Last week, four members of Congress wrote to the Department of Justice asking that it “declare the prosecution of obscene pornography a criminal justice priority and urge your US attorneys to bring prosecutions against the major producers and distributors of such material.”

This letter came in light of the internet exponentially increasing the proliferation of porn, which is “especially harmful to youth, who are being exposed to obscene pornography at exponentially younger ages.”

As children can increasingly learn about sex from peers and digital devices, parents should be intentional about trying to make sure their kids hear about it first from them, says Stan Jones, who has authored a number of Christian sex ed books, along with his wife, Brenna Jones.

Unfortunately, when it comes to giving their children “the talk,” “parents are often terrified of being asked, ‘Well, what did you do when at such-and-such an age?’” said Jones. “The unresolved hurt, guilt, shame from the past just causes parents to put it off and put it off.”

Jones joined digital media producer Morgan Lee and editor in chief Mark Galli to discuss how the sexual revolution changed sex, how the digital revolution changed sex, and how Christians parents and caretakers can get better at educating kids about sex.

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Quick to Listen is produced by Morgan Lee and Matt Linder

The transcript is edited by Bunmi Ishola

Highlights from Quick to Listen: Episode #191

What is different about the world that we live in now with regards to sex?

Stan Jones: At least some things are the same; people are essentially the same. You know, God created us as real human beings, embodied beings, spiritual beings, sexual beings. These things are continuous, but the social realities around us have changed profoundly. I'm 65 years old, and I remember as a young youngster searching for pornography and it was actually hard to find, you had to pursue it diligently and in secret. But now pornography's actually out chasing us. That's a profound difference and with it comes some profound shifts in how we think about ourselves.

I think the move towards thinking about ourselves, what it means to be a person, has become disengaged from our bodies, and so this is part of what facilitates the spread of pornography. I think it's the sense that our bodies don't matter very much, and they can be just objects of titillation rather than being things that are sacred and to be shared only with spouses. And so these are some of the undercurrents that I think are sweeping our children along in these times.

Are there any "turning points" that have happened in the past 50 years or so that have led to this change?

Stan Jones: The sexual revolution has had a profound effect. In some ways, I think the sexual revolution is connected to the Enlightenment, which was this shift of view from the person who's embedded in a religious network or network of belief in faith to the self that's autonomous and self-defining. And the sexual revolution, I think, is a continuation of that—the view of the self as somebody that is not responsive to God's rules and standards, but rather, we can define our own moral standards and live according to our own desires. The shift of the self as somebody that is defined by our belief in God and giving ourselves to God is instead somebody who's defined by defiance of these such standards.

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This kind of shift has really made a profound difference in our culture, where we have to unleash ourselves from social forces like religion and religious institutions in order to really find ourselves. That shift of finding self by searching inward, by casting off these shackles of chains that bind us and turning inward, is really a profound shift that has affected all of our children.

The development of technology is also a huge development. When people can find pseudo-community so easily on the internet, they can reach out and find these ephemeral communities of fragile identities that are self-defined and so forth. It becomes very appealing to think that you can understand who you are through such communities.

For people who didn't live through the sexual revolution, can you explain what it looked like before and after?

Stan Jones: I feel like I was a product of the before. So I grew up with a sense of sacredness but also shame surrounding sexuality. And so there was a sense in which I was cultivated into believing that sex was somehow special and to be reserved for marriage and so I felt guilty about trying to break those rules—which I did before I was a Christian and thankfully converted to Christ soon enough that I didn't get myself deeply in trouble. I think that the direction of things went south pretty fast. And so the shift to define some of those rules and the shift towards pursuing your own standards it was really a profound shift.

The mindset of the ’60s generation was one of throwing off the shackles, throwing off these constraints, that began to spread rather rapidly. And so I began to see rapid change quickly.

The credibility of the church's morality during this time just eroded thanks to the hypocrisy that we'd see in some parts of the church, which is still evolving in its revelations across Protestantism and Catholicism, but also by our inarticulateness about sexual morality. We tend to shake our fingers and say, "No, don't do this," but we don't have a good rationale. We don't have a good story to tell about why we ought to be preserving sex for marriage and why sex is sacred.

Was this "No" culture new and ignoring other ancient church teaching that might have given or holistic version or idea of what the human body should be seen?

Stan Jones: There was a broader sense in the history of the church of the marriage as a sacrament and having some steep symbolic meaning of representing the relationship of Christ to his church. And so when you look back to the medieval times, where The Song of Solomon was one of the most preached books in the Bible, and so there was a broad reverence for sex.

