Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same

Week Six: Saving Sex for Marriage

"The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same" by Julie Robison
"Cut to the Chaste." by Elizabeth at Startling the Day
"Three Strikes, I'm Out!" by Trista at Not a Minx

This is the sixth post of a Lenten blog post series called "Bright Maidens." We three are from the oft-mentioned, widely-speculated upon demographic of young, twenty-something Catholic women. We're here to dispel the myths and misconceptions- please join us for the discussion!

After my sophomore year of college, I sat on a park bench with three close friends from high school, licking ice cream out of cones and giggling over the stories we told each other. I distinctly remember feeling blissfully happy; the weather was warm and windy, the ice cream was delicious, there were people all around us in the square, and I was reunited with three girls I had been close with since our freshman year of high school.

One of my friends mentioned her boyfriend making pancakes one morning and serving her breakfast in bed. I had the most sheltered college experience of us four-- at my alma mater, boys and girls live in separate dorms and there are visiting hours. Without thinking my question through, I wondered aloud how he got into her room so early. Then it dawned on me: why was he in her room that early? With trepidation, I then asked, trying not to tremble as I said the words: "Wait, have you two had sex?"

She admitted they had, in a low, sheepish voice. But the embarrassment soon wore off, as the other two girls chimed in that they had done it too with their respective boyfriends. I had just survived a semester of awkwardness between one boy because I had turned down his request for me to be his girlfriend, because I knew it would probably get too physical, and I didn't see him respecting me as he should. The rest of the evening was disappointing, as my friends eagerly discussed sex and their various experiences, and I- I could only sit on the bench, and listen.

My three friends are not the only ones; I had many more experiences of home friends coming to me in college to talk about how they did something they thought they would save for marriage. Most of these conversations were them lamenting their disappointment, but most of them also never showed a desire to stop what they had started. I was there to talk them through it, to discuss how things could have gone differently, and how the future is still for the taking. It was a distinct contrast from most of my college friends, who are mostly not sexually active before marriage. I even have friends who did not kiss before they were married, so the contrast I feel, as you can imagine, is sometimes sharp.

Yesterday, MercatorNet published a book review of Premarital Sex in America: How Young Americans Meet, Mate, and Think about Marrying by Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker.

The review began, "It's complicated. More than a Facebook relationship status, “it’s complicated” sums up the ambiguity, fluidity, and contradictions experienced by “emerging adults” in America--at least when it comes to sex and relationships. What’s simple are the numbers: 84 per cent of unmarried, heterosexual, emerging adults (ages 18-23) in America have had sex—a number that cuts a wide swath across religious denominations, political leanings, family backgrounds, education levels, and geographic regions."

Yes, I can think complicated is an apt term for most modern relationships. One of the most interesting parts of the article discussed the very term "premarital sex," which usually happened before a couple got married- opposed to now, where the couple might not even know each other's name, let alone stay in a relationship. I am always intrigued when people say that sex isn't a big deal. Perhaps not to some, but doesn't an inner crevice of one's soul want it to be? Theology of the Body teaches that our bodies are modes of communication in this world and that sex is a form of communicating, from the depths of one's soul. As Catholics, we believe God gave us sex to join two people in a spiritual and bodily communion.

So, of course it is natural to want to have sex! Sex is wonderful and life-giving! Not only potentially to a child, but between the couple. Catholics are certainly not Puritans. We love sex! Which is why we value it so highly and thus, protect it from false forms. The Church says married couples are a visible sign of Christ and his love of his bride, the Church, as are consecrated religious and the chaste single. There is good reason why a Catholic bishops have started to deny communion to cohabiting couples. They are having sex outside the sacrament of marriage, which hurts the sacrament and hurts the sacredness of sex.

Catholics believe that we are masters of our own fate. We are like heat-seeking missals, always seeking truth, beauty and the good. But we have to say yes to choose good. We choose God's way, and follow the teachings of the Church, which are time-proven and guided by the Holy Spirit. People are happiest when they are inter-relational; living in just community with virtuous people, and can self-preserve these good things through the commitment of marriage, sex and children.

My family!

