Don’t Start Early, Don’t Be Explicit
Audrey Werner’s book 10 Tips on How NOT to Talk to Your Kids About Sex[i] raises challenges to several fundamental aspects of our approach to sex education in Christian families. A theme running through her book is resistance to and rejection of the agenda of the professionalized sex-education establishment (embodied in such organizations as SIECUS, the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States), which she summarizes as Alfred Kinsey and his subsequent followers. She argues that secular, professional sex educators have intentionally designed their curricula to morally corrupt children and undermine the traditional family by sowing moral relativism and prematurely introducing highly sexualized and erotic material.
We agree with and applaud much of Werner’s approach, particularly her concern about the all-too-frequent impact of secular sex education on children and families.[ii] We have significant concerns about several of the tips that emerge from her analysis, however. In particular, Werner recommends severely restricting the terminology parents use in sex education and delaying discussing these issues until much later than we advise.
We present here her “10 tips,” each of which has its own chapter. We’ve sorted these tips by (1) those with which we agree without reservation, (2) those with which we agree depending on the underlying definition of a key term or terms, and (3) those with which we disagree. Here are those with which we agree:
1. “Model purity for your children in all you say and do.” (In the opening four chapters of How and When to Tell Your Kids about Sex and throughout, we discuss how essential it is to recognize that faith and moral values are more “caught than taught.”)
5. “Teach self-control.” (See How and When to Tell Your Kids about Sex chapter 4.)
8. “Look at your children through Jesus’ eyes and not the human sexuality experts’ eyes.” (How and When to Tell Your Kids about Sex chapter 2 explicitly discusses the dangers of secular sex education.)
10. “Through prayer, along with the help of God and his instruction found in scripture, you and your children can help end the evil coming out of the sexual revolution.” (Agreed!)
We agree—with some important qualifications—with some of Werner’s guidelines.
2. “Approach the topic with modesty.”
3. “Remind your children of their identity in Christ.”
7. “When your child asks a question, ask him or her more questions first before answering.”
9. “Maintain your child’s moral innocence, without keeping them naïve.”
Regarding #3, our How and When to Tell Your Kids about Sex book for parents and each of the related children’s books encourage Christian faithfulness and identification in our children. Before they are anything else, our children are children of the living God, beings created in his holy image. Yet it is important to emphasize that living as the “image of God” includes recognizing that God made us sexual beings, as we discuss in chapters 5 and 7.
Clarification of what the child is asking (#7) is important, but not as a way of diverting the child’s attention or evading the question. A parent can discourage a child from asking questions by putting up the defense of distracting questions; this approach communicates clearly that the parent is uncomfortable answering the child’s direct questions.
Modesty (#2) and moral innocence (#9) are qualities of the heart that should be reflected in the way that your children live their lives. Neither modesty nor innocence involve never using the word sex, never using modern and correct anatomical names or terms, or restricting one’s vocabulary to words used in the Bible, however (see our below discussion of tips #4 and #6). Modesty and moral innocence as they apply to vocabulary mean avoiding terminology that is coarse, crass, worldly, or perverse. To the extent that naiveté means basic ignorance resulting in children failing to understand the undercurrents of culture around them, we disagree with #9. Our goal should be to develop our children to a point of moral maturity, grounding them in God’s Word so that “their powers of discernment [are] trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (Hebrews 5:14).
We disagree profoundly with two of Werner’s tips.
4. “Don’t use the word ‘sex.’”
6. “Use God’s words, found in scriptures, when having a conversation about the facts of life.”
We want to be clear regarding what Werner means before explaining the nature of our disagreement. In her chapter “Tip 4: Don’t Use the ‘Sex’ Word,” she argues that “nowhere in scripture does God use the term ‘sex.’ In the Bible we can read the terms: ‘know,’ ‘become one flesh,’ and ‘beget,’ which all relate to the procreative act between a husband and wife.”
Further, in her chapter on modesty (“Tip 2: Approach the Topic With Modesty”), she states, “By the time I learned the biblical truth regarding this issue [of modesty], I had already been following the instructions of the ‘experts’: teach them the correct anatomical terms for their genitals. My response was to go to my children and apologize to them and to quickly change my terminology. . . . I began to be more modest in my approach.” She goes on: “In our home, we used the term ‘marital act’ to describe what God intended between a husband and wife. After apologizing to our young children for using the correct anatomical terms for the genitals, we switched to using the term ‘private parts’. . .”
To bolster her argument, in her chapter “Tip 4: Don’t Use the ‘Sex’ Word,” she uses Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible[iii] to “study the meaning of words in the original Hebrew and Greek.” Werner does not comprehensively study the usage and meaning of biblical words relating to sexuality, however. Instead, she selectively picks words with which she is comfortable and uncomfortable, and then draws conclusions based on a word count, saying:
For example, according to the concordance:
1. Chaste is mentioned three times;
2. Pure and other forms of the word, (purely, pureness, purer, purify and purity) are mentioned 130 times;
3. Sex, sexuality and sexual intercourse are never mentioned once in God’s Word.
Werner concludes, “We can learn from this resource [the concordance] that ‘sex’ is not God’s word of choice on the subject of the intimate physical human relations, but rather ‘pure’ and ‘chaste’ are His standards.”
