The Twilight series follows the relationship of Bella, a human teenage girl, and Edward, a vampire who looks 17 but is actually over 100 years old. The Twilight series has been praised for acknowledging teenage sexual desire — now that’s going out on a limb — while wholesomely suggesting to teens that they should save themselves for marriage, or at least the fourth movie, before having rough vampire sex.
Despite the fact that Bella and Edward, old fashioned couple that they are, wait until marriage to consummate their relationship, others have criticized the series as soft core porn in the guise of abstinence promotion.
This polarized reaction resembles the larger debate over sex education. Some advocate abstinence until marriage education, while others argue for graphically descriptive and demonstrative sex-ed formats.
Both sides can appear sanctimonious, often claiming that their side’s approach is the best, if not the only, way to reduce teen pregnancies and disease. Both sides have a common goal of equipping young people to make good decisions and avoiding teen pregnancy, disease, emotional difficulties, and other turmoil.
Christians approach this issue first from the Sixth Commandment’s injunction against adultery. Christ broadened, or one might say fulfilled, the prohibition by explaining that “everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
The church views chastity as an “apprenticeship in self-mastery” and an avenue for “training in human freedom.”
Seeking mastery over our domain, as Jerry Seinfeld would say, is not unique to Christians. Mohandas Gandhi is said to have made it a practice to sleep with a woman in close proximity to test his self-control.
Chastity is “the most unpopular of the Christian virtues,” C.S. Lewis pointed out, although he was also quick to add that unchastity is not the supreme vice. Spiritual sins are worse.
Lewis was no stranger to matters of the flesh. He candidly described his own “violent, and wholly successful, assault of sexual temptation” as a young teen. But an older and wiser Lewis had some interesting observations about sexuality.
Imagine a country, he said, where a proprietor could fill a theater by “bringing a covered plate on to the stage and slowly lifting the cover so as to let everyone see, just before the lights went out, that it contained a mutton chop or a bit of bacon.” Surely that would indicate something out of whack with the audience’s appetite for food.
It might also suggest widespread famine and starvation, but not if the audience actually was well fed. “Starving men may think much about food, but so do gluttons,” Lewis explained. “The gorged, as well as the famished, like titillations.”
To avoid these “meat shows,” some authors have suggested that teenagers kiss dating goodbye, and other parents have relied on former missionary Elisabeth Elliot’s book, Passion and Purity: Learning to Bring Your Love Life Under Christ’s Control, to inspire their kids to remain pure.
Some families use elaborate rituals involving a weekend away to discuss sexual purity with their teens and give them a purity ring in hopes that a promise of chastity will not be easily broken.
The research on teen sexual activity shows that families that regularly dine together provide some protection against teen sex. Also, close relationships between fathers and daughters may also help protect young girls from teen sex.
Discussions about teen views on sex may surprise parents. One teen told me that there is an “everything but” mentality at her school. Teens frequently ask the question, “Just how far can I go?” They see sexual intercourse as a cliff and want to know how close they can go to the edge without falling off.
Regardless what sanctimonious cultural debates may swirl, the individual choices we make will matter most to the teens in our lives. Ultimately, each teenager makes the decision to be chaste, abstinent, or pure each day.
Chastity is a commandment for Christians. Lewis compares the challenge to taking an exam: “faced with a compulsory question, one must do the very best one can.” A very imperfect answer may yield some marks, but “you will certainly get none for leaving the question alone.”
Fortunately, God assists those attempting to be chaste. Lewis recommends that “After each failure, ask forgiveness, pick yourself up, and try again.”
The efforts at self-mastery in this area will also lead to self-mastery in other areas. This training empowers teens for future responsibilities in tough jobs and as parents, both which require putting others first and delaying gratification.
Whether or not you take your teen to see Breaking Dawn, consider having a conversation about self-mastery and how it has helped you in the challenging moments and share where you still struggle. Deep conversations with Mom or Dad hold far more sway over teens than even the adventures of Bella and Edward.
Gayle Trotter is a writer, lawyer, and mother of six who lives in Washington, DC.