When I was a young man, my father took me aside and told me that masturbation was not something to feel guilty about. This was not because he was an overly permissive man or was encouraging it, it was because he clearly didn’t want me to go through a long adolescence of guilt. The funny thing about this talk was that something about it actually convinced me that masturbation was wrong. Which, I’d be sorry for my dad to know led to, well, a long adolescence of guilt. I kept making the leap between masturbation and being an adulterer. And making very sincere efforts to curtail my raging teenage sexual energy.
All things said, I made it to my wedding night a virgin, which I don’t think was overly common among my public school peers. But it was not without a lot of difficulty and pushing the limits. The question that now approaches me as a father is what can I do for my sons who are approaching this age? Obviously my dad really loved me and did what he thought was the right thing. I have several thoughts about this. What I’m going to say below is reflective, it is not an endorsement of my teenage behavior, but a transparent examination of it.
First, the pattern you set in your teenage years is extremely formative. Very few people I have ever known make significant breaks from these fundamental patterns. I think very deep wiring takes place in this phase of development. And I don’t just mean sex, I mean everything. As a silly example, my mom started my brother and I on Mountain Dew as teens, and basically we both still love it. I started my habit of staying up a bit too late at that age, and have kept it, etc. So I really do think that a huge part of the deal is being set on the right track. If you can get on the right track at these ages, your entire life can go better.
Second, I did not appreciate then how literally saturated my environment was with sex. My dad always complained about MTV, which I didn’t find partcularly sexual at the time because it was often covertly weaved into the overall packaging. Of course it’s become more explicitly sexual with each passing year, but he was basically right. Not just the videos, but almost all secular music is saturated with sex or sexual themes. I remember in college as a Dave Matthews fan, I went to the concert and was literally shocked at how much female sexual energy there was there. Looking back at his lyrics the what’s amazing is that I would be shocked!
And there are many other elements to that saturation. There are the high school girls you are surrounded by who want attention from boys. They often don’t think they are sending sexual signals, but to boys, they most definitely are. My mom encouraged me to chase girls, because I think she thought that was the way to make sure you had healthy heterosexual desires. So I had a lot of girlfriends of one kind or another between about age 14 and 20. But they were mostly Christian girls, and I didn’t sleep with any of them. But there were a lot of intense extended make out sessions, etc.
Third, sexual interest is innate, but it is also fueled by others. I remember when I was too young some guys at boy scouts showed me some penthouse magazine and I thought it was really weird and kind of gross. A couple years later I stumbled on a porno my dad had hidden (This was before he got right with God), and that really messed me up. It just supercharged the lustful dimension that I was fighting with. As a Christian teen, I think part of how I dealt with that was to seek relationships with girls that were intimate rather than pornographic. That seemed a reasonable approach until I dated a girl who had had sex. She wanted to return to purity, but the sexual encounter had had the same effect on her that the porn had on me. Before, I had relied on the girls I dated to help put the brakes on, but she wasn’t going to put any brakes on. So our physical relationship really advanced quickly before we broke up. So see there is a “viral” dimension about sexual interest.
Fourth, there is personality. I have learned through life experience that emotionally outgoing people are also more sexually “outgoing”, and vice versa. Extroverts like people and seek them out. Introverts often feel the opposite. This means that extorverts are much more likely to have difficulty in sex areas.
So when you put these things into a big picture, there are some keys that are much more important than a conversation. For your teen to grow up pure, they need a pure environment. That starts with your own home — I might have done a little better without finding that porn movie. And let’s be honest, public school is not a pure environment. So if they go there, you already have one thing working against you. Yes, I learned how to have my faith stand on its own through this experience, but I was still influenced by it in many ways. For this and many other reasons, home school is the best option for those who can. Now there is the internet, where porn is always one click away as well. Never let your kids on the computer without good filtering. And just in general, what they need in life is not going to come from cell phones or computers, so the less of that, the better.
Now of course you can’t keep them in a place of total purity. But it’s good if they are part of a group that is Christian in orientation. These kinds of adult led or influence peer groups are very effective at helping you preserve your values in any situation. I joined Christ on Campus in High School. I dated and met a very nice Christian girl there and we never got beyond kissing. And I started hanging around people where the shared expectation was that there would be no sex.
In addition to a pure environment, they need an understanding of the dragon they are wrestling with. And the biggest aspect of that is understanding that sexual purity begins a long way before sex. Way before kissing. It begins with what you dwell on, what you look at and what you listen to. And it’s embedded in what may on the surface seem like non-sexual relationships to a teenager. Therefore, purity is not something you keep at the last second before sex, but something you keep at the earliest point.
The chemical model of human sexuality is helpful for this point. It has been pointed out that especially for men, the chemicals associated with thinking sexual thoughts are something like having crack available to dose in your head on demand. And so in essence it is an addiction to an internal substance. The key thing here is that like all addictions — the best way to quit is not to start. If you can learn not to feed the beast at an early age, you can do a lot better.
Along with this I would probably encourage my boys that your sex drive does go down in middle age, especially if you’ve been disciplining your mind, and have a positive relationship with your wife. When I was a teenager, it was constant, and any thought could trigger it. A lot harder to resist. Now, just chemically speaking, there is a lot less draw.
Part of this is learning how to spot and avoid relationships that are going to fuel these feelings. So as a boy, that means not just the girls that want to get you in bed — I was able to avoid those pretty well — but the nicer girls who are going to flirt with you, or dress just a little teasingly, so you’ll be thinking about them for the rest of the week. This is a path that both boys and girls go down unknowingly which leads to the bedroom. So it’s about understanding where sex begins.
Lastly, what I did not appreciate as a youth is that abstinance is not just about saying no. It’s about appreciating the unique feelings that come from being abstinent. As a man, I experience more emotional awareness, more happiness, more interest in relationships in general, a more positive view of women, more empathy as a result. It’s a good trade when viewed that way.
But back to my dad’s speech. He was right about one thing — skip the beating yourself up over it. As a boy, this really messed with my head. I thought women were vastly superior to men because they could control themselve sexually more easily. My experience being that most Christian girls who want to could control their sexula interest, but for most boys it’s like a constant wrestling match. So this just messed up my head really bad. The guilt was not particularly fruitful. Be pure but don’t beat yourself up when you find that it is difficult. Your sex drive as a man is a part of your larger God given identity as a man and something to celebrate. It is deeply connected to those male traits of purpose and drive, and moral force.
That was long, but it’s topic that I’ve been thinking more about as I want my sons to have a different path than I did.