This is not to say sex cannot be treated otherwise. It is true- a person can have sex with whomever they please. But the freedom to do something and the choice to do something are two different commodities. I can have sex; I choose not to, until I am married. In the Old Testament, one book I especially love reading is the Book of Tobit. It is a really beautiful book and testimony to Jewish piety and morality, specifically to the sacredness of marriage and love. I remember hearing this passage at my aunt and uncle's wedding; it follows after Tobit's son Tobiah marries Sarah:

"When the girl's parents left the bedroom and closed the door behind them, Tobiah arose from bed and said to his wife, "My love, get up. Let us pray and beg our Lord to have mercy on us and to grant us deliverance." She got up, and they started to pray and beg that deliverance might be theirs. He began with these words: "Blessed are you, O God of our fathers; praised be your name forever and ever. Let the heavens and all your creation praise you forever. You made Adam and you gave him his wife Eve to be his help and support; and from these two the human race descended. You said, 'It is not good for the man to be alone; let us make him a partner like himself.' Now, Lord, you know that I take this wife of mine not because of lust, but for a noble purpose. Call down your mercy on me and on her, and allow us to live together to a happy old age." They said together, "Amen, amen," and went to bed for the night" (Tobit 8:4-9).

Patheos published a wonderful article yesterday, "Friendship and the Language of Sex" by Tim Muldoon. In using the story of Sarah and Tobiah, he writes,

"Today, our common cultural attitude toward sex is that it is a pleasurable activity to be enjoyed by consenting adults, with proper protection. The story of Tobiah and Sarah, however, suggest a radically different model. Their sex is a duet in a story authored by God, made possible by their free and willing response. It is embedded in a context of familial and clan relationships; it is blessed, as it were, by parents and friends. Perhaps most importantly, though, it is sex that is oriented toward a noble purpose, rooted in prayer, expressing a shared desire to do what is good.

... I want to suggest that what the story offers to us is a way of thinking about sex that is rooted in friendship. According to Aristotle, who was active only a couple of hundred years before the author of Tobit, true friendship is rooted neither in pleasure or utility, but in a shared striving for the good. Even if we grant that the reason why many people choose to have sex is because it's pleasurable, we must ask why people consider pleasure important. The psychoanalyst and holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl observed in his landmark book Man's Search for Meaning that the people in concentration camps who did not survive were those that gave up on meaning, and turned to pleasures shortly before they died. Pleasure, he seems to suggest, is for those who have lost a sense of noble purpose.

What makes Tobiah and Sarah friends is their shared sense of acting in cooperation in the unfolding story of God at work in the world. At the heart of Catholic faith is a profound sense that God reaches out in friendship toward each creature, and that living in cooperation with God enables us to live in cooperation, in friendship, with each other. In the context of friendship, then, sex is to be understood as cooperation with God. It is the shared practice of an intimacy embedded within a larger web of relationships: with parents and siblings, friends, fellow pilgrims. For that reason, the Church has from its earliest days recognized that sex has a social dimension to it. It changes one's relationship to the other, and the changes the couple's relationship to the rest of the world.

It is holy ground."

Saving sex for marriage isn't the cool thing to do (in the heat of the moment), or the easy thing (when you really like a person, etc.). But as we told my baby sister last night, as she was bemoaning the "awkward talk" her teacher was giving the class on chastity, no one regrets saying no and waiting for sex. We told 11 year old Boo how she was worth waiting for, and if a guy wanted her to commit her body to him, he was going to have to step up and offer her his lifetime commitment, not just a good time. The good times will come, as will the bad, and when/ if I have sex, it will be the most self-giving thing I can do for that person; because I'll have to step outside my wants, and become a wife, and then a mother.

This sounds old-fashioned, but mankind truly does not change at the evolutionary rate we like to think we do. Aquinas said that reason should be our guide for morality. Natural law, therefore, has very much a relationship to sexual ethics. You shan't be surprised then when I, budding Thomist that I am, heartily declare that "one should act rationally." Not having sex when one is not married seems pretty rational to me since I

A) don't want to be pregnant (yet)
B) don't want to get any funky diseases (ever)
C) don't want to be overly emotionally attached to someone I may not marry
D am, in fact, not married (and have you seen the statistics on single parenthood?)

These are all graspable realities which I contend with in my decision. The wide-spread use and acceptance of birth control and legalized abortion seems to cut at each of those barriers. But they do not take them away. Dr. Janet Smith says, "Natural law depends upon such. It rests upon the claim that things have natures and essences that we can know and correspond our actions to." But I did not need to give you that vocabulary lesson. Somewhere in your mind, you already knew that. I merely put the words there, to remind you. This is the beauty of natural law! It is so natural to the dignity of our very personhood.

CCC 2353: "Fornication is carnal union between an unmarried man and an unmarried woman. It is gravely contrary to the dignity of persons and of human sexuality which is naturally ordered to the good of spouses and the generation and education of children. Moreover, it is a grave scandal when there is corruption of the young."

Catholic young adults are biologically no different than other young adults, but as Christians, we are called towards a higher purpose in all that we do, and that includes sex.


  1. "Catholic young adults are biologically no different than other young adults, but as Christians, we are called towards a higher purpose in all that we do, and that includes sex. " Very well said.

