Busted Halo

Most dating and relationships books, columns and shows won’t go near issues of faith. Author, professor and speaker Dr. Christine B. Whelan assumes faith has some role, and tackles even the toughest questions.

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November 11th, 2008

Sex, Dating and Catholicism

Honest answers for young adults' frank questions


This past Sunday I gave a lecture on sex, dating and relationships at the Newman Center at the University of Iowa. As a professor here, I teach classes on the American family and introductory sociology courses, so I’ve heard a lot about the undergraduate hook-up culture. My students aren’t sure what a hook-up really means, or how to find a lasting relationship when casual sex is the norm. So when the Newman Center invited me to speak to young adult Catholics on these issues, I jumped at the chance.

To prepare for the talk, I attended at Thursday 10 p.m. Mass where about 75 committed Catholic undergrads served as a focus group: After I explained why I thought it was important for issues of sex and dating to be address within the Church, I asked students to put their anonymous questions on index cards.

So as last night rolled around I had dozens of excellent questions and possible topics to discuss. In a nearly-packed room in the basement of the Newman Center (and with Daily Iowan reporters there taking notes and snapping my picture) we had 90 minutes of questions, answers and discussion. Here are a few highlights:

“How do you break the routine of hook-ups and try to find a quality relationship?”

Think about what you want from a relationship: Mutual appreciation? Someone you enjoy hanging out with? Someone to share deepest feelings and emotions?

These kinds of benefits require trust—and trust takes time to build. This, to me, is one of the biggest problems with the hook-up culture: It skips over all the emotional relationship and trust building and jumps into a physical and very personal act without the emotional backup.

So, let’s say you’re at a bar on a Saturday night (and as I’ve said in previous columns, bars are probably not the best place to meet a like-minded mate, but hey, you’re young and want to have fun, so let’s be practical.) First thing you want to do is watch how much alcohol you consume. Getting drunk is a surefire way to make bad decisions. You can drink and have fun, certainly, but remain in control.

Then, think a bit long-term. Do you want to be popular with this person just for tonight, or also when he or she is sober and making good decisions tomorrow and the next day?

And don’t be above being a bit of a tease: You can hang out with a guy or girl at the bar as if you might go home with them, and then say—give me your number I’ll call you tomorrow. If they say “let’s go home together now,” you can say you think they’re really great and you’d like to get to know then better—over coffee the next day.

This does a few things: First of all, it’s different, so you’ve got their attention. Second, it shields you from someone who just wants a one-night stand. If they don’t want to have coffee with you in 12 hours but they wanted to have sex with you right then, you made the right choice.

“Does the Church think it’s better to lead a chaste life and that marriage is just a second-best option?”

This is an excellent question—and one that I think a lot of people are confused about. The Church talks a lot about chastity, but that is not in any way to say that the Church is anti-sex.

Think about what you want from a relationship: Mutual appreciation? Someone you enjoy hanging out with? Someone to share deepest feelings and emotions? These kinds of benefits require trust—and trust takes time to build.

There are seven sacraments (quick—can you name them?): Baptism, Communion, Confirmation, Reconciliation, Marriage, Holy Orders and Last Rites. You can’t have all seven all at once. Marriage and Holy Orders are two separate, but equally important, vocations in the Church.

The Catholic Church is not anti-sex. Catholics believe that sex is one way a couple renews their love and the sacrament of marriage. Marriage isn’t a sacrament that you get once and never deal with again. As my husband frequently reminds me, it’s not that you are married it’s that you do marriage. It’s a commitment you make every day and sex is one way in which you recommit yourself to your spouse.

Chastity, however, is something that is valued by the Church as the way we guard our sexuality before marriage. But it’s increasingly hard to do with all the peer pressure and cultural pressures telling us to do the opposite.

But the arguments for chastity aren’t, “don’t do it,” “sex is dirty”—they are about valuing yourself, protecting yourself from making premature commitments and keeping sacred the sexual union for marriage.

“If you know you want to marry someone, does that make it more OK to have sex before marriage?”

