We first met at a club. Loud Spanish music, passionate albiet drunkenly sloppy kisses in the center of the crowd. Him chasing me out into the warm Sevillian night to get my number. Manuel. I went home thinking my semester abroad in Spain couldn’t get any better.
Now it was 3AM on a Friday, three weeks later. We were on a river pier, and I was into it. This was the second time I’d had sex. A few years prior I’d lost my virginity to my high school sweetheart.
I remember riding home from the river on my bike. The whole thing was exciting in the moment, but after I felt just okay. I guess I expected to feel a little more, of anything. I got lost on my way home, which is a fitting metaphor for the odyssey about to unfold.
I don’t ever remember being taught that sex was bad. But I do remember knowing a lot of rules: no masturbation, no porn, no hook-ups. I don’t know how exactly I learned these. I had sex ed in my 6th grade public school, but that was mostly about puberty. I’d read that American Girl doll book, and I’d had a few conversations with my Catholic parents, who urged my sister and I to save sex for marriage. If they shared reasons why, I don’t recall them.
In school, I learned that sex could be bad for a women’s reputation. My friend Sheila lost her virginity in 8th grade and it was the talk of the town. I cared deeply about what others thought about me, so I knew I wanted to avoid that.
I dated my high school boyfriend for two years before having sex with him. I made him wait. I got nagged for it. Not really by him, but by my friends and his friends. I didn’t have very convincing reasons to abstain besides my fear of a negative reputation - I knew my boyfriend wouldn’t be able to keep his mouth shut- and perhaps my subconscious Catholic rulebook.
I ultimately came to a place where I felt indifferent about having sex with him. I didn’t especially want to, but he did, and that was enough. Maybe I was tired of the nagging. We had done everything else, so when it finally happened, it wasn’t dramatic or painful or even very memorable. We broke up a month later. A week after that, I heard he was sleeping with a different girl. I cried.
After my stint with Manuel during my junior year of college, I started having more sex. I’d spend time with someone for a few days, weeks, or months, and sleep with them. I never fell in love. I didn’t even have a long term “boyfriend.” I hadn’t met anyone I wanted to commit myself to. But it felt good to be held, to be touched, to be wanted.
At the same time, I was exploring my religious identity, growing in faith and my relationship with Jesus. I found the Catholic Church to be right about almost everything. But I really could not understand the Church’s stance on pre-martial sex. I was being true to my own healthy and natural desires, which felt wrong to ignore. I looked with pity upon my Catholic friends who had not been “freed” like I had. I felt affirmed by my like-minded Catholic peers who had been hurt by the fear-based rhetoric of Catholic sex ed and the resulting “Catholic guilt." Some felt like Catholic sexual teachings had led to a disconnection between their spiritual and sexual selves. Most found empowerment and healing in negating the teachings, and others, in leaving the Church altogether.
I was being true to my own healthy and natural desires, which felt wrong to ignore. I looked with pity upon my Catholic friends who had not been “freed” like I had.
I planned on sticking around. But it wasn’t enough for me that since the Church said so, I should obey; I needed to understand. I read the Catechism. It made sense in my head, but failed to move my heart. I listened to purity talks online, which did nothing for me, and often made things worse. Am I the wrinkled up flower or the stained napkin? Isn’t our dignity and worth a consequence of our personhood, not of our actions?
Disillusioned with the answers I found, I continued trying to devote my life to loving and serving God and my neighbor, while having sex outside of marriage. I saw no conflict there. One had nothing to do with the other. Abstinence only began to make sense once I realized, by the grace of God, that the two actually have everything to do with each other.
One night, a friend mentioned how impressed she was that I could shrug guys off after spending a few nights with them. I didn't know how to respond. This didn't feel like something I should be proud of. I was sleeping with guys and I could shrug them off because I had no feelings for them. I did not love them. Fine. But it was more than that. I realized that I was not caring for them, for their whole personhood, body and soul. I was not treating them like a brother in Christ. Rather, I was intentionally using them, their affection and their bodies, as a means to my end, which I wouldn’t do in any other circumstance (for instance, making a friend to increase my popularity or to spend a day on their yacht). What I was doing suddenly felt wrong. And selfish.
Around the same time, I realized that I wasn’t being fulfilled in the way I expected, after embracing the sexual freedom I had granted myself. The sex was exciting and often enjoyable, but my heart was hardened to any sort of lasting feelings. I was missing something. While I wasn't convinced that sex outside of marriage is always bad, I came to believe that it is not good enough. It is not fulfilling in the same way sex is within marriage, because the levels of connection and commitment are dramatically different. Of course I felt numb. I was so casually taking for granted something that God designed to be powerful and sacred. It’s like I was eating the Eucharist but thinking it was any old cracker.
I realized that I wasn’t being fulfilled in the way I expected, after embracing the sexual freedom I had granted myself.
There are other points that I now find convincing, too. God works on our hearts in such amazing ways. Exploring JPII's Theology of the Body and coming to understand marriage as sacrament has been extremely helpful. Being diagnosed with chlamydia and gonorrhea was an added deterrent. So were a few pregnancy scares; thinking about the life I want for my children, and knowing that’s one with a dad whose lovingly committed to mom.
I do feel a bit lied to. Chewed up and spat out by the brand of feminism that told me I needed sexual liberty to be a strong, independent woman. I don’t feel any stronger. I feel worn, confused, and kind of angry.
A month ago, I started seeing a guy who I ended up sleeping with. Chastity is hard. I feel like people don’t say that enough. But I finally believe that it’s worth it.
Pray for me.