It’s no secret that sex is talked about everywhere these days — everywhere, it seems, except where it should be talked about the most: between husbands and wives.
For whatever reason, in the battle to heal the wounds left by the Sexual Revolution, some people of faith (including Catholics) decided that sex is a taboo topic. Perhaps we avoid it out of fear that we will treat it with the same perverse triviality that our culture does — or, worse, that the topic will titillate us and lead us into sin.
However, in swinging the pendulum so far in the opposite direction of the culture, we have committed our own error: We have made it seem like it is never OK (or even good) to discuss sex, even within the context of a loving, holy, sacramental marriage. Before we dive into what kinds of conversation husbands and wives should have about sex, we must first address why these conversations aren’t already happening.
Some Necessary Background
We seem to have two options when it comes to our worldview on sex: purity culture or eroticism. But neither view is Catholic. Purity culture leads us to believe that sex is simply a utilitarian necessity for making children, a duty we owe our spouse (read: husband), and something that will leave us (read: women) “less than” if indulged in before saying our vows. Eroticism, on the other hand, tells us that pleasure is the highest goal and that, so long as there is consent, anything and everything goes. Ironically, both ends of the spectrum use language that suggests that sex is dirty, and both misguided ideas tend to directly harm women more often than men.
As a result, faithful married couples might believe that enjoying and/or talking about sex is somehow dirty or sinful. The truth is that God designed sex to be beautiful and life-giving, both in the form of children and in a spiritual, mental, and emotional sense for the spouses. Sex is amazing, because it can create life and bring spouses unitive pleasure.
The truth is that God designed sex to be beautiful and life-giving, both in the form of children and in a spiritual, mental, and emotional sense for the spouses.
The key to combatting the two extreme, bleak views of sex is understanding the Church’s teaching that sex is both unitive and procreative, and that both of these purposes are primary.
Stay with me for a brief lesson in the history of Canon Law. I promise it’s relevant.
In 1983, the Code of Canon Law was rewritten to update and amend the previous 1917 version. This does not mean that Church teaching changed. Canon Law has been revised throughout its history to clarify and reflect the totality of Truth, and so this revision is simply evidence that we continue to learn and grow as a Body of Christ. Take, for example, the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. It has always been true, but it was not formalized until 1854 by Pope Pius IX in Ineffabilis Deus.
While the 1917 Code of Canon Law stated that procreation alone was the primary purpose of marriage and that union was secondary, the 1983 Code, which was overseen by Pope St. John Paul II, says this:
“The matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life and which is ordered by its nature to the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring, has been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament between the baptized” (Can. 1055 §1).
The USCCB said it even more explicitly: “Marriage has two fundamental ends or purposes towards which it is oriented, namely, the good of the spouses as well as the procreation of children. Thus, the Church teaches that marriage is both unitive and procreative, and that it is inseparably both” (Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan 11, emphasis added).
This dual primacy of union and procreation is not new; rather, it is a clarification of what has always been true. God commanded Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply (Gen 1:28), and He also said that the two become one flesh (Gen 2:24). Marriage has always been about both!
Why does it matter? Because understanding that both procreation and union are of equal importance within sex and marriage is the key to having the great sex life and marriage that God intended you to have. If you have your doubts, ask yourself: Can two people who are not united through love in body, mind, and soul ever hope to help each other get to Heaven or be great parents?
Understanding that both procreation and union are of equal importance within sex and marriage is the key to having the great sex life and marriage that God intended you to have.
Union is necessary for the stability of the family which, within the realm of sex, means that pleasure is important.
Sex Is Good — but It Can Be Better
Sex is holisitic, meaning it involves all aspects of the person: spiritual, mental, physical, and emotional. It is, therefore, an activity that has to be learned on each of those levels.
I like to think of sex as a language. When we get married, we all receive the same letters and basic rules to help us grow in love and avoid use — but we all create a unique language that we only speak with our spouse. Sex is a profound form of communication in and of itself, but in order to tap into its unitive aspect, a husband and wife must talk about it, both inside and outside the bedroom. Great sex is not just about finding the right position and rubbing the right parts until climax is achieved. It’s about both spouses learning and loving a whole person with all that they are. Furthermore, it takes time, practice, and patience to achieve — which means that the couple must discuss it openly and frequently.
So, after that necessary background, here we are: five conversations you should have with your spouse about sex.
1. What You Do and Don’t Like
The body God made is good, and you and your spouse should explore it together. As you do, tell each other what you like or don’t like. Popular culture has labeled this conversation “talking dirty,” but there is nothing dirty about a husband and wife refining their communication skills in the most intimate area of their marriage. It’s good to express how something makes you feel, if you don’t like it, if you like it a lot, and especially what in particular helps you achieve orgasm. The purpose of this exploration and communication is deeper love — and marriage is all about deeper love.