This is both a confused methodology and a confused conclusion. To begin with method, the reader must realize that Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance, originally published in 1890, is a concordance of word usage in the King James Bible. While this is still a respected translation after centuries of use, should we really restrict our words to King James English in discussions with our children? To the words found in any other translation of the Bible? This would significantly constrict our conversations about contemporary issues. How can you teach your child to cook, wash, and put away dishes in a modern kitchen if you only use vocabulary from the Bible to describe this process?
A second problem with Werner’s method is that she compares the results of a selective search for modern English words descriptive of “sex, sexuality and sexual intercourse” with a similar selective search for words related to “His [God’s] standards.” This confused method produces distorted findings for God’s vocabulary regarding standards and for the various descriptive terms in the Bible, as the following paragraphs make clear.
To begin with, the Bible is much more explicit than Werner admits regarding both (1) terms for sinful acts, and (2) descriptive terms related to sexuality. In the English Standard Version (ESV), a translation known for its accuracy and precision,[iv] a number of passages are notable for their graphic language. But the direct and explicit language of the Bible is nowhere more clearly on display than in Ezekiel 23. We present here unnumbered selections from verses 1-22 (less than half of the entire chapter):
The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, there were two women. . . . They played the whore in Egypt; they played the whore in their youth; there their breasts were pressed and their virgin bosoms handled. . . .
“Oholah played the whore while she was mine, and she lusted after her lovers the Assyrians. . . . She bestowed her whoring upon them, . . . and she defiled herself with all the idols of everyone after whom she lusted. . . . These uncovered her nakedness. . . .
“Her sister Oholibah saw this, and she became more corrupt than her sister in her lust and in her whoring, which was worse than that of her sister. . . . But she carried her whoring further. . . . And the Babylonians came to her into the bed of love, and they defiled her with their whoring lust. And after she was defiled by them, she turned from them in disgust. When she carried on her whoring so openly and flaunted her nakedness, I turned in disgust from her, as I had turned in disgust from her sister. Yet she increased her whoring, remembering the days of her youth, when she played the whore in the land of Egypt and lusted after her lovers there, whose members were like those of donkeys, and whose issue[v] was like that of horses. Thus you longed for the lewdness of your youth, when the Egyptians handled your bosom and pressed your young breasts.”
Scholars are in complete agreement[vi] that the euphemism members is a plural reference to the male sex organ (i.e., the penis), and the more descriptive term issue is a plural reference to semen (i.e., male ejaculate). The result is that a good translation of this phrase in Ezekiel 23:20 is “lusted after her lovers there, whose penises [she imagined] were like those of donkeys and whose ejaculate was like that of horses.”
Furthermore, a smattering of other terms and phrases from the ESV translation of three books from the Pentateuch provides a more valid overview of how the Bible uses language describing both positive and negative moral standards and descriptive terms regarding sexuality:
Genesis 19:1-11: The story of Sodom and Gomorrah includes the demand by the men of the city to “Bring them out to us, that we may know them” (verse 5).
Genesis 38:9: “But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his. So whenever he went in to his brother’s wife he would waste the semen on the ground, so as not to give offspring to his brother.” Note that “went in” is a fairly graphic description of intercourse.
Leviticus 12, in which we find the terms conceive and menstruation (verse 2), and the phrase his foreskin shall be circumcised (verse 3).
Leviticus 15: This entire chapter is devoted to discharges of semen and of menstrual blood, as well as discharges likely related to sexually transmitted diseases. All of these emissions, healthy and unhealthy, are described as from the body, a term which the ESV Study Bible notes is the Hebrew word for flesh, which is “used euphemistically here [Leviticus 15:2] for the ‘genitals.’ In fact, the same word is used in v. 19 [of Leviticus 15] of the female vagina.”[vii]
Leviticus 18, This entire chapter repeatedly uses the phrase uncover the nakedness of, which the ESV Study Bible notes is “a euphemism for sexual intercourse.”[viii] Such relations are prohibited with various relatives.
Leviticus 19:20: “If a man lies sexually with a woman who is a slave. . .”
Leviticus 20:15-16: “If a man lies with an animal, he shall surely be put to death, and you shall kill the animal. If a woman approaches any animal and lies with it, you shall kill the woman and the animal; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them.”
Deuteronomy 23:1, 10: “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose male organ is cut off shall enter the assembly of the Lord. . . . If any man among you becomes unclean because of a nocturnal emission, then he shall go outside the camp. He shall not come inside the camp.”
We could offer additional examples, but those already offered establish the point. The Bible uses much more explicit language than Werner acknowledges, and its euphemisms are so transparent that its language might as well be explicit.
