Naomi and her son had just placed their drink orders, a coffee and an orange juice, when Naomi looked around the cafe and felt a warm nudge of gratitude. As she scanned the room, she listened to the static of the Saturday breakfast rush. All around her people were engaged in noisy conversation, sipping coffee and poking at their pancakes. She turned her attention back to her 16 year old son, Matt, who sat across from her with his legs dangling from his tall stool. Today was their biweekly mother-son breakfast to check in. She and her husband had two kids, a boy and a girl, and they had made a practice of setting aside time every Saturday morning to have breakfast with one of their children. She had come to treasure this space. It was a symbol of an open invitation into one another’s lives, and their relationships were richer as a result.
Naomi reached back into her arsenal of open-ended reflection questions and pulled one out to begin their time. “Okay,” she began, her son meeting her eye, “what’s something you have been wondering about this week?”
“Crap,” Matt replied abruptly, “you beat me.” There was always an unspoken race to ask the first question. Whoever won wouldn’t have to talk first, doing the hard work of waking up and thinking first thing on a Saturday morning. “Right,” he continued, squinting his eyes in thought, “what have I been wondering about?” He took a moment to look back over his week. They had decided early on to be okay with long stretches of reflective silence in these conversations. Matt’s eyebrows raised as he remembered. He cocked his head. “Well, one thing I’ve been wondering about is sex.”
Now this took Naomi off guard. They had eaten many breakfasts together at this cafe, and had developed a comfortable posture towards difficult conversations with each other, but nothing had really prepared her for her son to ask about sex. Of course, she and her husband had brought up the subject a few times, equipping their kids with some of the facts they would need to know and expressing their own values and expectations for their children’s sexual expression. However, no substantial conversation had ever followed from the kids. The comments served more to establish a sense of safety and permission to have further conversations whenever the time came. Well, she thought to herself, I suppose the time has come!
She kept her cool and invited Matt to continue. “Sure,” she said, feigning causal interest, “can you share more specifically what you have been wondering about?”
“Yeah,” Matt went on, “I guess I’m wondering when you think people should start having sex? Is it after marriage, or…” his voice trailed off, not really knowing how to finish the question.
Naomi immediately had a million follow up questions, each more anxious than the last. However, she knew her fear wouldn’t help Matt navigate this question. She also knew a fearful interrogation might cause him to shut down, and the safe space she and her husband had worked so hard to establish might be compromised. So instead, she chose to calmly affirm his question and echo it back to him to be sure she understood correctly.
“That sounds like a really good thing to be wondering about,” she said, nodding and smiling gently. “I’m glad you’re thinking through this so that you can make more responsible decisions. It sounds like you’re asking what we should be using as a good standard for when it’s okay to have sex. Does that sound about right?”
“Yeah,” Matt said, relaxing and lighting up a bit more. He seemed relieved and grateful to be able to engage this question that had been rolling around in his mind. “That’s what I’m thinking about.”
“It might be helpful if you could tell me where you’re coming from,” she told him. “I mean, what kinds of thoughts have you had as you’ve wondered about this this week?” She knew this part might be difficult, but she put all of her effort into just listening well without judging or composing her next comments.
“I don’t know,” Matt said, looking at his fork. Then he cocked his head again and looked up at nothing in particular. “I guess if you really love somebody, then it’s okay? I don’t know,” he said again, “I think it would be helpful if you could just tell me what you think for a minute and we can go from there?” She nodded along, recognizing the language he had picked up from peers.
“Sure,” Naomi repeated, again echoing his thoughts back to him for clarity. “I think I hear you saying that if you really love someone, then it’s alright to have sex, but you are frustrated that you can’t define it a little more clearly than that?”
Matt nodded. “Yeah, I think that sounds right.”
“Okay,” she replied. “I’d be glad to walk you through how I think about it, and then we can explore that a little bit.” She paused, gathering her thoughts. Matt waited patiently in the silence. He knew it meant she was taking their conversation seriously. “Well,” Naomi began, “this is my experience: My mom grew up Catholic. She believed what her church taught her, which was that sex always had to have the goal of making a baby, or else it wasn’t okay. By this standard, even a married couple using birth control is wrong, because then sex wouldn’t result in a baby.”
“Um, what?” Matt interjected, his face screwed up in confusion and disapproval. “So you’re saying that to them, sex wasn’t ever a fun thing, it just served a purpose?”
“I know,” his mom responded with a grin, “let’s call it the procreation standard. You know, sex scares a lot of people, makes them really uncomfortable. If they, the church in this case, could just relegate it to a utilitarian use, it makes it much easier to deal with. There’s way less room for what they would have seen as sexual immorality.”
“Yeah, and fun,” Matt jabbed.
“Ha,” Naomi said in agreement. “You’ll find that, especially in this conversation, lots of people are going to make it a black and white thing, no shades of gray or room for conversation.” She and her husband had always done their best to point their kids to the stories of Jesus in which he questioned the black and white standards, teaching that God’s love rarely led to a dualistic, only one thing or the other, kind of choice. They believed all of life was a prayer-grounded conversation to find ways to express God’s love.
Naomi continued. “My dad’s family, on the other hand, was protestant. Their only standard was: are they married? If you were married, it was okay. If you weren’t, it wasn’t. Those were the two choices. Again, there was no room in between. Those were the expectations that my parents set for me when it came to setting a standard for when it was okay to have sex. I remember one night my youth minister made us all sign a piece of paper vowing that we would not have sex until we were married. I’ll bet you about ten percent of that group kept their promise.” Naomi chuckled. “What kind of holes can you poke in that one?”
Matt furrowed his eyebrows in concentration. “Well, I can see how that would solve some problems that are caused by sleeping around, but not enough for that to be the primary reason. I guess I don’t see why that standard was set in the first place. Is it in the Bible?”
