Friday, August 28, 2009

Book Review: Forbidden Fruit

Recently, Karen and I read the frightening, but fascinating, Forbidden Fruit by Mark Regnerus. I discovered this book and author while reading an intriguing article about early marriage at Christianity Today. He begins the book with stark reality:

"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 by age 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)."

Regnerus draws upon two main sources: his own National Survey of Youth and Religion (conducted through a survey and selected follow-up interviews during 2002 and 2003) and the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, widely regarded as the most comprehensive study of its kind available. Regnerus seeks to examine what effect (if any) religion has on adolescent attitudes and behavior regarding sex. I will now list a few of the more interesting and potentially helpful findings:

Terminolology about sex has undergone significant change in the last few years. What used to be called "losing one's virginity" is often referred to as "first sex." Note the change of emphasis from virginity, a cherished commodity, to sex itself as a right of passage. The term "pre-marital sex" also needs to be examined. Traditionally, this has applied to sex between to people who intend to be married at some future date. However, most sexually active young people have multiple partners and see marriage as a distant possibility at best. As it now stands, sex has been decoupled; it is much more about the individual than about the couple.

Regnerus encountered a rigorous anti-judgmentalist sentiment among his participants. The value of tolerance is widespread and deeply-ingrained in today's youth. While this allows them to coexist with others in relative peace, it all but destroys their ability to condemn any action as wrong or to formulate a workable morality in any clear or consistent way.

The book finds that religiosity (how important religion truly is to a person) does seem to affect sexual attitudes and behaviors, whereas religious affiliation or even attendance largely does not.

Religious affiliation does affect attitudes much more than actual behavior. This is especially true of Evangelicals, who have an overwhelmingly conservative attitude about sex but who, nevertheless, demonstrate above-average levels of sexual activity. Regnerus conjectures that this may be the result of two opposing messages. Evangelicals have subscribed to American individualism and the prevailing consumerist culture while at the same time also truly value family and chastity. Thus, Evangelical youth are expected to abstain from sex until marriage but are also expected to marry only after securing such education and career attainments as to ensure their solid middle-class financial well-being (often not marrying until age 25-30). Clearly, there is a clash of cultures here. Regnerus discusses this in the article linked above.

The decision to commence sexual activity rests, in most cases, upon a shaky notion of one's "emotional readiness". This term excuses nearly any activity. What's more, teenagers admit that they cannot even know for sure if this flimsy standard has been met until after the first sexual encounter. One's positive or negative view of the experience tells the tale. A new morality has taken the place of the old. The worst taboo is having sex without adequate protection. This causes the closest reaction to shock as one can find. Other rules agreed upon by teenagers:
1. You should not pressure or feel pressured to have sex.
2. You should not sleep around too much, as this will reflect negatively on your reputation.
3. You are the only judge of your sexual decisions.
4. Sex belongs within a "long-term" (at least 3 months) relationship.

Regnerus also examined the trend of abstinence pledging. He found that pledging is of mixed benefit. Most pledgers are age 12 or 13--too young to realize the pressures that await them. Most pledgers break their pledge, 7 of 10 of these with someone other than their future spouse. However, pledging does have a small positive impact. Pledgers tend to delay their first intercourse and to have sex with fewer partners. This reduces their overall exposure to STDs.

While 8% of teens disapprove of contraception, fully 30%-40% fail to use it during their first time.

Finally, Regnerus pointed out that for all the mixed messages given and received about sex, the one and only clear message from religious instruction was, "Don't have sex until you are married." This message does not appear to be helping kids successfully negotiate the difficult challenges facing them.

Regnerus ends the book with what he calls his "unscientific postscript". He notes that, for all the rush to de-emphasize the religious and moral implications of sex, "there is no value-free perspective on sex." He asks, "Would we want to accept for our adolescents, then, something we adults tend to not wish for ourselves: sexual relationships largely divorced from real intimacy, security, love and commitment?"

Christians need to do some soul-searching on this issue, as well as what we teach about marriage and the family, and what we teach (or don't teach) about materialism and the culture. We must do more to encourage our young people to marry and to support them when they do. We must be clear about Biblical standards for sexual relationships. We must be consistent in our own lives as we live before our children and the community. And we must continue to proclaim the life-changing gospel of Jesus Christ.


Vivianna said...


Stephen said...

I'd read Regnerus' CT article on early marriage. He also wrote a more secular case for early marriage that appeared in the Washington Post.

I'm not much interested in the depravity of secular or nominally religious Americans, but Regnarus highlights an important issue for Christians who are committed to a biblical framework of marriage. It should come as no surprise that as extramarital sex becomes normative for a society, people marry later on average.

However, I'm afraid we've allowed the world's idea of marriage postponement to infiltrate the thinking in our homes and churches. "It is better to marry than to burn" has been discarded in favor of preconceived notions of career growth, financial stability, emotional maturity.

Regrettably, most of the pressure to postpone marriage is heaped on young Christian women rather than young Christian men. Many even in our Baptist churches cannot bear the thought of an intelligent young woman marrying instead of going to college. Very subtly, we as a people have adopted the world's scorn of homemakers and, by extension, the biblical home itself. Why? Simply because our opinions are often informed more by popular culture than by the Word of God.

Our churches do a decent job of dealing with young people and marriage, but there is room for improvement. More emphasis on the biblical design of marriage. More active encouragement and facilitation of our young people marrying successfully. More support for those who do marry younger than what has become our society's expectation.

Elizabeth said...

I'm not sure if religiousity influences a teenager's sex life as much as their parents' influence.

My mother didn't have to quote scripture to convince me that sex is something valuable that should be saved for the right guy. Her motherly advice and my parents' happily loyal marriage were enough to prevent me from slutting around in high school. (also, I was paranoid enough that the lesson I took away from Sex Ed class was that half our school had a disease)

Oh, and here's Bill Maher on abstinence pledges:

Elizabeth said...

Grr, that comment was cut off! The full url of the abstinence pledge article is:

Eliz. Lasky said...

Crap, again! Okay, third time's hopefully the charm.

Abstinence article

If this is displaying the full html code, the url is between the quotation marks. Otherwise, there should be a link to click on.

Philip said...

Elizabeth: You represent the new morality surrounding this issue. Many teens choose to abstain in order to avoid negative consequences that would severely diminish their future life chances, rather than because of religious conviction. Yours is certainly an important part of the discussion.

Regnerus deals with that report in the book. The evidence doesn't quite work out that way. The main oral sex trend involves teens of Mainline denominations who want to avoid/decrease their exposure to risk. However, Regnerus quickly admits that abstinence programs are far from effective.

Eliz. Lasky said...

Yeah, when supporters of abstinence-only education are using Bristol Palin as a spokesperson, there's a problem. (Religion-based sex ed = Pray you don't get knocked up?)

But I'm not sure if our viewpoints are completely opposite. I just read that Washington Post article Stephen linked to, and I agree with it completely.

I was the first of my friends to marry at age 23, and my mother married even younger at 21. We both married our first serious boyfriends and are still satisfied with them (interesting note: both our husbands are over four years older than us, which Regnerus seems to advocate over couples closer in age). We don't understand the adult dating game and can't fathom why any woman would consider a boyfriend worthy of fatherhood but not marriage.

But while my mother and I have followed the Good Protestant Girls rule book so far, I don't know if this implies conviction to Protestant religion or just Protestant culture.

I mean, I once read the entire Bible, but the only sexual morality I inferred from it is that the Old Testament defines marriage as "one man, multiple women." And I'm sorry, but what Lot did with his daughters is just squicky.