catholic sex, frequency and Hawaii

Lately I’ve joined some NFP (natural family planning) groups on facebook.  They are full of lots of people in lots of different phases of their lives.  Some single people, some engaged.  Married people who are trying to conceive (of the “fertile Myrtle” variety and the having a tough time), married couples avoiding (within a time frame or indefinitely) and those who are “Trying to Whatever”.   Within your avoiding group you also have the “It’s easy to abstain!” and the “OH my gosh, can I just rip my spouses clothes off now please!” groups (and varying levels in between).

There’s a discussion going on now, and there’s a specific quote that has really hit me.  I’m going to leave it anonymous, of course (and changing a slight detail to make it less traceable).

When we are abstaining, sex goes in the same bucket as Hawaii. We’d like to go there again, it’d be good for our marriage, we MUCH prefer it over Michigan, but it’s not feasible RIGHT NOW so we tell each other “As soon as possible!” and don’t fret over it any more than we fret over our next trip to Hawaii.

There’s two big parts to this that I want to talk about.

First, I like the comparison of sex to something that is amazing and special, like a trip to Hawaii!  That’s how I try to look at every time we engage, not that it is a chore, or that it’s just whatever, but that I’m partaking of a sacrament, and that is a special thing.  However, going to Hawaii is not something that is feasible for many people.  It’s a “once in a lifetime” or “never gonna happen” kind of trip.  So to say that it’s something that you can just be like “Oh yeah, we know that’s coming up, I’m not going to worry because I know we’ll be going there again soon!” just doesn’t ring true to me.

Sex should kind of be like going to the grocery store.  You go at least once a week, and maybe more!  Sometimes you go for fun just to avoid the kids and buy chocolate.  Sometimes you go a bunch of times because you forgot ingredients for the special dinner you have planned.  One of the last times I was at Kroger, a man behind me said it was his third time there that day because his wife kept forgetting things that she needed!  That’s more what sex should be, something regular, something that you know is coming, and if you start running low on groceries, you make it a higher priority.  Or in the case of your marriage, if you start running low on intimacy, you know it’s coming!

Marriages suffer with lack of sex.  Intimacy is much easier with it.  Right now I’m in the post partum stage where we’re adjusting to three loud needy children and getting up all night and we just don’t have time to sit and talk and connect that way.  Of course, we’re also abstaining far more than I’d like to, and that’s why I’m feeling such a strain.  If we could connect quickly with sex, it’d make things a heck of a lot easier!

The second point is that I admire the strength of a couple who can just put sex out of their heads while needing to abstain.  Being able to do that is probably a blessing to them.  At the same time, I don’t know that it’s the most healthy thing.  We are supposed to desire our spouses!  Look at the Song of Songs!   It’s never a bad thing to want to have sex with our spouse.  So while the fortitude is admirable, I just want to point out that for those who can’t do that, it doesn’t mean that they are “sex crazed” or in some way too “worldly” (as was implied in this discussion on facebook).

So yes, I’d like my marriage to be more like going to the grocery store.  Or maybe like going to a really fancy grocery store.. special, fun, but regular and a normal part of our life.

(Of course, no analogy is perfect.  I’m clearly not trying to come up with a perfect one right now.  Also, there are exceptions to everything I wrote.  For example, in an abusive marriage, sex might cause more suffering, as is the case with marital rape.)

Sex ed: Catholic edition (repost)

This is a repost from an old blog of mine circa August 2008.  Fun fact, that’s the month I conceived my firstborn, my Grace.  So you can see what was on my mind then!

Me being a newlywed, and my sister now joining the ranks of wifedom has led to a lot of discussion about, well, sex. Sex is such a beautiful thing, it’s one of the first things we hear about people doing in the Genesis story: Adam and Eve are created, God tells them to be fertile and multiply, there’s the discussion about how the two become “one body” and Genesis 4 starts out with “The man had relations with his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain”. So right from the beginning we have sex and babies, tossed in with sin (if you condensed it down to some basic happenings). The kicker though, is the sin that started happening right around the same time. Adam and Eve weren’t perfect and through them we’ve inherited some bad habits. Unfortunately for us, sex and relationships between men and women were some of the big things being affected by sin.

The Catholic Church, especially thanks to John Paul 2, has LOTS of information on sex. JP2 put together an excellent (though heavy) set of teachings called the Theology of the Body. He outlined his ideas and presented them at his Wednesday audiences during the early 80’s. I’m still reading them, it takes a lot of brain power, but so far they are great. I highly recommend everyone to check them out (if you want something a little lighter, find Christopher West).

