Let’s Talk About Sex

Somehow I became an amateur Catholic sex guru.

I’m not quite sure how this happened. I contacted a woman whose blog I enjoyed, wrote a guest post for her, and the next thing I know, I’m the Catholic Dr. Drew along with my co-blogger, Kate.

Ok, so Google is laughing at me for that one given the blog stats. Google is also telling me that a significant number of the blog’s readers were looking for “Catholic High School Girls in Trouble” (or something like that) and apparently got lost.

Still, we have been nominated for a Sheenazing Award!

But anyway…

In this role, I’ve learned a lot about sex and relationships. My relationship with K has always been pretty good in this area, so I’ve learned a lot about the problems people have from this experience.

I have learned just how many people have had religion mess up their sex life.

I’m not the only one who has noticed this. Humorist The Oatmeal sees weird anxieties about sexuality as a one way that people suck at their religion.

sex

The Oatmeal is wrong: Nickelback albums are NEVER the will of a loving God.

Many people have written about the anxieties caused by Protestant “Purity Culture”, from seeing sex as something men need and women tolerate, to treating women who have had sex outside of marriage as damaged goods, to making female virginity a super-special virtue that would guarantee “happily ever after”, to instructing young people to “guard their hearts” through emotional and sexual repression.

By comparison, Catholics are relatively normal. Catholics can manage to wear purity rings and read Joshua Harris’s terrible (non)dating advice and still have happy, emotionally healthy marriages. We may have Catholic guilt, but at least we don’t have to worry too much about bad relationship advice.  We free to date and marry whomever we choose, not just devout Catholics. The Catholic Church doesn’t push people to the altar to avoid sin, but wants to slow them down to make sure they are ready to make a lifetime commitment.

Every Sperm is Sacred?

Instead, Catholic anxiety over sex is more technical.  The Catholic Church teaches that because sex is designed for procreation and bonding, the only “natural way” to have sex is the way that you possibly could use to make a baby. Everything else is an unnatural perversion.

Don’t get me wrong, we are big fans of the “natural way”.  Most couples are. We also know fertility awareness is a much better option than contraception. It is empowering to women, healthy, and can make a couple’s sex life better, even with the abstinence.

My problem is with saying that “everything else is an unnatural perversion“.

Or as Monte Python sarcastically put it:

Every sperm is sacred.
Every sperm is great.
If a sperm is wasted,
God gets quite irate.

On teh interwebz you can find Catholics talking about sex, on topics such as:

  • Wives debating about the “proper” way to receive their husband’s semen.
  • Wives bragging about just how long their husbands can go without sex.
  • Couples thinking that risking pregnancy is the “price” they have to pay for sexual pleasure or their marriages will be consumed with selfishness and lust.
  • Couples fearing hellfire for doing something that is not “Church approved”.
  • Couples abstaining from all sexual contact for months because they cannot figure out fertility and cannot risk pregnancy.
  • Couples risking pregnancy when they have serious reasons to avoid because their relationship is so starved for intimacy that they downplay the risk.
  • Couples risking pregnancy when they have serious reasons to avoid because they have become aroused and believe that continuing to sex is the only proper way to finish.
  • Couples encouraged to “just risk it” because it’s the wedding night.
  • Couples encouraged to “just risk it”—without even discussing the charts—because they have a nice hotel room.
  • A woman taking birth control pills for medical reasons who is horribly confused about why the Church thinks her and her husband’s sexual relationship is selfish and unloving because of her medication.
  • Women discussing how a nun can write about sex when her writing shows she doesn’t fully understand her own sexual anatomy.
  • Young virgin brides-to-be terrified of their wedding night because they are afraid that they have to finish the “natural way” whether they are ready for that or not.

This begs the question “what is natural“?  Because discussing a sexual relationship in these terms certainly isn’t.

Faith and God and Sex

Perhaps instead of looking to pagan philosophy on the nature of sex, Catholics should look to Scripture on the nature of love?

Perhaps we should look to verses like

Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” Romans 13:8.

and

For the whole law is fulfilled in one statement, namely, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.‘” Galatians 5:14. See also Matthew 22:37-40.

Instead of asking whether various sex acts are “natural” or “unnatural”, perhaps we should be looking first to the state of our minds and our consciences towards our spouses and our sexuality?