I don't think it was necessarily well articulated as I think we ought to be doing working at it today, but that heritage got lost in the Reformation. And the Reformation kind of celebrated marriage, not in an articulate way. I think there was a reliance on just the rules not to do it and the preservation of marriage is somehow sacred, but there wasn't a development of a strong rationale for why.

Mark Galli: I think what prompted us to force to think more deeply, more anthropologically, was the rise of the gay rights movement. It forced us to think, "Why exactly do we think homosexuality is a problem other than, 'no'?" And it has forced a lot of people to do some great and fresh and deep thinking about what is a human being.

Stan Jones: I think one of the things that's most important in emerging reflections, and what I'm trying to put it together in my own mind and hopefully projects for future writing, is the understanding of human beings as embodied and human beings as being made in the image of God. And to realize that embodiment is part of what it means to be made in the image of God and to realize that God is deeply relational and a deeply passionate being.

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The Reformation tradition tends to look at God as purely intellectual. But Jesus himself identifies God's first characteristic, or first identity, as being the Father. And the Father is the one who loves the Son. And because He loves the Son, He loves those who are united with the Son. He loves His people, His children. He adopts us. And so throughout the New Testament, we're called the beloved of God.

That idea that God's passionate love for us is related to our humanness. And our sexuality is our human capacity to experience that same kind of passion and love and union that God experiences within the Trinity and experiences with us in eternal life.

What has been formative shaping your beliefs about sex ed in particular?

Stan Jones: I grew up in a nominally Christian family. And I remember exactly three times when my father tried to talk to me about sex. Once when I was 12, a book mysteriously appeared on my pillow. Never got an explanation. And I just remember reading with a flashlight cause I knew I wanted to read it, but I know I should be ashamed for wanting to read it.

Then when I was 16, I was cleaning out the garage and my father walked in and sort of looked like he was coughing up a hairball and said, "Is there anything you want to know about sex?" And I just said, "No." And he walked out.

And the third time was literally 20 minutes before I got married. He asked me if there's anything I wanted to know. And so I didn't count myself as having a very good sex education growing up.

It was reading between the lines of jokes. It was porn, it was reading textbooks, reading encyclopedia articles, taking biology in high school and college. Those were the places where I learned about sex. And I learned the rules in early Christian faith, but I didn't have a deep understanding about it.

And I naively assumed that people who grew up in Christian families were having a different experience. So when I came to Wheaton, I started teaching classes in sexuality and I tried to use it as just sort of a cold opener in class to help people make it feel better about being more open. I would ask, "So how was your sexuality handled in your families of origin?" And instead of hearing these glowing stories of wonderful Christian families handling it so well, I heard horror story after horror story of silence and shame. So I thought somebody's got to do better.

And so that was when my wife and I, almost 30 years ago, resolve to try to put these books together. And our vision was for having a lifelong developmental approach where parents could get over the hump of getting the words out on the table and have developmentally age-appropriate conversations with their kids. Where were the kids, instead of feeling if they can't get knowledge from their parents and have to pursue it elsewhere, can rather look at their parents as resources to honestly talk about what they need to know. And thus the parents have the opportunity to shape their child's character around this.

What do you think are the two or three big obstacles parents have around talking to their kids openly about sex?

Stan Jones: The single biggest hiccup is unresolved shame and guilt about your own past. Hardly any of us have ever handled our sexuality in ways that we consider to be perfect or anywhere near perfect. And so I think parents are often terrified of being asked, "Well, what did you do when you were such and such an age?" And the unresolved hurt, guilt, shame from the past just serves to cause parents to just put it off and put it off and put it off.

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And I think there's also a secondary factor, which would probably be a false deference to experts. Societies teaching us that we shouldn't be talking about your kids unless you're an expert in biology and so forth and so on. When in fact, sex education is not primarily about education in biology. It's education in morality and character. It's the meaning of sexuality that we need to talk to our kids about. Now to get to the meaning, you need to cover the biological basics somewhere along the way, because otherwise it doesn't make sense. The biological basics are secondary to the moral, spiritual, and characterological meaning of sexuality and what it means in our lives.

How did you develop your actual philosophy?

Stan Jones: A wonderful, wonderful book fell under our hands. A book by Carolyn Nystrom called Before I was Born. It was a book that was written to explain basic facts of sexuality and sexual intercourse to kids that were in the age range of approximately six to nine years old.

And I remember when I first saw this book, I thought, that's got to be way too young, but I thought it was written so beautifully. So I thought, let's take it and read this to our daughter. She was seven when we did. You mentioned that such conversations are always awkward for kids. But actually, they're not always awkward for kids if parents would jump in and have the conversation. We had the conversation with our daughter, read this book and she just said, "Oh, that's what it is." And I said, yes. And it became a part of normal conversation. And so it's a beautiful book.

