FAITH MATTERS: TEENAGERS, SEXUALITY, AND RELIGION
By Steve Clapp, Kristen Leverton Helbert, and Angela Zizak
Christian Community, Inc.
How do religious faith and congregational involvement influence the sexual values and behaviors of teenagers?
Faith Matters shares what the authors learned in a study of 5,819 teenagers involved in faith-based institutions. Conducted between 2000 and 2002 by Christian Community, Inc., Faith Matters surveyed teens from Protestant, Roman Catholic, Unitarian Universalist, Jewish, and Islamic traditions, with 38 different Protestant denominations represented. The study also surveyed 2,049 clergy and 442 adult youth workers.
The study used commercial lists of faith-based institutions and a random methodology to select congregations for an invitation to participate in the study. Overall, 24% of the congregations invited to participate chose to do so. The teen participants were in grades 9-12 and represented a broad range of economic levels, ethnic backgrounds, geographic locations, and home situations. All the participants completed written surveys. The study also used interviews and focus groups involving youth, clergy, youth workers, and parents.
This study is the first of its size in recent years to look exclusively at the sexual values and behaviors of teens involved in congregational life. In addition, the study releases some of the first data related to teenagers and oral sex. Among its key findings:
- Ninety-four percent of the teens said that their faith is very important or important to them. They are very involved in congregational life and place a high priority on congregational activities. Seventy-one percent of the teens participate in two or more religious activities each week, in addition to attending worship services. Virtually all the teens said they are involved in some religious activity in addition to worship attendance, while only 1% percent of teens said that their faith is not important at all.
- Teens involved in faith-based institutions show rates of sexual intercourse significantly below those shown in secular studies. While data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that, across the country, 60.5% of 12th graders have had sexual intercourse, the Faith Matters survey shows that only 31% of 12th graders who are highly involved in congregational life have had sexual intercourse. The study also discusses a subgroup who are especially involved and have deep personal faith, among whom the percentage of 12th graders who have had intercourse drops to 16.5%.
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- The congregationally involved teens take sexual intercourse seriously, but they are not in full agreement with their faith-based institutions concerning the morality of premarital intercourse. Ninety-three percent of teens agreed with this statement: “Sexual intercourse should only happen between people who have a commitment to each other.” The same percentage believe their congregation thinks that premarital intercourse is wrong, but only 54.1% of the teens personally agree that it is wrong. One- third of the teens in the study are absolutely committed to waiting until they are married before having intercourse, but two-thirds of these young people think that they might have sex before marriage, and by the senior year, eight in ten think they might.
- While many religious teens are not having sexual intercourse, they are involved in other sexual behaviors, including oral sex. Twenty-nine percent of the 11th and 12th grade males and 26% of the 11th and 12th grade females say they have had oral sex. Alarmingly, the majority of teens surveyed (55%) think that they cannot contract a sexually transmitted disease from oral sex. The study also found that among 11th and 12th grade congregationally involved teens:
- Seventy percent have fondled a partner’s breasts and/or genitals.
- Half have been nude with a member of the opposite sex.
- Eighty-nine percent of males and 71% of females masturbate.
- Almost all have kissed a member of the opposite sex.
- Youth from congregations which provided young people with information about contraception and sexually transmitted disease (about 8% of responding congregations) reported no instances of pregnancy or sexually transmitted disease. Youth from those congregations were not any more likely or less likely than other youth in the study to have had sexual intercourse.
- Youth from congregations that did not supply information on contraception and sexually transmitted disease were not so fortunate. Eleven percent of the females who have had intercourse have experienced a pregnancy. Nine percent of the youth who have had intercourse or oral sex reported having had a sexually transmitted disease.
- Half of the female teens who became pregnant chose to end that pregnancy with abortion. This included teens from denominational traditions which are strongly pro-life. In many instances, teens said that the potential disapproval of their families and congregations if they became unwed mothers played a role in the decision to have an abortion.
- Although 19% of teens said they have taken a pledge to remain a virgin until marriage, that subgroup was not any more or less likely than others in the study to have had sexual intercourse or to have experienced a pregnancy. That finding differs from a secular study that showed virginity pledges do delay premarital intercourse. It appears that the formal pledge does not have the same impact on teens who are already very involved in congregational life as it does on more secular teens.
- Sixty-two percent of the clergy who participated in the survey feel that faith-based institutions should teach teenagers both comprehensive sexuality education and abstinence. They favor trusting teenagers with full information about sexuality including what the Scriptures say and information on contraception and disease prevention. Thirty percent of the clergy preferred an abstinence-only approach to sexuality education, 4% felt that sexuality education should only be in the home, and 4% favored comprehensive sexuality education without an abstinence emphasis.
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- Involvement in a faith-based institution does not protect teens against unwanted sexual experiences. Thirty-one percent of the 11th and 12th grade females surveyed said they have had such an experience. While force played a role, particularly in those instances where the unwanted experience was inter- course, social and emotional pressure and poor communication were greater factors. Ninety percent of the female teenagers would like programs from their faith-based institutions that would help them develop healthy assertiveness and avoid rape, sexual harassment, and sexual abuse.
- The study revealed a much higher percentage of congregationally involved teens who have a non- heterosexual orientation than clergy who participated in the study anticipated. Fourteen percent of the males and 11% of the females have a homosexual orientation, a bisexual orientation, or are uncertain of their orientation. Older teens have less uncertainty than younger teens. Most of the teens who feel they have a non-heterosexual orientation are not open about that with their clergy or their youth groups.
- Sixty-eight percent of the clergy agreed with this statement: “I think it is possible for us [as a congregation] to do more than we currently are in sexuality education, and I would like to make that a greater priority than it currently is.” Another 24% of the clergy agreed that more should be done but felt unable to make it a priority at the present time.
- The teen participants in the Faith Matters survey gave their congregations poor grades in providing them with information about sexuality and with guidance to prepare for marriage and parenting. Clergy and adult youth workers, in contrast, gave themselves grades of fair or good for their work in those areas. Thus adult leaders in congregations see themselves doing a better job at providing information and guidance than their youth think they are doing. Teens were virtually unanimous in wanting their faith-based institutions to do more to help them relate their faith to dating, sexual decision-making, marriage, and parenting. They are very open to more help from their congregations, and they are frustrated with the overall failure of adult society to give them the help that they need.
Christian Community, Inc. is a nonprofit organization focused on research and program development to benefit congregations and the communities they serve. Past projects of the organization include work on church growth, congregational hospitality, congregational outreach to the poor, and stewardship. The organization is located in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
Funding for Christian Community's work in the area of youth and sexuality has been received from the following foundations: The Compton Foundation, The Lutheran Foundation, and The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation.
For further information on the Faith Matters study, please contact Rev. Steve Clapp, Christian Community, Inc., 6404 S. Calhoun Street, Fort Wayne, Indiana 46807. Telephone: (260) 744-6510. E-mail: DadofTia@aol.com.
Faith Matters ISBN: 1-893270-10-6. For orders, please call 800-774-3360.