Commentary Religion

What’s So Scary About Jesus Being Married?

Debra Haffner

There is no way to know for sure if the historical Jesus was married or had sex, but surely we know he was a sexual person.  

I wasn’t surprised to read that the Vatican has published a response to the September 18th announcement of a tiny piece of papyrus that includes a dialog where Jesus refers to “my wife.” It is, in their words, a “clumsy forgery.” I only wonder what took them so long.

As you have no doubt read, Dr. Karen King, a professor of early Christianity at Harvard Divinity School, released findings last week regarding a newly found original document that offers evidence suggesting Jesus was married. It was front-page news and lit up social media, with some claiming that it provides support for women priests and a married Roman Catholic clergy.

Veracity of the fragment aside, this wasn’t news to those of us who think about sexuality and the church.  More than forty years ago, William E. Phipps wrote a book entitled The Sexuality of Jesus, in which he postulated that Jesus would have been betrothed by his parents during his teen years as was the custom for Jewish men based on the mores of the time. With an average age of marriage of 14, Phipps argued, Jesus was in all probability married. By the time we meet Jesus again at age thirty, when the Gospel story introduces him as an adult, he was likely a widower. (Women on average died in the first century at the age of 25, most often in childbirth.)

The Jesus of the Gospels enjoys weddings, drinks wine, spends time with women in their houses, ministers to prostitutes, and refuses to censure a woman caught in adultery or a woman with a history of many partners. He allows a woman to bathe his feet at a dinner party and he invites women into his ministry. He is surely a charismatic man, and it is not difficult to imagine that people fell in love with him. There is no way to know for sure if the historical Jesus was married or had sex, but surely we know he was a sexual person.   

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As a Jewish Unitarian Universalist, it’s hard for me to fully understand why a married Jesus causes such dismay. Regardless of one’s beliefs about the humanity and divinity of Jesus, the embodied Jesus was sexual from birth to death as all humans are. There is nothing in the Gospels that suggests that Jesus was asexual or celibate his entire life—something that would have been so extraordinary that surely it would have been mentioned by their authors. Paul indeed addresses that celibacy is a gift for him but not required for all others in the First Letter to Corinthians, but Jesus himself is silent on the subject. Indeed, the ideal of a celibate clergy was not decided until the late seventh century: the Quinisextine Council in 691 was the first to decree that clergy couldn’t marry after ordination, although it did allow for currently married men to become clergy.

Rather than decrying the idea that Jesus was married (and therefore most likely sexually active with at least one woman), perhaps the discovery of the papyrus fragment will reopen the too-often missing dialogue about sexuality in those denominations that would rather wish it away. If sexuality is one of God’s gifts to us, if sexual diversity is part of God’s blessing, if people of all genders are created in God’s image—then surely there is the possibility that Jesus too enjoyed this good gift. 

Commentary Science

HPV Vaccines Are Working, So It’s Time to Stop Arguing About Them

Martha Kempner

A new study finds that HPV rates have plummeted in the last six years. Yet HPV vaccination rates continue to lag behind those of other vaccines, in part because of the stigma surrounding sexually transmitted infections.

According to a new study, human papilloma virus (HPV) rates have plummeted in the first six years vaccines against the virus have been available. Unfortunately, HPV vaccination rates lag behind those of other recommended inoculations, in part because of the stigma that stifles conversations around sexually transmitted infections.

Perhaps these new success rates—coupled with additional new research that reminds us of the possibility of non-sexual HPV transmission—will convince more parents to take advantage of this potentially life-saving vaccine.

HPV is actually a group of more than 150 related viruses, 40 of which are known to be sexually transmitted. Most types of the virus are thought of as low-risk, because they are unlikely to cause health problems. Nine types, however, have been identified as high-risk and are thought to be responsible for 99 percent of cervical cancers and a large portion of vulvar, vaginal, penile, anal, and oropharyngeal (a part of the throat) cancers.

Since 2006, there have been three vaccines against HPV developed and released on the market. The most recent, made available last year, was the most wide-ranging; it protects against the nine high-risk types of the virus.

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The vaccine is given as a series of three shots over eight months. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that boys and girls begin the series at age 11 or 12 in order to be sure that they are fully vaccinated before they become sexually active, but those who do not get the shots at that time can get them at any point before age 26. Experts estimate that widespread vaccination could prevent up to 90 percent of cases of cervical, anal, and genital cancer.