But we found out from Carolyn that she'd published this book in the late 70s and it sold about a thousand copies and had gone out of print. We thought, but this is the right approach. So we actually decided to write a parent's guidebook and then write a book for children that are younger than what she aimed at, which became The Story of Me.

We incorporated Carolyn's book into four of the books, the guidebook for parents and three other kid's books, and that became our book series. And so that's how we developed this idea of gradual, progressive, age-appropriate conversations with your kids. You start on building truths about the goodness of our bodies, the goodness of family, the goodness of God's word. Eventually we talk about marriage and what it means to have children and so forth and so on. And then you begin to talk about sexual intercourse and the rules that govern that, and then build that into the context of relationships and so forth and so on, as your child ages.

What have been the most controversial things about your approach, or that you found out later have provoked the most controversy?

Stan Jones: Parents assume that when you say, talk about sex with your kids that you're always talking about going into details about sexual intercourse, but sex is so much more than that. Sex is what it means to be male and female. It's what it means to be in love. It's what it means to be a family and so forth and so on. And so you can talk about these things without getting into those details.

The age at which to talk about sexual intercourse is itself controversial. We suggest that this is something that parents ought to decide, but you ought to think about introducing it somewhere between the age of six and nine. And the reason we suggest that, which seems early to many parents, is that kids are going to find out anyway. Especially nowadays. And so one of our principles is, as parents, you ought to be the first one to tell them the truth.

Why wait till your kid to learn something wrong and develops wrong attitudes, wrong beliefs, wrong, wrong census of the emotional impact of this? Why not frame it in the right way and be the one who tells them the truth and thus communicate: you can always come to me for a reality check for what you're hearing?

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We want to encourage parents to be the source of encouragement and trust to their kids. The first line of recourse, the first line of going for verification and for truth, rather than the last. And so by being ahead of the curve, by being the ones that gives them the first messages and the true messages and accurate messages—never lying to them, never, never deceiving them, never withholding information that they really need you—you become a reliable source of truth and a trusted source of truth.

How have you wrestled with the shame around sex that many Christian parents raised in the advent of purity culture struggle with?

Stan Jones: When we've began writing about these books, we expressed our general support for the purity movement, that they're fundamentally right, that it's a good thing to save sex for marriage, and that's a good thing, but there's problems on both sides of it.

One, is that the purity movement tends to overpromise that sex is going to be explosively wonderful if you just save it for marriage. And then people are led to be disappointed sometimes because sex is part of human life and it has its fallen dimensions. And it has to be learned. You have to learn how to please each other. And so sex can be disappointing or funny, it's complicated.

And on the other hand, there's, there's this position of shame that your life is going to be destroyed if you've crossed from the rules. And so one of our principles in our book is that there is no such thing as anything that's going to destroy your life. God can always, is always capable of, healing and redeeming anything.

And so to over to overplay either "the sex is going to be wonderful if you save it for marriage" or to overplay "your life is going to be destroyed and you're going to be incapable of forming future relationships if you violate these rules," both of those are distortions of the truth.

I would say there's a third thing that we raised as a concern about the purity culture is the sense of coercion of kids into making pledges. Pledges are fine things, but they ought to be genuine and they ought to come from the heart. And if a child is moved to make a pledge, that's a good thing. But they shouldn't be manipulated or coerced in group contexts—summer camps or rallies and stuff—to make those kinds of pledges insincerely as part of a crowd.

What about for parents who don't feel shame? Sex is just awkward to talk about for a lot of people. Why do you think that is?

Stan Jones: I think that there's a sense of privacy about sex. Sex is meant to be an intimately personal act. It's meant to be the most intimate and profound act of giving between two individuals and only two individuals. And there's a sense in which when you go public about that, you're violating some of that sense of privacy and specialness. And so I think parents are in essence, rightly concerned when they're thinking, I'm going to be talking to my kid about sex and they're going to think this is what my parents are doing right through that wall. And they will inevitably ask questions like, when do you do this? Did you do this last night? What did you do? And so forth, so on. Those are times when you preserve your privacy.

So there's a natural sense of specialness, I think. And so there is a natural reluctance to talk about it, but it's one, where for the sake of raising our kids to know what the truth is, we have to push past that,

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I constantly think back to the question of, when did Jesus learn about sex? And of course we don't know, but he grew up in an agrarian culture where breeding of animals was very commonplace, a very important part of the economy. He grew up in a context where there was very little privacy, there were no separate bedrooms and people were having children right and left. Those were the social realities, so I think it's highly unlikely that Jesus didn't learn about sex until he was 16.

