When Is It Okay To Have Sex?
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Sean McDowellSean McDowell, PhD, is a bestselling author, coauthor, or editor of more than 18 books, including Evidence That Demands a Verdict (with his father, Josh McDowell). He is also an associate professor of apologetics at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University and blogs regularly at seanmcdowell.org. Sean speaks internationally on a variety of topics related to culture, students, and apologetics.
When is it okay to have sex? Author Sean McDowell gives the critical need-to-know about when to have sexâ€”and avoid destruction and regret.
When Is It Okay To Have Sex?
Dave: So question for you: “If you could go back to your teenage years,—
Dave: —and I knew you then, but I was so much older and mature; [Laughter] three years older—but you know, in high school, you think you’re not even ever going to date somebody that much younger. So go back to like 13; maybe 14/15 years old.
Dave: There was no internet then.
Dave: But if there was, and you were going to Google® like a question—
Dave: —like, “I’ve got to get an answer to this!”—I’m just wondering what that question would be for you.
Ann: I didn’t grow up in a Christian home; so my first question, especially at that age, would have been: “When am I ready?” or “When is it okay to have sex?”
Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Ann Wilson.
Dave: And I’m Dave Wilson, and you can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on our FamilyLife® app.
Ann: This is FamilyLife Today.
Dave: Well, it’s interesting. While you were sitting in bed last night, and I had my laptop out, I googled that question.
Ann: Oh, you googled it!
Dave: I thought, “I bet a lot of teenagers are asking that question.”
Dave: So I just typed in—which I was thinking later—“This is going to look weird on my history! [Laughter]’“How can I know if I’m ready to have sex?’” Do you want to hear the answer?
Dave: First thing that came up—and I did it four different times; and every time, this was the very first—
Ann: —number one.
Dave: —the number-one hit was: “Deciding if you’re ready to have sex is a big decision that’s very personal. It’s important to think it through and wait until you’re sure you’re ready.” And then it goes on: “How do I know when I’m ready to have sex? Deciding to have sex is a big deal. It’s a big decision that only you can make. A healthy sex life fits in with everything that you’re about, including your personal values, your school and career goals, the emotional and physical risks you’re willing to take. Think about if having sex is something you really want to do or something you’re being pressured to do.”
I’m not going to read you the rest.
Dave: But guess where that comes from?
Ann: No idea.
Dave: Planned Parenthood.
Dave: That’s the number-one site you’re going to get an answer to that question.
Ann: So based on what you read, what would a teenager think?
Dave: I think you would think, “Oh, it’s really up to me. Maybe I’ll talk to my parents,”—no!—“I’ll talk to my friends, and I think they’re going to agree with me I’m probably ready.”
You know, again, it’s just a nebulous answer that needs some help. So let’s bring somebody in the studio to help us get a better answer to that question. We have Sean McDowell back with us—Dr. Sean McDowell—[Laughter] You know, he’s written a book called Chasing Love, which we’ve already had some discussion about; but it’s perfect, because it’s Sex, Love and Relationships in a Confused Culture.
Ann: Sean, welcome back to FamilyLife Today.
Sean: Thank you for having me.
Ann: Parents, I’m just going to say, “You need to get this book.”
Dave: Oh, yes!
Ann: There’s a workbook with it. Who would go through the workbook? Is this just teens alone?—in a group? Would parents do it with their teens?
Sean: Yes, the workbook comes along with a nine-part teaching series that I taught by video, 10-12 minutes kind of explaining some of the key ideas. I’ve had youth groups go through it and contact me. I’ve had parents just take kids through it individually; some homeschool groups have used it.
Dave: Yes, which is great! You know, you deal almost every day—right?—at Talbot School of Theology and at Biola; and you also teach at a local high school. So you’re dealing with young people’s questions all the time. I’m guessing you’ve heard the question I googled last night: “How do I know when I’m ready to have sex?” Obviously, you have a whole section on this question in the book. How would you answer that?
Sean: Well, I’d probably answer it differently to a non-Christian than I would to a Christian.
Ann: Ooh, let’s hear both.
Sean: So if a non-Christian asks me that, I will probably say, “So questions you make about sexuality are tied to who you are and the kind of person you want to become; because having sex with somebody is the one thing you do that brings a human life into existence. Do you agree that it’s a big deal?” “Yes.”
“So what do you think it means to love? What is loving somebody?” I might ask this question/I’d say, “Okay, do you want to get married someday?” I would start, sort of with the end in mind. Most young people would still say, “Yes.” I’d say, “Okay, what do you want that marriage to be like? Do you want that person to be faithful to you? Do you want that person to have had sex with a lot of people before they’re with you?” I think I would just start with a vision of the kind of person they want to become, and then help them think through [how] sexuality plays into that role.