Though the research released last month uses data collected before the latest vaccine was available, the success of the original vaccine supports an optimistic outlook for the future prevention of HPV.

For the new study, which was published in the journal Pediatrics, researchers used data from the CDC’s National Health and Nutrition Examinations Survey (NHANES). They compared cervical and vaginal specimens from individuals ages 14-to-34 collected between 2003 and 2006—before the vaccine was available—with samples collected between 2009 and 2012, after the first vaccine was in use. They also used vaccination records from the latter group.

They found that 11.5 percent of young women ages 14-to-19 in the pre-vaccine group had one of the four types of HPV covered by the original vaccine. This dropped to about 4 percent in the group examined after the vaccine was available. Among those ages 20-to-24, the prevalence rate dropped from 18.5 percent to roughly 12 percent. There was no change among the oldest age group.

Overall, the study concludes, within six years of the vaccine’s introduction, HPV rates were down 64 percent among teen girls and 34 percent among women in their 20s.

Dr. Laurie E. Markowitz, lead author of the study, told the Guardian that results were better than expected.“The fact that we are seeing a larger decrease overall than what we expect given our coverage rates does suggest there may be some herd protection,” which occurs when a large enough portion of the population is vaccinated to slow the spread of the virus, she said. “There also may be effectiveness from less than a complete three dose series,” Markowitz continued.

Researchers anticipate that more people will continue to benefit from the vaccines. Markowitz told the Guardian, “As women who got the vaccine when they were younger age move into these older age groups, we should continue to see a continued decrease,” because they will not transmit the strains to anyone else as they become sexually active.

In addition, vaccination rates have improved since this data was collected. In 2009, only about 44 percent of girls had received one dose of the vaccine and only about 27 percent had received all three. By 2014, two-thirds of teenage girls ages 17 and under had received at least one of the three recommended doses of the HPV vaccine, and about 40 percent had received all three doses.

The CDC recommends that boys get the HPV vaccine as well, but vaccinations rates among boys have always been lower than those among young women—perhaps because when the vaccine was originally introduced, it was only suggested for girls, or perhaps because it is best known for preventing cervical cancer. But vaccination rates for boys have been on the rise as well. In 2014, roughly 42 percent of teenage boys ages 17 and under had received at least one dose of the vaccine: about 8 percentage points higher than the year prior.

Unfortunately, HPV vaccination rates still lag behind those of other recommended vaccines. For comparison, in 2014, about eight in ten teens ages 17 and under had received the quadrivalent meningococcal conjugate vaccines and roughly 87 percent had received the Tdap vaccine, which covers tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis.

There are a number of reasons that HPV vaccination rates might be lower than others, including the fact that only two states and Washington, D.C. require the vaccine for school-aged children. By contrast, the Tdap vaccine is required in most states; meningitis vaccines are required in about half. Additionally, some parents may not have the resources or time to take their children to get a series of three vaccinations.

Not surprisingly, there still exists a discomfort with the sexually transmitted nature of HPV. Since, the HPV vaccine was introduced, there have been those who argue that vaccination will be seen by teenage recipients as permission to have sex, thereby increasing their risky behavior. This faction also argues that it is not necessary to inoculate young people against HPV because they can easily avoid it by just not having sex.

Numerous studies have found that HPV vaccines do not, in fact, turn young people into sex machines. A study last year from the United Kingdom, for example, found girls who have been vaccinated are less likely to engage in risky sexual behavior than those who have not. An earlier study in the United States found that teen girls who had been vaccinated were more likely to use condoms than their non-vaccinated peers. Other studies have found that young people’s perception of sexual risk and risk behaviors do not change after vaccination.

Perhaps a new article will take the wind out of the sails of the argument that teens should “just say no” to prevent HPV. The paper, cleverly titled “Penises Not Required,” reviewed 51 studies that found evidence of transmission through means other than penile-vaginal or penile-anal intercourse. Some of the studies reviewed found HPV DNA in the genital tract of female “virgins”—though the definitions of “virgin” varied widely among studies, and were based on respondents’ self-reported sexual activity. Other studies found HPV DNA in children who had not been sexually abused. Some studies focused on evidence of HPV DNA on medical equipment, toilet seats, and sex toys, and questioned whether this would be sufficient to transmit the virus. And others suggested the possibility of finger-to-genital transmission either from a partner or even from one’s own hands.

