Why Church Is the Place to Talk about Sexuality

Q&A with Kate Ott

by Kate Ott

Dr. Kate Ott is author of Sex + Faith: Talking with Your Child from Birth to Adolescence. She lectures and leads workshops across the country on sexuality and technology issues related to children, teens, young adults and parents. Church Health Reader’s managing editor, Susan Martins Miller, interviewed her about her writing and teaching on sexuality and faith when it comes to children’s health.

Why can’t churches leave talking about sex to parents and schools?

Parents, whenever possible, should be the first and primary sexuality educators for their children. Like all things in life, we also want the information, lessons, and values we teach our children to be reinforced and strengthened by other trusted adults around them. That includes school as well as our faith communities. We sometimes limit sexuality education to facts, but it is also about relationships and values. When children have opportunities to connect faith values to what they learn about sexuality, it strengthens their decision-making.

Your book talks about five common myths when it comes to talking about sexuality. What are these myths, briefly, and what has been your experience with how parents and congregations respond when you help debunk the myths?

The five common myths are: My child is too young to understand; If I explain how babies are made, my job is done; Talking about sexuality leads to experimentation; I must have all the answers; I can do this in one talk. I share research in my book that dispels these myths.

Parents and other adults are often relieved and challenged to have the myths named. Relief comes when they let go of thinking there is only one right way and only one chance to get “the sex talk” right. For parents of older kids, it is very important to know that they are not giving permission to experiment by talking about sexual behaviors. In fact, the opposite is true; kids who have more information about contraception, preventing sexually transmitted diseases, and healthy relationship expectations are more likely to wait to engage in behaviors. Rather than one or two talks, having multiple conversations and using different opportunities throughout a child’s development is key. Sexuality educators call these teachable moments. The challenge comes when we realize we have to be more intentional to make the information age- and ability-appropriate as well as create a relationship where the child feels comfortable coming to a parent with questions. For example, a parent might address how babies are born or explain sexual intercourse when talking about a sibling or cousin’s birth. A TV or movie might show people kissing or hugging, so an adult can talk about sexual behaviors in a relationship or might ask an older child to reflect on how he or she thinks the person feels when kissing someone the person likes. Songs on the radio in the car are another great opportunity for conversation. First, most popular songs are about sexuality, and second, the captive audience makes the discomfort temporary and manageable!

How do unresolved sexual wounds or other issues, such as gender shaming, affect a child’s sexual and relational health over the course of a lifetime?

Our sexual health and relationships are shaped by the culture in which we live and often directly impacted by the actions of those close to us. Unfortunately, sexual shaming, harassment, and abuse can happen throughout one’s life or at any age. Childhood sexual trauma has a significant impact on the formation of one’s sexual self-concept, potentially affecting body image, intimacy, relationship stability, and overall mental and emotional health. Silencing or continued shaming of sexuality issues, especially in religious contexts, compounds these problems. Our faith and relationship with God should be a source of comfort and strength, not judgment and disgrace. Alternatively, education and counseling provide opportunities for healing and prevention. Faith communities that are intentional and explicit about dealing with sexual abuse and harassment provide a foundation for the whole congregation to be better equipped to deal with sexual harm in their homes, congregation, and society.

What questions do elementary age kids have about sex that parents often don’t realize they have? Or where are kids younger than middle school getting information that parents might not realize? How can the congregation respond?

Elementary school includes a wide range of ages, anywhere from five to 11 years old. Questions in this age group span the range of experiences from differences in kids’ bodies to how babies are born, from how kissing or hugging a parent is different than a friend, to dealing with a first crush. As a child ages, the type of information and topics change. Once a child is in school, the bus, the playground, and the after-school program are all places that kids talk about sexuality issues. Sometimes they react to media, such as video games, TV, or movies, or the relationships they see around them. With easy access to the Internet, older elementary kids are also more likely to turn to search engines like Google for answers. Building digital literacy is an important skill to protect a child from unsavory content. It can also be an invitation from the parent to be the first place the child comes for answers, rather than turning to the Internet or friends.

What are some key ways congregational leaders can help members become more comfortable bringing together issues of faith and sexuality for healthier children?

First, we need to recognize the ways we are already teaching about sexuality issues. That includes messages kids are learning implicitly by how we dress at church, what type of families are represented in our congregation, how we deal with touch between adult members or adults and children, how we talk about gender roles or what might be observed about gender roles in leadership across the congregation, and so on. There are many ways we are “teaching” about sexuality without intentionally talking about the topic. In fact, silence speaks volumes! Considering small changes or being more explicit about healthy aspects of sexuality already being taught by current congregational practices is an easy place to begin.

We need to remember that sexuality education is about so much more than “sex.” Focusing on all aspects of sexuality opens up lots of different opportunities to connect faith values and teachings with a variety of sexuality issues. We can begin with discussions about gender equity, healthy relationships like friendships, or care for our bodies as stewardship of God’s creation. Also, in my book, I address the adult glasses we wear when we encounter sexuality issues or questions. We need to remove our adult point of view and look at the issue from the perspective of the child. Young kids are curious about how their bodies work and differences among peers and between them and adults. As they get older, they may also be ill-prepared for bodily changes or relationship expectations if they haven’t had the information ahead of time. We want our kids to be prepared and empowered, not nervous or scared.

We all have to get more comfortable talking about sexuality, but we also need more practice at identifying faith values that are important to communicate to children and youth. How do we teach about trust, consent, and commitment as relationship-enhancing values across all different lessons in Sunday school, for example? What do these values mean to us and where do they come from in theological or Scriptural examples? There are lots of great curriculum resources listed in the back of my book that help with planned education. The Religious Institute’s A Time to Speak: Faith Communities and Sexuality Education provides additional ideas that integrate education, preaching, worship, and advocacy.


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