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Stop Calling Sex Safe

As long as we continue to describe intercourse as safe or unsafe, we perpetuate the very problems we seek to avoid.

There are moments in each child’s life that remain vivid in the memories of their parents, even years later. I remember my daughter leaning against the couch, literally wringing her hands as she mustered the courage to take her first steps. Her first day of kindergarten, though more than a decade ago, is almost as memorable as yesterday. These are, of course, sweet recollections. But mingled with these pleasant remembrances are others that remind us just how challenging parenting can be.

One of those challenges confronted me in the form of an innocent question. When my daughter was about eight years old, out of the blue she asked me, “Daddy, what is sex?” My first thought was, “Hey, wait a minute—I’m supposed to bring up that subject when I’m ready to discuss it, not her!” Rather than dodging the question, however, I did answer it, in a way I thought befit her age. But it was difficult to do, not because the topic embarrassed me, or made me feel uncomfortable, but because I knew how important this discussion was. I wanted to choose my words with the same careful skill with which an artist selects colors for his painting; this was no time for an answer akin to verbal graffiti.

We had that conversation almost a decade ago. My daughter and my son are going through those tumultuous teenager years now. As they’ve grown older, when other opportunities have presented themselves, I’ve spoken with them more about sex. In fact, I’ve discussed the contents of this article with them. It doesn’t get much easier, but it gets even more necessary, especially as they have begun to interact more and more relationally with the opposite sex. My voice may have to compete with the cacophony of media and peer voices talking to them about it, but I know that, amidst all the mixed messages, they’re hearing at least one voice that speaks the truth.

Safe and unsafe are morally meaningless categories.

Speaking the truth about sex in our culture, however, is far from an easy undertaking, even for adults. Like our children, we parents too are bombarded by the constant din of voices that endeavor to normalize sexual deviancy; morph monogamy from a standard into an option; and render premarital sex a healthy, relationship-building dimension of the dating process. The Victorian language of “making love,” which used to mean simply courting a possible spouse, has become in modern courting the assumed (demanded?) sexual component. After all, the cultural voices insist, what fool would marry someone he hasn’t first field-tested between the sheets? But, those same voices go on to insist, you don’t want a baby or a sexually transmitted disease (STD), of course, so get on the pill and arm yourself with a prophylactic, so you can enjoy sex that is safe and secure. If it’s difficult for adults to think clearly, speak truthfully, and act appropriately in a sexually saturated society, imagine what a challenge it is for the younger generation.

This younger generation, however, needs to be told more, much more, than simply, “Hey, I know you’re probably going to have sex, so please just be safe about it.” Never mind the fact, as noted by the Centers for Disease Control, that sex is never perfectly “safe,” for “no protective method is 100% effective, and condom use cannot guarantee absolute protection against any STD or pregnancy.” The larger, more important issue that needs to be addressed is the message we send to our children when we talk about sex that is safe or safer. To wed those adjectives to sex begets confusion as to what sex is, the purpose it serves, and the moral parameters surrounding it. As long as we continue to describe intercourse as safe or unsafe, we perpetuate the very problems that we seek to avoid. Yes, of course, let’s continue to talk with our children about HIV and other STDs, pregnancy, and other sexual issues. Rather than using the categories of safe and unsafe, however, let us speak to them concerning sex as a gift—a divine gift that can used or misused.

The Moral Meaninglessness and Deadly Assumptions

Before I speak of sex as gift, let me point out two primary reasons why the language of safe and unsafe just won’t do. The most obvious—and, I suspect, the most beloved by those who perpetuate this terminology—is that safe and unsafe are morally meaningless categories. Think about it this way: the term “safe sex” conveys as little about what is morally right and wrong as do the terms “safe driving” or “safe skateboarding.” What’s being urged is, if you’re going to engage in these activities, you should do so in a way in which you’re protected. Buckle your seat belt, strap on your helmet, slip on your condom—that way you’re safe. I suppose that if one believes that sexual activity of any kind is outside the sphere of morality, then the categories of safe and unsafe are perfectly suitable. But for those who believe otherwise, who adhere to the traditional understanding of sex as the constitutive act of marriage, who believe sexual activity is governed by moral standards, then all this talk about safe sex falls far short. Indeed, it misleads people into the false assumption that safe sex actually is right sex. The morally meaningless category of safe becomes a pseudo-moral category, so that, in the end, we have concocted a new commandment: Thou shalt have safe sex.

In the end, we have concocted a new commandment: Thou shalt have safe sex.

A second reason this terminology must go is as much subtle as it is sinister. The phrase safe sex assumes a risk, of course, a danger of some sort. And not just STDs. Conception also is a potential threat. So lumped together with herpes and HIV is a human being. We’ve got to beware of babies. Intentional or not, the language of safe sex depersonalizes infants in the womb by treating them as just another disease against which we must guard. As such, it perpetuates the assumptions of the culture of death. And, to take it to the next step, if a woman has unprotected sex and a fetus is “contracted,” there stands the abortion industry, claws open wide, ready to treat this patient with its murderous medicine.

