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!