I caught up with Natalie, after following her on twitter for the last few years via God_loves_women , after I had drafted a post on young people and sex that I was going to publish. After being in conversation she suggested, and I realised that I had much to learn on this subject, and that our conversation might provoke, challenge and help others who work with or who are parents of young people. This is a candid transcript that includes conversations about sex, sexual behaviour and young people, you have been warned.
So, Natalie, my first question; where did your passion to develop a ministry around the issues of sex and young people emerge from?
Well, I was once a young person. I like to think I still am (I’m 33, so probably still pass for young in the Anglican church). Growing up in Christian culture was both awesome and hideous. It meant being part of a big family, with bring and share lunches and lots of love and fun. However, it also led to me developing a whole lot of toxic ideas about sex, relationships, my body and gender. At 17 I ended up in a relationship with an abusive guy, and after being manipulated into sex, I felt horrified about having betrayed Jesus and concluded the only way to resolve it was to marry him. Within six months I was pregnant, and at eighteen I married him. Four years later and he had almost destroyed me and I escaped him after he assaulted me when I was pregnant and my second child was born three months premature. The dramatic nature of my journey is perhaps unusual, but the mess caused by purity culture, porn culture, gender stereotypes and complementarian theology has impact generations of young people, to a greater or lesser extent.
- What are the kind of activities/programmes that you do as part of your ministry in this area?
A decade ago I wrote the DAY Programme (www.dayprogramme.org) and since then have trained over 300 practitioners using it across the UK and the Isle of Man. Last November I trained a group to use the materials out in Cape Town which is really exciting! I have written a Christian version of the programme too which includes material on critiquing Christian culture and theology. I’ve also written national resources on child sexual exploitation and create materials for children and their parents to understanding pornography (see here: http://www.dayprogramme.org/creepynakedstuff.htm). I also deliver training on these issues to practitioners, churches and other interested people.
- What would you say are the key issues that young people face regarding sex, especially young people linked to churches?
The issues sit at two ends of the same spectrum. On one end is wider culture, in which pornography consumption is normal; girls and boys are being shown via pornography that you finish sex with a “facial” (ejaculating on the female’s face), that anal sex is clean and easy and that women want to be degraded and violated, and that turns them on. They are taught by adverts that women are sexual objects, which comes across in girl’s pouty Instagram photos, and boys are taught to be aggressive and are rarely given emotional literacy. Young people think they have to be having sex, and have no framework for good sex or intimacy.
For young people in the church, they also have purity culture to reckon with. Within this framework they are taught that their virginity is precious (particularly girls) and that they have to save in until marriage. They are told masturbation is VERY BAD. For girls, whose sexual organs are internal, this is particularly problematic as there is no healthy way of them gaining literacy of their own bodies. Often girls become ashamed of their sexuality and genitals. It’s different for boys, the external nature of their genitals enables them gain a more natural understanding of arousal and sex, simply because there’s a visible erection. The church’s obsession with the nuclear family presumes that all young people are on a trajectory for marriage (even though there aren’t enough Christian men in the church to make that work) and so girls are presumed to be waiting for marriage and babies. The lack of female leaders in the church leaves girls with implicit messages that their call is always to wife and motherhood.
72% of girls will be emotionally abused by a boyfriend by the age of 16 in the UK and 32% will be sexually abused (NSPCC stats). Young people are not being socialised or taught how to have respectful, positive relationships. Boys are growing up believing they are entitled to get what they want from girls. Girls are often socialised to be passive and not assert boundaries or their own rights. They are taught their value is in the boy/man they are in a relationship with. The church perpetuates these message through a focus on marriage and babies.
- Do you think it is more difficult for young people involved in churches to deal with their sexual feelings, identity, development and exploration? (As opposed to young people not in churches)
I’m not sure it is more difficult. I think it is different, and the risks are different. For churched young people, sexual dysfunction will often involve a great deal of shame and guilt around sex which can last long into adulthood (and sometimes forever). Many women particularly feel hugely betrayed by the church when they get married and discover sex is painful and makes them feel bad. They were told that waiting will lead to mind-blowing beautiful sex and instead they feel constant shame and can’t switch off the strategies they developed to avoid pre-marital sex.