“To the pure all things are pure, but to the corrupt and unbelieving nothing is pure. Their very minds and consciences are corrupted.” Titus 1:15 (RSV-CE).

Popular evangelical author Rachel Held Evans asks whether evangelicals expect too much of their pastors, including being sex therapists when they have absolutely no qualifications for doing so. But she sees this as part of a bigger problem:

It seems like common sense that couples should feel free to engage in [a variety of sexual] activities if both partners enjoy them, so long as they don’t become obsessions. The fact that Christian couples seem to need the approval of a pastor along with some strategically placed Bible verses in order to engage in such activities is a bigger concern to me. It seems that we are once again demanding more from the text and from our pastors than they can and should give.

She concludes:

When sexuality gets relegated to the realm of religious absolutes and strictly enforced roles, the focus tends to shift from serving one another to servicing one another. And that’s no way to love.

The same is true for Catholics. While Catholic theology on sexuality is far deeper and more developed than that of the average evangelical megachurch, our pastors take vows of celibacy. There is only so much you can understand about marriage and sex when you aren’t married and aren’t having sex.

And this is why Catholic sexual teaching, while philosophically quite sound, should be heeded with caution: what sounds good in theory may not work in practice.

Yes, I see the wisdom in Catholic sexual teachings. They are intended to be a “positive option for couples” and many couples have found following them to be a wonderful and very rewarding way to live. Catholic teachings are a beautiful ideal that speaks the truth about our sexuality. The Church teaches how the two spouses can truly—physically and sacramentally—become one flesh, mingling like “ointment and oil”, as St. John Chrysostom once said. And if this love creates new life, then this is an amazing wonder and a blessing from God.

But I also see just how easy things can go horribly, horribly, wrong if you have to deal with unpredictable cycles, ambiguous signs of fertility, long periods of abstinence, and struggle with the demands of pregnancy and parenthood. Things can also go wrong when couples, especially women, worry about following all the rules while still learning their sexuality. While exceedingly spiritually and relationally mature couples may be able to handle more difficult situations, couples who have problems risk doing serious damage to their marriage and their faith.

Furthermore, the Church’s understanding of the Natural Law on sexuality has changed over time. For example, sex during menstruation was prohibited under Mosaic Law, condemned by Aquinas, and remains a taboo, yet modern Church teaching sees nothing wrong with it.

For these reasons, a Catholic conversation about sex in marriage should be less about the technical details of how sex “should” be and more about the nature of love and how that plays out in a marital sexual relationship. This includes making sexuality “a source of joy and pleasure in a marriage” as well as being truly generous and open to new life.

Unfortunately, positive, frank discussions of marital sexuality from Catholic sources are generally lacking. For couples who need advice, I have found that many of the non-Catholic sites on Christian sexuality, especially those written by women, are better sources of information. If you need help beyond that which you can find online, don’t be afraid to get professional counseling.

Great sex may not always lead to a great marriage, but it sure doesn’t hurt. ;-)

So, dear readers, have you been harmed by religious beliefs about sex? Have you been helped? Do you have any advice for couples who want an intimate, loving, spiritual, and, yes, fruitful, sexual relationship in their marriage?

Edit: An unintentional “rebuttal” from April at My Feminine Mind. Be sure to read the comments:  http://www.myfemininemind.com/2013/01/loyalty-for-some.html

17 thoughts on “Let’s Talk About Sex

  1. Very interesting. I’m going to come back and read more thoroughly later, but I’ll comment that I too notice that the dust-ups over Purity Culture make Catholicism look relatively non-”weird”.

    • Many Catholics have NO idea about the weirdness of Purity Culture. I’ve seen elements of it creep in, but it hasn’t gotten very far into Catholic circles. K grew up evangelical, and although she wasn’t into it and rejected it at a young age, growing up around it was harmful enough.

      A big reason why I wrote this post is that Catholicism isn’t supposed to be weird: There can be no conflict between faith and reason. It seems like all normal Catholic thought goes out the window when it comes to sexual issues. Catholics tend to either follow the culture or adopt some interesting ways of thinking.