Now, this one is a toughie. Because if you know that you love someone and that you’re going to be sharing the gift of sex with them in a few months, why do you have to wait? And there are all sorts of “reasons” not to wait, it seems.

One argument would go that sex is an important part of marriage, so you should practice in advance. But it doesn’t work that way. Sexual intercourse isn’t like playing tennis or basketball. Sex is a gift God gives us and you don’t need to practice to become “good”—it’s a basic human instinct and married couples learn together very quickly. The basic ingredients for a good sexual relationship are mutual love, respect and a real sense of caring about the other person’s feelings.

Another argument would say, if you really love someone you should prove it to them there and then. But love can mean different things. And it can be confused for desire or a heat-of-the-moment crush. Too often, a girl is convinced to have sex as the only way to prove her love. But real love doesn’t have to be “proven” that way. Love is not a selfish emotion. It requires two people to respect each other and make sacrifices. If a guy and a girl are really in love, they would certainly not ask each other to assume the risks that go with teenage or premarital sex.

Here’s what I’d say: Marriage involves a total commitment before God, your community and your family. The formal ceremony makes that commitment public. And that can’t be taken lightly. It’s one thing for a couple to say “I love you, let’s have sex.” That’s not commitment. But when you get married, you are assuming responsibility for what happens in your relationship—and what happens when you have sex.

Send me your questions!

Want to learn more? Well, the letters are already pouring in from University of Iowa students with more questions based on my talk. One guy wrote me saying that he recently broke up with his girlfriend because she was pressuring him to have sex. He wanted to have sex, too, but he believes a couple should wait until marriage. “Do you have any tips on how to find people with similar beliefs?” he asked.


What do you know about Natural Family Planning? Share your opinions and experiences (whether you’ve tried NFP or not!) by taking our short survey HERE.

Another girl emailed me to ask about sexual experimentation before marriage. In my talk I discussed how, although we’d all like to think of oral sex as a loophole that doesn’t “really count” as premarital sex, it is sex. After the talk, she was concerned. She wrote: “If someone has participated in the act of oral sex (with or without prior knowledge that oral sex is sex) are they still considered a virgin? What actions, if any, should a person take if they have committed a sexual act outside of marriage?”

These are terrific questions—and I’ll be addressing these and more in my upcoming columns. My next column is going to pick up on your thoughts about Natural Family Planning. If you haven’t shared your opinions, CLICK HERE and take our quick survey. Let your voice be heard!

The Author : Christine B. Whelan
Dr. Christine B. Whelan is an author, professor and speaker. She and her husband, Peter, and their dictator cats, Chairman Meow and Evita Purron, live in Pittsburgh. Her book "Why Smart Men Marry Smart Women" is available in stores or at the Halo Store.
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Please note that the editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness.
  • Sarah Kristen

    Hi. I am 20 years old, not married and a practicing catholic. I am still confused, so I know oral sex is a sin outside of marriage. but Is it considered a mortal sin , or venial?
    Are you still considered a virgin even after performing oral sex?

  • Tabitha

    I have not been in a committed relationship since 2006. I’m Catholic. I made the decision to to try and wait for marriage. I don’t know if this is possible at my age of 38. It would take someone special and corresponding.
    I’ve met this guy. We’ve met once in person and are social media friends. We recently started chatting more than usual. We became quite sexual in our chats – Oh ! He too is being chaste since 2006 (strange coinsidence – he told me that before I told him and I believe him). Oh, he’s a devout Catholic too. Most of our talks have been sexual. Prior to this, I have never been sexually explicit in written word. If he was like this with me for a month, why wouldn’t I think he’d be like that with someone else ? In a cyber way – I hooked up ? Well, brief mentions about kids and maybe living together were mentioned…What do people think about cyber “making love” – he never used the word sex nor did I ?

    • Story Valentino

      Hey can I get to know you?

  • Paul

    I dated a lot in high school. The object was to get to know interesting girls, and show them a good time. I could easily obtain dates because I had a reputation for never pressing a girl for sex. A kiss was not even expected. I was considered a “Don Juan” among the guys until the word got out I was a virgin. The girls were not disappointed though, and I was seldom turned down. I was a happy virgin at 21, and was married at 28. Sex was always on my mind, but never as an object of any date. I think I had more fun than any other guy in school, and more dates than most.

