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!
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.
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.
“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.
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