Last month, the Guttmacher Institute released a report showing that contraceptive use among religious women is in fact a norm and that three-quarters of never-married women are sexually experienced by their early 20s, regardless of religious affiliation. Some other key findings included the following:
Among all women who have had sex, 99 percent have ever used a contraceptive method other than natural family planning. This figure is virtually the same among Catholic women (98 percent).
Only 2 percent of Catholic women rely on natural family planning; this is true even among Catholic women who attend church once a month or more.
Among never-married adolescent women, 42 percent have ever had sex. While levels of sexual experience vary somewhat across the three main religious groups, these differences are not statistically significant.
Among never-married young adult women, 79 percent are sexually experienced. Evangelicals are less likely than Catholics or mainline Protestants to have ever had sex (75 percent vs. 89 percent and 86 percent, respectively).
This study once again highlights the disconnect between traditional religious teachings and beliefs and an individual’s actual behavior. Not only is the proportion of religious, never-been-married women with sexual experience very similar to the proportion of the overall population, but these women are also using contraception regardless of whether or not their religion accepts it. This implies that the topics of contraception and sexuality should not be excluded from religious settings and conversations.
The question about the role of religious institutions and faith leaders when it comes to this issue has been the subject of much discussion, for example in a On Faith Guest Voices post written last month by The National Campaign’s CEO Sarah Brown. Should faith leaders be a primary source of this type of information for their congregation? How do they make that decision when many church hierarchies continue to denounce the use of contraception other than natural family planning? There is also the problem that many faith leaders are unaware of what proportion of their unmarried congregation is sexually active, since that type of discussion is typically not encouraged in a faith setting. Because of this, when reports like this one are released with statistics showing high rates of sexual activity and contraceptive use among religious women, some faith leaders assume that this must not be the case in their church simply since they don’t hear about it. So the question is, how do we go about getting faith leaders and religious institutions to connect the dots and realize that what statistics are showing probably represents the young people who are sitting right in front of them?
A recent article in Neue magazine features several stories about why it is critical for religious organizations to start addressing unplanned pregnancies, abortion and family planning. It also touches upon the shame factor that goes along with being a sexually active yet religious young adult and often deters these young people from seeking needed advice or counsel from their faith leaders. Particularly for this reason, faith leaders should strive to create a welcoming environment that encourages members of the congregation to feel comfortable addressing topics typically stigmatized in religious settings. A great example of this, featured in the article, is Pastor Dharius Daniels of Kingdom Church in Ewing, NJ. Pastor Daniels has begun offering “Ask Me Anything” forums, where youth and young adults can come and literally ask him any question they have--most of which, he says, so far have been sex-related. He talks about how this has been an eye-opening experience for him and has really allowed him to get into his congregation’s heads and helped him to better address their needs.
I think this effort to close the divide between one’s own perceptions and what statistics are showing is critical in making progress in this area. Faith leaders are in a position with incredible influence and by encouraging open conversations and increasing the trust that exists in the leader-congregation relationship, they can help many youth and young adults get the information they want and need. To read more examples of what members of the faith community are saying and what you could do to help, check out the Neue article for yourself: “ True Love Isn’t Waiting.”
This post originally ran at Pregnant Pause, the blog of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.