Thursday, September 16, 2010

Lesson 2-37, "Maintaining Chastity Through Righteous Living"

Just in time for me to write about this lesson, comes Kathryn Lynard Soper's beautifully crafted essay for Patheos titled "Why Standards Night is Substandard: Teaching Sexuality to the Young Women" (we put it in the sidebar, too). I'd recommend going there and reading it first, honestly, before you take a look at lesson itself. Drawing on a quote from President Benson that recognizes people fall into sexual sin in a misguided attempt to meet basic human needs, she writes,

"Our standards nights and chastity lessons usually focus on the dangers of strong sexual desire. Predictably, we exhort young men to bridle their libidos, which we describe as wild beasts that must be restrained until domestication in marriage, and we caution young women to avoid arousing and indulging the young men -- tempting the beast out of its cage, so to speak.

It's a troubling model for a number of reasons, but I'll address just one: by focusing on physiological motivators for teenage sex, we completely overlook significant psychological motivators. This oversight shortchanges all youth, and exacerbates the risk of young women's needs flying under the standards night radar completely.

...To put it simply, thirteen-, fourteen-, and fifteen-year-old girls don't have sex because they desperately want sex. They have sex because they desperately want something else."

I think she's right on with this analysis, and her essay goes on to explore the role of power in teen sexuality and how girls who feel powerless may (consciously or not) try to get it through other outlets. I'm simplifying her argument a bit, which is unintended, but I found a lot to think about there. It brought to mind friends I knew when I was that same age, who became sexually active around that time. One was a Mormon young woman who had a child out of wedlock; the other was a good friend at school who entertained/horrified/impressed me in the girls locker room with tales of what she and her boyfriend did backstage during school play rehearsals. Both, now that I think about it, were profoundly unempowered in other areas of their lives - and at that age, what they were up to certainly gave them an undeniable cachet among their peers and for sure, the power to make their parents pay a heck of a lot more attention to them (positive or negative, it doesn't always matter, does it?). The reason I think Soper's essay may be helpful as you prepare for this lesson is to remind us that "maintaining chastity" is not a process of fortifying the castle against assault from the marauding Vikings, but of figuring out your own self and that sexuality is but one component in that complex process. It shouldn't be elevated to the be-all, end-all.

My one beef with this lesson is that it does not mention the temple. At all! If I had written it, I would have stressed temple worthiness and personal strength, rather than "chastity" as the goal in and of itself. That's been the strong message from our current YW leaders & the whole reason for adding an 8th virtue that is "virtue" and not "virginity" or "chastity." Take their cues and cast this lesson more broadly, not only being about avoidance-of-sex-till-marriage.

And we've said it before and we'll say it again, choose your object lessons carefully when teaching about chastity. No-no's in our book: licked cupcakes, nails in boards, white roses, chewed gum, etc... please.

The "Tamara" story in this lesson is particularly bad. Moral: you become a more desirable "pick" if you are sexually chaste. Here's how it's written -

"She knew that her happiness now and in the future depended on her maintaining her chastity. Tell the following story:
Tamara accepted the prophet’s challenge to keep a journal. Before she began dating, she decided to write in her journal the personal commitments she had made about dating. She resolved to date only boys who had standards similar to hers. There would be no parking, no necking, no petting, and she would always have a prayer by herself before going out, to ask for strength to keep her commitments.

As she dated, she recorded her experiences and maintained her standards even though she was pressured not to. She remained true to the commitments that she had recorded in her journal.

While attending a university, Tamara became acquainted with an outstanding Latter-day Saint young man. They often talked together and developed a close friendship.

One day, in a casual conversation, the subject of Tamara’s journal and the commitments she had made years earlier came up. It was then that this young man determined that their friendship must develop into an eternal partnership. He had been searching for a companion who had established high standards and maintained them."

A story like that sends up all kinds of red flags for me. Tamara is passive through the whole story. She "was pressured not to" (passive voice) in high school. No suggestion that she had desires of her own. In a "casual conversation" her boyfriend "determined that their friendship must develop" into marriage. Again, no hint whether she might have wanted that or not, or if he let her in on the secret. "He had been searching." Shouldn't Tamara have been searching, too, or was it only her job to wait to be found, hanging around like a ripe apple on a tree?

