No Sex Please We’re Teenagers Part 1

Note: If you have come direct to this posting via a search, please be aware that this only discusses episode 1. The posting for episode 2 is available through this link, which has comments enabled. As this is now an old posting, comments are disabled here to stop spamming.

So tonight, the BBC showed the first of their three part series “No Sex Please We’re Teenagers” which made headlines over the past couple of weeks. The following item from todays Daily Mirror gives the general attitude to the show in some quarters:

RACHEL and Dan are the kind of perky, Tiggerish Christian youth-workers who could have stepped out of a Little Britain sketch.

In that meddling, do-gooding way that some Christians have, they’ve somehow persuaded 12 kids aged 15 to 17 to become born-again virgins and give up sex for five whole months. I can see you rolling your eyes already.

Their intentions are well-meant but if anything will put these teenagers off their stride, it’s Dan’s disturbing habit of referring to sex as “woopsie”.

I suspect many grown-ups will also be trying desperately to get that word out of their heads tonight as they turn back their beds.

Anyway, from my somewhat less tabloid angle – the programme follows a group christened ‘The Romance Academy’ consisting of a group of twelve teenagers from Harrow, and two Christian youth workers, Rachel Gardner and Dan Burke over a five month project where they agree to not have sex. It’s worth mentioning that although many of them are sexually active, some having lost their virginity as young as 12, there are also practising Christians among the teenagers who are already practising abstinance. They are also a pretty mixed bunch in terms of their backgrounds, beliefs and so on – basically a cross-section of modern teenagers.

The programme started with showing the first meeting, where the teenagers discussed the rules by which they would live over the next five months. Probably the most cringe-making part of this first meeting was the somewhat poor choice of word that Dan made, picked up on by the Daily Mirror, although having said that, it was fairly apparent that the group ribbed him over it too. One of the more amusing moments in this bit was that the other youth worker, Rachel is actually married, and the teenagers demanded that she should also participate, to the point that she actually phoned her husband! Not surprisingly he said no!

From that opening, the programme moved on through the first few weeks of the experiment, in which they basically were like almost any other youth group, going off ice skating, and having discussions. This was intercut with footage of one-to-one interviews with the teenagers talking about their background. What is interesting is the paralells among many of the group in that many of them had been drunk when they lost their virginity, thought it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, and had largely regretted it. In amongst this was the youth worker Dan talking about becoming Christian, which produced a laugh out loud funny moment – he initially thought that the ‘Holy Spirit’ was a new sort of drug…

Anyway, the whole area of alcohol and it’s effects on teenagers came up again in the next major event, when the group was taken away for the weekend. The rules were pretty standard stuff for a youth weekend – no drink, no drugs and seperate bedrooms for boys and girls. Also, not surprisingly for a youth weekend, the boundaries were pushed and the no drink rule was broken on the first night. To some extent I think that what happened was probably a good thing for the group, as it actually gave the youth leaders and the group a good point to start a discussion on the role that drink has played in the teenagers lives.

The third segment of tonights programme was in some ways for me the most disturbing for me, and covered eleven of the group (the last of the group – one of the drinkers for the weekend – having been arrested being drunk the night before departure) going to Florida to a Church heavily backing the abstinence message, and participating in the ‘Silver Ring Thing‘ a US initiative to promote abstinence. You had to bear in mind that the majority of the UK teenagers were not Christian, many having never been inside a Church, and here they were being dropped into the totally alien environment of a charismatic evanglical Church – the kind of Church that even many middle of the road Christians would have a problem with. However it is worth saying that it seemed to be the kind of environment in which the Youth Workers were perfectly comfortable.

From the first meeting with the families several of the teenagers expressed discomfort – aside from the alien religious aspects most of the American teenagers had been brought up in the Church, and therefore were in a totally different place having never been sexually active, rather than being sexually active and trying to stop.

The first meeting with the American Pastor was actually quite amusing in some ways. As Beth discovered when she came over here, British teenagers are a lot more vocal in their opinions. The Pastor found the same when he tried to ‘preach’ his opinion at them, and had quite an argument on his hands. At one point one of the American teenagers even intervened in the discussion feeling that the British were showing a lack of respect.

After that both the Americans and British teenagers were taken on an outing, which all seemed to enjoy, however things took a turn for even more disturbing when the British teenagers were taken along to the Americans Youth service. Three of the girls just couldn’t cope and left after a while, whilst some of the others in the group according to the youth worker Dan had a religious experience.

