Sex & Relationships

Dear Edith: How Much Should Women Care About "Sexual Baggage" in Dating?

May 15, 2019

I have a question that I would like to propose to anyone at FemCatholic.

Basically it comes down to this: we are persons with strong desires to procreate. Women like to date men with jobs. Men could care less about the job, they tend to date women who can bear children. That would be fine, except for the fact that we are persons, human subjects who must also love.

Given that there is a real need to procreate and at the same time to enter into a true partnership of love, how much stock should a woman put into ensuring that her boyfriend or fiancé doesn't masturbate, doesn’t watch porn, has had a number of sexual partners, etc.? How does one draw a line, and when?

The reason I ask this is that I find many women who have a strong desire for children, and fewer and fewer men who arrive to adulthood without baggage from the deranged culture we live in.

As a priest, what advice should I give to young women looking to marry? I do have some ideas about this, but they are only my ideas. I have yet to come across anyone else's ideas, which is very dangerous position. What would you say?

Sincerely,
Fr. Eric Nielsen

Fr. Eric Nielsen is the Pastor of the St. Paul Catholic Student Center.

Sexual Baggage and Dating Response #1 - Emily

Dear Fr. Nielsen,

This is a tricky subject. Sadly, because of the culture we live in, many women will encounter this situation. I'm getting married this summer to the man who consistently draws me closer to Christ. On our first date, he confessed a lot of his past, not to scare me but to give me a heads-up. At first, I was hurt because I desired for him to wait. However, I was humbled and honored that he shared that with me so honestly.

With that story came a better one: the story of how he realized that Jesus conquered the very sins he struggled with. The spiritual death he encountered after those sins transformed into a moment of hearing Our Lord calling him to be a better man. When I ask him whether he's ever ashamed by his past of sexual sin, he says, “Sometimes.” He promises me that grace wins. He says after four and a half years of dating me and practicing chastity, he wishes he didn't do what he did before. At the same time, he says those moments of sin and suffering give way to a beautiful conversion story and a way to connect with men who struggle like he did. God calls him to minister to men caught in the same sins that ensnared him.

These moments of my fiancé’s past came up in marriage preparation. They are crosses he bears, but he does not bear them alone.

I told you my fiancé’s story because his testimony informs my answer. We cannot hold someone's past against them, especially if they have confessed their sins and changed.

I love the Scripture passage of the woman caught in adultery. After Jesus says that He does not condemn her, He tells her to go and sin no more (John 8:11). A woman's job is not to heal a man or convert a man who is ensnared in sin. Women have a unique job in calling men to holiness, but it is God alone who heals the man.

If a Catholic woman is dating a man who continues to commit sexual sin, I recommend that she urge the man to go to Confession, talk to a priest, and work to forgive him. At the same time, he needs to change. Our Lord forgives us, constantly and unceasingly, when we truly repent - and He constantly calls us to conversion.

Therefore, if the man does not change by his own will, it's not ours to do. We are not called to be the instrument of change for each person; we are called to love them and, when a person is resistant to change, we must know when our time in someone's story comes to an end. We can be guiding lights on the way to conversion, but sometimes we are not the final one.

If a man is upfront and honest with his past and actively seeks our Lord through conversion, encourage the woman to exercise prudence. She could invite him to Confession, Adoration, and Mass. She should set her boundaries and keep to them. Depending on the nature of their relationship, she could suggest that he speak with a counselor or a man he trusts to keep him accountable.

Sincerely,
Emily

Emily grew up as a cradle Catholic, but did not see the beauty of her faith until college. Emily is a special education teacher and she and her sweet fiancé get married this August. Her favorite saints are St. Mary Magdalene and St. Rose of Lima.

Sexual Baggage and Dating Response #2 - Anonymous

Dear Fr. Nielsen,

Thank you for striving to provide authentic advice to women in your community. As a young, single, Catholic woman navigating the dating world, I wish I had more opportunities to engage in conversations with clergy. I will answer your question the best I can, but my view is just one among many, so I hope the conversation will continue.

Here is the question as you put it: “...how much stock should a woman put into ensuring that her boyfriend or fiancé doesn’t masturbate, doesn’t watch porn, has had a number of sexual partners, etc.? How does one draw a line, and when?”