  2. Good thoughts here. And as you know I agree that we are way too focused on the technical, and in the past this caused anxiety in my marriage for sure. It seems Catholics think that sex provides opportunities for all kinds of special sins. In fact it seems sexual sin is considered a very unique area of sin, with little room for maturation. I have always hated this idea, that somehow sexual sins are extra worse sins than all the others.

    I also think that unless teaching on these matters is made more human and applicable to real relationships we will lose many young couples.

    • For an opposing view, I found this post from April at My Feminine Mind:

      http://www.myfemininemind.com/2013/01/loyalty-for-some.html

      What I have noticed is, cycle issues aside, that women who grew up in a sexually permissive environment/secular culture are more likely to find the abstinence empowering, while women who grew up in a sexually restrictive environment/Purity culture are more likely to find the abstinence oppressive.

      Likewise, women who grew up in secular culture, which devalues motherhood, are more likely to find openness to life affirms who they are as women. While women who grew up in Purity culture, which sees motherhood as all that women are good for, are more likely to find openness to life as degrading to women.

      • I think that is very true. The women I know who have come to use NFP later in life after living a more worldly view of sex love NFP and the entire teaching behind it. Most of my married friends grew up Catholic and have used NFP since the beginning. They seem to have a harder time figuring out NFP, especially since many are fairly newly married and have lots of relationship stuff to learn.

        I also think that women who come to use NFP after several years of contracepting tend to be, well older, and more financially stable. This provides two benefits. One, they simply have less reproductive years to contend with. Those of us who get married in our early twenties and use NFP from the beginning are looking at 25-30 years of fertility, whereas someone who starts using NFP at 35 only has 10-15 years to deal with. Second, women who come to use NFP later in life often have established careers with decent incomes and possible opportunities to work from home while raising children. This allows them to help with the family financially while birthing and raising kids, and allows them to continue using their minds for things other than child raising (I realize child raising is super important, but it can certainly be mind-numbing and grueling at times). My point is that women who start using NFP later in life, often enjoy benefits of waiting to have children later in life (less reproductive years to contend with, financial stability, more career opportunities). In essence they enjoy the benefits of their contraceptive years, while currently living according to Church teaching.

      • Also, 35 year olds have shorter periods of abstinence on average than 20 year olds. As fertility declines with age, they can get away with “risking it” more often.

        Plus, older couples are more mature. NFP is very different at 32/30 than 22/20.

        It’s part of what I hate about NFP.

  3. I think one of the difficulties with a subject like this is that the counter culture is so ambivalent about romantic love making that for anyone who has lived outside the church, or been “of the world” for any amount of time, the shift is seemingly insurmountable. The ones that (are lucky enough to be in a diocese that encourages or even mentions NFP) truly want to dedicate themselves to their new lifestyle [and don't go running for the hills] are very often reticent to ask their pre-cana sponsors about it. They presume that the answer is “exactly one thing every time with no variation,” because if it was good outside the church, it’s probably a sin now. (And they probably do it anyway and just never speak of it) Similarly, I knew a woman that’s had a 22 year vanilla marriage and appearance that represented every stereotype my entire being rebels against. She said her husband was puritanical, “but a good provider” which made the monotony endurable… her words. With sparkling endorsements like that, it’s hard to seek out the middle ground or even just hope. So, good on you for daring to say the “s” word. I noticed somewhere you pointed out that these posts got more hits than the rest. My first day of blogging garnered hundreds of hits from around the world in just a few hours. I thought, for sure, “I’m going to be the next Ann Coulter but without the legs!” Then I finally learned how to read the track backs, and it was cause people were googling “Ron Paul” and “ass”. Ew!

    • In researching the subject, I was surprised to learn that the Catholic Church has been remarkably consistent on the subject over the years. There have always been puritanical movements, but the official teaching has been very sex positive in marriage. Few have accused the Spanish, French, or Italians—all very Catholic cultures—of being repressed or poor lovers.

      Unfortunately, us in the United States live in a largely Protestant culture in a country founded by Puritans and influenced by Victorians. The next scene in Monty Python’s Meaning of Life after the clip shown is that of a proper Protestant couple. Although they are proud that they can “think for themselves” and can use contraception, we find out that the reason they have only two children is because they’ve only had sex twice.

