I'll Take Her on a Test Drive

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This is the third post in a series of four on sexuality, Catholic teaching—especially the theology of the body—and the pitting of body against soul and soul against body that sexual immorality naturally entails. I discussed general sexuality here and masturbation here. Now we turn our attention to fornication, especially premarital sex.

I mentioned before that masturbation is the primordial sexual sin, the precursor of most sexual sin, and in fact that most immoral sexual acts are just thinly disguised masturbation. As regards fornication, this is most obvious in the treatment of sex as just a recreation tool, and in the behavior of people who are just looking to “score” for one night. Perhaps the most offensive example of masturbation disguised as sex comes from the comparison between having premarital sex and test driving a car.

I can’t speak for any other guy out there, but if I ever suggested to my wife that I was treating her like a vehicle—something to be used while it works, and then traded it once it had exceeded its usefulness—I would have found myself in the ER hoping that the doctors could salvage a portion of the brain matter leaking out of my ears. Certainly I hope that anyone would receive such a wake-up call from whatever Chevy Nova or Toyota Corolla he happens to be dating at the time.

Of course, these are blatant examples of how fornication pits body against soul. The connection between them and masturbation, and how masturbation turns the giving, procreative act inward in a conflict between body and soul, is obvious. The veneer trying to disguise sex in these cases as anything other than simply pleasure-seeking is thin. And as long as the pleasure-seeking is self-oriented, as the above examples obviously are, then it is essentially masturbation, while just using another human as a tool to help achieve climax.

Less obvious is the fornication found between dating couples who believe they have the intent to someday marry, and who feel that the sexual act is one of the highest expressions of love they can have. They are indeed concerned with the giving of the act, in trying to unite and please the other at the same time. In cases like this, it becomes very hard to justify sex as just barely-disguised masturbation, especially with the cacophony of emotion that swirls around a dating couple.

But then, we as a society have had a problem of drifting away from the true nature of sex. We’ve descended a slippery slope, no doubt about it, expanding the legitimacy of sex from only between loving, devoted, married couples who are open to procreation, to essentially with whomever, whenever we want. I’m not by any means suggesting that this decline in morality is anything new, or that sexual sin scarcely existed prior to the 1960’s (but remember, every generation thinks that they’re the ones who discovered sex), but we did exist for a while at a point where at least socially we only condoned sex between married couples. I have no intention of detailing the descent of mankind into sexual sin, be it from, say, the 1930’s or even as far back as the Fall, but it is important to realize that we have many current assumptions about sex that obscure why sex between a loving, devoted pre-married couple is at odds with Catholic teaching.

The first and foremost assumption here, of course, harkens back to the “as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone” that I discussed in my last post. What could it possibly hurt for a dating couple—or even an engaged couple—to engage in sex when they’re going to get hitched anyway? What is it going to hurt? They’re going to be faithful to each other, and if she by some inexplicable random chance gets pregnant, well, the wedding’s not that far off, anyway. Surely it won’t matter if we move the schedule up a bit.

While it is typically incumbent upon those who claim that no one is hurt to demonstrate that indeed no one is hurt, I will endeavor to make explicit why the argument fails in this case, as well. First and foremost we must recall that sex is not just about union, and it is not just about procreation. It is about both together. We have a word that does a decent job of capturing what is really happing with sex: family. Whether we are speaking of the family of persons in the Holy Trinity—which sex mimics in the procession of the Spirit as the love between the Father and the Son—or of the Holy Family—especially since we are but a day removed from the Feast of the Holy Family—we must keep in mind that sex is about the coming together of two persons with a love that has the potential to give rise to a third.

Sex prior to marriage upsets this fundamental understanding. It is an attempt to seek union without risking union. It is an attempt to express love without commitment, which in and of itself is a contradiction. Sex seeks to fulfill the deepest devotion, and when that devotion is not present, sex is unfulfilled. Without that family aspect, sex is a flawed tool. Moreover, this is exactly where the harm lies. In the breaking the promise of lifetime commitment, the soul and body struggle against each other: the soul plundering the body for immediate gratification, the body trying to move the soul away from its inner seeking of love to perform a natural, but incomplete act.

It may be too harsh to say that this, in turn, makes the act of sex a well-disguised attempt at masturbation, but there is a significant measure of self-serving in the act, and that self-serving can very easily slip into a masturbation mentality. But above that, the act of premarital sex diminishes the importance of family, weakens the institution, makes it secondary to the act of sex. This in turn wounds the potential of unity between the couple, and rather than bringing them closer together, opens a gulf between them. While this gulf is not an insurmountable obstacle to a happy and devoted marriage, it nevertheless exists and hampers any marital relationship.

The second assumption that we make culturally nowadays is that sex is equated with a loving, devoted couple (married or not). This is a two-pronged assumption. The first is that if a couple loves each other, then they have sex. The second is the converse, in that having sex shows that a couple loves each other. Both notions, of course, are flawed, but the second more so than the first.

