May 8, 2023

Let’s Talk About Sex

International conference on sexuality inspires leaders across church regions.

Vanesa Pizzuto, Trans-European Division News
Group of leaders who participated in the International Conference on Sexuality at Friedensau Adventist University, Germany, April 14-16. [Photo: Vanesa Pizzuto, Adventist Media Exchange - CC BY 4.0]

After much planning and prayer, sixty family ministries leaders from across the Trans-European (TED) and Inter-European (EUD) Divisions of the Seventh-day Adventist Church gathered at Friedensau Adventist University, Germany, April 14-16, to explore a biblical view of sexuality.

It all started in 2022 during the Pan-European Adventist Youth Congress (AYC) in Lahti, Finland. The program included a couple of workshops on human sexuality. These were so popular and overbooked that they needed to be repeated. With multiple questions shared by the teens, leaders became convinced that more needed to be done to support young people in this area and to give them hope when searching for answers to complex issues.

“Young people have so much distress and confusion around unhealthy sexuality,” Karen Holford, TED director of women’s, children’s, and family ministries and event organizer, explained. “We need to speak out, compassionately, graciously, and clearly, about what is healthy sexuality. Because if we don’t, they will find answers from other sources that could lead them to shame, guilt, and distress.”

The conference included a variety of presentations from theologians, doctors, psychologists, and psychiatrists from around the world. TED president Daniel Duda set the tone for the conference with a sermon and a plenary session. In his Friday night message, Duda explored the story of Mary and Joseph. Emphasizing how protecting Mary cost Joseph his reputation as a “righteous man,” Duda said, “If reading the Bible gives you justification for abusing, humiliating, disgracing, harming, or hurting other people, or it makes you feel better than others, you are reading the Bible absolutely wrong.”

During his plenary session, titled “God, Bible, Sex, and Us,” Duda explained the development of the concept of the body in theology and the biblical principles for human sexuality. These two initial presentations provided a foundational framework, a space for conversations guided by strong biblical values, humility, and compassion.

What follows is not a summary of every presentation, but a brief glimpse of some of the pressing issues regarding sexual education facing both the Seventh-day Adventist Church and society.

On Being a Safety Net

With her usual blend of hard research data and contagious empathy, Mary Jo Vollmer-Sandholm explored current issues in sexuality. Vollmer-Sandholm, a Doctoral Fellow in the Department of Forensic Medicine at Oslo University Hospital, Norway, compellingly challenged participants to create the safe places teens and young adults can go to when they need help. Drawing from more than 20 years of experience in pediatric forensics, Vollmer-Sandholm used cases to illustrate the complex reality teens and young adults navigate each day. “How can we help a person struggling with pornography? Or a teenager being pressured to send nude pictures?” she asked.

Her presentation “Sex and Relationships off the Rails” highlighted the importance of keeping the lines of communication open. With “teens’ frontal lobes not yet fully developed,” Vollmer-Sandholm explained, “combined with the surge of hormones and peer-pressure, it can lead them to make poor decisions they regret almost immediately.”

Parents who meet such episodes of poor judgment with kindness and navigate consequences with wisdom are providing their children with a much-needed safety net. “I want to be a soft landing place for my children,” Vollmer-Sandholm remarked. “I want them to know that no matter what kind of trouble they get into, they can always come to me.”

Vollmer-Sandholm also led two workshops titled “Religion and Abuse” and “Pornography, Shame, and Healing.”

The Consent Myth Buster

Ansku Jaakkola, a pastor and Couples in Crisis® counselor from Finland, explored issues of consent. Armed with a direct style and scientific data, Jaakkola busted common myths on the topic. “Does consenting once mean that you are always giving consent? No. You can rape your spouse,” she answered. She added, “Is it OK to have sex with your spouse while they are asleep or [unresponsive] for any other reason? Absolutely not!”

“If your body is turned on, does this mean you are giving consent? No. Why? Because of arousal non-concordance, a common phenomenon, which means your physiological response doesn’t align with your subjective arousal. Arousal is context-dependent,” Jaakkola remarked, emphasizing the importance of paying attention to what a spouse is saying, not just to his or her bodily reactions.

“Well, you got aroused, so you must have liked it!” is an abusive and completely unscientific way to think about consent and sexuality, Jaakkola said. This is important because, for many trauma survivors, understanding that a sexual response can be the result of nerve endings being stimulated (and not their desire) is both liberating and deeply healing.

In addition to the plenary session, Jaakkola led a workshop titled “Healing the Orgasm Gap.”

Attachment and Sex Drive

General Conference Health Ministries associate director Torben Bergland explored the connection between attachment styles and sexuality. Attachment styles — secure, anxious, avoidant, and disorganized, according to John Bowlby’s theory, form early on in life in response to the degree of attunement we receive from our caregivers. Attachment styles shape the way we bond with people as adults, and, unsurprisingly, our sex lives too. “People with an anxious attachment tend to have more frequent sexual experiences,” Bergland stated, quoting from different studies, while those with an avoidant attachment style “perceive their sex drive as relatively low.”

Realizing that your sex drive (or your spouse’s) could have more to do with an attachment style than personality may surprise you. Perhaps for this reason, Bergland joked that “people should not get married before learning about Attachment Theory.” Such learning, of course, is about negotiating differences with respect and self-awareness.

Holding Space

In all honesty, not everyone agreed with what was said, and people were free to express variant views. At the same time, one of the greatest achievements of the conference may have been to explore a topic as relevant as sex in a sensitive, mature, deeply spiritual, and non-polarizing way. In a world where cancel culture is often more popular than tolerance, seeing leaders hold space for dialogue inspired many. Because as Duda said, “Trying to find how the church can inspire hope and be a safe place while upholding biblical values is crucial if we want our young people to see the church as relevant for their lives.”

Perhaps one of the key moments of the event took place during the panel discussions. One of the questions submitted by the audience read: “If shame does not work to educate or modify people’s behavior, what does?” Psychiatrist and psychotherapist Helgi Jónsson, who during her plenary presentation focused on dignity as a fundamental principle of healthy relationships and explained the effects of shame on the brain, provided a simple answer. “Love and compassion,” she said.

The original version of this story was posted on the Trans-European Division news site.