How does Werner want parents to talk to their children? In chapter 4, she states her solution:
You may be wondering how parents talked to their children about this subject prior to Kinsey and the birth of sex education. After searching through numerous antique stores to find books that addressed this subject, I was surprised to find out how simple it was back then. Their whole discussion revolved around “the flowers, the birds, and the bees.”[ix]
We completely agree with Werner regarding the standards toward which we are striving with our children. In How and When to Tell Your Kids about Sex, we often emphasize that it is appropriate and important to talk about purity and chastity when discussing God’s standards for the sexual behavior and moral character of our children. We need to revive such language, as well as other biblical terms such as virgin. Werner fails to note, however, that in the divinely inspired Old Testament, God frequently uses harsh, explicit language in discussing and defining the opposite of purity; words such as uncleanness, defilement, impurity, adultery, unfaithfulness, and whoring appear frequently in these books. Specific word counts are irrelevant. When it comes to identifying descriptive terms, Werner’s method of searching selectively for just a few words is misleading; the descriptive language in the Bible is much more explicit than she admits.
Circling back to Werner’s concerns about secular sex education, throughout her book, she urges parents to delay talking with their kids about sexuality for as long as possible. She seemingly considers any thought of early conversations, even developmentally appropriate ones, to a slavish following of Kinsey. We disagree about timing for two main reasons. Our first reason is summarized as “Principle 3: First messages are the most potent.” Our basic argument, sprinkled throughout discussions in chapters 2, 5, 6, and 7 is that “by seizing opportunities to share with your child God’s perspectives on their developing sexuality, you build their beliefs around God’s truth rather than the world’s distortions,”[x] and we establish ourselves as truthful, trusted, competent experts they can always go to for accurate information. Additionally, we maintain that “The earlier you start, the easier it will be later.”[xi]
In chapter 12, we offer our second reason in discussing the timing of “the talk” about sexual intercourse. Our argument is that “the timing of telling your child about intercourse is a strategic decision made considering the needs and maturity level of your child and the circumstances of your family,” and that “It is not a moral decision. There is no divine rule.”[xii]
We further argue that Hebrew children (such as Jesus) “lived in a culture dependent on breeding, raising, and consuming animals, a culture in which the fertility cycles, breeding strategies, and births of animals would be regular occurrences.”[xiii] They also lived in a culture often lacking in privacy, a culture that was “earthy” (given how God spoke to his people through the prophet Ezekiel and others), and that therefore “We cannot assume that ignorance, silence, and embarrassment was the Hebrew approach to talking about sex.”[xiv] We also argue that “whether children will be traumatized by hearing about sexual intercourse depends entirely upon how they are told.”[xv]
In conclusion, our sister in Christ is biblically and
morally correct in resisting and rejecting the liberalizing moral agenda of
Kinsey and his cultural descendants. But Warner is misguided in (1) ruling out
the discreet, modest, and respectful use of anatomically correct (without being
crass or crude) and explicit (without being prurient or lewd) vocabulary with
our children, and (2) advising against developmentally appropriate discussion
about sex and sexuality with our children throughout their lives.
[i] Audrey Werner, 10 Tips on How NOT to Talk to Your Kids About Sex (McKinney, TX: RHEMA, 2017). Quotations are from the Kindle edition and so are referenced by chapter and not by page.
[ii] We note this in chapter 2 and elsewhere in How and When to Tell Your Kids about Sex.
[iii] James Strong, Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1890).
[iv] To read the translators on their intent in translating, see “Preface to the English Standard Version,” accessed October 24, 2018, https://www.esv.org/resources/esv-global-study-bible/preface-to-the-english-standard-version/.
[v] Emphasis added.
[vi] We can point to no published resources here. We discussed this matter with four different nationally and internationally respected Old Testament scholars at Wheaton College, and they all concurred that Old Testament scholars universally agree that the Hebrew terms used about donkey penises and horse ejaculations were as earthy and explicit as possible, even crude, and that the English translations—both translations and in discussions in commentaries—are accommodations to American culture. In the words of one of my scholar friends, “The Hebrew terms are as earthy as you can get, but we have to be sensitive in English in how we translate and discuss these things in commentaries. The Hebrew in the original is essentially street language.”
[vii] ESV Study Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 236.
[viii] ESV Study Bible, 241. It is well worth noting that the terms “have sex” and “sexual intercourse” are themselves euphemisms, just like “the birds and bees.” Neither directly describes the sexual act itself. Dictionaries note the origins of the word “intercourse” in Middle English to human communications, in Old French to commercial interchange, and in Latin to interventions between people.
[ix] Werner, 10 Tips, chap. 4.
[x] Stan and Brenna Jones, How and When to Tell Your Kids about Sex (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2019), p. 69.
[xi] Jones, How and When, ibid.
[xii] Jones, How and When, p. 129.
[xiii] Jones, How and When, p. 130.
[xiv] Jones, How and When, ibid.
[xv] Jones, How and When, p. ibid.