“Hmm, not exactly,” Naomi responded. “Yes, the Bible talks a lot about sexual immorality, but it always seems to be more about using sex in some kind of abusive way. It seems to be about using sex selfishly, abusing it, and hurting people along the way. It’s not hard to see why there are prohibitions against that. For the marriage standard, you kind of have to read your own cultural assumptions into the scripture, assuming they defined ‘immorality’ the same as you did. You’ve got to be careful when you’re talking about a ‘Biblical standard’ for marriage, though. If you do that, you’re going to run into standards in which men basically own women, where women are executed for adultery and men can get away with it, where you can have multiple wives at the same time, where you can use marriage to manipulate or control folks… you’ve got to work a little harder than just pointing to the Bible when you’re talking about where God might be leading when it comes to marriage and sex.”
“Okay,” Matt said, “so from there, we still need a better standard.”
“Correct,” Naomi replied. “I mean, I think each of these standards might have a really helpful glimpse of the truth, but at the end of the day they echo a problem that the church has always dealt with: trying to control people’s outside, moral behavior more than caring about people’s formation on the inside. Dictating rules is a whole lot easier than the messy job of helping people fall in love with God. Jesus taught us that you can follow all of the rules, while at the same time not letting God’s love transform you from the inside out. To me, these standards reflect that problem. You can be married, and still have sex that is abusive. Same with procreative sex, it can still hurt more than it heals.”
“Yeah,” Matt said. “I get that. Like how Jesus said it wasn’t enough to not murder if you’re still going to hate somebody, or how it’s not enough not to have sex with someone else’s wife if you’re still going to look at her and lust. You’re saying it’s not enough to just be married, or for it to be procreative, something else has to be happening on the inside.”
“Exactly,” Naomi said, nodding gently but enthusiastically. “In having sex, like everything else we do, we should be seeking to embody God’s love for ourselves and others. That line of thinking helped me uncover a new standard, one I’m going to call Procreative 2.0.” Matt gave her a skeptical look. “No, no,” she chuckled, “Hear me out. This one involves asking yourself questions like: Does this sexual encounter create life and love? Not biological life, but spiritual life? Does it draw us in to what God is doing, creating loving, respectful, self-giving community? Does it do that, or does it draw us away from the community, away from God, isolating us and bringing us shame? Does it make us see ourselves as less than what we really are, beloved children of God?”
She paused as the waiter arrived with their pancakes. After they thanked him and got situated, Matt took a bite and looked at her expectantly, inviting her to continue. She took the invitation “Or, you could talk about it as a hospitality standard,” she said. “Here, you could ask questions like: Does your sexual activity create space for you and your partner to become more of who God is calling you to be? Does it have the patience and self control to explore the small steps towards intimacy and self-giving? Or is it all about jumping in with impatient self-indulgence? Is it just about feeling good, even when that means reducing someone else to an object? I believe these are the kinds of questions you have to ask, the kinds of standards you have to set in discerning whether or not it’s okay to have sex.”
They both sat in silence for a moment, eating their breakfast and letting the thoughts sink in. “I just said a lot,” Naomi said between mouthfuls. “You probably have some thoughts about this.” She wanted to invite him to speak without interrogating him.
Matt nodded, working on a bite of bacon. “Yeah, I think I just need to think about this for a while. I mean, I really like the standards you’re talking about, they’re just more complicated, less black and white. Picking the right choice takes some thought and time, I guess.”
“And prayer,” Naomi interjected.
“And prayer,” Matt agreed. “I like how what you said means it has to be an intentional choice, not just something you can rush into. It also makes you respect your partner more, you can’t just take advantage of them.”
“That’s right,” Naomi said. “But I should say that one of the problems is trusting yourself to make the right choice. Our own judgements tend to be a little biased. I think we should always keep some community in our lives that can help ask us the hard questions we don’t want to ask ourselves.” Matt nodded. “But one more thing,” Naomi added, “and I know this is going to sound bad, but I want you to give me the benefit of the doubt for a minute.” Matt looked at her questioningly. “For teenagers, abstinence is usually the best choice.” His questioning eyes turned to skeptical eyes. “Hold on, hold on!” his mom said, putting her palm up. “I know it doesn’t seem like it, but if we’re going to talk about things biologically, the typical teenager’s brain is not developed enough to be able to deal with this choice in a healthy way. So while I will equip you with the knowledge you need to be safe, and the choice is always yours, I do strongly advise you to wait until you are older.”
Matt, still looking skeptical, nodded. “I don’t know if I agree, but I’ll think about it.”
“That’s all I ask,” his mom said with a smile. Naomi hadn’t forgotten her fear and curiosity about why her son was giving this so much thought. “I wonder if you would mind telling me more about why you’ve been wondering about this.”
“Oh, don’t worry,” Matt chuckled, picking up on some of his mother’s insinuation. “We’ve just been talking about it for a few weeks at church, and they’ve been encouraging us to think through our own values and talk to our parents about it to get their thoughts.”
Naomi breathed a subtle sigh of relief. “Well, you know your dad and I are here and ready to talk to you whenever you need to talk more about this. You ought to ask him about it next week when you’re out at breakfast, he may have a slightly different take on your question than I did.”
“Yeah, I will,” Matt said, sipping his orange juice. “Thanks for not being weird about this and being open to talk to me.”
“Of course,” Naomi said with a smile.
“Okay, your turn,” Matt started, pulling out another of their weekly questions. “What has been the most life-giving thing that’s happened to you this week?” Naomi sat and thought about it for a moment before sharing a couple of stories with her son from the past few days. These Saturday breakfasts really were one of her favorite parts of the week.
[Image taken from https://www.betahaus.com/berlin/spaces/cafe/]