There are certain values I look for in a partner: compassion, integrity, and humility, to name a few. Chastity is also one of these values, which relates to some of the acts you describe, such as pornography use and masturbation. The “stock” put into these values is different for each person, so perhaps your conversation could begin with asking the woman to consider what’s important to her in a partner. Chastity is an important virtue for Catholics, but the expectations or standards each woman has are different and require discernment. For example, I am currently dating a man who does watch porn on occasion, but earnestly shares this struggle with God and seeks reconciliation. Additionally, I would gladly date someone with a history of sexual partners if they were now committed to pursuing chastity, but this might not be the case for everyone.

In summary, I believe we should pursue relationships in which each person can grow in holiness, so I draw the line at whether or not my partner has a willingness to grow in virtue, and this includes chastity.

Before concluding, I’d like to return to your initial comments. You mention that the reason you asked this question is because you have met “fewer and fewer men who arrive to adulthood without baggage from the deranged culture we live in.” While this may be true, please know that women also carry “baggage” and struggle with the pursuit of chastity. “How much stock should a man put into ensuring that his girlfriend/fiancée doesn’t masturbate, doesn’t watch porn, has had a number of sexual partners, etc.? How does one draw a line, and when?” This is an equally important question.

God bless!

This author would like to remain anonymous.

Sexual Baggage and Dating Response #3 - Kathryn

Dear Fr. Nielsen,

I agree with you that it’s hard to find virtuous men in today’s culture. With the current normalization of pornography and masturbation, it’s even harder to find a guy who hasn’t struggled with some kind of sexual sin in his past. With the grace of God, however, we don’t need to find someone who doesn’t have a past. I think we should put more stock into how a prospective partner lives his present life.

In determining who to marry, we cannot make lack of sexual experience the sole benchmark of who to date. There’s a difference between virginity and chastity. Virginity is not in itself a virtue, but chastity is.

The Catechism defines chastity as,

“the successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being. Sexuality . . . becomes personal and truly human when it is integrated into the relationship of one person to another, in the complete and lifelong mutual gift of a man and a woman. The virtue of chastity therefore involves the integrity of the person and the integrality of the gift” (CCC 2337).

There is no mention of chastity requiring a lack of “sexual baggage” and, furthermore, there are many currently chaste people with past sexual experience.

The fact that a man lacks sexual experience doesn’t automatically mean that he’s ready for the demands of marriage. I have dated plenty of Christian guys who “followed the rules,” but felt morally superior as a result. They did not know how to make a sincere gift of self or how to respect me as a person with feelings and inherent dignity.

As you strive to help these young women discern who to marry, encourage them to ask the man they’re seeing about pornography, masturbation, and sexual experience. At the same time, they shouldn’t let the conversation end with, “Did you, or didn’t you?” Most likely, he did at some point. It’s a fallen world, and men and women alike struggle with sexual sin, especially as we experience increased loneliness. We should ask how their experience shaped who they are today, what their current struggles are, and what they learned from it. Some people have exposure to that lifestyle and find it so unfulfilling that they never want to go back. Others struggle with ongoing addictions and don’t see it as a problem. Others might lapse occasionally and go to Confession every time. If they’re in the last category, we should ask them to consider therapy or an accountability partner, but we should not shame them for the actions that God has forgiven through the sacrament.

It’s also important to emphasize that this is a two-way street. Tell the women you work with that, if they want to marry a virtuous man, they have to work on cultivating virtue themselves. Pornography and masturbation are not exclusively “men’s issues.” If women have a history of sexual sin, don’t let them give up on themselves. They are still worthy of love, respect, and lifelong commitment. Ask them to consider how their experiences shaped them and to examine what led them to make those choices. Recommend attending therapy if they are working through past trauma and grief, especially if they realize their problems prevent them from expressing their emotional needs from a place of trust and vulnerability.

We should not define ourselves or others by past mistakes. For anyone who struggles with scrupulosity, believes that they have to earn God's love in order to find a good spouse, or worries that their mistakes make them unlovable, I recommend looking into the history of devotion to the Sacred Heart.

In the 17th century, Jesus appeared to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque. It was during the time of the Jansenist heresy, which claimed that God should be feared - not loved - and that we need to make atonement for our great sins because His love is conditional and reserved only for the righteous. Jesus Himself responded by literally opening his Sacred Heart to a French nun and telling her how He longs to pour out His love upon us, that He made the atonement, and that there are no conditions because He died for all of us. St. Margaret sought the counsel of a spiritual director, St. Claude de la Colombière. He was skeptical that it was really Jesus who appeared, and so he asked for a sign. He instructed St. Margaret to ask Jesus what the last mortal sin was that Fr. Claude had confessed was, the next time He appeared. The next time Jesus appeared, St. Margaret asked Him, “What was the last mortal sin that Fr. Claude confessed?” Jesus looked at her and said, “I don’t remember.” That’s how Fr. Claude knew it was really Him. Jesus is fully God, so of course He knows everything we have ever done - but He doesn’t bring up. If it had been a demon appearing, they would have had no problem recalling the sin and wanting us to dwell on it. But God doesn’t dwell on our past mistakes. He loves us, transforms us, and leads us into deeper vulnerability and healing.