      That Puritan/Victorian mindset has influenced Catholic thought in the English speaking world. A hundred years ago, Catholic bishops were complaining that Protestant obscenity laws in the U.S. made it difficult to get information about sex to married couples. Some well-meaning Catholics “bent” Catholic teaching to accommodate this culture. Because the culture was so anti-sex for so long, many Catholics in the English speaking world think the Catholic Church is the same way. Likewise, Catholic opposition to the sexual revolution has gotten mixed in with conservative Protestant opposition to it and a lot of mixed messages have been sent out.

      But I think Catholics have a duty to speak about the goodness of sex. Catholic teaching is about experiencing the fullness of our sexuality, not taking away from it.

      • Don’t I know it. I missed the virginal t-shirt and ring movement (by a year) but I did have the opportunity to get stuck at a Methodist church youth group retreat because my grandmother felt I needed some Jesus and supervision. I was barely 12, not religious, and knew where babies came from and that outside a healthy monogamous relationship, disease and poverty were an unwed mother’s other fates. My dad was no puritan, his lessons hold true still. So, when they began discussing the importance of finding suitable spouses and why abstaining was important I thought I had the answer. Poverty, disease, pregnancy! I was told no on all three counts. They abstain to earn God’s love and to attract a spouse. “You may borrow a friend’s shoes, but no one buys them used.” They said abstinence would lead to higher grades, better college prospects, and then… a better spouse. Looking back, the self loathing those girls must have felt to be compared to footwear, and then told they are only as good as the spouse their creaky leather could attract… wow.
        The next day they needlessly introduced me to all the sex acts that would defile the “purity of the act”. It must be our life’s goal to maintain virginal innocence by avoid these acts even in marriage. “The devil is tempting us and if we submit, our husbands would never respect us. Because we could not resist demonic schemes ” No wonder my dad kept me away from those places!
        Later, I went to a youth night with a friend at her Mormon Temple. I was driving age at this point and after board games the girls were pulled from the room and we were round circled as they asked one by one what each girl wanted to have accomplished by the time they were 21. The answers ranged from missionary work, college, and help family, but they all also said “temple wedding.” I can relate now, Sacramental Marriage is something we discuss with our youths. The giggling and blushing, when they said it, was weird. Then the leader pointed out that after marriage, they could finally “enjoy the fruits of chastity” then did this de-motivational speech about loose women and drunken men. The moral being, marry quickly before the men see too much of the world and forget you. It was all quite shocking for me.
        Compared to those experiences, the Catholic Church, seems positively progressive.

  4. Evangelical Purity culture has its positives&negatives. They DO understand the dangers of premarital sex&the holiness of marital sex. Purity balls can come across as creepy. However, one need only compare the Catholic “Can we Cana?” which is deeply childish (think of “Mother may I?” in the bedroom), with the more mature, adult conversations about marital sexuality at evangelical websites. Dr. Popcak&Christopher West have an often paternalistic, condescending tone towards heterosexual women… whereas websites written by&for Christian women like Julie Sibert’s “Intimacy in Marriage”,”To Love, Honor&Vacuum”,and “Hot Holy Humorous/Sex&Marriage by God’s Design” are written BY and FOR Christian wives. They don’t teach anything that Catholics would find objectionable. Marriage Coach 1 (John Wilder) gives excellent advice (he also has an eloquent anti-abortion, pro-life essay) Evangelical Christian sex sites uphold traditional views on marriage&the family, as well as enable people overcome unhealthy inhibition in the bedroom. They’re written by truly happy people. Very enlightening.

    • You’ve been commenting on quite a few posts here and on my other blog and I’m not quite sure why.

      I enjoy reading Evangelical marriage bloggers like Julie Sibert, J from Hot, Holy, and Humorous, as well as Sheila Gregoire. I know Julie Sibert frequently guest posts on Catholic blogs. I do agree that they generally have a healthier conversation about sex than many in the Catholic community. I don’t agree with everything they write, but at least those three provide mostly good advice. Other Christian authors, on the other hand, can be pretty bad. A well-meaning relative of my wife gave us the LaHays’ book and, well, it alternated between terrible and laughably bad.