And of course, if a non-Christian was open to it, I would quickly bring it to God and say, “You know, really, this is a question about: “Is there a God and a designer for your life? The fact that you’re asking this question, you realize a lot is at stake; and you can’t really answer this question without having some assumption about: ‘If there’s a God and how He wants us to live. So have you thought about the questions?’”—that’s probably the route that I would go if a non-Christian asked me that.
The problem with that piece by Planned Parenthood—and I did all of those searches when I was writing this book; and I knew when you asked that question—
Ann: You did??
Sean: Oh, yes! I talk about it a little bit in the book itself. They started this new short answer thing by Planned Parenthood, where they’ve targeted all the questions kids will type into Google, and then it sends it to Planned Parenthood—
Sean: —about sexuality. So I knew that’s where it was going. This is a subjective kind of question that, basically, is summed up in: “If you feel ready, you’re ready.”
Sean: So there’s no moral component to that; there’s no obligation to somebody else. It’s all about how you feel, which is exactly what a young person wants to hear!
Sean: If a Christian asks me that, and they said, you know, “When do I know when I’m ready to have sex or not?” I would say, “Okay, let me ask you a question: ‘Are you a follower of Jesus Christ? What did Jesus say about what it takes to be ready?’” They might not know the exact answer. [Laughter] But they would probably say, “Well, I guess He’d say you’re ready when you’re married.” I would say, “The Scriptures say God designed sex for one man and one woman, who become one flesh for one lifetime. So your feelings are actually irrelevant to whether you’re ready or not.”
Ann: I would have said, at that time, “But that’s dumb! Why would God say that?”
Dave: She would have said that.
Ann: Yes, I would have.
Sean: —to the Christian answer?—or like you could push back; we can role play if you wanted to.
Ann: Yes, to either, like, “That’s dumb. It feels like God’s given us these desires. Why would we wait?” and “Why would God say, ‘No’?”
Sean: “Have you ever thought about how, if God has given us these desires, like you said—and they are strong, good, beautiful desires—that maybe He knows something you and I don’t know and has a better plan for it? Has that ever gone through your mind?
“Because God could have said like a guy and a girl like pinky swear, and a kid pops out.
Sean: “He could have made sex a chore, but He didn’t.
“And you admitted God is the One who designed this—so if He’s all knowing, and He gave us these strong desires and this amazingly beautiful thing called sex—has it ever crossed your mind that maybe He knows what’s best for you and what’s best for me in terms of how we experience it?”
Ann: That’s good! I love, in the book, that you said, “Have you ever imagined what the world would look like if everyone lived the sexual ethic of Jesus? Would the world be better or worse?”
Dave: That’s a powerful statement in the book.
Ann: Yes; talk about that a little bit.
Sean: That is one of my favorite questions to ask young people. I’ll ask young people, who are not Christians, by the way, to get them to think about this as well. Of course, sometimes you have to clarify what Jesus’s sexual ethic was. Essentially, it was there are two ways to love God and honor people in marriage and in singleness: if you’re married, it’s one man, one woman, one flesh, one lifetime.
I’ll simply ask students/I’ll say, “Imagine everybody embraced that. Would the world be better? Would it be the same? Or would it be worse? Let’s start to write on the board what we think the answers are.”
Ann: Ah, you’re such a good teacher! [Laughter]
Sean: You’re kind! But students start:
- You know, a student will go, “Okay, I guess there would be no divorce. Kids would have a mom and dad.” “That’s right, because Jesus said that marriage is permanent.”
- Then some kid will say, “Well, I guess there’d be no sex abuse, because Jesus talked about loving your neighbor,”—was a part of the sexual ethic.
- Then some kid will say, “I guess there’d be no pornography or victims of pornography.”
- “I guess there’d be no sexually-transmitted diseases.”
- “There’d be no dead-beat dads, you know, leaving their wife for a trophy wife.”
- “There’d be no crude sexual humor.”
On and on, it starts to dawn on students: “Okay, wait a minute. The rules that Jesus gave are not to control us. He’s not some big cosmic killjoy, as some people say. It’s actually for human flourishing; it’s for our best.”
That’s why I’ll take you back, and I’ll say, “That’s why David says, in Psalm 19, he rejoices in the law of the Lord. It’s, actually, the law—now, David had a hard time following it—but when he was inspired, he knew that God’s laws brought freedom. That’s why Moses writes in Deuteronomy 10/he says: “Love the Lord your God with your heart, your soul, your mind, and your strength and follow these commandments which I am giving you for your good.” They’re, objectively, for our good.