The way we speak matters. Words not only express thoughts but conceive thoughts; and thoughts direct actions. If our words suggest that a child is anything less than a divine creation, and especially if our words insinuate that a baby in the womb is nothing more than a treatable disease, then those words have no place on the lips of those who adhere to the truth that every human life is a gift from God.

Speaking of a Sex as a Gift

As the father of two teenagers, I fully understand the fears parents have regarding their children and sexuality. These fears often compel parents to adopt the language of “safe” and “unsafe” sex, or even to translate that language into action, for instance, by putting their daughters on the Pill. But I also understand the assumptions and implications of this speech and behavior. At best, it sends a contradictory message (“You shouldn’t have sex, but since I know you probably will, here’s how to do it safely”); at worst, it sends a morally disastrous message (“Do whatever you want sexually so long as you do it safely”). For those who do not wish to tread this path, but to follow a traditional way informed by convictions regarding God and his will for humanity and humanity’s sexuality, there is a better way.

Intentional or not, the language of safe sex depersonalizes infants in the womb by treating them as just another disease against which we must guard.

Christians and Jews, along with most other religious traditions, hold that our bodies are not mere utilitarian costumes of flesh that clothe the real us within, so that we are free to do with them—or with the bodies of others—whatever suits our purpose or makes us happy. Our bodies are created gifts that are iconic of the creator, by which he reveals his goodness, distinguishes between the sexes, and keeps on bringing babies into the world. A man’s penis is not a toy attached to his body with which he can play freely, so long as he does it safely. It is a gift, as is the woman’s vagina. As with every gift of God, however, we can use these gifts in a way that reflects the will of the giver, or twist them from gifts into playthings or mere tools or even weapons.

If we teach our children their bodies should be used in a way that reflects the will of the creator, then we have already begun to speak of the moral dimension of sex. Sexual acts are either in accord with the purpose for which they were created, or they are not. Whether these acts are safe or unsafe is beside the point. The key question is whether certain actions are right or wrong, whether the person is using this gift as the giver intended, or misusing it in a way that contradicts the very essence of the gift itself. If I tell my children that they should practice safe sex, what is the basis for that “should”? They should because nobody wants an STD? They should because they’re not ready to be parents yet? But this “should” is not based on any divine law, any expression of divine will, but merely pretends as if sexual choices are based on matters of health and maturity. Our children need—indeed, they deserve—better. They deserve moral guidance in the sexual sphere of life just as in all other aspects of human existence. To let them to find their own way sexually, so long as they proceed safely, is to deny the implications of creation itself, to foster the disastrous assumption that they are lords of their own sexuality.

Our bodies are created gifts that are iconic of the creator, by which he reveals his goodness, distinguishes between the sexes, and keeps on bringing babies into the world.

I want my children to know that sex is a gift; I want them to know it’s a gift to be used rightly, in the way intended by the giver; and finally, I want them to know that this gift is to be shared exclusively with the one with whom they become united in the sexual act of marriage itself. That is what the Bible means when it says a married man and woman unite as “one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). That one-fleshness doesn’t take place when the wedding license is signed, or even when oaths are spoken in front of the altar; it happens in the bedroom. Within the lifelong commitment of a man and woman in the context of marriage is the only place the creator intended sexual union to take place. The gift of sex is misused or abused in a multitude of situations and relationships, but from a biblical perspective, there are not fifty shades of grey when it comes to sex; it’s black and white. God gave sex as a gift to humanity for a man and woman to enjoy with each other as husband and wife. Any sex outside that marital union, be it deemed safe or unsafe, is an misuse of the gift, contrary to the will of the creator.

What Is Truly Unsafe Are Lies About Sex

As much as parents want to protect their children from everything that may do them harm, we must remember it’s not only certain actions that are dangerous. So are false assumptions. So are misguided beliefs. So are assertions that belittle divine gifts; treat human life as anything less than precious; misrepresent sex as mere fun and games. If there’s anything truly unsafe about sex, it is the lie that “safe sex” equals right sex, healthy sex, sex that is best for the people involved.

Sexual acts are either in accord with the purpose for which they were created, or they are not.

Casual sex is supposed to be sex with no strings attached. And it’s true that there are no strings attached to sex; it’s two bodies that are attached, physically and emotionally, in a profound and beautiful way. These two bodies, as they become one flesh, are not reduced to one, but enlarged as one. Sex amplifies the self into a union with another, so that both partners move outside themselves into a more expansive connection to the other person.

That’s the truth I want my children to know, the truth I will continue to teach them, and I pray they will teach their own children someday, so that such knowledge guides them in the choices they make as those who bear the image of God.

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