    One of the things that strikes me after reading all of the posts today is that fear of pregnancy or desire to please God is not enough to make a woman abstain from sex in the heat of the moment with a man she loves, but it can be enough to help her make decisions that will keep her out of that situation in the first place.

    The sharp contrast between your various friends is telling. I found such a contrast in my own life to always make me want to run to the middle-ground offered by the theology of the body. It looks like you find it similarly encouraging!

  2. I like how you tied in some Scripture with your post!

  3. The sophomores are watching a Pam Stenzel DVD today. It's difficult to reach them via "God says don't, so don't," but I think Stenzel really drove in the importance of abstinence via scientific truths and alarming statistics. Hopefully some of those knuckleheads got the message. Keep your pants on.

  4. I saw Pam Stenzel live as a high school freshmen - at that age, I think it was good just to have someone say "This is not for you right now. God created boundaries for sex, and if you cross them you will probably get hurt."

  5. "no one regrets saying no and waiting for sex"

    I, absolutely, and completely regret this.

  6. Julie, great post! You make some really great points. Something that I'd like to point out because I wasn't aware of it until it was pointed out to me.

    I think that passage from Tobit is awesome, but what I missed was the situation preceding Tobias's prayer. In Ch 7 Verse 11, Raguel says to Tobias "But let me explain the true situation to you. I have given my daughter to seven men of our kinsmen, and when each came to her he died in the night."

    No wonder Tobias is on his knees praying! Surely he doesn't want to die like the other seven! I probably would have run the other way...

    What I find beautiful is that Tobias agrees to marry Sarah anyway. He makes that total gift of self to Sarah despite the fact that he could die. I may be going out on a limb here, but I think this is a foreshadowing of Christ's death for us. While Tobias couldn't die to save Sarah, or even himself, Jesus could and did die to save us. It's His total gift of self, out of love, unto death, that saved all of humanity.

    Changes how I look at that passage just a little bit.

  7. Hi all! Thanks for your comments!

    @Bryan, I am aware of that yes, but I do not think he is praying out of fear of death. He is praying to God and praising God; he trusts him!

    I think this because of an even earlier passage, from Tobit 6:19: "[The angel] Raphael said to [Tobiah]: "Do you not remember your father's orders? He commanded you to marry a woman from your own family. So now listen to me, brother; do not give another thought to this demon, but marry Sarah. I know that tonight you shall have her for your wife!"

    Sarah's father might not trust, but Tobiah does, because the angel of God told him not to worry. Therefore, he was praying for a long life with his wife and mercy from God. He has already been blessed! So he gives thanksgiving, and promises to love and cherish his wife in a noble way, not out of necessity or lust. I think that is a beautiful way to start a marriage!

  8. Another wonderful post Julie! You are so inspiring!

  9. I'm in the awkward position of having people assume my boyfriend and I are having sex just because we've been going out for over a year. Whenever it comes up, I have to explain, which feels ridiculous since they all know he's Catholic, but every time their eyes go wide with shock.

    My boyfriend does sleep over most nights (chastely), which I just want to mention since I hear a lot of people say that this kind of behavior inevitably leads to sex. It hasn't for us, and it's nice to talk at night, cuddle, and wake up together (though since we're college students, there's no kitchen for morning pancakes).

    I get frustrated by some of the talk that it's too hard not to have sex. We just don't. Doesn't take any special effort to not do something.

  10. I think you make a good point Leah. When both parties are upfront and make a commitment to chastity, and agree that sex will not happen, it doesn't and won't. I've always been frustrated from the leap of kissing to sex. Hello, there are a lot steps in between! The point they-who-assume miss is that love and romance is about the wooing and a relationship, not sex. I presume they're just being nosy and want to be shocked, so they let their minds unjustly jump.

    My friend was in college too... I have no clue how her boyfriend made pancakes. We made grilled cheese with an iron once, though! :)

  11. An electric griddle on the desk? Toaster pancakes?

    "So, of course it is natural to want to have sex! Sex is wonderful and life-giving! Not only potentially to a child, but between the couple. Catholics are certainly not Puritans. We love sex! Which is why we value it so highly and thus, protect it from false forms."

    YAHOO! Too many people don't realize that sexual "liberation" has actually cheapened sex and made it less meaningful. Heck, I've known people for whom sex was less meaningful than a handshake! Thank you, Julie!

    Leah: I've lived Platonically with a couple women. You're right, it doesn't have to result in sex, although it's nothing I'd recommend (avoid the near occasion and all that). I'm glad you and your boyfriend can respect each other's boundaries.