So what the two of you were talking about a minute ago is: kids will not really start to sacrifice following their feelings and urges until they have a bigger vision of what marriage and relationships should be like. That’s why, as an athlete—all of us who are athletes in different capacities—you suffer for something when you have a bigger goal.
Part of what the church has done is said: “Sex is bad; don’t do that.” And we haven’t given kids a vision of: “No, here’s why marriage is beautiful…” “Here’s why biblical love is the greatest experience you can have.” Then, when they have a bigger vision for it, it oftentimes gives them the strength to resist some of the lies and temptations in the culture in which we live.
Dave: Now, take us into your home. How do you teach these kinds of things to your kids? I can see it in the classroom; I can see it on the board.
Ann: Me too.
Ann: And when does it start?
Dave: Yes; I would love to know how you did that. Sort of model for parents: “How do we talk about these kinds of things with our kids? What age? What kind of topic?”
Sean: Sex ed starts the moment a kid comes out of a womb. I mean, think about it: the way you touch a baby, even appropriately, is [teaching] them to become comfortable with their body—affectionate touch, the tone that we use, the way you treat somebody of the opposite sex—kids are learning from day one.
Now, how we have conversation varies. We’re driving in the car—and my son, who is eight—my daughter made a statement, because she’s 14; and they were having a discussion about abortion. She said something; and Shane goes, “Dad, what’s abortion?” I think a lot of parents would say, “Oh, don’t ask! I can’t believe it.” My dad had trained me: “Here’s an opportunity.”
So in my mind, I’m like, “How do I explain this in a way that’s appropriate to an eight-year-old?” I said, “Well, buddy, abortion is one of the great tragedies of our day.” I said, “Many women, for different reason, sometimes decide they don’t want to keep and deliver the baby that’s inside of them.” “Dad! Why would they do that?” I said, “Well…”; I walked through three or four different scenarios.
He goes, “How do they do an abortion?” My wife is like, “Don’t explain it!” [Laughter] Inside, I was like, “I’m the dad, so I err on the side of going, ‘Well, you’ve seen Superhero movies, where people die. You’ve seen that okay? You’ve seen people killed.’” I said, “Well, sometimes that happens to the unborn; but keep in mind, they can’t protect themselves; they’re inside a mother. It’s a human being, so it’s a tragedy.
“We have to have so much compassion for these moms, who feel like that’s the choice—
Ann: Oh, it’s good to say that too.
Sean: —“they have to make. But buddy, that’s a human being we’ve got to protect too.”
And then he was like, “Okay; can we watch this when we get home?” [Laughter] Like you get these moments.
Sean: So the main way I try to teach it is just—sometimes I pause the TV; I don’t do it too much, because it will drive my kids nuts—but we were watching The Flash TV show. I’ll pause it, now and then, and go, “Okay, I’ve just got to say something.” They’re like, “Dad! Whatever.” And I’m like, “I know! But listen; okay? We’ll keep watching it.” [Conversations can be] Over the dinner table sometimes; when we’re driving. I just look to have consistent, regular conversations with my kids about these things; because that’s where I think truth is really passed on, in conversation. I’m looking for opportunities to arise.
A lot of people, when those opportunities come up about sex, they want to divert it the other direction. I’m like, “Great! You’re interested? Let’s talk about it. What does this mean? What are we afraid of?” Part of what that does is just show kids: “God designed your body. Our worldview applies to this. We’re not ashamed of this; this is a good, beautiful, okay thing.”
And if you don’t know the answer, you just go, “That’s a really good [question]. Can you give your dad some time to think about this and come back to you, because I want to give you an answer that’s helpful?” Every kid is going to be like, “That’s fine.” And then you think about it. I’ve called my dad a couple times; [Laughter] I’m like, “Dad! Wait a minute; help me out with this!” [Laughter] And then I go back to my kids.
That’s just a part of the process: but you’ve got to be intentional; you’ve got to be consistent; you’ve got to model it with your kids; and you’ve just got to ask a lot of questions.
Ann: Did your conversations change a little bit as your kids got older? Because ours did. I think, before they were 12, we were kind of instructing, teaching, talking—
Sean: Yes, yes.
Ann: —and then, when they became teenagers, we started asking them a lot more questions. Did you do some of that, or were you always asking?
Sean: I’ve always been a question-asker.
