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Forbidden Fruit: An Excerpt


Earlier today we posted an article by Mark Regnerus, author of Forbidden Fruit: Sex and Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers. This afternoon we are excerpting the bios of two of the teenagers Regnerus interviewed.

forbidden-fruit.jpgThe plasticity of sexuality quickly becomes evident when one moves from talking about historical doctrine to speaking with real people. Indeed, understanding biblical texts and moderns’ interpretations of them is only so helpful. It provides a clear sense of what the religious resources about sex are, but conveys nothing of how regular people draw upon them, if at all. Even survey data—of which I will make extensive use—are limited in their ability to convey just how adolescents really think about sex, how they desire its pleasure or fear its pain, how they actually go about making sexual decisions, and how they reconcile their religious faiths with the choices they make. I want to introduce the key issues and themes in this book by telling short stories about six particular adolescents: Valerie, Ben, Kristin, Jarrod, Justin, and Carla. Each of them is white except Jarrod (who is African American), middle class, and religious (Christian) to some degree. They all reported on the survey that they attended church services at least semi regularly. They are not a random sample of our interview pool, but their stories represent common themes and experiences of religious youth. Their accounts can serve as a baseline of sorts to compare with other adolescents whose stories and remarks will be featured later. Only names and geographical locations (to a similar city or state within the region) have been changed…


Justin is a 17-year-old Roman Catholic from an upper-middle-class suburb of Providence, Rhode Island. Although on the survey he reported a fairly high degree of religiosity, in person he too seems only nominally religious. He also appears mildly depressed with his life, though he actively tries to suppress this. His parents split up when he was three, and his mother remarried when Justin was in eighth grade, after living with his stepfather for at least a year. His stepfather is ‘‘such a different person than me that I don’t think there’s any way we could get along well.’’ By Justin’s account, his stepfather is to blame; he ‘‘puts up a big barricade’’ to prevent a relationship: ‘‘I don’t really think he likes me.’’ As with most of the adolescents with whom we spoke, Justin claims to be friends with all sorts of people, that ‘‘there’s no one I don’t get along with.’’ His demeanor, however, is out of step with this claim.

When he was younger, and whenever he wasn’t at his father’s house, he would attend church with his mother: ‘‘[w]e’re pretty much every-week people.’’ His father is ‘‘Protestant’’ (no clarification) and his stepfather is Catholic, but neither is active. Unlike Kristin, who takes her religious faith in stride (if not seriously), Justin wishes he could escape his religious responsibilities. His religious sense is indeed shallow: ‘‘I’m not really a big fan of pondering the meaning of life here, so.’’ Later he confessed that ‘‘very few things interest me. . . . there’s not really much substance to my life right now, and if I think about that stuff [the purpose of life] too much I’m gonna be miserable.’’

Justin perceives himself as honest; he doesn’t deceive, cheat, or lie. He is hardly happy, though. Recently arrested for possession of marijuana, he keenly feels the pressure of expectations on him: ‘‘[t]eenagers today are a lot more emotionally fragile.’’ In his assessment, parents couldn’t care less about their kids; they simply don’t pay attention, and Justin cannot conceive that they might.

The arrest has not diminished Justin’s interest in pot or alcohol. A sizable young man, ‘‘it takes a lot to get me puking.’’ He has nevertheless recently slowed a drinking-every-other day habit (he doesn’t want a drinking offense on his nascent criminal record), but his marijuana use has increased. When asked how much his parents discipline him when they find out he’s done something wrong, he replies tersely: ‘‘They’re assholes. [They’re assholes?] Yeah, they suck. [laughs] [Like, what do you mean?] They just take my car and stuff. . . . it’s just like, come on, I didn’t do anything that bad.’’ Unlike Kristin, who finds her mother’s interest in her life annoying yet comforting, Justin evaluates his mother’s (and, to an extent, his stepfather’s) concern as entirely negative: ‘‘[t]hey make doing everything a pain in the ass.’’

To Justin, religion is ‘‘something that hasn’t come into play with me yet. I think it probably will sometime . . . after I have a better understanding of the way everything works.’’ He has belief, but he feels no need to question much of anything: ‘‘[y]ou know, I’m Catholic, and I don’t really necessarily have to think about it [religion]. I don’t have to question it, ’cause, you know, it works.’’ He likes God, he admits, but doesn’t think much about religion. He does not disagree with church teachings; they just play very little active role in his life. They probably would later, ‘‘when you’re about to die.’’ A former priest of Justin’s was under fire in the wake of the priest sex scandal, but Justin still feels that the average priest is a good guy. He attended CCD (Confraternity of Christian Doctrine; the standard Catholic religious education course), but it was ‘‘just a chance to clown around on Sundays after church.’’ Ironically, at the conclusion of our interview, Justin speculates that he might ‘‘be a little bit better than I am now’’ when he hits age 50 or 60, and he might even be ‘‘one of the guys who teaches CCD or, you know, that type of thing.’’

