VENTURA, Calif. — Looking out over the crowd of nearly 1,000 people gathered in California to talk about marriage and families, communication scholar Tim Muehlhoff decided to ask a new question.
"How many of you men had your dad or parent sit down and have the sex talk with you?"
There was an audible gasp. Muehlhoff counted 10 hands.
He asked the same question of the women.
This time 22 hands went up.
"I said to them, 'If we don't have the sex talk (with our kids) we're abdicating it to culture, because you better believe your kids are getting the sex talk,' " said Muehlhoff, a professor of communication at Biola University in California.
That was eight years ago. He still asks that question each time he attends a Family-Life Marriage Conference, a nonprofit ministry aimed at improving marriages and families cofounded by Dennis and Barbara Rainey.
The numbers haven't gotten better.
Today's society is awash in depictions of sexuality, ranging from salacious magazines, ads and Internet sites to more-than-suggestive television shows and movies that glorify casual sex and promiscuity. Yet religious leaders say too many parents are still uncomfortable with the idea of talking to their children about sex and thus remain awkwardly silent.
To encourage healthy and crucial conversations, a growing number of religious leaders are boldly speaking up in church about intimacy — working to drown out society's messages with Bible-based preaching that sex between a husband and wife is beautiful, sacred and essential to a good marriage, and that this proper, healthy understanding of intimacy is essential to the growth and development of well-adjusted children.
Because if parents aren't talking about sex, then critical teaching moments are being left to television, movies and locker-room chatter, says Muehlhoff.
"Sex isn't something we shy away from as Christians," he says. "We (need to) prepare our kids so that when they leave (our) houses, they have a world view and critical skills to be able to decipher the messages that are coming out from culture today. But parents are overwhelmed and scared, (thinking) 'I just hope this isn't an issue,' and 'My kids will find their way somehow.' Would you ever do that with finances? Or homework? No. But we do it with sex all the time."
During the first few minutes of the "True Love Waits" class for teens at The Church of the Redeemer Baptist in Philadelphia, the air is always heavy with a quiet, slightly choking tension.
"I have them stand up and on the count of three, we all say 'sex' and sit down," said Kevin Benton, a youth pastor, author and public speaker who led the classes for several years before moving on to start his own ministry.
"They need to know it's OK to talk about this in the context of church. We know (they're) all talking about it on the phone and with friends. The hardest part is breaking the barrier and reshaping their perspectives (about intimacy)."
These teens come to class having been "taught" about sex through glossy magazine ads that show scantily clad men and women embracing, apparently overcome by the jeans he has on and the perfume she's wearing. Mimicking what they see, those teens then walk their school hallways, wearing the same low-cut jeans, body sprays and come-hither expressions.
Using web-enabled phones, others soak up questionable music videos, "sext" each other scandalous photos, and chat about the sexual encounters they and their peers are having, all while using a coded language so adults don't realize what they're talking about, says Benton.
These teens don't see any problem with their behaviors, as they've seen the same and even worse in popular television shows and movies such as "The Hangover" and "Knocked Up."
Benton said it was rare to find children who had been taught a different, healthy view of sex, especially by their parents. And the only time they heard sex mentioned in church was in a negative context — don't do it.
"When the church doesn't talk about (intimacy), we have young people growing up thinking that sex is dirty," says Dennis Hollinger, president and distinguished professor of Christian ethics at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary near Boston and author of "The Meaning of Sex: Christian Ethics and the Moral Life."
"Or conversely, because it's so present everywhere, young people grow up without clear convictions to guide them in the midst of social pressures."
Hollinger believes children and adults need to understand intimacy is a "good gift of God, and like all of his good gifts, it finds full meaning and joy when we follow God's designs — not cultural impulses."
Jay Lowder, an evangelist who travels the globe preaching a proper understanding of sex to both secular and religious audiences, likes to use the image of a fireplace.
"When I have a fire in the fireplace, it brings warmth, satisfaction, joy, it keeps me and my family from freezing," he said. "But once it gets out of the place it's intended to be utilized, you've got real danger."
Yet some parents are afraid to bring up that danger because they worry about putting ideas in their kids' heads. It's an irrational fear, says Muehlhoff, especially considering that national statistics show 70 percent of teens have had sex by the age of 19. And 13 percent of teens had their first sexual encounter before they were 15 years old.
Factor in the growing rates of sexually transmitted diseases, the onslaught of pornography and the continual problem of teen pregnancy and it becomes painfully obvious that teens are dealing with sex all the time — and not because mom and dad accidentally pushed them into a talk about it.
Other parents fear coming off as hypocritical, since they may have made some of the very mistakes they'd be teaching against. If that's the case, says Benton, just tell them you don't want to see them make the same mistakes you did.
"Kids can respect that," he said. "Young people really appreciate (adults) being open, honest and transparent."
But the majority of parents remain quiet because they just don't know what to say or where to start.
However, the idea of having "the sex talk" is misleading, says Muehlhoff, who recommends smaller, ongoing talks beginning at a young age, rather than one giant, embarrassing discussion, followed by years of silence.
He encourages using everyday events to begin conversations. One year, he was watching the Super Bowl with his boys and a commercial came on that he quickly flipped away from.
"I remember my boys saying, 'Why can't we watch that one?' " he recounted. "I said, 'It's not good for your dad to be looking at other women dressed like that. I made a commitment to your mom. It's also not good for you. Not that there's anything wrong with attractive women, but dressed like that, you get attracted to them in ways that aren't appropriate."
His boys rolled their eyes and whined — but he wasn't deterred and encourages other parents to stand strong as well.
"Once our kids realize, 'If I can discuss sex with mom and dad, (I can discuss) pretty much anything else," Lowder says. "(Many parents) don't realize that not only do they need to have this conversation to protect their kids, but they're (creating) opportunities to discuss other things and (develop a) rapport by having the sex discussion."
If parents are confused or embarrassed about how to talk to their children about sex, here are some tips from religious leaders and academic experts:
Start early. Tell young children in simple terms about the birth of a new sibling or explain how they came to be.
Take advantage of daily teaching moments. The car is a great place to talk because eye contact is not required.
Read a book. If you don't know what to say, talk to trusted family members, friends, ecclesiastical leaders or your child's pediatrician about appropriate books on intimacy to help facilitate healthy conversations.
Dissect cultural messages. When kids see movies or commercials with sexual topics, follow up with questions or express your beliefs about sex as a sacred expression between husband and wife.
Show reverence. While biological understanding is important, help children understand that sex is a sacred gift from God.
Healthy messages. Be clear about the consequences for sexual misbehavior, but don't make sex itself seem like a bad thing.
Share love for your spouse. Help your kids understand that mom and dad are best friends and lovers, not just roommates.
Practice talking. If you can't talk about sex with your spouse, your hesitancy may affect how you can talk to your children.
Don't ignore it. Sex is pervasive in today's culture. Pretending your child won't be faced with pornography, sexual discussions or advances is naive and problematic. Talk with your kids now about how to handle situations they will find themselves in.
Source: Deseret News interviews
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company