  • Mary

    @ pat: you can only have sex within a marriage, not before. I think you should watch this short video for more, and also google the “Pure Love Club” website: http://www.xt3.com/library/view.php?id=182

  • Sabrina

    @Tina: there is a big difference between “needs” and “desires.” You should consider going into counseling to determine the difference. Also, having sex outside of marriage is considered a sin by the Church whether or not one uses NFP or artificial birth control.

  • Sabrina

    @ Barbara: Even if you get the annulment, having sex would still be a sin…until you marry the fellow. Once you two are married post-annulment, you’re ok.

  • pat

    is it true I can have sex before marriage but I just cant have a baby????……confusing

  • Barbara

    I am a divorced Catholic. I never received an annulment because I was concerned that my children would be called “bastards”. After further inquiries, I realize that this is not the case. I have not remarried or been in a relationship for 19 years. Now I am seeing a devout Catholic. He believes that by having sex we are committing adultery. I do not. I love him and want to be intimate with him. We are. He feels guilty, I don’t. I am going to have my first and only marriage annulled just to satisfy him. We will not be married,but maybe he will not feel so guilty about our relationship. I love him. And I may want to marry him sometime. If I receive the annulment and we are not married and still having sex, is that still considered sinning to him? Will confession free him from the guilt? I am a confident, moral person. It is not an issue with me, but he is completely immersed in canon law.
    With respect,

  • Tina

    Chastity and dating. Marriage and adultry….Why should we substitute one adult for another when a mom is available for her own child? I can’t even get past the fact that chastity means not masturbating either…I wish they would prosecute women who have sex with married men when the man decides he doesn’t pay alimony or anything. Particularly when the woman tries desperately to get a job. Is the law of cannon coming back in style? Since when is pleasure and lust a strategy that society rewards with job placement and other womens children. I nursed my own sons. My breast milk isn’t jerseymaid. I don’t sell it for rahab purposes.

  • Tina Sasuga-Paludi

    I have been dating very little. I am recently divorced and have physical needs. Any woman my age has needs. My ex-husband was a passionate lover with a satisfying frequency of intimacy and I was pretty driven sexually myself.
    My ex-husband had a vasectomy that he discussed with a woman from the office. He and this woman at the office made all the arrangements to deny me of additional children in our marriage and it was shocking. Now he has divorced me and I am having difficulties dating.
    What do I do about my physical needs and desires? I can’t keep a husband, don’t have a boyfriend and think dating should absolutely never be built around sex!
    This man I really like is always busy and whenever we see one another we are satisfied and have fun. We never date. This has been consistent.
    I have dated another man recently who is freakish about my kids and sexuality. I am natural family planning as the church directs. Trying not to get pregnant. Yet, I would like children and a relationship someday.
    With concern,

  • Vaughan

    Could you help me. We owe something to extravagance, for thrift and adventure seldom go hand in hand.
    I am from Chile and now study English, please tell me right I wrote the following sentence: “How to become a professional photographer july how to choose and buy your st mm camera april.”

    With love 8-), Vaughan.

  • Rick Malloy, S.J.

    Excellent article, excellent discussion. One clarification about the meaning of Chastity in the Catholic tradition may be helpful. We are all called to practice the virtue of chastity. Chastity is not just for priests and religious.

    In another article for Busted Halo, I wrote, “As a Jesuit, along with vows of poverty and obedience, I took a vow of celibate chastity. ‘Chastity means the successful integration of sexuality within the person’ which leads to ‘inner unity’ in both our body and spirit (Catechism of the Catholic Church #2337). We all are called to be chaste, integrated and loving, whether we are having sex or not.”

    Married people are called to marital chastity, single people to single persons’ chastity, religious and priests to chastity in their freely chosen ways of life. The virtue of chastity helps us find that inner unity and peace we arrive at by resisting urges that, if acted upon, will make us less authentic and loving persons. – Peace, Rick Malloy, S.J.

