(Click here to return to Part I)
The central piece of the parents seminar at Silver Ring Thing was a prerecorded video by Silver Ring Thing founder Denny Pattyn. Pattyn reminded parents that they play an important role in teaching sexual values to their children. He lamented the fact that many parents don't talk to their children about sex due to embarrassment, a lack of time, or discomfort over their own sexual histories. Pattyn outlined four goals for parents whose children were adopting abstinence pledges: (1) pray for their children about the decision, (2) become a believer in the abstinence movement, (3) get equipped to support their children's abstinence decision, and (4) become advocates themselves in promoting abstinence among teens.
No argument here, I thought. Parents talking to their children about responsible sexuality and supporting their decision to abstain sounded reasonable. Unfortunately, the video soon took an abrasive turn.
Pattyn lambasted what most people would label comprehensive sex education, claiming that schools want to teach sex education to 4 and 5-year-olds and were telling teens that wearing a condom every time makes sex perfectly safe. He seethed over the way that society is supposedly pushing parental values aside in favor of "children's rights," thereby eroding parental authority. Abortion without parental notification was one example of how parents' authority was being eroded, he claimed. His caricature of comprehensive sex education, combined with his emphasis on parental authority, said volumes about his worldview.
After warning parents about STDs among teens and insisting that condoms are insufficient protection against disease, Pattyn talked at length about the deeper goals of the Silver Ring Thing: culture shift. America needs to return to "intact Christian family structures," he argued, which feature "fixed marriages" (by which I'm assuming he meant no cohabitation or divorce). Silver Ring Thing was intended to help forge "intact Christian family structures" by encouraging abstinence and introducing young people to Christ at an early age. This way, he argued, such teens will later marry spouses with similar values, have children, and then replicate those values in the upbringing of their children, thereby bringing about a "moral reformation" in society. In other words, Pattyn was describing a future vision of society based on Christian expansion and heterosexual marriage.
I saw several glaring faults with this plan. What if some of those teens later leave fundamentalist Christianity? Even if they retain that type of faith, what if their future children leave fundamentalist Christianity? What if these choose to cohabit, divorce, or refrain from marrying altogether? What if some of those young people are gay, lesbian, or bisexual? Where do non-Christians fit into this plan? Pattyn's plan for "moral reformation" assumes that young people automatically adopt the belief systems of their youth and flawlessly execute that belief system throughout life, which is not always the case.
With regard to teen sexuality, Pattyn stated that teen sexual activity is not always with other people, but can also be with themselves through pornography, social networking sites, etc. These young people harbor a great deal of shame and sin, he claimed, which Silver Ring Thing allows them to leave behind. Insisting that there is no sin like sexual sin, Pattyn quoted 1 Corinthians 6:18-20, which admonishes believers to avoid sexual "immorality" because it involves sinning against one's own body. I didn't understand why Pattyn assumed that teens feel shame about their sexuality, unless that's how he expected them to feel.
Pattyn reminded parents that an abstinence vow must be the teen's decision, and that they cannot force their children to wear a silver ring. Finally, he encouraged parents to wear a silver ring of their own to remind them to pray for their children's abstinence vows.
Each parent received a pamphlet on Silver Ring Thing, containing content similar to Pattyn's video talk. One line from the pamphlet -- "Simply put, teens who are sexually active do not grow spiritually." -- jumped out at me. The assumption that premarital sex is incompatible with spiritual growth is simply wrong, but this sentence showed how sinful sex was perceived to be in the Silver Ring Thing paradigm.
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After the Pattyn video, a young man from the Silver Ring Thing staff told the audience about merchandise, rings, and sponsorship programs. Parents then made their way to the main event, where teens were watching a live Silver Ring Thing performance with music, videos, comedy skits, and testimonies.
I walked into the main event, which was taking place in a large auditorium within the church. The teenage audience was a sea of silhouettes, punctuated here and there with yellow glow sticks. In the dark room, all attention was on a blue-lit stage that resembled a stylized urban skyline. Here, amidst pro-abstinence videos and music, live performers gave testimonies and performed skits.
