How Far Is Too Far?


How Far Is Too Far?

When I was a teenager, I knew I wasn’t supposed to have sex. I wasn’t exactly clear on exactly why I wasn’t supposed to have sex, but I was pretty sure it had something to do with not getting pregnant and not going to hell. And that was enough for me.

What I wasn’t clear on – and what was, to me, the holy grail of questions – was “how far can I go?” Was it only actual sex I was supposed to be avoiding? Or all the stuff that led up to it? Exactly which stuff that led up to it was I supposed to avoid? It was all very confusing.

In my search for an answer, I got some weird information. One older friend told me that, back in the 1960’s when she was in high school, the nuns told her that a kiss was a venial sin after three seconds, and a mortal sin after five. Apparently the good nuns also said that women should avoid wearing pearls, as they remind men of bed sheets.

Even I knew that wasn’t right. But while I didn’t want this information, I wanted information that was just this specific. I wanted the Church to publish a list of exactly what I could and couldn’t do on a date. Because if it was a mortal sin, I didn’t want to do it. But if it was a venial sin, I didn’t want to miss it.

Okay, not exactly. But that was not too far from my mentality at the time. I just wanted to know where that big mortal sin line was drawn.

Unfortunately, the Church has no such list. So not only are good Catholic teenagers left to sort it all out for themselves, but so are we hapless Catholic single adults, trying to navigate the grown-up dating world. Is it different for us? Are we allowed to do more? Should we do less? Why are we still having to figure this out after all of these years of dating?

I have written ad nauseum on these pages about how sex speaks the language of self-donation. The thing is, that language isn’t just spoken in the final act. It’s spoken in the entire act – all of that stuff that happens before the final act, stuff that if the final act happens is called “foreplay.” So, being part of the act, it carries the same meaning.

Remember how, way back sometime, I wrote a column about bonding in sexual activity? The hormone oxytocin is secreted in the brain during sexual arousal. Oxytocin, as you will recall, is the bonding hormone. It causes forgetfulness, decreased ability to think rationally, and strong feelings of connection and trust to the other person.

That doesn’t just happen when we “go all the way.” It happens with all of the stuff that happens along the way, too.

The one thing I knew when I was a teenager was that private body parts were off limits. So I’m going to assume that’s a given here, as well. It doesn’t take a genius to see that kind of activity is very clearly “sexual” activity.

Here’s what I see generally happening to “nice” Catholic couples. They figure the “body parts” line is the one they shouldn’t cross, and they figure since they’re nice and holy and all, they’ll just be strong and not cross it. So they make out on the sofa for hours and hours on a regular basis, failing to recognize that the human body is programmed to want to move forward sexually. And they either a) cross the line, or b) don’t technically cross the line, but still feel vaguely guilty and can’t explain why. The more important God is in their lives, the more likely this is to happen. And it messes up their relationships. The oxytocin starts pumping, fueling a level of attachment that is not natural for the stage of their relationship. At the same time, they are feeling guilty and uneasy before God. They frequently tend to blame each other, and that blame can easily become full-blown resentment.

Being sexually attracted to someone we’re dating, someone we care about, is a good thing. It’s how God wired us. But deliberately feeding that attraction outside of marriage– “making out” just because it feels good — is problematic. It takes us into the realm of using the other person’s body as simply means to our own sexual pleasure. And that’s a violation of the personalistic norm. “The only adequate response to a human person is love.”

The problem, of course, is that the attraction is going to be present when those two people are together, and particularly when they are being affectionate with each other. Does that make any affection between them bad? Should they abstain from all affection? Where exactly is the line?

Looks like we’ve got ourselves another two-parter.



  1. Wendy-437470 August 3, 2009 Reply

    Darn it! i was waiting for an answer. a set of rules or something. im so confused as well and i feel that you speak for lots of us.. thanks. Lets hope for reasonable answers

  2. Kyle-101666 August 3, 2009 Reply

    Good article! You know…this is all stuff I am trying to teach to my 16 year old son. But it is indeed hard to follow for myself as it is confusing. She is right when she says that we are wired to move forward sexually, That is really only right for us within the bounds of a total commitment. To be continued I guess.

  3. Lynda-469641 August 7, 2009 Reply

    I'm glad to see I'm not the only one who struggles with this and I can really relate to Patricia's response on the issue.

  4. Cailin-460124 August 8, 2009 Reply

    The downside to this is that sex and sexuality is part of a healthy, loving, and complete marriage so if you wait till you're married and find you're not sexually compatible then serious problems can arise, especially if one spouse tries to force the other to move beyond their safety zone. I don't advocate being promiscuous, but if you love someone enough that you want to marry them and even go as far as to become engaged then I don't think there's much wrong with that. We "test" the other areas of our relationship to make sure the one we're with is "the one", so why limit ourselves there?

  5. Beth-471975 August 14, 2009 Reply

    Thanks for giving your insights obout premarital sex, in that way you have enlightened the minds of those teenagers practicing that act. I am from the Philippines, we are a Catholic country but we can't deny the fact that even the church has preaching regarding premarital sex, there are some of our young men and women engaged in that activity inspite of being a "religious & conservative" upbringing of their parents. Thanks for sharing your ideas. God bless.