  12. After reading my first post, I may have strayed from point I was trying to make. Allow me to clarify, and I apologize for the "wall-o-text." :)

    I agree that the he is not praying solely out of fear of death. I wanted to say something about Tobiah's trust in God, but couldn't find the right words to express it. Thanks for the spark! To expand on what you said, I would suggest that because of his trust, he was able to turn to God, instead of turning away. While not totally the same, I imagine his response would have been similar to Mary at the Annunciation, or Jesus in the Garden at Gethsemane. Both Mary and Jesus were deeply troubled at what was about to happen, but because of their trust in the Father, were able to say "let it be done to me according to Your word."

    Tobiah expresses his fear in 6:14-15. And his prayer follows the command of Raphael in 6:18 "both of you first rise up to pray. Beg the Lord of heaven to show you mercy and grant you deliverance." I can't help but think that even though he trusts in God, in the back of his mind, there is still some hesitation about what is going to happen.

    The point I was trying to make was when that passage gets read at a wedding, it's easy to miss the full weight of the prayer without the context of Sarah's previous husbands. With that context, I see Tobiah's trust and his prayer take on deeper meaning.

    When a marriage is centered around God, and both partners trust in Him, the marriage is built on Rock. And I agree, what a beautiful way to start a marriage!

    And none of that has anything to do with sex before marriage... :)

    Does that make more sense?

  13. "Catholics are certainly not Puritans. We love sex! Which is why we value it so highly and thus, protect it from false forms." YEAH GIRL! Love this entire post!

  14. "I am always intrigued when people say that sex isn't a big deal. Perhaps not to some, but doesn't an inner crevice of one's soul want it to be?"

    No matter what people say or want to believe, sex always has some effect. It's bonds you to a person because that's what it's designed to do. While that tie might be pretty weak in the case of hooking up with someone you don't really know, it will eventually take a toll on your emotional makeup in little bits and pieces.

    If there wasn't this bond, it wouldn't be such a big deal to break up with someone you've had sex with, and it wouldn't have been such a big deal for your friend to admit it.

    Great post Julie!

  15. I really resonated with your story at the very beginning.....sort of a "loss of innocence" of sorts. I likewise had friends and family at home that modeled the correct behavior, and although I knew that some people had sex before marriage, I didn't realize that *I* would be the weird one who didn't.

    Shortly after going to college, I found out one of my close high school friends was pregnant, and that led to the realization that several of my hs friends were no longer virgins....it really came as a hard shock to me. One of my first friends at college revealed to me that her and her bf were having sex, and I accidentally overheard a conversation between the two of them regarding a possible pregnancy (turned out to be false), but they continued to have sex, she just decided it was high time to get the pill.

    Many friends just didn't understand why I became so sad and upset about all of this...at times it was just me and my best friend that stuck with it. Myself and especially my friend got ignored and not invited to gatherings when we came home from college because, as we later found out, we were "too religious" and apparently ruining their fun. It hurt. :-(

    While I continue to pray for my high school friends (I just heard one them is trying to convince her parents that she absolutely needs to move in with her bf to save money :-/), I've recently found some great friends that fit in with my values, and I can sometimes see that seed has been planted in the hearts of old friends or people I meet.

    Great post, as always! :-)

  16. "We choose God's way...People are happiest when they are inter-relational; living in just community with virtuous people, and can self-preserve these good things through the commitment of marriage, sex and children."

    Amen! I couldn't agree with you more. As an engaged woman in my final semester of college, I have found so much joy and lasting peace by choosing "God's way" in all things. This includes my fiance and I living chastely and having our physical intimacy reflect the commitment we have made in our relationship. This means that we live chastely out of love and respect for God, for each other, and for ourselves. Sex has strings attached, and in married love, there should be no fears that otherwise might exist were an unmarried couple nervous about getting pregnant or what would happen if the relationshp were to end.

    Ladies: Let your heart be won over by someone who will respect and protect it.

    Men: A woman striving for holiness is a good catch; she'll make a beaming bride.

    Julie, I'd love for you to vist my blog: www.rushhourvirtues.blogspot.com. I'm just getting started, but I really like your writing and ideas. :-)

  17. Wonderful post, my dear! I enjoyed it as always. I love reading your rational on paper and I love being able to hear your voice through the page! Very well written and enjoyable; I plan to share :)

  18. Great Post! I was just browsing through your blog and I'm so glad I stumbled upon this. I went to a talk that Mrs. Smith gave on Pope John II's theology of the body--I'm really excited to read more about it this summer. Thanks for posting GOOD reasons for waiting until marriage--and not skirting the fact that sex is good, and is good not just for babies (though those are wonderful and beautiful and an integral part of a good marriage) but also for bonding!