A few years ago, I was involved in developing a program for young women in the Archdiocese of St. Louis called “The Wonder of Eve,” where we introduced basic reproductive biology and cycle health, all framed by what we hoped would be empowering ideas about God’s design for our female bodies. All of this was drawn from enthusiastic presentations of Church teaching that we had ourselves embraced and lived through young adulthood, marriage preparation, and our own marriages. Many of the insights and the idealism that underpinned the presentations were sources of hope for me as a young Catholic feminist. The only problem was that what I was saying about the gift of women’s bodies, fertility, and sex was striking against the reality of my experiences.
Coming to Terms with the Complexity of My Female Body
I’d had no experiences of my body and fertility – from the painful, irregular start of menstruation and the shame and fear for my future fertility that it caused, to the infertility during early marriage, and finally to the traumatic, late second trimester stillbirth of my fourth baby – that felt wondrous and beautiful.
Yes, there were moments of beauty, like the tender memories of nursing (mixed in with the anguished ones), the vulnerable and unitive experiences of sex, or the birth that I still recall as joyful. But if I’m allowed to be completely honest about how I relate to God and others through my female body, the unmitigated positivity no longer resonates. It’s been complicated by experience, which has forced me to see the coexistence of both beauty and painful difficulty.
It’s taken me some time, grieving, and reflection on my experiences to be able to recognize the wisdom in my discomfort. And I’m beginning to think that it’s a wisdom that many women share because we have all experienced the reality that our bodies, fertility, and sex are touched by both beauty and pain – and often at the same time.
As women, we are called to draw on our own experiences, difficulties, and wounds – including in ways that might challenge some of the prevailing narratives or prominent voices we have heard expressing Catholic teaching about the body and sex. Not only are our experiences valid, but we can also learn to hold them together and be honest about them without ping-ponging between positivity and cynicism (guilty as charged). We can use our experience to speak the truth about what it means to be a woman, and to accept both our bodies and ourselves.
Women’s Unique Experiences of Sex and Our Bodies
I base my observations on a central insight that a woman’s experience of sex and her body differs from a man’s experience of sex and his body. Women’s experiences are rooted in our femaleness, in those experiences of ovulation, gestation, and lactation that influence how we experience our bodies and interact with others. The genes and hormones that control these physiological processes are outside of our conscious control, and yet they influence everything from our muscle growth and bone development to our mood swings and libido. Our endometrial lining sheds and our glands produce human milk without being asked to do so. While my biology does not completely determine my identity, the experience of being embodied in ways I do not entirely control – but to which I have been asked to surrender – is central to my experience as a Catholic woman.
The gift of fertility, which women are to receive and reverence in our own bodies, is inherently connected to the gift of sex, given to husbands and wives to participate in God’s own love. Often, the theology of sex is presented in ways that (as I’ve written about elsewhere) unrealistically emphasize the “sacramentality” of sex, even likening the experience within marriage to that of receiving the Eucharist at Mass. In this telling, sex between spouses – so long as it is “free, total, faithful, and fruitful” – is the privileged way that God reveals Himself to those spouses, and it is considered an avenue of grace.
But this portrait of sex does not fit with most women’s experiences of it throughout their lives, and this is the case for several reasons.
Dyspareunia (the medical term for pain with intercourse) can be caused by health conditions such as endometriosis or ovarian cysts, or may occur postpartum and after menopause. It is estimated to affect three in four women throughout their lifetimes. I cannot tell you the number of women I counseled in my NFP practice who reported pain with intercourse. Simply validating this experience for my clients provided space for them to process it. Vaginismus, a complex physiological and psychological condition that makes penetration and intercourse impossible, affects an estimated 5-17% of women.
Both of these conditions can be exacerbated by taboos around sex, as well as by unrealistic expectations of what sex should be like, and even our knowledge of these conditions is impacted by these taboos. Women’s pain with sex is so common as to be normalized in our conversations with one another and even with our medical providers.
Spiritualized Language Used to Describe Sex Doesn’t Always Reflect Women’s Experiences
If not physical pain or difficulty with sexual intercourse, then the emotional burdens associated with fear of pregnancy, infertility, past trauma, and loss can all deeply shape women’s experiences of sex and their bodies, impacting their experiences of both unity and pleasure from sex.
Catholic women might carry some shame around their bodies or their sexual pasts, either rooted in the ambient culture’s messages about beauty and sexuality, or our Catholic culture’s standards for modesty and chastity. All of these physical, psychological, and relational experiences are the lenses through which we approach messages about the beauty of our bodies and of sex. But there is a clear tension between women’s actual experiences of sex and the spiritualized language used to describe it.
My experiences have taught me that adding immense spiritual weight to such a complex, human experience like sex doesn’t help us understand its spiritual reality. Poetic insights about the dignity of womanhood don’t necessarily help us better accept our bodies. Instead, the idealization of these embodied experiences can make us feel wrong (or broken, or ashamed) if our experiences don’t line up, or lead us to hesitate to tell the truth about them. They can leave women feeling left out or confused. Worst of all, they conceal the reality of a slow, daily acceptance of our limits and vulnerability, especially in the long haul of marriage.
All too often, we as women can feel wrong in our experiences and fall silent because of them, believing that any difficulty in seeing the inherent beauty of sex and of our bodies is our fault. This robs us of the healing that could allow us to experience our bodies – and ourselves – more fully.
Finding a More Honest Way to Talk About Sex and the Female Body
Instead of leaning heavily into theology when faced with confusing experiences of sex and our bodies, how can we find a more honest appreciation? How can we get unstuck?
First, we can lean into the complexity and acknowledge that we might be listening to an oversimplified narrative. We can challenge our own assumptions about Church teaching, some of which I have done here. We can talk to other women about our experiences, approaching them with curiosity and compassion – and offering some of that to ourselves. Greer Hannan opened up that conversation in an article for America, and she continues the conversation on her podcast, Femammal.
We can also seek healing for those parts of our experience that have brought pain or even trauma to our bodies. Therapy is an important setting for this, but another great Catholic resource is from author Dawn Eden Goldstein, My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds with the Help of the Saints.
These situations all demand vulnerability and love from our spouses in a way that is not captured by the physical act of intercourse itself. Communication – of which marital sex is one type – is where the grace of marriage enters in, uniting husband and wife. With this in mind, both men and women can move towards a shared recognition while marriage and sex do reveal part of Christ’s love for the Church, neither is central to the Gospel or to the Christian life.
To rescue marital sex and the body, created male and female, from the culture, active advocates for Church teaching may have done the same thing my well-intentioned colleagues and I were tempted to do in teaching young women: to launch reality to the heights of mystical experience, leaning heavily on analogy and imagery rather than our own experiences.
Perhaps the witness of women today can change that.