How Far Is Too Far?

If you are committed to remaining a virgin until marriage, where do you draw the line on physical intimacy?

Dozens of you responded to our most recent Pure Sex, Pure Love survey about sexual intimacy before marriage-and expressed diverse opinions. Some readers said kissing, handholding and hugging are the only acceptable forms of intimacy before marriage. Other readers said anything short of intercourse is acceptable within a committed relationship.

According to the Church, sex should be reserved for marriage. It’s a rule, and as rules go, it’s pretty black and white. But what is “sex”-and where is the line between acceptable physical intimacy before marriage and out-of-bounds sin? Is making out OK? Clothes off? Oral sex?

Several recent polls of college students – including Christian teens – suggest that well over half of young adults define sex as intercourse only, and consider oral sex and mutual masturbation to be somehow less of a sin than vaginal intercourse.

We’re conflicted because we know that sex before marriage is considered a sin but we also don’t like the idea of full-on chastity in our swinging single days. So we’re searching for some happy medium, and according to our recent survey, we’re uncovering a lot of personal conflict along the way.

While 75% of readers responding to our survey said that oral sex is a sin on par with premarital intercourse, several confessed that their sexual practices haven’t always matched up with their beliefs.

Jim, 27, says “mutual masturbation is as far as my conscience dictates I go. Although I have had oral sex, I didn’t feel right about it afterward. It just gave me a bad gut feeling. It would be nice to say that I have always practiced what I preach, but unfortunately, I haven’t. In terms of sexual intercourse, I am a virgin, and hope to stay one until I marry.”

Other readers make a distinction that sex is for procreation and oral sex is a sharing of pleasure and love. Jonathan, 23, says he believes intercourse should be reserved for marriage, but “for an unmarried couple in a committed and loving relationship, oral sex can be a wonderful physical expression of their love.” However, he says, “a marriage is the base of a family, thus vaginal sex (how we make babies) should be for a married couple alone.”

I understand these arguments, and I used to agree with them. But let’s be honest, folks: When we start making semantic differences between types of physical gratification-where the end result is the same in each-are our actions consistent with our faith’s values, or are we finding loopholes to get away with as much as we can?

Instead of asking how far is too far, let’s talk about motivation: Are you looking for physical pleasure without the commitment or the worry of pregnancy? As Father Dave Dwyer, our resident priest here at BustedHalo says, “If the motivation behind a couple having oral sex is to enjoy ‘all the good parts’ of sexual stimulation without the life-long commitment that marriage entails or the responsibility involved in raising children, this is contradictory to the reason God gifted us with something so pleasurable as sex.” Translation: With great gifts come great responsibilities.

There’s been a lot of great writing about the Catholic Church’s guidelines about physical intimacy – but many of us don’t actually read any of it because we either just want to continue doing what we’re doing and not hear anything that might make us feel guilty, or we think we know it all already. Check out the links in the box at the right. Some of these essays might surprise you.

The Catholic Church on Sex

– For an excellent summary of the Church’s teaching on sexuality, including the reasoning behind the teaching that pre-marital sex is morally wrong, click here.

– For a well-grounded theological and sociological argument for adhering to the Church’s teaching on sexuality, click here.

– For a more conversational approach, see this interview with Christopher West, noted expert on Pope John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body “ (the “why” behind the Church’s “rules” about sex).

– To study the Church’s teaching on sexuality, as summed up by the Catechism of the Catholic Church, see paragraphs 2331-2400.

Many writers have provided clever answers to the “how far is too far” question: In her book Real Sex, Lauren Winner says unmarried couples shouldn’t do anything that they wouldn’t do in public-or, using the example she picked, in the center of the University of Virginia campus. Until the marriage ceremony, which begins the private sexual life of a couple, “the question for unmarried couples is not How far can we go? But How do we maintain the integrity of our sexual relationship, which at this point is only public.”

Amanda, 23, says actions that seem acceptable on one day might lead to temptation on another. “When my husband and I were dating, hugging was sometimes to much, because I would begin to lust. But other days we could kiss and hold hands and snuggle and watch a movie,” Amanda says. For many couples, there the grey area is larger-and it depends on the situation.

So what does all this mean for your relationship? Ultimately you will be the one to draw the line, so how about thinking less about what you can get away with, and more about what you are trying to gain by your expressions of intimacy within the relationship. Talk to your priest or church counselor. Talk to your boyfriend or girlfriend (when you’re not in the heat of the moment!).

And finally, I’d just like to take a moment to thank all of the BustedHalo readers who have been reading and commenting on my column in the last few months. Your insights and honest personal stories have inspired me. As we continue to tackle dating and relationship questions, I’d like to hear from you: What would you like a future Pure Sex, Pure Love column to discuss? Please email me at with any topics you’d like me to explore.