I can still picture the face of the “special guest speaker” who walked into my freshman year high school religion class: Handsome, dark-haired, and with a lopsided grin, this 25-year-old boy band knock-off was here to talk to us – a group of hormonal 15-year-old girls – about sex. We giggled as he told us that sex was our secret, special treasure to keep only for our husbands. Then came the rose exercise.
Each young woman was presented with a rose. As we wandered around the room, every person we met ripped off one petal from the rose. This was supposed to represent sex: Each time we had sex with a different person, a petal was removed from the rose until all we were left with was a thorny stem.
Off-Brand-Nick-Lachey explained that, every time we engaged in premarital sex, a little bit of our sacred gift was taken away. The inevitable emotional imprint we left on our partners would lead to heartbreak and pain, hindering our ability to connect emotionally with future partners. Eventually, our souls would become so marred that there would be nothing of value to present to our spouses. “Well,” I thought, “it’s too late for me!”
The Reality of (Not) Saving Sex for Marriage Is More Nuanced Than We Think
Many Catholic women are taught that, by saving themselves for marriage, they could avoid sexual trauma and come into marriage with a clean slate. Young men are often taught that they will be rewarded for chastity with a beautiful spouse, with whom they will share ecstatic sexual union. (This is code for great orgasms.)
But the reality is far more complicated. The truth is, not all premarital sexual experiences are traumatic, and waiting for marriage does not guarantee great sex. So how are Christian women meant to contextualize our past sexual experiences, especially if they were positive?
Prior to meeting my now husband, I did not understand the divine, unitive, and sacrificial nature of love. I received a deeply flawed version of Church teaching, full of obvious falsehoods that I immediately rejected. I was told, for example, that women only experience sexual desire when they are in love.
Looking back on past relationships, I still feel grateful for the positive aspects, the beautiful moments, and the things I learned about myself. I’m happy that I was respected and cared for, and that I came out of those relationships with an understanding of my embodied self, how to communicate my desires, and the ability to find joy in sex. I also understand that using sex for my own personal growth was a misuse of my love. In approaching relationships that way, I fell short of being the most loving version of myself.
That said, it is possible to objectify another person without having sex with them. A fellow Catholic, who I’ll call Angela, recently described her experience of supposedly doing everything right, yet discovering that she, too, had made mistakes.
“If we’re living out Theology of the Body properly, it doesn’t just affect sex,” she confided during our vulnerable conversation. “You can objectify each other by telling a white lie, hiding a part of yourself, or ignoring a part of them because it’s inconvenient to you. All of those things I regret. But I also forgive myself, and I believe God forgives me as well.” I feel the same way.
The Beautiful, Messy Reality of Sex
Off-Brand-Nick-Lachey should have taught me that sex is the most concrete, earthly representation of God’s love. God loves each of us as if we encompassed the whole world, and as if all eternity were spent loving only us. That’s why we, too, should focus on just one person.
Sex brings love down to the very earth – the sweat, the scent, the mucus of human experience. It’s the very sloppiness of sex, the unexalted state, the banality that makes it beautiful. Even in marriage, sex is not usually the transcendent, ecstatic thing that purity culture promises us it will be – but that’s the point. God wants us to know that we are holy in our imperfect bodies and that we should not feel ashamed.
To be honest, I can’t say for certain that I would have behaved any differently if I had been taught Theology of the Body when I was younger, as Angela was. But it certainly would have been more compelling than a false story about how premarital sex was going to steal my dignity and ruin my marriage. The truth is always more compelling than a lie.
At the same time, Angela admits to wishing she was better prepared to embrace sexual pleasure in marriage. After years of both resisting sex and holding it up on a theological pedestal, the messy reality of sex came as a bit of a surprise. It would have been helpful, she admitted, to have some frank talk with other married women – not just about the science of cycles and pregnancy, but also practical guidance on finding sexual pleasure. Permission to take things slow and to have fun, and knowing that all of this was very normal would have gone a long way.
In an ideal world, Catholic women would receive both Theology of the Body and an understanding of just the body, without the theology. Still, despite our vastly different experiences, both Angela and I have ended up in happy, wholesome marriages. This is the truth of God’s grace at work.
I wish I could step back in time and give my 15-year-old self a hug. I want to tell her that it’s not too late and it will never be too late. I want to tell her that the man telling you that you’re broken is wrong. I wish I could tell myself that while waiting for marriage doesn’t guarantee a perfect sex life later on, it does have value in the much deeper sacred mystery.
Sex really is a mystical representation of God’s love for his people: self-giving, sacrificial, fulfilling, and creative. It blurs the lines between self and other. Sex is every bit as sacred, beautiful, and holy as the Church says it is – and nothing you can do could possibly diminish either your own value or the value of sex.
It’s always a rose that you give to your spouse.