One testimony was delivered by a young woman of color who told the story of her own abstinence vow, saying that her silver ring told the world, "I'm worth the wait." I had no problem with her decision to be abstinent, but the mixed messages she sent about gender ruffled me. On one hand, she told the audience that a "real man" knows how to treat girls with respect, which I certainly agree with. On the other hand, she also promoted the stereotype that males are more visually stimulated than females, warning girls to dress modestly and not "advertise what's not for sale." This sounded suspiciously like making girls responsible for boy's sexuality, which is a tired, sexist trope that needs to be abandoned.
Next, a young man and woman performed a skit in which they told the audience how much they liked each other, but also how troubled they were about possibly having sex. Along with discussing peer pressure and temptation, they also told the audience that relationships get "weird" when sex enters the picture. It's one thing to encouraging teens to postpone sexual activity, but it's quite another to claim that sexual intimacy harms a romantic relationship. The couple in the skit eventually decided to remain abstinent.
The next testimony involved a young lady with a harrowing story, as well as a confusing message. In high school, the young woman had been raped at a party, later numbing her pain with drugs, alcohol, and promiscuity. She said that she's been trying to find fulfillment in men rather than God, but once she found God, she knew that she'd been forgiven for her bad choices.
On one hand, her message to victims of sexual violence was positive. The speaker told victims in the audience that sexual assault was NOT their fault, urging them to tell someone about what happened. I was pleased that Silver Ring Thing at least acknowledged the existence of sexual violence, since some young people are exposed to sex against their will, sadly. On the other hand, her claim that people "can always start over," no matter what they've done or what's been done to them, was confusing. If someone has been sexually assaulted, the victim hasn't done anything immoral, so what would they need to "start over" from? Being forced into sex is not the same as consensual sex, so why would someone need to "start over" if they've done nothing in violation of abstinence? As much as my heart went out to the young woman, I didn't know what to make of her message.
I headed out into the church lobby, passing a table full of pamphlets in the church lobby. Several encouraged abstinence and discouraged cohabitation, depicting pre-marital sex as destructive to one's emotional well-being. One pamphlet claimed that domestic violence and child abuse are more likely to occur in cohabiting relationships than married relationships. In its list of Biblical principles for marriage, it stated that men are commanded to love their wives and wives to respect their husbands, because those are men and women's greatest needs in relationships. Why can't partners love and respect each other? I thought. And what's this beef you have with cohabitation? Messages about gender roles and premarital sex were coming from more places that the performance in the auditorium.
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As I drove back home, I reflected on the messages of the Silver Ring Thing event. Parental involvement in abstinence pledge programs stems from genuine and healthy concerns, I believe. Many of the parents present surely had valid worries about teen pregnancy, STDs, and premature sex among their children, as any good parents would. The means by which they tried to protect their teens -- abstinence pledges through a conservative Christian ministry with an agenda -- was what I disagreed with.
Teen pregnancy, STDs, and unhealthy relationships are very real problems in society. However, demonizing premarital sex, lambasting comprehensive sex education, and promoting mixed messages about gender and violence is not the answer. As a society, we need to define healthy sexuality and promote responsible sexual expression, which should not only include teen abstinence, but responsible sexual practices among adults. Abstinence until marriage might work for some people, but for many others, a different approach is needed.
On another note, we also need to help young people define their identities in whole ways, not just sexual ways. If young people are being taught that the sum of who they are lies in sexual activity (or lack thereof), what room is left for creativity, intelligence, work ethic, goals, ideals, relationships, and the myriad of other things that make them who they are?
Silver Ring Thing, in my opinion, is a misguided response to valid concerns. Undergirded by fundamentalist sexual ethics, Silver Ring Thing grasps some of the issues surrounding teen sexuality (i.e., pregnancy, STDs, sexual boundaries), but responds to them inadequately.
To see photos from the Milton, PA event, visit www[dot]silverringthing[dot]com/photoalbumpage.asp?id=279&cid=1