The reason I found the whole thing disturbing is that from my point of view it mixed up the whole sexual abstinence issue with an attempt to convert the group to Christianity – essentially getting the whole group to gel as one, and then taking them along to a service. Whilst I am aware that it is the Church that is the main driver behind the abstinence movement in the USA, my big concern is that hitting a group of teenagers with little or no Church background with a full scale evangelical service as they did, could prove to be counterproductive. To my mind whilst the Youth Workers were Christian – the idea of encouraging the teenagers to focus on realtionships rather than sex is not tied with the need to become Christian. In some ways the two youth workers, who seemed totally at ease in the service forgot firstly the stated point of the experiment, and secondly how alien Christianity can seem to people with no Church background. As has been said to me, a large number of teenagers will just switch off when directly faced with religion, or religious messaged, and that often the religious message in a session has to be got in ‘under the radar’. Certainly we have found that even with our church based youth group – the discussions that get most easily bogged down or diverted are the obviously religious ones – whereas those where the religious aspect becomes clear at the end work a lot better.

It is worth saying at this point, that from the clips of the next episode, it seems that the youth workers possibly realise their mistake, as there are several sequences of one of the youth workers saying that they don’t have to participate (and the group of girls who walked out saying that they are going to bring a deck of playing cards and a ball to the next session as they think they’ll get bored very quickly).

Certainly it will be interesting to watch the remainder of the series, both from the point of view of the subject, plus also as a feeder into the ongoing discussion amongst the volunteer youth leaders at St James as to whether a paid youth worker would be a good investment. Tonights episode highlighted the benefits in terms of the time that a youth worker can spend with the young people – time we as volunteers with full time jobs just don’t get to spend. However it also highlighted how important it is that you match your youth worker with your group of young people, so that you don’t get situations like what happened in the programme where parts of the group are turned off. Bear in mind that you can easily get a similar reaction from teenagers brought up in a Church like St James, as from those who have had no Church experience if you drop them cold into a service like the Americans held.

7 thoughts on “No Sex Please We’re Teenagers Part 1”

  1. I think you may be being a bit harsh here by focussing on the down points rather than the good. Surely, dealing with Youth is partly about making mistakes and learning from those mistakes. Rightly so you mention that the leaders realise they may have to adjust things. Given your point that 3 of the kids struggled with the service it also meant 8 didn’t seem to and probably it was only 1 of the 3 that was pushing to leave. It was not church as they knew it and probably there was some resentment from the previous days discussion with the Pastor who was maybe not best suited to be “culturally relevant” to that group. The youth leaders have sought to challenge the teens current way of thinking particularly in an environment which is different to their normal as it gives them time to think without all the usual influences to their current mindset. The fact that most of the feedback was positive within the group, to their change in lifestyle, is an encouragement to what the youth leaders were doing. The level of support they were getting was only once per week which surely is a challenge to all those that work with young people. The question you raise on relationship with or against Christianity is a good one. People need to have a framework within which they base their relationships and within our society that type of framework does not exist to the extent it should. Even if you do not agree with the “requirement” of Christianity the basics that are contained within Christianity are a more than adequate model.

  2. I really enjoyed the programme and have loads of respect for the two youth workers. They came from a christian perspective but their approach was to give the kids space to actually think about relationships and sex for themselves. I thought the american pastor took the completely wrong approach of preaching at the kids and not taking the time to even listen to their views before dumping his own view on them. Not sure in some ways of the value of taking them to the USA as I feel that was the least effective part of the romance academy.

  3. Andy:

    Point taken with regards to being harsh – in my defence the posting was my initial reactions having seen the show. It is worth mentioning that as far as I am aware, by the end of the first programme none of the teenagers had actually broken their promise not to have sex, whatever else may have happened, and as you say, the feedback from the young people in the group was mostly positive.

    With regards to the service, I don’t think that you can assume that the other 8 were comfortable with the service or not, all you can say for sure is that 3 were uncomfortable enough that they walked out.

    I do agree that Christianity does provide a good moral framework, and is fine when dealing with a primarily Christian group, however in this situation with a largely non-Christian, even non-faith based group, it made the process a lot harder as you then have to deal with the whole reaction to the service from some of the group when converting them to Christianity wasn’t really the point of the exercise!

  4. It would have been interesting to see the full service that the teenagers were taken to as this would have given a better insight into what happened. It would have been good to learn the reasoning for the leaders taking them there. A few clips may not have done justice to what actually happened. It was also not clear why the 3 girls found it offensive. I sometimes feel people are apologetic about presenting something different especially if it is from a Christian viewpoint. It is almost as if anything is acceptable as an option as long as it isn’t Christian based when if you look at things with an open mind it has to at least be an option. Most people in the UK have little contact with church or Christianity believing it to be irrelevant when if presented by it they may actually change their viewpoint.