There is nothing dirty about a husband and wife refining their communication skills in the most intimate area of their marriage.
2. When Sex Hurts
While a woman’s first sexual experiences will likely be uncomfortable as her body learns this new activity, if she experiences anything beyond a muscle stretch, something isn’t right. Despite what you may have heard (even from a doctor), pain during sex is always a sign that something is wrong, and it is never something a woman has to accept and power through.
The simplest issue to address is lack of sufficient lubrication or foreplay, both of which are necessary for comfortable penetration. A woman’s vaginal canal widens and lengthens as she becomes aroused during foreplay, meaning that for women, foreplay is a physiological necessity. More foreplay will likely be necessary during early sexual experiences, after having a baby, or any other time when a woman may be less easily aroused.
While the vagina does produce arousal fluid, it is normal for many women to find this natural lubrication insufficient and need additional lubrication. If penetration is uncomfortable for these reasons, the couple should stop, amp up the foreplay, add more lube, and try again. Discussing these sensations and physiological feelings with your spouse is critically important.
Other issues that cause painful sex are more serious and may require formal interventions. They include:
- Endometriosis, a disorder in which tissue similar to the endometrium grows outside the uterus, often requiring surgery for diagnosis and treatment.
- Vaginismus, a condition where the vaginal muscles constrict, making penetration difficult or impossible. Both pelvic floor physical therapy and massage (and, often, psychological therapy) are usually required for treatment. A woman with this condition would not be able to insert tampons or receive a routine pelvic exam without experiencing extreme pain.
- Sexual abuse, traumas, or even extreme fears or disgust caused by purity culture — all of which could be helped by some form of psychological therapy, such as EMDR.
- Extreme vaginal dryness associated commonly with menopause, which can be treated with low-dosage estrogen creams.
3. Learning Each Other (Outside the Bedroom)
One of the most vital — and yet overlooked — ways to spice up your sex life is simply getting to know your spouse outside the bedroom. It is true for most women that sex follows a deep emotional connection. In fact, they can have difficulty achieving orgasm without that connection, even if everything is physically functioning correctly. Men, on the other hand, may find that sex is helpful to connect emotionally with their wives.
When the couple understands these facts in the context of sacramental marriage, it lends itself to a loving back-and-forth between spouses, a healthy give-and-take that bolsters the relationship. Engaging in deep conversations, sharing hobbies or interests, and learning and acting on your love languages are all great ways to connect with your spouse — and add new, exciting dimensions to what goes on between the sheets.
4. Baggage, Traumas, or Habitual Sins
We all carry baggage with us into our marriage, because we are all sinners, but some baggage directly affects the bedroom in insidious ways. Purity culture, pornography addiction, and sexual abuse can dramatically ruin a couple’s full enjoyment of sex — and are areas where spouses should endeavor to be open and honest with each another.
Because of what we know about the psychological nature of shame, guilt, and fear surrounding these experiences, it may take time for these issues to come to light and be addressed. Patience from both spouses is key, along with frequenting the sacraments to experience God’s unconditional love and seeking appropriate psychological therapy when needed. Discussing how these issues have shaped your views of sex is difficult, but it can be incredibly healing — and absolutely worth it.
5. Different (but Complementary) Libidos and Desire
Sure, men may have stereotypically higher libidos than women (though plenty of women have higher libidos than their husband), and it seems to be the source of an endless stream of jokes, unrealistic expectations, and even the prioritization of a man’s sexual needs over a woman’s.
What we might not consider, however, is that the differing libidos of men and women could be purposefully designed by God to set up a complementary give-and-take in the bedroom. Think of it this way: We could spend our lives seeking self-fulfillment, or we could spend our lives focused on discovering our spouse’s needs and then fulfilling them. We receive what we desire in both scenarios, but the first usually ends in dissatisfaction and isolation, whereas the second is that kind of self-gift that ends in deeper love.
A Feast Worth Discussing
There’s a reason we Catholics sometimes refer to sex as the “nuptial banquet”: because it is one, a veritable feast that God Himself made. God designed men and women in a complementary fashion, and sex is a fun, beautiful, and mysterious realm where we get to explore this truth. Husbands and wives should freely delight in this banquet, motivated not by fear (which is never from God) but by deep love and respect for the way God made us. What a wonderful thing to talk about!
God designed men and women in a complementary fashion, and sex is a fun, beautiful, and mysterious realm where we get to explore this truth.