One of the most perplexing problems confronting parents and pastors is teen-age sexuality, and in some cases, promiscuity and pregnancy. In the following interview with CHRISTIANITYTODAY, Donald Joy, professor of human development at the Center for the Study of Children, Conscience, and the Family at Asbury Theological Seminary, Wilmore, Kentucky, answers questions and gives practical counsel.

Dr. Koteskey mentions you in his opening paragraph. Is there a dialogue going on between the two of you on adolescence?

Yes, we have lunch together once a week. Ron saw my definition of adolescence. In it I compared Stone Age, agrarian, industrial, and technological cultures, and pointed out that in some societies there is no “adolescence phenomenon”—no lapse of time between sexual maturity and rites of passage into adult status, jobs, independence, and marriage. This triggered Ron’s curiosity.

Are you comfortable with his analysis and his recommendations?

I think they are very helpful. But I am more optimistic than he is. Looking at both biological and cognitive development, I conclude that God has made us in such a way that, as moral demands of a given society become more intensive, its adolescents are capable of an unbelievably early moral sensitivity. Then, by the age of 25 or so, they can make a commitment to an advanced ethical system; they can develop moral maturity. Such sensitivity and wisdom have traditionally been reserved for the aged.

Are you saying that children’s brains, as well as their sexual development, are actually different from past generations?

Research isn’t completed, but the best clues we have suggest exactly that. Piaget, looking at only “moral reasoning,” found a shift from objective responsibility (how much damage was done) to subjective responsibility (what the person’s intentions were) occurring just ahead of puberty. We know that the thickening of the myelin sheathing of the correlation fibers of the cerebral cortex and the thalmus is not completed until sexual maturity. This sheathing in the brain evidently makes possible high speed reflective and evaluative thinking. We are just beginning to discover the powerful effect of the brain—as far back as the third fetal month—in shaping sexual orientation. I am suggesting that God creates us so that no child comes to sexual maturity without the necessary brain capabilities to deal with complicated moral choices.

How can teen-agers best handle their early sexual maturity?

By the age of eight, most children should have to take final responsibility for some choices they make. Children need to handle a week’s money, for example, and deal with the consequences of poor decisions. Eventually those children are going to make sexual decisions on their own. They must be able to make choices and live with the consequences.

A child’s emerging sexual energy is an enormous responsibility; sex should not be the first “final moral choice” category to deal with. When parents, physicians, or public agencies suggest that birth control or abortion cover the only moral aspect of sexuality, they trivialize sex. They veto the only “curriculum” that might have produced a moral giant of the young person.

What is crucial is that the teen-ager deal with the issue with full, final responsibility. An adolescent can use the frustrations incurred in saving virginity for the wedding night and turn them into moral growth. On the other hand, an adolescent who gets into a pregnancy may also deal with the realities of sexual feelings and of fertility in ways which lead that person into wisdom and sensitivity and a profound respect for the ultimate human values of life, family, and attachment.

Should parents go along with their teen-agers who want to marry early? Isn’t the divorce rate for early marriages literally sky high?

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Statistically, we have never bothered to sort out early marriages that received the full emotional and spiritual support of both families and those that didn’t. Throughout history the best marriages were those that openly belonged to the two tribes, and the economic support was built in. Age at marriage is not the first priority to consider. The deeply sensitive Christian family will be more concerned to support a high quality developing bond between two young people, than to sacrifice it on the altar of pagan values of money, promiscuity, birth control, and abortion. Biblical taboos for sexual intimacy are consistently directed toward the rapist, the predator who violates a sexual bond that belongs to another, and the sexually promiscuous person. We have not been quite honest in developing biblical standards for sexual intimacy for engaged couples.

Are you saying that sexual intimacy before marriage is acceptable?

No, not at all. The timing of sexual intimacy really needs to be understood and honestly taken into account by the couple and their families. The wedding date needs to be sufficiently flexible to adjust it to the schedule of developing intimacy. Sexual intimacy before marriage is likely to trigger promiscuity in one or both if the frustration of delayed marriage continues. Sensitive, understanding parents will not use economics, graduation, or whatever, to delay the marriage if the intimacy development is running ahead of a schedule set on the basis of those other criteria.

Do you see any turnaround to this early age of sexual maturity?

Yes. I think if we slip into an energy blackout, it will reverse. It reversed slightly in the United States during the Great Depression. We have thought for years that the early age of puberty and early achievement of body height were effects of climate or of diet, or even of nomad-like intermarriage. It now appears that light is rushing puberty. As we have lighted our homes, our playgrounds, and our cities, and as our children have spent some 15,000 hours watching television, we may have speeded up their sexual and physical development. If it should happen that we go back to hard times, to eight or more hours of fully darkened sleeping, we may find children developing more slowly. Melatonin, a chemical produced by the pineal gland, evidently acts as a brake on the development of the primary sex organs and later on the ovarian cycles and on hormone production in both males and females. But it seems to appear in the bloodstream only under conditions of total darkness.

If teen-agers have been sexually active, is it inevitable that they will have “bonded,” as you say? Should they marry in all cases, or are there exceptions?

They may not have bonded in a way that would justify their being married. Here are questions I use to test the quality of the developing bond: “Who else knows how intimate you have been?” “How close do you feel to each other’s family?”“How do you see this relationship ending?” Confidentiality is one mark of a respect-filled developing relationship. If either has “leaked” information to friends, the quality of the relationship will be seriously in jeopardy. Similarly, if each person has not become attached to the other’s family, the bond, even though strong, will lack the outside support needed to launch and sustain a marriage. Finally, if either expresses any feeling that he or she might be able to survive without the other, the bond is immature or deformed.

If they have reached the intimacy stages involving breast and genital contact, and the bonding questions I mention suggest a deformed relationship, the relationship needs to terminate and each will need time and space for healing. If a healing space is not carved out—normally from six months to three years of no romantic relationship—each tends to take the next relationship almost immediately to the same intimacy level, and the promiscuous pattern is under way.

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You seem to like the word “bonding.” What do you mean by it?

It is a happy word that means just what popular connotations mean: attached, cemented, “joined together.” Today, “birth bonding” studies show, for example, that if parents have skin-to-skin contact with the newborn for more than 15 minutes out of the first two hours, the baby will cry less at the end of three months; nonbonded infants cry 540 percent more! And mothers worry less about keeping the baby from becoming messy—nose, eyes, mouth, diaper; nonbonded mothers spend 550 percent more time cleaning their babies. Between a man and a woman, the “bond” expresses itself in confidentiality, respect, fidelity, attachment in every way. Eventually the pregnancy, birthing process, and joint parenting tasks continue to strengthen the pair bond. This bonding is obviously lifelong and ever increasing if the two persons continue the bonding behaviors.

What is the most important factor in helping teens to understand and cope with their sexuality?

Everybody I have ever talked to has had some really positive adolescent sexual feelings, yet most of us have worried that those feelings were somehow bad. Young men typically “beat their brains out” at mourner’s benches begging God to forgive them and to take the sexual monkey off their backs. But God leaves them fully charged. The one most important factor is accepting their sexual feelings, the developing appetite, for what God said it was: “very good.” The immediate second step, then, is to take full responsibility for “having dominion” over both appetite and fertility, and, knowing that God’s purpose is to furnish a lifelong attachment, to complete the “one flesh” display of the “image of God” to the honor of the character of the Creator.

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