The researchers told Rewire in an email that their results have to be interpreted cautiously, as they do not provide proof of non-penetrative or non-sexual transmission. Nonetheless, the possibility that this virus can be transmitted without sex should help us rid the HPV vaccine debate of moralizing. As the researcher concludes in the article, “The distribution of HPV vaccines has been hindered, in part, by societal discomfort with the role of HPV in human sexuality. A fuller appreciation of the potential for non-sexual HPV transmission could help increase vaccine acceptance.”

The facts are simple. We have a vaccine that prevents cancer, it’s working, and that’s a major public health victory. It’s time to stop arguing about whether vaccinating kids against an STD is a good idea and start protecting everyone.

Commentary Sexual Health

Talking to Your Kids About Sex Is Good for Them, So Here’s How

Martha Kempner

No one is suggesting you give a rundown of the Kama Sutra to your middle schooler. In fact, the truth is these conversations are rarely about sexual behavior.

Talking to your kids about sex can be an awkward or intimidating prospect—but new research confirms that it’s very important to do so anyway. Kids whose parents braved these conversations are more likely to practice safer sex, which means they are less likely to face an unintended pregnancy or sexually transmitted infection (STI).

The meta-analysis, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, examined 52 studies, spanning 30 years and covering over 25,000 adolescents. It found a “significant positive association between parent-adolescent sexual communication and safer sex behavior among youth. This effect was robust across use of condoms and contraceptives, cross-sectional and longitudinal studies, and younger and older samples.”

In plain language, that means that kids who talked with their parents about sex were more likely to use condoms and other contraceptive methods when they became sexually active.

There are a few caveats. The results were stronger for girls than for boys, and stronger when the parent involved in the conversation was the mother rather than the father. The authors point out, however, that these results may say more about the biases in how we behave rather than the actual limitations of parental communication. The research suggests that moms are more likely than dads to have the conversation (and more studies look at mother-child communication than father-child), and the way we address girls and boys about sex may be different based on societal concerns.

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The takeaway from this study is pretty simple, however: Talking to your kids about sex will protect them. Moms and dads should be talking to sons and daughters.

But if this sounds at all intimidating, here are some tips to get you going from my experience as a sexual educator and a mom.

It’s Usually Not About Sexual Behavior

The biggest barrier to parent-child communication may be a misunderstanding of what these conversations are going to entail. The idea of talking to your own child about intimate bedroom details is likely off-putting. But no one is suggesting you give a rundown of the Kama Sutra to your middle schooler. In fact, the truth is these conversations are rarely about sexual behavior.

They’re about bodies, health, relationships, and values. When children are young, you’re talking about who has what body parts, what we should call them, why we don’t show most people our penises or vulvas, and how babies are made. These conversations not only educate kids when they’re little, but can also be a good entry point into more explicit conversations as adolescents grow into teenagers. As they age, you’ll need to talk about puberty and how their bodies will change and hormones will take over their once-rational brains. Discussions about STIs, unintended pregnancies, and how to avoid them are also important, as are talks about what makes a relationship valuable and when the correct age is to start dating and have sex.

It’s Not a One-Time Thing

Parents should stop thinking about the awkward “birds and the bees” talk, which probably came too late anyhow, as the start and end to all conversations about sex. Instead, think of sex as one of the many topics that you discuss with your kids any time it happens to come up. If a friend’s mom is pregnant, you can tell your preschooler that the baby isn’t in her tummy (and she didn’t swallow it), it’s in her uterus. If your six-year-old isn’t doing a good job wiping after going to the bathroom you can point out that it’s important to keep our genitals clean, like we do any other part of our body. If you’re 10-year-old just made a new friend who has two dads talk about same-sex relationships, and if she asks how you can be born if you have two dads go ahead and discuss adoption and surrogate mothers. When your 14 year-old finds out that his crush has a crush on his teammate, you can talk about heartbreak and how the key to a good relationship is to find someone who really does like you back. 

Television is also a fabulous entry for giving information. Shows made for young people constantly portray relationship drama and at least hint at sex. Use the latest plotline to give your opinion. Ask if they think the CW hotties were using condoms, or if the Teen Moms are making young parenting look too glamourous.