  6. Martina-464542 August 18, 2009 Reply

    Mary Beth, Thank you very much for your writing, it is not easy
    to write about thit subject, however, you have done a good
    job and agree with you.

  7. Nancy-217438 August 19, 2009 Reply

    Thank you very much Mary Beth! I agree with you 100% and to support me, I have been reading all the books of Joshua Harris (I kiss dating Goodbye, Boy meets Girls and not even a hint) which are all very helpful to me. Thank you for being honest about it all the way! Even at almost 40, I still think I need to pursue a relationship with that set of values, or else it's doom to failure… And One will be happy :mischievous:

  8. Stephen-445966 August 23, 2009 Reply

    I think the best thing to do along the "curve" is to "seek"(both partners) for the full fill meant of each step along the way by bringing forth(like little children) to Our Lord and get his blessing for our happiness!!!

  9. Lynn-189934 September 8, 2009 Reply

    This will be an interesting article, and I look forward to part II. My favorite television drama, Homefront, explored the Catholic teachings of Vatican I circa 1945-1947, the years of the setting. Real church pamphlets are read, which give advice to a bride (divine fulfillment in the marriage bed may someday be hers with patience), and advice to dating/engaged couples. (It is the woman's responsibility to conduct herself in a way so as not to promote sexual interest in the man; if all else fails, engaged couples should spend time together with others, never alone—which backfires when the well-meaning but passionately in-love couple run separate errands to the church and are locked in the church hall together). We've come a long way from this type of advice, and I look forward to your article.

  10. Benthe-479919 September 12, 2009 Reply

    The article is good! It focuses on what it really means to stay 100% on the Church's teaching. The challenge to beat the hormones before marriage can be fun, sometimes hard, but the struggle is what one makes it, so it can be fun. 😉 I don't believe in the compatible-theory (to try first to know). A marriage is a covenant between God and the couple. If they should be so unlucky that they find out that they don't "match" sexually at the wedding, they have something to bring before God together. If they work together with God, I'm sure they will on day find that they are the most compatible persons in the world. :theheart:

  11. Kevin-258970 September 19, 2009 Reply

    I'm glad to see this article here. The number of people here to have no trouble with pre-marital sex is quite disheartening.

  12. Derek-484872 September 25, 2009 Reply

    This is a very controversial topic. Personally I have been raised in the catholic faith, and I have modeled my conscience off of many of the teachings. However, this can be tough because the Lord created all of us knowing we would have these desires. A long time ago, individuals married much earlier than they do now, and these desires do not just subside. With that being said, I am acknowledging both sides of the discussion. I do believe that sex should be saved for marriage. However, things such as making out and showing control are ways of expressing yourself to your partner. Also, you do not need to go all of the way to feel satisfied, esepcially when you care about the other person. So I respect everyones views, and I enjoy these discussions. Thank you for the discussion starter and giving me a forum to express myself. God Bless

  13. Don-336954 October 2, 2009 Reply

    This is very simple. Whatever you're doing with a member of the opposite sex, would you be comfortable doing it if your parish priest walked in on you? Don't ever look at this issue as "how much can I get away with", but rather look at it as "how much can I respect and protect my partner's immortal soul. And every single Catholic should purchase, read, and study Christopher West's "Good News About Sex and Marriage." It will provide very clear guidlines that you can use in the marriage discernment process.

  14. Arlene-274401 October 4, 2009 Reply

    Ladies & Gentlemen: the word that comes to mind is…"Abstinence!" By practicing this, we can learn to live a life in Jesus' path…our experience in maintaining self-control wil help us when ANY SORT OF temptations arise in our lives. Unmarried couples should think about their relationship in a spiritual & emotional standpoint rather than physical. Just Titus 2:11-12 "say NO to ungodliness and wordly passions and live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives.."

  15. Corin-445092 October 4, 2009 Reply

    I read this book by bud mcfarlane, a catholic fiction writer (very awesome books). he wrote about this father who wouldnt let his children while dating do nothing but hold hands, and when engaged i think they were allowed to kiss on the cheek. i think thats a great rule and i will apply it to myself 😛 i had a thought while I read this too. I think if you are thinking about how "far you can go" then you are only thinking about following the "rule" not respecting the other person. and maybe youve already thought about breaking it. the Lords Prayer comes to my mind. "Lead us not into temptation…" that takes a little effort from us too. God Bless you and keep you all :)

  16. Shannon-421066 November 14, 2009 Reply

    Take Don-336954's comment a little further. What if The Christ himself was in the room with you both. If you are both truly on the path, this will not be an issue. You will be guided by the Holy Spirit. Intercourse within the boundaries of marriage is not without or beyond unpure thought. What is in the hearts of you both? Marriage is a sacrament between a Man, a Woman and GOD. Nothing else comes between. The marriage is merely sanctified by the Catholic Church – not created.
    Any sin lies within ones own heart and soul. Ask for forgiveness and let go of that sin and it is finished.

  17. Joann-451185 December 1, 2009 Reply

    this is a great article and promotes great discussion. we have some wonderful catholic christians here at catholic all really inspire me especially the young people God Bless you all !

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