Sean: I encourage my kids to ask questions. One of the things I say to my son—because he’s eight now—as I tuck him in; whenever I remember, I’ll say, “You know, buddy, you can ask your dad anything.” Studies show kids/a big reason kids leave their faith is not doubt; it’s unexpressed doubt. I want my kids to feel free: “Ask questions; I’m not afraid of this. I invite this: ‘Let’s have a conversation about issues of sexuality as well.’” I’ve always kind of invited that.
Sean: But things are pretty black and white until the age you said—about, you know, like with seventh graders, it’s like: “If you believe this, you’re dumb,” “If you believe that, you’re smart,”—[Laughter]—it’s like [that].
And then they start learning abstract thinking. As you move to 12, 13, 14, or 15, you can have the more sophisticated conversations.
Dave: If they push back against what you’re teaching them, or they start living differently than what you’re teaching and hoping they’ll do, how does a parent respond?
Sean: Well, that depends on how they push back; because there’s a kind of pushback that’s like, “I’m being rude, and rebellious, and pushing back out of disrespect,” or a kind of pushback that’s like, “You know, I just don’t know that I buy that, and here’s why…”
I mean, I’ve had conversations with my kids that I’ve had to apologize for. It didn’t go the way I wanted it to, for sure; but I haven’t had them push back rebelliously and angrily. Some of that is because of the relationship that we have. But I’ve certainly had my son and my daughter, you know, say things like, “I don’t know if I see it that way.” I’ll go, “Okay, tell me about that; I’m really curious.”
Now, oftentimes, I’ll just ask a lot of questions. My daughter is like, “What’s the point?” I mean, she bought me a mug recently that says, “I don’t need Google; my dad knows everything.” [Laughter]
Ann: That’s great!
Sean: I think it was a compliment. That’s how I’m going to take it.
Ann: It is a compliment! [Laughter]
Sean: But she’s like, “I can’t even argue anything with you!” I said, “I’m not trying to argue with you. I want to know what you think, and I’m just asking you questions so we can have a conversation.”
I have to moderate these things, because I don’t want to go into debate mode. I just remind myself/I’m like, “Okay; it’s okay if you differ from me; but know why, and let’s make sure it lines up with Scripture.”
Dave: And you know, hearing you answer that reminds me of the last time you were on. We asked you about your rejection of sort of the faith.
Dave: You were going on a journey—and how your dad responded—
Ann: That’s what I remember from that conversation too.
Dave: —it sounds similar.
Ann: Talk about that a little bit.
Dave: Yes, it sounds like you’re doing a very similar thing.
Sean: You know, look, I get to interact with a lot of atheists, and skeptics, and ex-Christians. Over and over again, you hear a common story of a lot of hurt; or just this fundamentalist background, that doubt was terrible, and “If you question things, it would damage our relationship.” Not every time—but many times—you hear that.
My dad, as much of an apologist and conservative as he is, went out of his way to communicate to us that his love for us was not dependent whatsoever on what we believed. This time that you’re referring to—I think I was 19 years old—and just told my dad I wasn’t sure that I was convinced that Christianity is true.
I’m sure many people listening know he’s written 150 books and spoken to tens of millions of people, defending the Christian faith; and his son is like, “Yes, I’m not sure I’m convinced.” He didn’t freak out. He just was like/essentially, goes, “Son, that’s great. You can’t live off what I think is true. You’ve got to know for yourself what you think is true. Your mom and I are going to love you no matter what.” And that just deflates so much of the concern and the anxiety that kids have.
I try to do that with my kids. You know, my kids have said stuff at times, like: “What if I believe this?”or “…did that?!”—[Laughter]—almost like they’re testing me—and I’ll just say, “You know that would never change my love for you. That’s silly! Come on,”—almost in jest like that—
Sean: —to make sure they know that that relationship would never change.
Ann: That’s so good. I know that we’ve written a book called No Perfect Parents. In the book—
Dave: Hey, I just pulled it up!
Ann: Oh, yes; we had our adult sons, at the end of some of the chapters, write in terms of like, “Just tell us, in your words,—
Dave: “Tell the reader.”
Ann: —“what worked? Tell the reader what worked and what didn’t work,—
Sean: That’s great.
Ann: — or “…what you appreciated or wish your parents would have changed.”
Dave: It was pretty interesting, you know, when we got their manuscripts back.
Sean: Yes, I’m sure!
Dave: When we went through—we didn’t tell them [what to write]—“You write anything you want! If we were horrible, write it”; you know? Our oldest son, who is always a thinker; he’s an engineering brain—
Dave: —very analytical—always had questions, from day one.
Dave: I just pulled it up, and I thought, “I want to make sure I get this right.” You know, he’s the first one who wrote—and it’s just reflections—and he said, “I probably would have become an atheist if you had shut down my questioning of things like young earth creationism when I was in high school and college.”
