normalized in that the media they are exposed to treats it far less as a taboo topic and more as just a given in life. The conflation of sexual desire with lustful or impure thoughts can confuse a generation that is already receiving many mixed messages about what sexuality is and is not. If we use “sexual desire,” “lustful thoughts,” and “impure thoughts” interchangeably, teens might be deceived into thinking that any sexual desire they experience is inherently bad. This can create an unhealthy relationship to sexuality which can impact them well into adulthood. 

Try this instead: This is, perhaps, the trickiest arena to navigate with young people. But parents can start this dialogue by helping teens to recognize that their bodies have certain biological functions that are out of their control and not necessarily sinful. Help them to find peace in their experiences of sexual desire by reminding them that God intentionally gave us the gift of sexuality. Encourage them with the knowledge that what they choose to do with the desire is entirely up to them. Empower young women and men to dig deeper than the desire itself. More often than not, they’ll find it is rooted in a longing for connection with someone they care for, in which case they can brainstorm other (more appropriate) ways to spend meaningful time with that person — see the above section for some of those ideas. But sometimes the desire can be an indicator of loneliness, a lack of self-love, or the need for more emotionally mature friendships or relationships. Help teens to identify how they can reflect on those deeper needs through prayer and by talking to a trusted adult about it. If they are not comfortable talking through practical ways to work through their sexual desires in a healthy and holy way with you, help them be courageous in asking their youth minister, a trusted core member, a therapist, or any other positive mentor to help hold them accountable as they seek to live virtuously. If your teen is finding herself or himself in recurring situations in which they choose to entertain these sexual desires by pursuing lustful or impure thoughts through fantasizing, objectifying, etc., then encourage them to seek mercy and healing in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

Engaging the topic of sexuality from a Catholic worldview with your teen can definitely seem complicated. But more complicated still is the task for your teen to take it from a conversation into reality. This is where you can be their greatest advocate by reminding them about the great healing and mercy found in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Whatever your Gen-Z teen thinks about sexuality and the Catholic teaching of it all, it will never hurt them to know that Christ never tires of welcoming them into His loving and merciful embrace and that His grace is enough for their journey.

If you’ve been wondering how to start or continue the conversation around sexual purity with your daughter or son, I pray that these suggestions help you to navigate it in a way that resonates with the Gen-Z mindset. With Christ and a few of these talking points, my hope is that we will positively impact a generation of Catholics to approach sexuality in healthy and well-integrated ways. 

About the Author

Stephanie Espinoza

Stephanie started ministering to teens when she was just a teen herself. When her community at her parish growing up lacked a youth ministry effort that addressed the needs of Hispanic teens, she and her siblings and friends started their own. After years of volunteering her time as a teen, the Lord led her to study the New Evangelization at John Paul the Great Catholic University and to work in ministry at the very parish where she grew up. Today, she happily serves as the Coordinator of Hispanic Ministry Resources and Outreach for Life Teen, enjoys getting lost in a good book, appreciates the art of curating the perfect music playlist, and is learning to uncover the underrated perks of desert life.