While the theology is important us average Catholic Joe’s need to know more of the practical implications. They generally boil down to a few points.

  • No sex before marriage.
  • No use of contraceptives.
  • If you have serious reasons for avoiding children, the only way acceptable is to avoid intercourse during the fertile period of a woman’s cycle (NFP).
  • No abortion.
  • Various other teachings come out of this theology including the rules about no masturbation, no in vitro fertilization, and other points.

A lot of these teachings are really hard for us sinful humans to accept. We’re hardwired to be attracted to the opposite sex and to “be fruitful and multiply”. These things are very important though to have healthy relationships and the Church has them in place because they guide us to Heaven. How is that?

Well, first of all, we have to have an understanding of how sex is supposed to work. When a man and a woman have intercourse, it creates a bond between them: they become one body. God designed our bodies so that intercourse causes the hormone oxytocin to be released. This hormone is only released during intercourse and when a woman gives birth or is breastfeeding. It’s a bonding hormone, it causes us to have an intimate connection with the person we’re with when it’s released. It also makes us come back for more, it’s one of those “happy” hormones (that’s why women have more than one child, oxytocin can make them forget the troubles of their labor and focus on the result!).

Now when it comes to the teachings on contraceptives, we have to understand another aspect of becoming one body. When you share the intimacies of your body with your spouse, you are supposed to give yourself totally to them, otherwise how can you be “one” body? If you hold something back, like information about yourself you’re not totally becoming one (that’s actually a way to get an annulment, the marriage wasn’t valid if one spouse is holding back serious information that would cause the other spouse to potentially leave them). In the same way, if you hold back on giving your spouse your fertility you aren’t truly one person. Giving up this control is not something society says. According to them, our sexuality is our own, women have the power to abort their children if it’s an “inconvenience”, no one but us can make reproductive choices. But God asks us to give up the control over our fertility and leave it in His hands. Any contraceptive that interferes with how sex is supposed to work goes against the idea of giving yourself totally and completely to your spouse. The pill causes defects in a woman’s reproductive system to prevent ovulation/implantation. Condoms and diaphragms prevent semen from entering the woman. Spermicides kill the sperm before the have a chance to catch an egg.

What people forget, although the Church hasn’t, is that there’s another aspect to the way God designed women. A woman is only fertile for a short period of her cycle. An egg only is released once a month and only lives for 12-24 hours. In the case of multiple eggs being released, a woman has a potential 12-48 hour window of fertility in her cycle. If a woman has an average 28 day cycle, then she has a potential 26 days where she can not get pregnant. Of course, there are other things that cause fertility to expand, cervical fluid has different qualities that can either kill sperm or help it thrive up to five days (the average life span of a sperm in perfect quality conditions). So add on five days to the 48 hour window, and you’ve got one week of potential fertility and that’s a maximum amount (in most cases!). So what does all this mean for us Catholics? Well, it means that God has created us so if we were to have sex every day there would only be about one week out of the woman’s cycle where the couple could get pregnant. Because this is an inherent part of our physiology the Church has taken it into consideration when it comes to family planning. The Church teaches that if a couple has serious reasons for avoiding pregnancy (such as financial hardship, if it would be detrimental/fatal for the mother to be pregnant, if the couple has prayed about it and sincerely believes it isn’t God’s will for their family at the time or other cases) it is permissible for a couple to abstain from intercourse during the woman’s fertile period. I highly recommend that a couple prays seriously about this and/or seeks spiritual direction when considering Natural Family Planning to avoid pregnancy. It is not something to be taken lightly, nor is it “just another form of birth control”. Also note that some other forms of this (FAM, fertility awareness method) allow for the use of condoms during the woman’s fertile period, this is not allowed by the Church, abstinence is the only acceptable method. Women who are interested in learning more about the in’s and out’s can check out the Couple to Couple League’s website or the book Taking Charge of Your Fertility by Toni Weschler, MPH (she explains FAM, but does talk about abstinence in addition to condom use, it’s a great practical handbook with lots of charts/examples/details). There’s lots of other information about NFP out there on the web too!

Another wonderful benefit to learning and following the Church’s teachings on contraceptives and using NFP is that once a couple decides it’s time for them to try for a child, the woman knows enough about herself that it can become quite a bit easier! God has created truly wonderful creations in women and it should be understood and celebrated! I highly encourageall women to learn about themselves, you are a miracle and it’s such an eye-opening experience to learn all your quirks and in’s and out’s.