Sex & Relationships

Dear Edith: Do Catholics think female sexual pleasure is wrong?

April 15, 2019

Dear Edith,

In July of last year, a post on Facebook shared a link to the website OMGYes. OMGYes is advertised as an educational website that “takes an honest look at the specific ways women actually find pleasure.” The person who posted it asked, “How can we talk about female sexuality more openly, but in a way that honors the Church's sexual ethics?”

As a convert, I was drawn to this discussion because I have always been passionate about framing sex and sexuality within a feminist perspective. Before I was Catholic, that perspective was from a secular feminist ideology. In fact, I came across this website during my college years, when I was knee-deep in my own research about female sexual politics. I loved that such a website existed, but I eventually forgot about it. When it came up in my newfound Catholic feminist sphere, I felt my past and present self collide.

In the discussion, I don’t know if we ever found an answer to the question. Unfortunately for my like-to-have-all-the-answers self, I don’t know if we can really get a solid answer. However, I do think we can get a lot closer to an answer than we did, so I want to revisit the question.

A personal confession that is relevant to this topic: I struggle somewhat with the Church’s teaching on masturbation, and mostly because a lot of women don’t even know how to derive pleasure from sex (it’s just not as intuitive or automatic as it is for men). There are so many different physiological, psychological, and social aspects involved in female sexual pleasure.

John Paul II’s Theology of the Body tells us that physical intimacy through sex is meant to express an even more profound personal intimacy. In my mind, aiming to ensure that both parties experience sexual pleasure can reflect such a deeper personal union. This is not meant to say that peak pleasure is the ultimate goal of sex. Rather, sex is reflective of communion with Christ; there are ebbs and flows, and the short-term goals sometimes change, but the ultimate goal is always love and self-gift. At the same time, I think a husband and wife can strive for pleasure, together, in the process of self-gift during sex.

One of the criticisms of OMGYes was that it is “pornography disguised as education.” In some ways, I agree. The Catechism states that pornography “consists in removing real or simulated sexual acts from the intimacy of the partners, in order to display them deliberately to third parties” (CCC 2354). The website has videos of self-stimulation, which means that it removes a real sexual act from the intimacy of two partners. (Not to mention that the purpose of these videos is to show them to other people - and for money.) And yet, as someone noted in our Facebook discussion, there are no practical, how-to sex manuals from a Catholic perspective. Some people therefore turn to secular sources like OMGYes and then are shamed for doing so.

My overall question is this: are female sexual pleasure and ethical Catholic sex really at opposite ends of the spectrum, or can we aim for a both/and situation? Can we strive to increase our pleasure with our husband while recognizing that physical intimacy reflects a deeper spiritual union?

Sincerely,
Johnna

Morality and Pleasure in Sex Response #1 - Monica

Dear Johnna,

Female pleasure and Catholic ethics are not opposed! Female (well, mutual, but guess what’s more likely to be neglected?) pleasure is important precisely because “physical intimacy reflects a deeper spiritual union,” but misapplications and misunderstandings of Catholic teaching have made it hard for us to live out that teaching fully and authentically.

Too often, the most explicit thing Catholics are willing to say about sex is that the husband has to ejaculate in his wife’s vagina. (In fact, the people running my husband’s and my engagement retreat didn’t even go that far - the only thing they told us about sex was that we shouldn’t be having any yet.) This is true, but it focuses on procreation at the expense of the equally important and inseparable unitive aspect of sex. When Catholic sex education stops at “this has to happen in there,” it puts all of the couple’s attention on the husband’s pleasure in a way that contributes relatively little to the wife’s pleasure. (Women tend to get the most enjoyment from clitoral, not vaginal, stimulation, which can be hard to achieve during intercourse unless the distance between your clitoris and vagina is relatively short. Only about 30% of women regularly orgasm from penetration.)

This matters because what’s unifying about sex is not just close physical contact or the functional joining of reproductive systems; it’s also the joint experience of intense joy, pleasure, and even ecstasy. Human beings are body-soul composites, physical and spiritual together. John Paul II says in Familiaris Consortio, “[a]s an incarnate spirit, that is a soul which expresses itself in a body and a body informed by an immortal spirit, man is called to love in his unified totality. Love includes the human body, and the body is made a sharer in spiritual love” (11). Just as physical rituals and objects nurture our faith, we can’t attain the spiritual goods of sexual union without the physical goods, including pleasure.