For those outside the church, they are perhaps having sex earlier than is helpful. The recent story about Aziz Ansari and “Grace” and the New York Time’s short story “Catperson” reveals that those outside of Christian culture are navigating a whole load of messy situations. They have been told they are powerful and sexually liberated, but discover that men still hold most of the power and they end up constantly trying to navigate their own needs, the men’s needs and the fear of what those men may do if they are rejected.
As you can see I’m talking mainly about the issues for girls and women. I think it is much easier for men, both within Christian culture and outside of it. The presumption in Church is that men want to have sex and that must be managed. The presumption for women is that they don’t like sex. At one Christian event a couple of summers ago, the man leading the seminar about sex told the gathered Christians that when women are having sex “they’re thinking about their shopping lists”. Men (both inside and outside the church) are conditioned to believe that their sexual needs are of greater importance than women’s and so that leads them to behave in damaging and unhelpful ways.
- When I was growing up I was forced to watch ‘oranges are not the only fruit’ (as part of A level English studies) which detailed how a church tried to ‘remove demons’ from a young person when they were accused of being a lesbian. This seemed an extreme form of spiritual abuse linked to sexuality, but do you think that today there might be unhealthy approaches to talking about sex with young people, that could also be harmful?
We’ve eradicated certain illnesses (e.g. TB), but that doesn’t leave us presuming health issues are not a problem anymore. In fact, we have seen increases in other health issues (e.g. cancer). It’s the same with issues around sex and relationships. We have this idea that things are a lot better now, reparative therapy for LGBT people is generally no longer acceptable, women can work, vote and have independent lives. Things have improved. But that can make us oblivious to the continued issues we face, many of which have become worse in digital culture.
I would say that for youth practitioners in the church, some of the harmful things they need to be aware of include:
- Gender stereotyping (boys can you move the chairs, girls can you do the washing up)
- Perpetuating neurosexism (boys are visual, girls are not)
- Placing greater sexual responsibility onto girls (girls’ need to wear clothes that don’t cause boys to “stumble”)
- Unrealistic abstinence teaching (just don’t think about sex, the end)
- Making the only criteria for a potential partner their Christian faith (as long as he’s washed in the blood, then that’s enough)
- Presuming marriage and children are the trajectory all young people are on
- Treating masturbation as always sinful, compulsive and addictive
- Making young people feel their virginity is the most valuable thing about them
- Using terms like “tainted”, “defiled”, “dirty” to describe the effect of having premarital sex
- Not making sexual violence a core part of any talk/session/resource about sex and relationships
- Ignoring the different degrees of harm between consensual sex and being subjected to sexual violence
- Not making wider relationships, including friendships an integral part of conversations about sex
- Presenting sex as a worse type of sin than other sins
- If there are unhealthy approaches, what do you think a healthy approach is to sex and young people?
Young people need to know they own their bodies and that they have actual choices to make about sex and relationships and that if something doesn’t feel like a choice, they need to be seeking help to understand why.
They need to be taught to critique culture and recognise the messages co-opting them into particular ways of thinking (e.g. why do girls feel they have to shave all their pubes off? Why do boys feel they can’t cry in public?).
By giving them the skills to know God for themselves, and relate with Him, we need to get to a point where we can trust them to hear from God about how to be (or not be) physical with their partner.
We need to contextualise the Bible’s messages about sex (and about everything!) and enable them to understand that there are different ways of understanding the Bible, and that there is often ambiguity where they’ve been taught surety.
We need to stop pretending that abstinence guarantees awesome married sex. We need to be honest with young people about how messy it can be. We also need to critique cultural narratives about sex and talk with them about how hookup culture can also be really damaging.
We need to provide role models for them of adults who are happily single and those who don’t have kids, and perhaps invite those people in to talk about how the church has been hurtful and difficult and (with the single people) how they deal with their sexual desires.
We need to be totally comfortable with talking about sex, we need to be literate about sexual organs and sexual acts that the young people will be familiar with (Urban Dictionary will help with this).