  • ronald panlilio

    I agree with this article. Chastity and Purity should be the goal for all young people before they get married. Unfortunately there is so much media pressure and peer pressure to have sex, and use birth control, and to have abortions. Catholics are different in their teachings than the teachings of the secular world. We want to save sex until after marriage, commitment, and have it be a way to show love and create life. And if your using birth control, or condoms then you are not becoming one flesh with your spouse. In fact you are witholding part of yourself from your spouse. Natural Family Planning is great for being disciplined about sex, and if god still brings you a child then that child must really be a blessing to your family. The books by christopher west and the pope are a great way to learn about the sanctity of the body and life. For the body reveals god, and each of us is a special child of god. Sex is a gender, before it was ever an action. Men and Women are responsible for their actions, and should pray and commit to each other before entering into sexual activity.

  • Mary

    Marc, I respect your opinion but I think you’re comparing apples and oranges when you compare an abstinent teenager to a married couple using contraceptives. God wanted two to become one flesh and THEN be fruitful and multiply – not the other way around. The abstinent teenager understands that. When a man and a woman are joined in marriage, they are given the gift to be able to bring children into the world out of love and openness to life. You have to have both of those. We are not supposed to be open to life before marriage because the two have not joined in the holy sacrament of matrimony. A married couple using NFP for legitimate reasons would still be open to life, because they’re leaving it up to God, as well as exercising some discipline, which can’t hurt.

  • Marc Adams

    As a catholic, I say we are making a little much of Ms. Whelan’s Chastity statement. The American Heritage Dictionary defines Chastity as the condition or quality of being pure. Sure it would be preferable to maintain a sense of chastity through marriage. Who doesn’t like purity? What I don’t like are the narrow definitions of what purity is. Contraceptives no more go against the idea of chastity in marriage than vitamins go against the idea of health. I am an avid church going Catholic who believes contraceptives are just fine in the context of marriage as long as life is not destroyed. If life is prevented, well, I guess it doesn’t much differ from the teen who chooses abstinence for fear of causing an unwanted pregnancy. We aren’t telling them to get married and have babies. It is true, contraceptives are “unnatural” but so is the advil you take for your headache and the life-saving transfusion the car accident victim receives in the hospital. I believe the purity or chastity that we seek is maintained through marriage as long as mutual respect is there irregardless of contraceptives. If

  • Nfpworks

    I agree with all commenters. It’s easy to make this gaff on chastity because so much of our chastity teaching is done to youth, but the huge problem of a largely contracepting Catholic culture is that the parents aren’t living out a chaste marriage. Chastity is, indeed, for all!

  • Mary K

    Anyone who doesn’t understand why the Church tells us not to have sex before marriage DEFINITELY needs to check out Christopher West’s work on JPII’s Theology of the Body.

  • Jaime

    I agree with Lisa. I was a little startled when I read that you said chastity was for BEFORE marriage. Even married couples must be chaste. The obvious would be to remain faithful to your spouse, but chastity in a marriage would also include not using condoms or birth control. It’s interesting because every church preaches no sex before marriage, but only the Catholic Church (that I know of) says that even during marriage condoms and birth control are not permitted since they do not sanctify life. I have lots of protestant friends who are planning on remaining virgins before marriage, but also plan on using contraceptives once married.

  • Marie

    The late Pope John Paul II gave a series of talks from 1979 to 1984 (or so) on what he calls “Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body.” Christopher West has started a lecture series that breaks down JPII’s book, and for anyone interested in what the gift of sexuality is really all about within a Catholic/Christian life, it’s worth checking out! JPII is helping me to understand the beauty of how and why we are created as sexual beings, man and woman, and how we are called to cherish and respect that gift of sexuality, contrary to what our culture tells us about sex. Check it out – you will be challenged, but I don’t think you will be disappointed!

  • Lisa

    In this article you said “Chastity, however, is something that is valued by the Church as the way we guard our sexuality before marriage.”

    This is exaclty the skewed vision that you were talking about. Chastity is not simply something that needs to be protected before marriage. Chastity needs to be lived out in all vocations, in every stage of life. Chastity does not mean celibacy, though that can certainly be a part of it if one is not married.

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