Commercials work too. My 9-year-old and I watch a lot of HGTV. Though the shows are fine for audiences at any age, in the last few weeks I have had to explain erections lasting more than four hours and vaginal dryness, thanks to advertisers.

They’re Not Too Young

There is no reason that my 9-year-old needs to know about erectile dysfunction or lubrication after menopause, which won’t affect her for years, but there’s also no reason for me not to answer her questions and there are age-appropriate ways to discuss almost everything.

The first time we discussed contraception, for example, she was only 4 years old. We’d left her new baby sister at home with Nana and gone to town to pick up dinner. We ran into a woman who told us she had five kids. My daughter panicked (one baby sister was clearly enough) and asked if I was going to have more. I said no. She wanted to know how I knew that. So, I reminded her of the conversation we’d had when I told her I was pregnant and about the sperm and the egg, and then simply explained that I took a medicine that meant I didn’t make any eggs. She was relieved.

I think it’s important to note that she may have known about the pill at that point, but I had yet to tell her about vaginal intercourse. When we talked about how I got pregnant, she never asked how the sperm got to the egg, so I didn’t bother telling her. There’s no need to get all the information out at once, lest you overwhelm them or think some answers may be too complicated or explicit. In fact, it can be best to answer only those questions asked, and add only if your kid asks more. As I mentioned, most of the conversations aren’t about sex itself.

Starting young is great because then you can use each conversation as a building block for the next. By the time I was explaining what the Cialis commercial was about to my daughter we had already gone over the fact that penises get hard during sex. (Of course, I still had no explanation for why a long-lasting erection is okay at three hours and 58 minutes but needs immediate medical attention at four hours, or why the people are in separate bathtubs on a mountaintop.)

Give the Information Out Slowly

The building-blocks approach is also helpful because it means you don’t have to give too much information at one time. Regardless of age, kids glaze over after just a little while. Most of the time a simple and direct answer to a question is best; if the kid wants more information, he’ll ask for it.

If you’re asked what herpes is after a Valtrex commercial airs, you don’t have to go into a long discussion of cold sores or the difference between a virus and bacteria. All you have to say is that there are some infections that can be spread when people have sex, that these are called STIs, and that’s why it’s important to protect yourself. Then wait for questions. Depending on the child’s age and curiosity level, that may be enough. If it’s not, answer the next question and the next as simply as you can.

This way you don’t overwhelm your child or give more information than he or she can handle. More importantly, though, you establish yourself as someone who is willing to answer questions, so that as they get older and the questions become more complicated and more personal, you will be the go-to resources instead of the less trustworthy Internet or friends.

They’re Not Too Old

One of the good things the JAMA study showed is that kids listen to their parents even as they get older, which means that we have the opportunity to keep talking after they’re already having sex. These conversations can be awkward but they are a great opportunity to give more information and all-important relationship advice. I recently did a condom demonstration via Facetime for a friend’s teenager because my friend and I were worried that she was not using them correctly. And when she mentioned during that discussion that her partner had suggested taking the condom off completely on the grounds that it would “feel better”—we got to talk a little about why that was a bad idea and how to tell him it wasn’t going to fly.

Don’t worry if you haven’t had any conversations yet. No matter how old your children are, you can start talking today.

You Don’t Have to Know (or Share) Everything

The last piece of encouragement I will add is that nobody expects you to know everything, get it all right, or be perfectly comfortable. If you’re asked an informational question that you don’t know the answer to, offer to look it up on the Internet and share what you learn. My kids ask me science questions all the time—things I probably once knew about the Earth’s rotation or how our eyes really see colors—and I have to admit I have no idea. So I look it up and tell them later. Just be sure to follow through.

If you flub an answer or get caught off-guard, just keep going. When my oldest finally asked how the sperm got to the egg, and I did have to explain vaginal intercourse, I giggled. A lot. But I finished my explanation and answered her questions.

As for the scariest part of talking about sex—sharing details of your own sex life—that’s a personal decision. You can share when you think they’re ready, or if you think a story from your own life will help them in theirs. Or, you can tell them that you’d rather keep those details to yourself, but you’re happy to answer their questions in a more general way.

For now, all my kids know is what they’ve been able to piece together from our talks on reproduction—Daddy and I did that twice. Someday that will change but we’re taking it slow.