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
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%.
- 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
- 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
- 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
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,
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:
Faith Matters ISBN: 1-893270-10-6. For
orders, please call 800-774-3360.