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.