By Dr. Constantina Michalos
HOUSTON, TX – I grew up in a typical immigrant household. We spoke Greek at home (the school would make us Americans). We ate dinner together (leg of lamb every Sunday until I couldn’t stand it anymore). We spent a lot of time in church and fasted often (explaining to our American friends why we were carrying palms when they were eating chocolate bunnies was always fun). We played with “xeni,” but we couldn’t date them. In fact, we couldn’t date – period. At least not until after we were married.
So having “the talk” was never going to happen. We were four daughters, and I was way younger than the others. I can’t imagine them having a pajama party with our mother – giving each other manis and pedis, braiding each other’s hair – and talking about youknowwhat.
They were married and gone by the time I needed some information, and they were conspicuously silent on the subject as well. School was no help. Hygiene class warned us to brush our teeth, keep our nails clean, and watch out for cooties. Church was no help, either. Our youth group marched in the Greek Independence Day Parade and hosted dances with the Armenian boys from Riverdale. No one ever asked, and our Proestamenos never volunteered. We just sort of knew how to behave, but we didn’t know much else. My life was My Big Fat Greek Wedding with a healthy dose of Puritan paranoia tossed in for good measure.
That’s why I was pleasantly surprised when I learned that the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Houston has hosted a biennial seminar series entitled “Sex, God and Me” for the past 15 years. Given my upbringing, just writing those three words together is disorienting. Acknowledging the pressures and influences of the secular world on adolescents, Father Michael Lambakis, Proestamenos, and Irene Cassis, Director of Religious Education at Annunciation and Coordinator of Religious Education for the Metropolis of Denver, resolved to offer a program based in Orthodoxy that would help our children and their parents address these challenges. Adapted from a similar program used at St. John the Divine Episcopal Church in Houston, “Sex, God and Me” educates children on sexual abstinence and the biblical, Orthodox reasons for abstinence before marriage.
The most recent series attracted close to 100 participants. Students in grades 6-12 and their parents met with Orthodox speakers and facilitators for two hours every Sunday evening for a month. It is significant to note that the original program began at Grade 7, but parents requested that it include even younger children. Each week, a different theme was addressed from a Biblical and Orthodox perspective:
Week One: Why did God create human sexuality?
Week Two: Practical medical perspective of sexual activity before marriage (STDs; psychological aspects of being sexually active)
Week Three: Substance abuse (drugs and alcohol)
Week Four: Who we are beyond our sexuality? (relationships with others and the Church)
After the speaker’s presentation the first hour, the children were divided into facilitator groups based on gender and grade level, and the parents remained with the speaker. This separation encouraged discussion, especially among the children and their facilitators. They were able to ask questions, directly or anonymously, seek clarification and voice concerns. Parents asked the speakers how to open and maintain a dialogue with their children about their sexuality behavior while maintaining the parent-child dynamic. Ironically, they often learned as much about human sexuality as their children did.
Though we are bombarded daily with images of human sexuality as a commodity, it is, in fact, a delicate subject which we are often ill-equipped or reluctant to address. Parents and children cannot imagine each other as sexual beings. Nor do they want to. Nevertheless, societal pressures have forced the conversation. “Sex, God, and Me” offers parents and their children a safe, non-judgmental environment in which to discuss their concerns, disabuse themselves of myths, and educate themselves about appropriate behaviors in the context of Church teachings. The speakers and facilitators are Orthodox role models who can comfortably relate to parents and their kids on sensitive, awkward issues.
For example, Orthodoxy teaches abstinence because God created human sexuality in the context of marriage. Nevertheless, for those who may have contemplated or actually engaged in pre-marital sex, the sacraments provide a way to renew one’s commitment to the tenets of the Church. However, the discussion does not end there. The threats to one’s health posed by unprotected sex and that go well beyond AIDS are discussed by Orthodox medical professionals. The ramifications of substance abuse, which often triggers promiscuous behavior and is, in itself, an enormous problem, are discussed from physical, psychological, social, and legal perspectives.
The underlying theme that the seminar explores is the idea of our identity beyond our sexuality. Inherent in this exploration is a critique of a society that bases an individual’s worth on his or her attractiveness. Even more disturbing is the idea that a 6th grader – that is an 11-year old child – receives and internalizes media messages that communicate a distorted, sexually-based self-definition. We already know how those messages debilitate adults, let alone impressionable children. “Sex, God and Me” redirects the discussion from the profane to the sacred to remind the participants that they are created in God’s image, which is perfect, and that God loves them unconditionally, which is ideal.