This means that Catholic teaching demands that we pay attention to and value women’s pleasure, not just men’s. Unfulfilling sex is a bummer, of course, but a “pleasure gap” also corrodes marital intimacy. Realizing that what your husband enjoys leaves you feeling bored, uncomfortable, or in pain is a profoundly isolating experience. It might make you feel used or it might just make you feel lonely; in any case, it’s the exact opposite of what the Church tells us sex should be for a husband and wife. Bottom line: anyone who doesn’t think women’s sexual pleasure is important doesn’t care about the unitive aspect of sex.

Good sex doesn’t happen on its own, of course, so if we’re going to live out this teaching, Catholics need to be able to speak frankly about sex, as FemCatholic has written about before. But more fundamentally, we need to believe that we have a right to, that it’s not selfish or lewd for women to seek pleasure. Every Catholic wife should believe - not just assent to abstractly but really believe - that God wants her to enjoy sex with her husband. She should feel free to be open, honest, and assertive with her husband, to say “I like it when you touch me like this” and “That doesn’t feel good” and “I want to try such-and-such with you.” Every Catholic couple should know that their relationship should be fun, playful, and pleasurable for both of them, that it should bring them closer by bringing them joy.

Pope Pius XII said in a 1951 address that God has “decreed that in this function [sex] the parties should experience pleasure and happiness of body and spirit. Husband and wife, therefore, by seeking and enjoying this pleasure do no wrong whatever. They accept what the Creator has destined for them.” Why don’t we talk about that in pre-Cana?

Sincerely,
Monica

Morality and Pleasure in Sex Response #2 - Hannah

Dear Johnna,

Thank you for your open and vulnerable question. More than ever, we need honest dialogue in the Church about sex and sexuality, and this can only begin with inquiries like yours.

I want to begin with a quote from the very man you reference, Pope St. John Paul II. In Love and Responsibility, he addresses the differences between a man and a woman’s sexual climax:

“It must be taken into account that it is naturally difficult for the woman to adapt herself to the man in the sexual relationship, that there is a natural unevenness of the physical and psychological rhythms, so that there is a need for harmonization, which is impossible without goodwill, especially on the part of the man, who must carefully observe the reactions of the woman.  If a woman does not obtain natural gratification from the sexual act there is a danger that her experience of it will be qualitatively inferior, will not involve her fully as a person” (273, emphasis added).

Here, John Paul II addresses the reality that women have more difficulty reaching climax and explains that, because of this, a rightly ordered and loving marriage should strive to bring the woman to climax during sex. This is not a selfish inclination; it is a good desire to give of oneself fully and to experience the totality of spousal union. The pope even warns that if a woman doesn’t obtain climax, then there is an under involvement of her person during sex and (potentially) a lack of good will from the man.

This is the primary point: in order to find the balance between gratifying female sexual pleasure and preserving the profound union of sex, there must be an attitude of self-gift between the man and woman. This is the need for harmonization that the John Paul II spoke of. Finding harmonization requires communication from the woman as well as a determination from the man to pursue her climax during sex; both of these things require vulnerability, patience, and selflessness.

Our sexual curve is much different than that of men and assisting our husbands in learning the rhythm of our body fosters more authentic love between one another. Unlike masturbation, this view of sexuality actually removes isolation and encourages authentic communion. Seeking the woman’s pleasure as well as the man’s fosters communication, trust, and life-giving love between spouses. And what better way to experience climax than with your husband?

To achieve this, a husband must acknowledge the physiological and psychological aspects you speak of. John Paul II writes in Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body that “the husband is above all the one who loves and the wife by contrast is the one who is loved” (485).  An important facet of marriage is that the husband remains in pursuit of his wife; this is as important in the bedroom as anywhere else. This means that a husband must seek to know better a woman’s heart, mind, and body, in order that he may better love her. John Paul II continues to say that. “[i]n union through love, the body of ‘the other’ becomes ‘one’s own’ in the sense that one is moved by concern for the good of the body of the other as for one’s own” (486, emphasis added).

In intimacy, an awareness of the other’s sexual needs should stem from love for the other. The one person you both became in the sacrament of marriage should point you towards concern for the other, including the desires of your body (within reason).