One could make the argument—perhaps with a little equivocation on the word “love”—that indeed a loving, devoted couple will have sex, if one restrains “loving and devoted” to mean married, but even then the assertion falls flat. The equating of love with sex ignores the fundamental truth that loving someone and being devoted to that person sometimes means not having sex with them. Above that, sometimes that love and devotion means never having sex with that person at all. To our society, that seems utterly inconceivable. Which is why we struggle so much with the concept of the Ever-Virgin Mary. Which is why we cave so much to the contraceptive mentality (though I’ll deal with contraceptives in my next post).

In contrast to popular opinion, and without delving too much into eros and agape and philia and other classes love, true love does not demand sex between people who are not married. In fact, it demands the opposite. Part of the assumption that love equates with sex is that love is naught but those gooey, squishy feelings that warm the cockles. Love is in truth far beyond that, and exists even in the absence of those feelings. Love, as many have told me over the course of my life, consists of a choice to devote oneself to another. In a sense, with love, we die to our needs to meet the needs of another. We sacrifice ourselves for the benefit of another. With the harm that premarital sex causes, love demands that we die to our own desires—the desire to seek the fulfillment of the sexual union, even before marriage—for the good of the one we wish to have sex with. Love demands that we do not engage in such harmful activity, in the dilution of the family, in the pitting of the body against soul, of risking turning another into nothing more than a tool for our own pleasures.

Even in a marriage, love demands we be willing to sacrifice sex for the good of our spouses. If there are justifiable causes to avoid children, or if pregnancy might prove harmful, or if the very act of sex is harmful, then spouses are called to abstinence. But even above that, husband and wife can take their marital union and offer it as a sacrifice to God and live chastely in abstinence like Mary and Joseph! This is a perfectly valid option for a married couple, and one that our society has a grave difficulty understanding.

So a loving couple does not necessarily indicate sex. Of course, sex does not indicate a loving couple, as well, as is so apparent by how many people treat sex as simply a recreative activity that can be performed with complete strangers. But even between couples who believe they love each other fully, sex is not necessarily a sign of that love. Often enough I’ve heard the adage “men use love to get sex, and women use sex to get love”. I cringe to think of how many people have heard their partners say, “if you love me, you’ll sleep with me”, or some equivalent. Men especially like to use sex as a barometer of how much their partners love them, and it should be obvious that treating sex like that skirts very close to, and often becomes, abuse. The spiritual damage especially is great, because it inherently seeks proof of love in an act that, premaritally, damages love. Even aside from that, seeking proof of love in an act that is the fulfillment of complete love and devotion to another is inherently a reservation of self. If ever we have to say to someone, “You have to prove yourself to me,” then there is significant doubt that prevents us from the full devotion necessary for marriage.

The third assumption that we make socially is that we must have sex. If there’s any reason to cite above all others why society seems to have problem with priestly celibacy, I’d proffer this assumption for consideration. We are so caught up in the notion that we deserve sex, that life is unfulfilled without sex, that sex is necessary to our individual lives, that we cannot imagine someone going a lifetime without sex. And we grown angry at seeing priests live a celibate and chaste life because it gives the lie to our adored misconceptions. It utterly destroys the cinematic “love” scenes where the hero tells the heroine, “the world’s ending, and you don’t want to die a virgin”.

Yet the “must have sex” mentality especially leads us into folly. When sex becomes a must, it becomes about sating our own needs as opposed to giving to someone else. While the survival of the species depends on sex, and while God’s command to be fruitful and multiply commands at least some of us to have sex—under the right conditions—nevertheless individually we do not need sex, and can actually live out our entire lives just fine without it. To suggest otherwise immediately takes the sexual act and turns it inward.

The “must have sex” mentality rarely expresses itself explicitly as an individual need as fundamental as food or sleep. Instead, it manifests in such expressions as “they’re going to do it anyway, so we might as well minimize the consequences”, at which point middle schools hand out condoms for free and grade schools inoculate their girls against HPV. It manifests itself in such anti-Catholic demagoguery as “Catholic morality is nothing more than sexual repression, and sexual repression leads to severe psychological problems”. Granted, I’ll say that maybe some of the most extreme puritanical views could be classified as sexual repression, but Catholic morality is only sexual repression if sex itself is as needed as food or shelter.

With all these excuses, it is no wonder that we as a society find it difficult to explain why premarital sex is wrong even between engaged couples who are only several days away from marriage. Yet it is true, nevertheless, that sex even then is harmful, for the wounding of soul that comes from the interference with the natural fulfillment in family, and the utilization of body for self-gratification.

Next time we will discuss adultery, followed by homosexuality, and concluding with miscellaneous topics such as incest, bestiality, and sex crimes.