Are there any other things that you've seen that you've been disappointed or frustrated with in regard to parents and their assumptions about sex ed?

Stan Jones: Couple of things come to mind. One of them is simply that people don't realize that sex education is less about providing information than more about shaping your child's character. We tend to think about education as information, but sex education is about shaping them to be patient, shaping them to be caring, shaping them to be empathetic, shaping them to delay gratification—all these sort of character traits that we need to think about as the bedrock of what it means to be well-formed as a moral human being.

The second thing would be that some of the most significant pushback we've gotten is from some conservative Christians who say that we ought to use only biblical language when we talked about the realities of sex. So we ought to talk about "begot" and "was with child" and "knew" and "lay with," and not use any anatomical language and so forth and so on. This is a very strange moment because when I talked to Old and New Testament scholars, they're actually quite taken with how earthy and direct the biblical language is. And if you take a careful look at passages in Ezekiel and Hosea and others, they're oftentimes quite graphic in terms of what they described. And so I think the Bible has a frankness and a freshness and an earthiness and a directness in its dealing with these issues.

You put these books out in the world 25 years ago, so have there been any significant tweaks to your philosophy or things that you've actually had to change as a result of the Internet?

Stan Jones: We have to be much more on guard about pornography and just the distortion in general. I think the access of information is quite worrisome. I think parents need to do a better job of cultivating kids' awareness of these things and helping to protect them against addiction to pornography and so forth.

You know, it's striking. A kid can see in one hour, more diverse sexual stimuli than an adult would have ever seen in a lifetime even 50 years ago. And this is, this is an amazing development and one that where the addictive powers of it are really quite striking. So guarding our kids against this kind of thing is really a priority for us now, I think.

How does your own training in psychology affect your work?

Stan Jones: It's given me a sense of the developmental trajectory of how the kids need to develop and grow. It's given us a sense of looking at the formation of character as opposed to just providing information.

My own thinking has evolved. I was trained originally as a cognitive-behavioral therapist, but I've really increasingly seen the shallowness of that view psychologically, and instead of viewing people as made in the image of God as a real, as relational beings, and we are beings who are made to bond.

In many ways, cognitive-behavioral psychology looks at human beings as a collection and conglomerate of habits and attitudes and believes that you can essentially be changed by will or by practice. It's a pretty cold and impersonal view of the person as opposed to the psychodynamic approaches, which really regards relationships as being primary, bonding being primary, the self as a real entity.

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As I pondered what it means to be made in the image of God, I'd come up against time and time again that we are embodied beings, we're made for relationships, and what it means to be a human being is that we’re permeable and we're defined by our relationships.

What is your belief about how anatomically correct people should be when they're talking about body parts with young children?

Stan Jones: I think we should use medical language. We should talk about penises and vaginas. I think we should do that from early on. We used to play a game with our children when they're babies: What's this? This is a nose. Who made that nose? God made this nose. What's this? This is a belly button. Who made that belly button? God made the belly button. What's this? This is a vagina. Who made that vagina? God made that vagina. It's a part of our bodies and it ought to be recognized from the very beginning.

And so I think using basic anatomical language—not in a salacious way, not in, not in a graphic way, but in a direct and forthright way. You can't go wrong being basically honest with your children and telling them the truth, giving them what they need to know at the right developmental age.

What is a better conversation that we can have when people are children to help them wrestle with some of the realities about sex when you're an adult and you're not married?

Stan Jones: One of the things to say is that while sex is easily available, but what does sex mean ultimately and what do we want from sex? And if sex is meant to build union between two people, then the availability of occasional sex when you want gratification is to presume that sex can be reduced to something that's just an urge. It's an itch to be scratched. It's an urge to be indulged from time to time because you need to have it met. And I think sexuality is much more than that, it's much more profound. Our sexual natures are meant to be the bridge by which two people, or two people's lives, are united. It's not the only bridge, marriage is much more than just sex. Marriage is the union of lives, the giving of oneself to one another, the submission of one to each other, and those things help to form the self.

Mark Galli: Part of the answer to that question, too, is to recognize that sexual fulfillment is not the epitome of what it means to be a human being. The Catholics have had a better stab at this than Protestants. Where in a typical Protestant church, to grow up and mature as a human being, you have to get married and have a family. Whereas the Catholic church is this huge tradition of celibacy that is blessed and lauded and praised. We are reminded that Jesus was not married and lived, hopefully, a fulfilling life.