We need to tell them that it is all really complicated and we are not sure about how to make sense of it all, that sex can be the most awesome thing two people can do together but it can also be the most destructive thing. And that we’re all trying to make sense of it, and they need to get to a place where they can live out the courage of their convictions, hopefully in deep relationship with Jesus, guided by the Holy Spirit.
7. Is abstinence the only way?
I think abstinence as it is currently understood is too problematic to be helpful. Is it possible to be single or unmarried and choose to not engage in sexual activity until marriage and to remain a healthy, sexual being? Yes, I think so. Does everybody who subscribes to an abstinence only approach experience it as healthy and life giving? Absolutely not!
8.The #churchtoo hashtag detailed stories of women who had suffered abuse in churches, when you reflect on these stories what do you think the church needs to do, and what advice would you give anyone currently suffering in silence?
I’m currently writing a book with SPCK about Christians and domestic abuse. It’s about 80,000 words. There’s a lot that needs to change, not only in our practice, but also in our hearts and minds, and there’s no way I can detail all of that here! You’ll have to wait until March 2019 to get a fuller picture of what we need to do. For now though, I think the first thing churches and Christians need to do is to understand that abusers exist in our communities. We need to stop “othering” those who are perpetrators and those who are subjected to abuse. That is a scary thing to do though! We all want to believe that we would easily be able to identify abusers, and accepting that people we love and trust could be hurting their partner can leave us feeling very unsafe.
For those who are currently being subjected to abuse, or have been in the past, I would say, they are valuable and important and even though they probably struggle to believe me, that is true. If the church has been part of their pain, I would say that is not what God thinks. God loves us and is justly angry and the way they have been hurt. I would also say there is hope and the possibility of transformation. Gaining knowledge and understanding it the first step, along with trying to find safe people to talk to. Most local areas with have some kind of specialist service who can offer help, either domestic abuse services (you can find your local one here: https://www.womensaid.org.uk/domestic-abuse-directory/) or Rape Crisis, who can help with any form of sexual harm, not solely rape, (you can find your local one here: https://rapecrisis.org.uk/rapecrisisspecialistservices.php).
9.I notice that you have done some work on domestic abuse training recently, what are your thoughts on domestic abuse and young people? Is this something that needs to be talked about more with young people for them or for if they encounter it amongst their friends?
Oh absolutely! All youth practitioners should ensure they have had training to understand domestic abuse. I developed the DAY Programme to ensure young people have access to good quality resources about abuse and exploitation, but that they are also equipped to critique popular culture and are able to identify the messages around them that normalise abuse. Young people will either tell no one, or tell a friend about how they are being hurt (NSPCC research), and so not only do young people need to know how to recognise abusive behaviour and how to behave respectfully in a relationship, they also need supporting to become a good friend. All practitioners are given safeguarding training to know how to deal with disclosures, but the majority of disclosures are between young people, what training do they have in understanding and responding well? How can we ensure they are supported in this?
10.What advice would you give youthworkers and volunteers about how to talk about sex with young people?
Reflect on your embarrassment and other issues which prevent you being open and honest with young people.
Assume in every session you deliver that there will be young people present who have been subjected to sexualised abuse, rape, physical violence or emotional abuse.
Seek to help young people make intentional choices about sex. How old do they want to be when they have sex? What sort of relationship do they want to move beyond kissing in? How do they feel about watching pornography? Rather than starting from an assumption that they won’t have sex until marriage (the vast majority won’t wait that long), how do we ensure that they are making intentional decisions, rather than “accidentally having sex”.
There is much to ponder on here, depending on the situations that we work in and are involved with young people, the streets, clubs, schools or churches and how we might educate, influence, guide and support. Natalie Collins can be contacted via her website in the links here: https://mrsglw.wordpress.com/ , undoubtedly the issues and scenarios raised in this interview are complicated, and there is nothing simple about sex, about identity, relationships,power and abuse. If you have been affected please do seek help, and the links are included. It is not an issue that goes away. I want to also thank Natalie for her time to share personally and thoughtfully on this very important issue.
If you would like to have 10 questions about your ministry, theme or issue please do be in contact, if this is a platform in which you would like to share your story, ministry or perspective.