Stories about girls who were strong and virtuous even though it was hard can be helpful stories, but I will take issue when girls' own agency, selves, sexuality, and options are suppressed by the WAY we tell such stories. Because girls will notice (consciously or not) when the stories are *really* all about being the passive subject of male lust or male questing, and their natural God-given physical and emotional needs WILL find expression one way or another, and if suppressed in our discourse, will emerge outside of our reach.

One last suggestion. With this lesson, Reese and I are coming full circle, back to the first one I posted about in fall 2007, so the lesson posts are not going away, exactly, but you will have archive posts for the remainder of this manual and for the other two which you can use, mine, continue to comment on, etc. Many lessons call for handing out "paper and pencil" to the girls. Here's what I did with that. I got inexpensive but pretty blank books and placed them in a fancy box, labeling each with a YW's name. Whenever the lesson called for written reflection on "paper and pencil" (which let's face it, was bound to be crumpled in the car on the way home), I substituted the journals. Sometimes I printed a sticker with the writing prompt so they could paste it in on the page and then use it to write from. Sometimes I just wrote an open-ended thought question on the board. I kept them in the box between lessons, and I promised them I wouldn't look at what they wrote and I kept that promise. When girls graduated from Laurels, they got the book as a gift from me, and hopefully as a nice record of some of their spiritual moments of reflection during some formative years and when we had grappled with some tough & meaningful topics. The pretty books and pretty pens, I'll wager, invited way more real thought than a throwaway piece of paper would have.

I'll leave you with this picture, of the journal box, as a sort of graduation gift from me - I can't send each of you a pretty book filled with all of my thoughts about our conversations, so I wrote you a blog instead.


  1. What bothers me most about the lesson in the manual (and there are good aspects to it) is the wording, in the lesson at least three times, that it is possible to lose one's chastity. The suggestion is if you're not a virgin, it is no longer possible to be chaste.

    I could imagine how a girl taking that lesson to heart could say something like "Well, I've already sinned by going this far, so I might as well go all the way."

    It's like the licked cupcake.

    Girls (and the rest of us) need to be told about the Atonement. If you make a mistake, whatever it is, forgiveness is available if we repent. That's what the Atonement means. The lesson, by not including that one simple fact, which is fully doctrinal, is woefully inadequate.

  2. Great insights. I am happy that our young women have teachers who care enough to think about how they frame the world for those they teach, and recognize the power that comes from modeling for other women how to actively mold their lives into the lives God would have them live.

  3. Good thoughts.

    Also, I love the journal idea, that gathers all those responses together to be presented as a set at the end.

    My girls get lots of sweet presents from the their teachers--hankerchiefs, sachets, framed pictures of Jesus. I worry about the money they're spending. And, my girls feel pressured, because each and every gifts is accompanied by the "save it forever" message. As nice as all these things are, it's too many different things to save.

  4. Jeans, this again is a great take on the lesson. Thank you for all the work you have done over the years. This really is the very best resource for YW lessons and I've appreciated all the work that the both of you have done. Many thanks.

  5. I wish our teachers thought half as much as you guys seem to about the lessons - esp something so important as this one! But I know it will be verbatum from the book and no chance for questions (not that any of the girls will ask any anyway) - huge sigh...

  6. As I was preparing my lesson on "The Sacred Power of Procreation" a few weeks ago, I felt a strong impression that I should bring up "sexting" with my laurels, but it didn't really feel like it fit with that lesson, so I thought I would somehow work it in with this lesson. I think it's an important topic, but has anyone addressed this with their YW? Any ideas?

    Also, thanks for the link to Kathryn Soper's essay. I'm still wrapping my mind around how I can introduce that awareness of psychological needs and power to my gals.