You referenced a comment from a Forum member who said that there are no Catholic how-to sex manuals, but there is one that I would like to share with you. After my husband and I got married we received a copy of Holy Sex! by Gregory Popcak, which I found to be helpful as it focused on the logistics and how-to of sex. Others have also recommended The Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning by Simcha Fisher, which presents an honest and humorous approach to sex and NFP.

At the end of the day, sex should be oriented towards loving one another, not just pleasure. There will be times when circumstances, fatigue, distraction, etc., make it difficult to climax and that’s okay. We should be patient with ourselves, remembering that it takes time to learn harmonization. Sex isn’t always perfect, so we should allow ourselves to make mistakes and laugh along the way. Getting the woman to climax should be a welcomed goal for both spouses as often as possible, while remembering that the ultimate end of sex is always spousal union and openness to life.

Sincerely,
Hannah

Morality and Pleasure in Sex Response #3 - Liza

Dear Johnna,

I love your questions!

My disclaimer: I am not a theologian, nor am I trained in canon law. I have only read parts of The Theology of the Body. I’m not even a “sexpert” (although I have a bit of street cred, training, and experience in this world as a Marriage & Family therapist specializing in sex therapy). Instead of giving a cut and dry answer, I’d like to walk you through a conversation and share what I have come to use as my own personal template, as a Catholic convert who is passionate about healthy sexuality. I’d also like to note that, as this is a conversation between us, it’s a bit different from how I would approach this matter if we had this conversation in my therapy office.

Let’s first consider a handful of biological aspects, starting with how our hormones change both during individual cycles and different stages. “Normal” would have us peak with hormones during our childbearing years, ebbing and flowing with heightened libidos during ovulation. Next, take into account what happens when there are natural shifts (e.g. perimenopause/menopause, perinatal, and postpartum) or manipulations (hormone injections, medications, oral contraceptives, diets, etc.), and then add in anomalies such as PMDD, low/no progesterone, endometriosis, fibroids, cysts, etc. At this point, we haven’t even addressed anatomy, such as a tilted cervix, vulvodynia, vaginal atrophy, clitorodynia, or vaginismus. Given all of this, it’s amazing that women ever have sex to begin with.

Next, we face the complexity of figuring out exactly how a woman orgasms. Thanks to the inconsistent research available, anecdotally speaking 30 - 40% of women are capable of climax during intercourse with a partner, a stat that is lower (average < 20%) when manual clitoral stimulation is removed and higher when it is included (average > 50%). I would say that this seems fairly accurate, based on my conversations with clients, friends, and other people who pry into sex lives for a living. It hasn’t been until the past 30 or so years that we have even had specific anatomical imagery to understand the clitoris and the complexities of this organ, beyond what we see or feel on the surface (kudos to Australian urologist, Dr. Helen O’Connell). Ladies: our nether regions truly are fearfully and wonderfully made!

Now that we have some semantics, onto the matter of your questions: “My overall question is this: are female sexual pleasure and ethical Catholic sex really at opposite ends of the spectrum, or can we aim for a both/and situation? Can we strive to increase our pleasure with our husband while recognizing that physical intimacy reflects a deeper spiritual union?”

In short answer, my opinion is this: no, yes, and yes!

“Discipline” and “pleasure” are crucial words in this conversation. We know that there is a negative consequence of eating all of the cake, candy, tamales, or anything else that our consumption vice consists of. Disorderedness occurs when we breach boundaries, whatever they may be respective to our vocation. Children don’t know boundaries, so we teach them not just by telling them a million times over, but also by helping them put those boundaries into practice and by demonstrating them in our own lives. While it’s important to speak about chastity and the other virtues, I think it’s equally important to remember that discipline is the process by which we grow in these virtues. Though this, we don’t preach a complete absence of pleasure, but rather we focus on the appropriate boundaries around pleasure.

“Discipline” and “pleasure” are crucial words in this conversation.

As for understanding pleasure, having a young daughter taught me how critical it is to tread with care around young minds and tender hearts. It would be so convenient for me to quickly and rashly respond in ways to make myself and others around me more comfortable. It would be so easy to respond in ways that kill her curiosity, innocence, openness, and playfulness meanwhile instilling shame, defiance, fear, and anger.