Counsel the women you work with to look at the heart of Jesus and ask Him to lead them to a man who models his heart after Jesus’ own: someone who doesn’t fixate on past baggage and who, instead, offers himself and pours out his heart in love and humility. That’s where they should draw the line - and they shouldn’t settle for anything less.

Sincerely,
Kathryn

Kathryn Claahsen is a swing dancer, artist, paralegal, church musician, and former youth minister. She is currently part of the advisory team at Theology of Dance, which explains Pope St. John Paul II's Theology of the Body through the lens of ballroom dancing.

Sexual Baggage and Dating Response #4 - Anonymous

Dear Fr. Nielsen,

My first piece of advice is this: in all likelihood, a woman who comes to you seeking advice about dating and relationships already knows the answer to her question. At the same time, she might be overwhelmed by fear, anxiety, and doubt, which can complicate her decision-making. What she probably needs from you most is to be reassured that her feelings are valid, and that everything will be okay - however this particular relationship turns out. In addition to counseling her yourself, it would be helpful to connect her to single and married women of faith who can relate to her and provide guidance.

I approach my response assuming that we are addressing women of faith who believe that the teachings of the Church are true and good. The woman in question is already convinced that masturbation, pornography, and casual sex are harmful to the human person and to relationships. However, she might struggle with rejecting a potential life-partner because he engages in one of those things.

Let’s pretend that a woman meets a man and, in all other regards, he seems like a great match; but this issue is his “red flag.” As with all other red flags, the woman is concerned that this issue will cause significant strife and could be disastrous if she pursues the relationship. The vital question concerning red flags is the man’s attitude towards the issue: is he nonchalant about it or does he defend it as something good?

In guiding the women who seek your advice, encourage them to keep four things in mind:

1. You cannot expect a man you are dating to change for you.

Unless a man wants to change on his own, he likely won’t, and the situation will end in heartbreak. A man should not be a woman's project and, if you are going to marry someone, you should love them as they are instead of wishing a major part of them were different.

What if you aren’t concerned with changing him and plan to just “deal” with the sin or bad habit he is unwilling to change? You might be like Servant of God Élisabeth Leseur and love him through his sinful ways until he miraculously has a conversion of heart. Perhaps this will work out for you, but keep in mind:

2. Sin is destructive; it causes harm and sexual sins, especially, attack marriages.

A recent study that surveyed 2,000 couples about their relationship satisfaction and use of sexually explicit media found that American couples who began using pornography were roughly twice as likely to get a divorce [1]. Furthermore, these issues will impact both you and your future children. They deserve to have the best father that you can find for them - and you deserve to have the best husband that you can find.

However, if the man agrees that masturbation, pornography, and casual sex are harmful and sinful, but he still struggles with them, this is a different situation.

3. Selection or rejection of a potential spouse must be based on his character, core moral belief system, and faith.

We are all sinners, grappling with sinful habits or actions that hurt us and those around us. However, “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin. So let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and to find grace for timely help” (Hebrews 4:15-16). If we reject sin and turn to the sacraments and prayer to overcome it, then we shall be victorious, “for whoever is begotten by God conquers the world. And the victory that conquers the world is our faith" (1 John 5:4).

Finally, we must remember that, although we might desire to be married and have a family, if we settle for the wrong man, it won’t end in the life-giving joy we seek.

4. Above all else, trust in the Lord.

Even when the Lord places a desire for marriage and a family in our hearts, He does not call us to be bull-headed and take what we believe to be ours. He calls us to come to Him, to let Him satisfy all of our needs and desires, and to receive His love and gifts according to His plans, not ours. And no matter how challenging or incomprehensible they seem, His plans and His ways will bring us so much more joy and fulfillment than anything we could achieve on our own.

[1] Perry, S. L., & Schleifer, C. (2018). Till Porn Do Us Part? A Longitudinal Examination of Pornography Use and Divorce. The Journal of Sex Research, 55(3), 284-296. doi:10.1080/00224499.2017.1317709

This author would like to remain anonymous.

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