  5. Hi there it’s Dan the youthworker of Romance Academy, its been interesting to read your comments on the program. im looking forward to you all seeing the next two, i think it will change some of your thoughts and views so far.
    I know there was a lot of christian things in the first program but our hearts were for them to find themselves and what they want from life. The service and Christian content were things for them to look at and challenge. In America, abstinence through the Siver Ring Thing is massive and Rachel and I wanted to let our 12 English young people see this movement and find out what was really happening.
    In he next 2 programmeswe come back toUK where it is not about a relationship with God but it is about finding out where they want to stand in relation to sex and relationships regardless of the prevailing culture.
    From Dan … I hope you enjoy the next two programmes! I’ll look forward to your comments about them.

  6. I just wanted to say a few things in response to Richard and specfically to Dan.
    Richard, I think you should perhaps re-prioritise your concerns for these young people. Would it not be far worse for their health and self esteem to continue to view sex in the way that, sadly, most teenagers do, than if they were converted to Christianity? In any case, Dan and Rachel never once state that their intentions are to see the group evolve into the 12 disciples! If you have the luxury of teleport I suggest you go back and listen to what Dan says about what he wants to see as a result of the 5 weeks. In case you don’t, I believe he said (something along the lines of) he wanted to see them develop a better understanding of who they are, and to know what they will say yes and no to and why. Is this not san understanding all teenagers would benefit from developing? So many seem to float along, lost in what is expected of them by their peers and later regret making decisions influenced by anything other than mature discernment. I think the Romance Academy, its teaching and attitudes and the people that have made this programme happen deserve support, encouragement, and praise for their commitment to bettering the lives of these young people. I would also like to point out that Jesus, in all his perfection, offended people quite frequently. But he could not be faulted as the foundations of his teaching and actions were truth and love – which are demonstrated here by Rachel and Dan, whose works and motives I also see no fault in.

    Dan, as a Christian I am so proud of you and Rachel, my brother and sister in Christ, for all you have done and continue to do. I cannot imagine how pleased with you our Father must be! Some slightly cheesey but nonetheless awesome verses for the two of you: 2 Timothy 1 verse 7, Zechariah 4 v 6, James 1 v 2-4, Zechariah 10 v 6, and perhaps specifically for you Phillipians 4 v 19 and Malachi 4 v 2. Apologies for the oddness of a stranger writing in such a familiar tone and for any apparent arrogance in reccomending scriptures, only encouragement intended! ; ) Anna.

  7. Anna, I think you perhaps need to reread what I have said. My comments were precisely out of concerns for the young people, as far as I am concerned the need to bring about a change in sexual attitudes amongst young people is the prime concern, over and above any attempt to convert them to Christianity. If as a result of Dan and Rachel’s faith, they to come to faith that is great, and I have no problem with that, but the number one priority is that they finish the programme with a better understanding of the issues around sex and relationships. My concerns was that this focus, that was put over in the earlier sessions was being diluted, if not seriously damaged by exposure to the US abstinence movement. My argument with the US abstinence movement is whilst abstinence is teaching offered by Christians, you don’t have to be a Christian to practice a lifestyle based around abstinence.

    It is worth making very clear at this point that whilst I expressed concerns over the methods I certainly never doubted that either Rachel or Dan were doing what they were doing through anything other than a very real concern for the wellbeing of the young people in the group.

    In the programme that went out, I am well aware what Dan stated, however the impression strongly given by the US sections was that bringing about changes in their sexual attitudes was being pushed aside in an attempt to convert them to Christianity, which I believe is fundamentally wrong, and would alienate members of the group.

    Dan’s subsequent comment has put my mind at rest. As he has clarified, this was part of offering them the US vision, to look at and challenge, and I look forward to seeing the reactions. It is interesting reading many of the other blogs about the programme and note the major discussion about the difference in the teaching in the US over what Dan and Rachel, and others in the UK teach. Certainly I believe that what Dan and Rachel have been offering their group is massively better for the largely secular group with which they are working. (Again why I was concerned by the apparent change brought about by the trip to the US).

    In addition, reading the mission statement of the Romance Academy at re-enforces that this is primarily a sexual health initiative, and not a evangelism initiative – note that in the entire statement neither God, nor Christianity is ever mentioned, indeed I don’t think this is mentioned at all in the entire site. Essentially the programme is seeking to give the young people a vehicle to challenge cultural influences and come up with their own answers, rather than offer them the set of Christian answers and tell them to believe it, as appears to be being offered by the Silver Ring Thing in the US.

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