For now, though, Justin and his friends prefer edgy adolescent fare: music, parties, smoking, drinking, sex, and movies. Parties sometimes entail sex, but ‘‘unfortunately I’m not really in that part of, I’m not really, you know, like, into that.’’ Later, he puts it more frankly: ‘‘I haven’t really recently been too successful with, you know, girls.’’ This depresses him, because dating and sex clearly went together in his experience: ‘‘I’d be lying to you if I said, you know, I don’t want . . . some, you know, some pussy.’’ Justin has a less romantic view of sexual partnerships than do Ben or Kristin: ‘‘[p]eople become assholes when, when they get involved [sexually],’’ by which he meant that ‘‘involved’’ couples seem to treat each other poorly and cheat on each other. What are his opinions about sexual involvement? Girls who can’t ‘‘handle it mentally’’ shouldn’t do it. Otherwise, just ‘‘don’t be an asshole. Don’t, I don’t like making people feel bad. I mean, I feel bad when people get sad and especially if it’s my own doing.’’

All of this was moot for Justin, since ‘‘unfortunately’’ he has not had sex for about a year. His senior year has been a disappointment in that area, with no imminent prospects. This gap in paired sexual activity should sound familiar to students of human sexuality: necessary resources (e.g., attractiveness, reputation) required to engage in sexual behavior often constrain sexual actors from accomplishing their goals (Laumann, Gagnon, Michael, and Michaels 1994). This is certainly the case for Justin.

Previous sexual partners have cheated on Justin. Though he claims this doesn’t affect him, his conversation is raw and revealing: ‘‘[n]othing’s [no girl is] important to me enough for me to have to, you know, lower my standards. . . . I’m not going to become their bitch, so you know, it’s not that big a deal to me.’’ While Justin denies ever participating in any unusual practices like group sex, he asks the interviewer if other adolescents had reported such involvement. While he doesn’t surf the Internet for pornography, he thinks there’s nothing wrong with it and has even invested in a set of X-rated DVDs. This in turn has brought X-rated junk mail to the house, prompting him to lie to his mother: ‘‘I was like, aw shit, mom, I don’t know how this happened. [laughs]’’ Pornography relaxes him, he claims: ‘‘[i]t’s a nice relaxing way to spend your afternoon.’’

Christianity has nothing to do with how Justin thinks about sex. Unlike numerous other youths, however, he doesn’t report that Christianity teaches that sex outside of marriage is wrong. Instead, he suggests that Christian sexual morality is a social construction meant to curb natural, instinctual behavior in order to limit people’s fertility. Left unchecked, people would have too many babies, and at too young an age, and not be able to support them.


Carla is a 17-year-old evangelical Protestant girl from Florida. An average student and slightly overweight, she nevertheless conveys comfort with her own appearance. She was interviewed in her parents’ restaurant, where she works. It’s just her and her parents in the ‘‘close-knit’’ household (an older half brother is hooked on drugs and lives elsewhere). Carla was raised in a larger city but has since moved to a smaller town. She and her mother are close. Her father is an ex-Marine with war experience, a recovering alcoholic, and ‘‘a very structured, strict, you know, ‘we want it done this way, now,’ kind of guy.’’ They get along well, and she’s ‘‘daddy’s little girl,’’ but this role comes with some baggage. He prefers to have a schedule of her evening events before she goes out with friends, and she worries about how he will handle her future boyfriends. A recent cancer scare (for her) proved benign but still brought the three of them closer together and closer to God:

It [cancer] is one of those things that makes me wonder how people can’t believe in God. Because, like, my family, that’s the only way we got through it was praying together and just thinking, ‘‘you know, what’s meant to happen will happen.’’ . . . it really pulled us together rather than, you know, like everybody saying ‘‘Oh, why did God do this to her?’’ or ‘‘I hate God,’’ you know.

Her parents were not Christians earlier in life. In fact, Carla came to faith before her parents did, after regularly attending church as a five-year-old with a friend. They all started off Baptist but now frequent a nondenominational church. Baptists dominate Carla’s local religious scene, and she resents it. She is not given to politicizing religion, as she perceives her fellow Florida Baptists to be doing:

I mean it’s just because we’re in the Bible Belt of the South here, but it’s, you know, I don’t like feeling the influence that the Baptists put on you. You know, like I know that Disney had their Gay Day, but gay families deserve rights, too, you know. I mean like, and I guess that’s the difference between me growing up in a big city and this small town here, you couldn’t really see their small-town mentality. I know that being gay is wrong in the eyes of God, but at the same time, you’re supposed to love everybody. So you know, I just don’t like the idea of Baptists telling me what to do.