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  1. Love “consists of a choice to devote oneself to another.” That is one of the truths that the vast majority of Americans don’t know about or cannot come to grips to. Love is a choice, it is not a “feeling”. Yes, you can have feelings of love, but the greater and correct definition of love is “the commitment of oneself to another”.

    In Jesus, Mary, & Joseph,


  2. I’m paraphrasing it badly, having seen it only once somewhere, but didn’t Bishop Fulton Sheen say something to the effect that to like is biology, to love is an act of the will?

    Ryan, this is probably your best post in this series so far. There’s a lot here to think about. Just for the sake of counterargument, one might say that you’re arguing by assertion that all premarital sex is not self-giving. I’m sure there are a lot of people who think that they’re very giving of themselves in this regard. How do you convince them that they’re holding back from that full union?

    I think your point about the “must have sex” mentality is a very good one, one that’s completely lost on our society. However, I’m sure that someone would counter that it might not be an imperative to have sex, but that it’s darn close enough. I’m not sure how to change that understanding.

  3. I agree with J. Christian, an excellent post as well.

    How does one engage with secularists who live together and claim they are willing participants and thusly not “using” each other so to speak. Citing statistics that cohabitating couples have the highest propensity of divorce certainly shoots down their theory of “preventive divorce” by “living together”.

  4. I would argue that any premarital sex is not self-giving, but there’s a lot of qualifications to be made about that. I’d be willing to concede, for example, that there are indeed self-giving aspects to some of the premarital relations out there, but that perhaps the selfish aspects outweigh the self-giving. That’s a very hard thing to judge for either the individuals involved, much less for someone looking on. It takes a vast amount of self-honesty to look at our sexual behavior and see it for what it is. (Of course, we can go overboard the other direction and feel any sexual behavior is reprehensible, so keep that in mind.)

    One of the questions I found myself asking a number of years ago when I was obsessed with one girl or another was, “If I can’t have her as my girlfriend, do I even want to hang out with her?” Implicit behind this is the selfish mentality. If we’re not going to have sex, do we even have a relation? I think a lot of people would be surprised at their answers if they were actually confronted with that reaction. We’ve become so inculcated with the notion that to be a couple is to have sex that we’ve grown to the point where a relationship is practically only about having sex, and then, sex for pleasure, not sex in its fullness.

    One revelation I had recently, probably back in February or so (so about 3 months before our wedding), I had to seriously stop and ask what it meant for my relationship with my wife if we could never have sex (for health reasons, for example, or simple accident in following NFP and not being in the mood during the infertile areas of the cycle). It was astounding when I realized how personally painful the thought of never having sex was, and eventually making the commitment to give up sex altogether, if our marriage warranted it, was something that has greatly strengthened our relationship.

    So how do we talk to people about whether or not their sexual relationship is selfish or self-giving? That’s hard, because sex tends to be so intimate an act you have a difficult time getting anyone to talk seriously about it. Trying to suggest to someone who is not seeking advice that, say, cohabitation is harmful is bound to turn them away in anger. The problem, of course, is the cognitive dissonance. I’m willing to bet that most people feel there’s something not quite right with premarital sex, but they dismiss it with any number of excuses. It doesn’t feel quite right because of the linger social expectation that sex should be within wedlock, or because of fear of pregnancy, or something like that. Eventually, we become so acclimated to bringing out those excuses to the fore that, for most intents and purposes, we rarely feel that discomfort.

    Perhaps the best we can do is try to, subtly, force people back into thinking about why the discomfort exists in the first place. Trying to get them to answer seriously the questions “Could you go without sex?” or “if you couldn’t have sex with her, would you still want to be with her?” could at last replant the seeds of doubt. Something else we could try is just to explain our Catholic position. Instead of trying to denounce any of their actions, simply explain why we Catholics view premarital sex with disdain. If we can get them to hear us out, and perhaps even get them to ask questions just so they know better the reasons why Catholics seem such prudes, that might also plant seeds.

    The biggest problem with secularists, especially materialists, is that trying to suggest there’s something wrong with using another as an object, or even demeaning oneself as an object for someone else’s pleasure tends not to work. They’ve convinced themselves that there’s no inherent dignity in the human person, and that’s where, I think, we have to start. It is sometimes horrifying in conversation to realize that the person you’re talking to really has no respect for the human person, believing we’re just chunks of meat with a “take what you can, when you can” mentality. To be honest, I have no idea how to uproot that, other than through prayer that God might move this person to faith.

  5. Recognizing the dignity in each person is one of the basic concepts of Christianity that seems to have been fallen on the wayside in society. Part of this problem may lie in the public school system as well as parents, both of which have stopped in teaching Christianity at all (which could be an entire post in itself).

    Not recognizing the dignity in each other tends to make us more course in our engagement with others. Thus it’s easier to demean other whether physically, verbally, or any other manner.

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