  7. I've addressed sexting with our YW. It was a lesson on the dangers of media (I believe last manual) and we spent a good chunk of time talking about cell phones as a possible "danger." After the initial giggles of the word sexting, they really paid attention as to why it is a bad thing and how that line of flirting/sexting becomes blurred. I'd encourage talking about it.

    I'm teaching this lesson to the Beehives tomorrow. I've thought a lot about Kathryn's essay, how/if I should bring up "sex as power" with my 12- and 13-year-olds - it will go over their heads. I'm approaching it this way - I'll ask what is wrong about girls kissing (and going farther) with a boy just so he'll like her, and girls changing the way they act/talk/dress just to get a boys attention. I found the discussion on about this essay helpful (relating it to the story in Mark of the woman with the issue of blood).

  8. Thanks, Jen & Amelia - a timely dimension of these important conversations. Here's the link to the post you mention, on lightrefreshments.

  9. I grew up hearing the lessons about chewed gum and boards in nails and the absence of the Atonement always bothered me. I know that many leaders feel that mentioning the Atonement in a lesson on personal purity is tantamount to giving young women permission to misbehave. But the Atonement is so vital!

    What bothers me more, now that I am older, is the fact that lessons of that sort, and the Tamara story, make it seem as though the point of chastity is to attract a good husband.

    I faced an out-of-wedlock pregnancy two years ago in my midtwenties and although I have a strong testimony of the Atonement, I still struggle with feeling like no good man will ever want me because of the mistakes I've made in the past. Chaste behavior brings personal peace. It's not just about attracting a husband. It's about peace and self-respect. I wish I'd known that.

    The Atonement can take away my sins, but I can't physically un-do the things that I've done, and that's a hard thing to live with. I wish I'd known that, too.

  10. Jill, thank you for your candid heartfelt comments. I struggle with teaching this lesson to my laurels because I did not remain chaste through my twenties. I was inactive and was dealing with demons from childhood sexual abuse. Please understand that after repentance your sin has been washed clear in the eyes of Heavenly Father. He doesn't hang it over your head and neither should you! And a man who does not understand that is not a man who deserves your love. I will definitely make a point in my lesson to discuss Atonement and repentance and that our sins can be washed away in the sight of God if we go thru the process. No young woman or adult woman should feel less than because of an atoned sin.

  11. Thank you for thinking deeply about Sex and teaching chastity and writing this blog to help us as parents of young women and teachers in Primary and Youth programs.
    I have four daughters and a son so I am continually thinking of ways to talk about and discuss sex with them.
    My parents taught me things about sexuality that I am grateful for.
    They had five children in less than five years (3 boys, 2 girls) and then had two more boys and a girl.
    They taught me the importance of shutting doors to bedrooms and bathrooms but that their door (figuratively speaking) would "always remain open" when it came to questions or concerns we might have had about sex.
    They also referred to body parts by their true names. This took away some of the cloaked "mystic."
    Also, my mom booked a hotel room and brought me and my two sisters (we had five brothers) to discuss sexuality and being a woman. We did this several times while growing up. In our "Ladies Retreat" we would have something to eat, usually go to the jacuzzi, and then talk in our rooms about anything on our minds (puberty, young men, what sex was like, etc.)
    My parents did not teach that sex was "bad" before marriage--but that it was "sacred" (and joyful and powerful and a bonding between two individuals who had made covenetants to each other).
    I love the idea of keeping all the spiritual thoughts together in a special notebook and giving this to them when they leave Laurels
    Thanks you for all of your
    thoughts on this topic.
    Also, I teach the four years old in Primary. I am constantly impressed by the deep docrtrines we are teaching at this young age.
    Yesterday the topic was "Repentance." Thank you for bringing up and teaching about the Atonement. Isn't that why Christ taught, suffered, and died for us? He knew we would learn and grow by experiencing this world and sometimes make mistakes. The joy of the Gospel is that we can repent, be forgiven, and learn so as not to repeat the previous mistake.

  12. Remember that 1/4 girls is sexually abused before she turns 18. The highest percentage are between 7-13 years old. So we MUST address these issues in a way that we are not assuming they have had no sexual experiences yet.


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