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.