Sean: Wow! Wow!
Dave: I didn’t know that!
Ann: Yes, we didn’t know it until [this].
Dave: It’s like, “Wow!”
Sean: That’s amazing.
Dave: I mean, it was such a beautiful thing to read. I do remember many conversations—but even that specific one—I’m like, “Wow, great question. There are several different opinions on that. Here are...”; you know?
Ann: He was the one—
Dave: Never knowing that it could have pushed him away if I had been the dad, who said, “You can’t question; you can’t doubt. You’re a pastor’s son; this is how it goes.”
Ann: It was so interesting—when he was maybe four, I think, you know, we were reading the Bible or telling Bible stories—this one night, before he was going to sleep, he says, “Mom, wait a minute! So doesn’t it say that we aren’t allowed to murder or kill in the Ten Commandments?” I said, “Yes, that is true.” He goes, “So we just read tonight about David chopping off Goliath’s head. [Laughter] That’s okay?! Why is that okay, but the Bible says…” He’s four!
Dave: Tell him what you said.
Ann: I was like, “Hey, Dave!” [Laughter]
Sean: Exactly! [Laughter]
Dave: She goes, “Go ask Dad.”
Ann: But there’s a part of me that felt fearful, like, “Man, this kid…” I automatically, as a parent/as a mom, I go into that fear zone of like: “Oh, no!”
Sean: That’s natural.
Ann: And Dave walks in; and he says, “Yes!”—like: “I’m so glad…”—that’s what he said: “CJ! What a great deep question. Man, you’re smart! Let’s talk about that, because those are great questions. Never feel ashamed to ask those kinds of questions.”
Sean: And you know what? Honestly, that tension of like him knowing, “My mom is concerned for me; and my dad, who is like, ‘It’s going to be okay,’”—that’s a good tension for kids. Don’t beat yourself up. Your kids know: “My mom loves me and is feeling that pain with me.”
I told my mom when I was questioning things. My dad was like, “Son, that’s great! Seek truth! I love you”; the glass is 99 percent full. [Laughter] My mom was like shattered! I remember thinking, “This is my life. Why does it bother you so much?” And then, about five years ago, when my kids were in deep pain, I thought back on that. It was like, “Now I get, maybe, what it would have been like for Mom, maybe, to feel that.”
Ann: I think, five days ago, I was with a group of probably 13 moms, they all had teenagers. The best way I can describe them is they were gripped in fear of what the culture was doing to their kids. What would you say to those moms—and even dads—[who] are feeling that fear?
Bob: We will hear how Sean McDowell answers that question in just a minute. You’re listening to FamilyLife Today with Dave and Ann Wilson. They’ve been talking today with Sean McDowell, who has written a book called Chasing Love: Sex, Love and Relationships in a Confused Culture. It’s a book we’re making available this week to FamilyLife Today listeners. If you can help support the ongoing outreach of FamilyLife Today, the book is our thank-you gift to you when you make a donation. You can donate online at FamilyLifeToday.com, or you can call to donate. Our number is 1-800-FL-TODAY; that’s 1-800-358-6329; 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
Now, let me ask you a quick question: “When was the last time you spent some focused, concentrated time thinking about what the Bible teaches about marriage or about parenting?” Here, at FamilyLife, we have created resources designed to help small groups have some compelling conversations together about marriage and family. We’ve got resources like the Art of Marriage®; The Art of Parenting®; Dave and Ann Wilson’s Vertical Marriage series. We did a series on my book, Love Like You Mean It.
All of these resources, right now, we’re making available with a special offer to FamilyLife Today listeners. If you want to buy any of these resources to use with your small group, use the promo code, ”NEWYEAR2022”; and you’ll save 25 percent off any of our small-group resources. You can check all of this out on our website at FamilyLifeToday.com. Use the promo code, ”NEWYEAR2022,” for the savings.
Now, just a minute ago, Ann Wilson was asking today’s guest, Sean McDowell, about parents who are fearful, and how he would counsel them in the midst of their fear. Here’s Sean’s answer.
Sean: I would say a couple things. I would say: “The Bible says, ‘Perfect love casts out fear’; ‘Perfect love casts out fear.’ The only thing we can control is how much we love our kids. When my kids became teenagers, I learned very fast I cannot control them the way I could when they were younger—
Sean: —where they go,as a whole, when they get older; what they believe—my control is gone and minimized, in many ways, the older they get. I can build a relationship with them; I can pray for them; and I can unceasingly love them. So never underestimate the power of a praying and a loving mom.”
Bob: FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife, a Cru® Ministry.
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