But the point is, I think one of the things we need to do a better job of teaching is the blessedness and the goodness of the single life, which can be an extraordinarily important way to serve God. As I said, I think we don't do a great job with that in Protestantism.

Where do you see that Christian sex ed can affirm conversations around consent, and where do you think it can also push it further?

Stan Jones: We have to really affirm and really celebrate consent. I think consent was one of the revolutions that came with the early church overthrowing the Roman sexual ethic. The Roman sexual ethic was one of ownership. The free male in the Roman society basically owned everybody else. So women were chattel, slaves were chattel, so forth and so on. And they had sexual rights with just about anybody they wanted to have sexual rights over. The Christian faith came along and said, no, every person has the right to make their own mind before God. You have to give your voluntary consent. And so consent was built into the sexual revolution of the early church.

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And I think it's unfortunate that our contemporary culture has forgotten that it's consent for the purpose of preservation of the right moral choices of the individual. And so the problem now is that consent is the only criterion that is involved. Or sometimes it's paired with authenticity, which I think is also part of the early church, that the reason that the church wanted to preserve sex for marriage was because they recognize that sex is a time when you're, in the ideal case, you're giving your whole self authentically to the other person voluntarily. You're giving part of your true self to that person.

You cut those parts apart from their theological roots in marriage, and you say, well, as long as I'm being authentic and being real with my feelings, and as long as I'm giving my consent, that's all I need to do if I feel it in the moment. But that's not the Christian vision of sexuality. The Christian vision of sexuality is one that's more deliberate and rooted in a permanent bond between two individuals who have committed their lives to become one over time.

The #MeToo movement has shown convincingly that we still need to reinforce the concept of consent. There's way, way too much violation of consent already and continuing. And so, especially with young men today who still have a tendency to bounce outside of boundaries of behavior, we need to push the importance of consent. But it's more than consent. We're consenting not just to the other, but where we ought to be worrying about God's consent with what we're doing.

What are the ways that you encourage parents to kind of push back against pornography?

Stan Jones: This is a place where we really push the idea of inoculation. Know what your kids are going to be exposed to and get it out on the table ahead of time and prepare your kids and what they're going to expose to and prescribed some reactions to it.

So, warn your children, especially warn your young boys, that you're going to see porn. The vast majority of porn is told from a misogynistic, male control, male dominance, a consumerist, objectivist perspective where women are reduced to the servants of men. That's appalling.

And to say to your kids, sex in marriage is meant to be a true giving of the one to the other. It's 100% of the husband giving to the woman and 100% of the woman giving to the husband, and giving to each other in love where you sacrifice for the other and give to the other to give each other joy. And this is not using the other person ever. It's always given for the purpose of something higher than yourself. To say, but you're going to see out there these images that appeal to our base selfishness, that appeal to the worst parts of us that appeal to the part of us who wants to dominate or use other people—you don't have to go into graphic detail, but you can see that this is how these stories are told and you'll be pushed towards believing this. You have to warn your children away from it, and they have to be able to exercise the self-control to walk away from it. And you have to also help them to have to know how to solve sound alarms that they're losing control over it and that they need help to back away from it.

There was an article in The Atlantic about the sexual recession. It discussed how a lot of people with social anxiety that had grown up watching a lot of porn, masturbating at home, had really talked themselves out of actually wanting to have human interaction. Do you think Christian sex will have to deal with the fact that there are going to be people whose tendency is to withdraw?

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Stan Jones: I think we were already there. We already have to deal with that because in the same way that we're tempted to always constantly substitute nutritious food for fluff, in the same way we're drawn towards this pseudo-intimacy of pornography and fantasy. And so you're absolutely right, the sex recession is real.

You know, the sexual revolution was supposed to produce much more enjoyment of sex, and the statistics I think that in Britain, the average people were having sex a month was five times a month 30 years ago, four times a month 15 years ago, and three times a month in the last five years. And so this is going down. And I think it's because of isolation. You have increased loneliness, depression, deaths of despair, and drug addiction. All these statistics are piling up about these difficulties, and we have to deal with these directly and cast a vision for our kids that they need to be engaged in rich relationships—whether they're celibate and pursuing relationships that are non-sexual or are married and having sexual relationships. We've got to pursue relationships cause life is to be found in relationships where we live out the reality of the gospel in one-to-one and in group contexts.

Is there anything else that you would like to add or that you feel that maybe we should give more time to?

Stan Jones: I would just say to parents who are listening out there that the importance of engaging this topic with your children, no matter what approach you take. Just get started. Get started, become a person who is open to having this conversation with your children, and pursue whatever resources you need to find to get that to happen.