      Still the (sometimes dysfunctional) views of individual Catholics do not necessarily reflect the authentic teaching of the Catholic Church. This can be something that many readers, especially non-Catholics struggle with. I often see non-Catholics taking the views of random Catholics—who may have little authority or theological training—as the view of the Catholic Church. I also see people reading a lot into authors’ personal opinions on something that is beyond the scope of Church authority in a book intended for a Catholic audience. Such a reading and emphasis on individual publications is in many ways more American Evangelical than Catholic.

      Authentic Catholic teaching is not a matter of “Can we Cana?” (Is this a swipe at Karee Santos’s blog by the same name?) It’s not a “series of rules”, but starts with the fundamental question of “what is the meaning and purpose of human sexuality?” The Church answers that sex is for “babies and bonding”. This is a philosophical answer, not an experiential one. Everything else flows from that answer. The Church also says that God designed sex to be that way and that man should not separate it. Acting to remove the “babies” aspect damages the “bonding” aspect. (The degree to which the bonding aspect is damaged is what could use further elaboration. I don’t believe it’s quite as black and white as many Catholic sources seem to make it out to be.) Conversely, conceiving a child without love or commitment is also contrary to the purposes of sexuality.

      God also designed sex so that more often than not, sex naturally doesn’t lead to pregnancy. In this case, making love during times of infertility does not separate the “babies” from the “bonding”. The couple accepts each other’s natural fertility when they come together. Even though they may know that their natural fertility is zero when they come together, they have done nothing to refute or change it or otherwise act against this purpose of sex.

      The Catholic Church is not the bedroom police. If you think that God or the Church is standing outside your bedroom door spoiling your fun saying “thou shalt not”, that says more about your relationship with God or your view of the Church or perhaps your view of sex than it says about Catholic teaching. But they have a duty as Mother and Teacher (Mater et Magistra) to teach us about God’s design for our sexuality and the philosophy behind it.

  5. “To Love, Honor&Vacuum”,”Hot Holy Humorous” and “Intimacy in Marriage” have a refreshing lack of guilt&shame when it comes to marital sex; they uphold fidelity, condemn porn. They show their fellow evangelicals that there are no bedroom police- and that’s a valuable lesson for Catholics, with a Scriptural basis. It’s “fear not.” At “To Love, Honor&Vacuum”,there’s an article called “Sexual Options Beside Intercourse”- that’s highly enlightening (it’s probably saved couples money from going to therapists). It doesn’t lead to doom, gloom,degradation&championing same-sex marriage. These sites have probably helped numbers of people overcome their unhealthy inhibitions in the bedroom. It’s not black&white… it’s shades of grey (just not that awful series) These sites aren’t philosophical, but experiential… because philosophizing goes only so far. One can’t live in one’s head, disconnected from others. Married people need to be less afraid about sex. Artificial birth control shows a fear of sex; people naturally feel guilty about it. Now, while “incomplete acts can be lustful” doesn’t mean they are lustful- nor are completed acts always loving&respectful. In a culture that promotes extra- and premarital sex, we should show that marriage is worth waiting for. Sheila Gregoire, Julie Sibert, H3 and Marriage Coach 1 have advice Catholics can take… and live happily ever after.

  6. “To Love, Honor&Vacuum” has a superb post about how couples can cope with ED&still be sexual, such as giving each other nude massages. Just because couples can’t engage in the marital act doesn’t mean they have to give up being sexual with each other. They don’t need to become roommates. A frequent refrain at “Love, Honor&Vacuum” is “sex is more than intercourse.” Such couples who follow the loving marital advice aren’t refuting or going against the act… it’s about doing what’s mutual loving&for the sake of the marriage. (After all, those in porn, adulterers, etc can follow “the one rule”&not be loving- it’s about love&mutuality, NOT about where the husband “finishes”) Married couples don’t need to restrict themselves. I was always taught “intimate touch is saved for marriage”-NOT “intimate touch is only for the marital act.” Spouses can kiss&touch wherever they want, whenever they want, provided it’s loving&consensual… that’s what I was taught in abstinence-only sex ed. As long as you didn’t use artificial birth control, your free will was respected.

    Besides, using guilt&shame to control people rarely works.

  7. Oh my goodness! Amazing article dude! Thank you so much, However
    I am having issues with your RSS. I don’t know the reason why I can’t join it.
    Is there anybody else having similar RSS problems? Anybody who knows the solution can you kindly respond?
    Thanx!!

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