Those latter feelings are often deeply imbedded in us such that, when we arrive at the intersection of discipline and pleasure, they are so terribly distorted that it seems like they can’t coexist. But if we are able to be nurtured and refined by holiness, we will find that sexuality, healthy boundaries, and dignity join together. It is especially important to note that discipline and chastity should still be practiced once you are married.

[I]f we are able to be nurtured and refined by holiness, we will find that sexuality, healthy boundaries, and dignity join together.

I co-lead some breakout groups at a singles and sexuality conference led by one of my early mentors and supervisors, Dr. Doug Rosenau (essentially the original Christian sex therapist). Masturbation was frequently discussed as people asked whether or not it was okay. Meanwhile, I would ask whether you could orgasm while in prayer. When it comes to intimacy with our spouse, are we praying for (and even during) sex to foster unity, mutual self-gift, and the “pleasure and enjoyment of body and spirit” (CCC 2362)? It’s dastardly that secularism has painted sexual pleasure into being not just a personal responsibility, but a right. Given this, it’s no wonder that the lack of fostering intimacy trickles down from our relationship with God and into our relationship with our spouse: fend for yourself, kid.

I wish that I had a manual for you that says “do this,” “do that,” or “don’t try this at home.” At the same time, the beauty of not having a manual is the opportunity for each couple to be both teacher and student of one another, to humbly and selflessly commit to growing in the discipline of healthy, holy, pleasurable sexuality together.

Sincerely,
Liza

Morality and Pleasure in Sex Response #4 - Sarah Beth

Dear Johnna,

The question you ask is a valuable one. Culturally, it seems we at once expect and misperceive a gender gap in satisfaction, not only with sexual encounter in general, but with orgasm in particular. An insight from Karol Wojtyła in his Love and Responsibility presents a stark contrast with the cultural norm that settles for less than full involvement from both spouses:

"From the viewpoint of loving another person, from the position of altruism, it must be required that the conjugal act should serve not merely to reach the climax of sexual arousal on one side, i.e., that of a man, but happen in harmony, not at the other person’s expense but with the other person’s involvement." (257)

Wojtyla’s words have been a surprisingly transformative contribution to my own experience and marriage because he reminds us that we are both persons who desire and deserve love. Sex is never intended merely for one spouse’s satisfaction.

Caring for woman’s sexual experience increases mutual pleasure and involvement. It includes attention to what you describe as the “many different physiological, psychological, and social aspects involved in female sexual pleasure.” It involves building trust and communication. It means understanding the sexual harm that is common to persons, and especially to women, in our sexually violent society. (I recommend Healing the Wounded Heart and The Body Keeps the Score as helpful resources for healing.)

Care for a woman’s experience requires us to probe cultural narratives about male dominance and treating women as objects for pleasure rather than as equal persons who participate in the trials, foibles, and ecstasies of sexual relationship. It requires understanding the ways in which we have developed a pornographic vision of sex, and learning to treat one another with reverence. For many, it entails re-evaluating purity culture and working through an inculcated aversion to sexual pleasure.

Care for woman’s sexual pleasure necessitates good communication about your shared intentions in trying to conceive or trying to avoid pregnancy. It requires tenderness between spouses when fertility or monitoring fertility makes sex less frequent or more stressful than you want it to be. It involves better understanding women’s bodies and their capacities for pregnancy.

Care for woman’s pleasure includes improving our sexual literacy in general, and especially before one’s wedding night. Where is the clitoris? Or the G-spot? What are other places of arousal for women? What kinds and combinations of stimulation are most pleasing to women? Attention to woman’s pleasure also includes each specific couple’s sexual literacy: asking all of these questions about a particular woman, as well as learning to read, understand, and act toward one another in light of each person’s story. Also beneficial here is attention from husbands who remain present to help their wives to completion.

There are other practical things that might improve care for woman’s sexual pleasure, such as accommodating the time it takes a woman to move from the concerns of the day into the intimacy of sexual encounter, and honoring that transition. Some practical ways to attend to a woman’s experience include communication, as well as breathing and vocalizing. Or, a wife may wish to guide her husband through clitoral massage. It might help to dedicate some time to the sole goal of exploring what brings a woman pleasure. This work requires tenderness from both spouses, close attention from the husbands, and the wife’s willingness to give direction. Therapy helps, too. Finally, a dose of good humor goes a long way, as do good lube and kind lighting.

Sincerely,
Sarah Beth

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