Speaking of Sex

A Harbor for the Spiritually Alive to Talk about Sex

In an article I read from The Washington Monthly (reprinted in the recent Utne Reader on “Erotic Intelligence” ), author Elizabeth Austin suggests––and you sense she thinks she is making a very bold suggestion––that the “rule” on Third Date Sex be modified.

Dating couples might wait a whole “six or eight­­­––maybe even ten—dates to make up our minds” about whether or not to either have sex or stop seeing each other.

You’ve come a long way, baby
As I read Austin’s article, the stunning contrast between the lived experience she described and the proclamation of sexual norms from the pulpits of our Catholic churches (“no sex until after marriage”) leapt out at me.

And I found myself craving a space where my spiritually alive, morally concerned, sexually active peers could talk honestly about the choices we make regarding sex.

Young people, the Church, and sex

  • Over 80% of Catholics aged 20-39 think premarital sexual relations between persons committed to one another can be morally acceptable.
  • Well over 90% of us think that decisions about the use of birth control should be left of couples themselves.
  • Though headlines about the Vatican’s statement regarding gay marriage swept the nation in the summer of 2003, only 13% of us look to the church hierarchy for direction regarding homosexuality.
  • No more than one in seven post-Vatican II Catholics believe church leaders are an authoritative voice on issues of sexual ethics.

Source: American Catholics: Gender, Generation and Commitment by William D’Antonio, James Davidson, Dean Hoge, and Katherine Meyer. New York: Alta Mira Press, 2001

No harbor
Not that we needed a high-priced research project to demonstrate this, but guess what? Studies show that for American young people, bishops and their thoughts on the subject are pretty much irrelevant in how we make our sexual decisions.

Too many of us have found that, although church teaching on sex might hang together very nicely in its own closed system of logic, it just doesn’t reflect our lived experience.

But this is quite a loss. Without the insight of a spiritually mature community, we can be, as one of my friends put it, “like boats without a moor.” We’re adrift in a sea of possible choices. There is no safe harbor.

If the third date feels too soon, why? If marriage is too far away, how do you know when the relationship is “ready”? How do you recover if you jump too soon? Or if you let a good thing slip away?

In this, excuse the pun, screwed up society we live in, we do need a place to think critically about our sex lives. But God knows, the last thing the world needs is more half-truths from Catholic voices about sex.

One wild life
Maybe we need to make a harbor for ourselves.

We need to start reflecting together on our real life experiences. We need to start sharing with one another what choices we are making, and what the results have been.

We need to rest together in the arms of our God, who made us, knows us, loves us, desires the best for us, and to ask, paraphrasing poet Mary Oliver, “what is it I should do with my one wild and precious life?”

What leads to love
We need to be honest about what decisions have led us to love, creativity, and joy.

One of my friends from grad school understands his premarital sex with his now-wife this way:

“The sex led to the commitment, not the other way around. I was able to communicate with her through sexual intimacy in a way words just didn’t make possible. We may not even have gotten married if this form of communication had been closed to us. I was always told that sex should be a reflection of or response to commitment. But for us, the sex was a major piece of creating commitment.”

I’m grateful for his honesty. This is the kind of myth-busting that is sorely needed.

The other side of the bedroom
We need to talk, too, about those choices that have led us to despair, loneliness, hurt. And we shouldn’t leave out those experiences that, frankly, don’t seem to have had any significant impact on us or our partners at all.

I heard a talk by a well-known priest reflecting on sexuality as spirituality. For over an hour, he kept emphasizing the power of human sexuality. It is our deepest connection to God, he said. It is either sacred or perverse, he insisted. It cannot be neutral.

As he talked, I kept thinking to myself, this is spoken like someone who doesn’t have sex.

In the context of an on-going relationship, yes, sometimes sex is beautiful, powerful, creative. But other times, it is a daily exercise, like brushing your teeth .

Another friend of mine—married with three small children—describes her current sex life as a duty, or even a chore.

“I have these little people touching and grabbing at me all day. Sex is absolutely the last thing I want at the end of the day. I’m so exhausted. I just want to go to sleep. But, I keep doing it. I am hoping that at some point my desire will return, and when that happens, I don’t want my husband and I to have lost touch.”

Some difficult, but refreshing
truth-telling shared between friends over a bottle of wine on a hot summer evening.

Sex talk for our time
These are the kinds of conversations I’d like to see more among Catholic people, within the context of faith. My hope is that people of our generation can create a safe place to have them.

As children of both the Sexual Revolution and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, we have a lot of conflicting and dangerous messages thrown at us. But I believe we have the capacity to build that safe harbor and to do great things with our wild and precious lives.