Rachel Gardner, The Sex Thing: Reimaging Conversations with Young People about Sex (SPCK, 2021)
Christian youth groups have made a lot of mistakes when it comes to helping young people understand issues of sexuality. Just telling young people what to do (or rather what not to do) has bred a hypocrisy and, ultimately, led to young people walking away and into less healthy ways of living. Youth culture has moved so quickly that the church often misses the place of engagement with young people. Youth groups end up ‘preparing young people for a world we don’t fully understand’ (p.7). This is the thesis of The Sex Thing.
Rachel Gardner, best known for her role in Youthscape and Romance Academy, writes in response to these missteps and to encourage a more fruitful way forward by proposing a framework for discussing sex with young people. The book is divided into three parts: the first analyses and critiques the current state of play in our churches and how we have dealt with sex; part two proposes a framework based around open discussion, listening and guiding rather than telling; part three gives the findings of the surveys which underpin the framework.
Gardner’s writing is incredibly clear and helpful, seamlessly referencing conversations with young people with references from popular culture and theologians. Not only is it well researched but Gardner writes with a striking and sometimes unnerving honesty, modelling well what she is asking youth leaders to do. The framework she proposes is helpful not just for talking about sex with young people but more generally for pastoral work. It recognises that moral dilemmas are often complex and require careful and attentive listening. It recognises that giving young people simplistic solutions and expecting them to simply do what they are told is naïve and self-defeating. Young people have a voice and views that must be engaged with in order to help them to make good decisions.
The framework she proposes is helpful not just for talking about sex with young people but more generally for pastoral work.
A particular highlight is the chapter on desires. This seems a crucial area for youth practitioners to engage with when it comes to helping young people to understand themselves. It often appears to be overlooked in much contemporary discussion of sexuality. It is also worth highlighting Gardner’s analysis of culture which is simply brilliant in its reading of our current cultural moment.
There were a couple of areas of concern. First, although Gardner is clear about how she counsels same-sex attracted youth, she is also open to churches and youth workers who would take a more affirming stance. This is understandable in making the framework more widely used but this reviewer would be less comfortable with that. Second, there is a strange moment on p.108 where Gardner claims that Jesus used the term ‘shalom’ in John 14 and 20. The term is Hebrew and the Greek of John may be reflecting it but that is not made clear. However, this second point is minor.
In summary, this is a superbly clear and helpful book, and I would encourage all those working with young people to listen carefully to what Gardner has to say and is proposing. For too long evangelicals have sought to engender a sexual ethic which has failed to engage the complexities which young people have to deal with. Young people have minds, hearts and desires and Gardner’s framework engages them as people.
This review originally appeared in ‘The Global Anglican’, Spring 2022 (136/1), pp.85-86 and is reproduced here by permission.