Carla is an advocate of outcasts and feels hostile toward adolescents who are judgmental about appearances: ‘‘I don’t want to go somewhere with somebody [if] they’re gonna be, ‘oh, you can’t talk to her’ because she doesn’t wear the right clothes and all that stuff.’’ Such talk suggests she has been on the receiving end of haughty eyes. In fact, she thinks that personal appearance is one of the two biggest problems facing teenagers these days (the other one is sex):

There’s a lot of pressure on girls, I think more than guys, to look a certain way and to act a certain way. You know, you need to be 5010@, weigh 110 pounds, have long, flowing hair and big boobs and you know all this other stupid stuff. And then when you don’t fall into that category, people just kind of look at you like you’re second rate. And then if you’re not real flirty and flighty and you know ‘‘ha-ha’’ all the time, then you’re not a fun girl, I guess, for the guys to be around.

Yet the stress of both fitting in and resisting the pressures to do so are taking a toll on Carla. She takes medication for clinical depression and writes down her feelings in a journal (her doctor’s recommendation).

Although Carla is very religious, and she articulates and confesses her belief in the traditional teachings of Christianity, she is not actually very active in her local congregation. She’s not in a youth group and only reads the Bible ‘‘if something’s weighing heavy on my mind.’’ Faith clearly makes a difference in her life. But it does not come easy to Carla; she has to work at it: ‘‘[i]t is a struggle because you really understand, like for anybody that says it’s not a struggle, then they don’t understand Christianity. Because there are so many little things that you don’t think about throughout the day that you do that are bad. [laughs]’’

Carla occasionally sips alcohol (after all, ‘‘Jesus drank. He didn’t, you know, drink to get drunk’’) but swears she will never smoke or touch drugs. Having had a brush with her own mortality, she thinks twice about her legacy before acting: ‘‘I would hate for my grandparents and my parents to be at my funeral saying, ‘Man, what a loser, you know. She died ’cause she just couldn’t resist.’ ’’

She thinks that someday she’ll marry her boyfriend of two years, Philip, though for now they maintain clear sexual boundaries: ‘‘[t]alking about sex for us was kind of weird because I was like, I don’t even know if I should bring it up. But I didn’t want him to think that it would be OK, you know. Like no, we have limits and you just have to understand that.’’ He does, and they don’t, although they do kiss, which is OK: ‘‘[e]ven a little bit farther than that, but you know once you have to start getting in to the, I guess, the truly intimate moments, it’s just a little bit too far.’’ Philip ‘‘completely understands where I’m coming from and he agrees, so that makes it easy for the both of us.’’

Carla’s parents are open and honest with her about sex, and she appreciates their candor. She is something of a sexual idealist, believing that if two people in love wait, the wedding night will be a grand one: ‘‘[t]hat just makes it more special, you know. I mean, your honeymoon will be an experience you’ll always remember that way.’’ On the other hand, some adolescents, she thinks, date solely for the sexual benefits: ‘‘[t]his sounds horrible, but it’s no different than paying a prostitute [laughs], because it’s really all you’re doing, you’re just getting it free.’’ For her, sex is supposed to be the ultimate commitment: [It’s] being able to say OK, I’m yours for the rest of my life. You have me completely, you know, 100 percent. And then if you’re married, and you get pregnant, it’s no big deal, you know. You’re already married and you’re ready for that. You’re ready for a family, but you know when you’re 16, 17 years old and you get pregnant, what a mess.

Her grandmother got pregnant before her own wedding, and the story has stuck with her: ‘‘[s]he said, ‘If I had it to do over again, I would’ve waited, because it was like, you know, bam, we’re married, we have no money . . . and we have a kid on the way.’ ’’

Carla is one of the rare adolescents who clearly distinguishes religious from instrumental reasons for abstaining from sex, and sees merit in both: ‘‘I mean if you don’t do it for religious purposes, then you need to do it just, you know, for street smarts.’’ She applauds recent MTV ads promoting the use of contraception. Although Carla admits feeling pressure to look trim and sexy, ironically she doesn’t sense considerable tension over sex, even though she says many of her school peers are sexually active, ‘‘more so than their parents might know.’’ She doesn’t understand why so many youths are ‘‘willing to risk it all for what, like 10, 15 minutes of pleasure, I mean [laughs], it’s not like it’s all that long when you’re young. . . . it just seems like it’s overrated to me.’’

She nevertheless resents the sexual double standard: ‘‘[s]ex is sex, and sleeping around is sleeping around. It shouldn’t matter who you are [or] what gender you are.’’ Indeed, Carla is something of an evangelical feminist. She’s strong-willed, caring, resentful of the small-town, double-standard pecking order based on beauty, and fed up with a Baptist moralizing that she’s convinced is only skin deep and at root, unbiblical.

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