Here’s a question. If, when you were a teenager, your parents had taken you aside and explained that sex before marriage is wrong, sinful, against the Catholic faith, carries the risk of sexually transmitted diseases, and might end in a pregnancy, but if you intend to do so, please protect yourself, what would your interpretation of that lecture be? Let’s keep in mind that the intent behind this discussion is not to focus on the contraceptive aspect, but the (limited) protection that some contraceptives (namely condoms) afford against sexually transmitted diseases.
My wife had the fortune of having this lecture and, being the obedient child she was, she understood that to mean, “Okay, no sex before marriage. No problem.” Listening to her explain this, though, I realized that as a teenager, I would have interpreted the lecture much differently. Maybe because I’m male, or because I was already fascinated by sex, I would have translated the lecture into saying, “We disapprove, but it’s okay to have sex as long as you use a condom.”
The two mentalities exemplified by my wife and myself explain a great deal of the frustration and butting of heads in the political realm over the use and availability of contraceptives. Pragmatically, some people will have sex before marriage, perhaps even with multiple partners. That’s been a problem practically since the Fall, and, given fallen human nature, it’s a problem that won’t go away. So what do we do with these people? How should we expect them to behave? On one side, we have the argument that promoting contraception just makes it easier and more likely that people will have premarital sex. On the other side, we have the view that we need to curb the disastrous effects of promiscuity as best we can, and thus we should encourage people that if–and that’s only if–they are absolutely going to have sex, then they should protect themselves.
The difference between the ways of thinking, as best I can tell, is where the focus lands. On the side that encourages contraception for those who are going to go out and have sex anyway fundamentally start with those very people. If we completely restrict our dialogue to those who will have sex, come Hell or high water, then doesn’t it make sense that we ask those people to protect themselves to try to prevent the spread of disease? Isn’t it worse for all of us if those people contract and transmit with impunity? Besides, is it that much more sinful to use contraceptives when having premarital sex? Isn’t the great sin having the premarital sex in the first place? (Never mind the problem of compounding one sin with another…)
This line of thought seems so reasonable, and to a large extent I can understand how Catholic politicians fall into the trap of promoting contraception despite the ardent Church teachings to the contrary. First, not everyone is Catholic, and thus not everyone has a Catholic viewpoint of sexuality. Second, we can’t force people (either by law of the land or by the recognition that a forced conversion is sinful) to have a Catholic viewpoint of sexuality. Next, the problematic point, is the belief that these people will not be balked in having sex. So if they’re not Catholic, they don’t have any problem with premarital sex, and they’re going to do it anyway, isn’t the moral path making sure they’re protected?
(Never mind such issues as scandal and facts that increased availability of contraceptives leads to increases in STDs in general. But then, most people will disagree to the latter, citing studies that showed a vast decrease in disease transmission among Asian prostitutes when a 100% condom policy was implemented. But that merely confirms my point: those people are people who are going to have sex, no matter what.)
On the side that discourages contraception, even if one is foolishly going to indulge in sinfulness, the focus begins with the assumption that premarital sex isn’t guaranteed, and that we should do everything we can to discourage premarital sex. Of course, the hope is that a hearty, theologically sound discussion of the proper role of sex will ingrain a natural desire to abstain until marriage. But should that fail, we want promiscuity to be as risky as possible for that extra layer of discouragement. It sounds heartless, since it very much sounds like the curse, “If you go and sleep around, I hope you’ll contract an STD!” But given the failure rate of contraceptives (either user error or the failure of the contraceptive itself), telling people to use contraceptives to protect themselves during sex is like telling someone to wear extra padding when playing chicken with a train.
Obviously, I subscribe to the second mentality. My wife is somewhere in between, and I understand to a large extent her viewpoint. We don’t want people suffering from STDs, and I would be the first to want to cure someone of an STD when infection is discovered. But there’s a difference between wanting people not to suffer and wanting the risk of suffering to be in place. This is especially true when people have the childish mentality I did as a teenager. If people want to have sex, telling them “Don’t. But if you do, use protection.” is tantamount to giving them permission.
For example, my wife was told by someone that if she felt pressured into sex, she could say, “No, not unless you have a condom.” The idea is that the “no” and the “not without a condom” give a guy two reasons instead of one to refrain from sex. However, it seems to me that such a statement translates into permission, provided a condom is present. So if it prevents sex this time, it will merely encourage him to have a condom ready the next time (assuming he didn’t have a condom on him to begin with!).
So which mentality should we accept? Should we teach our kids that sex outside of marriage is wrong and leave it at that, or should we add the condition, “But if you’re going to, protect yourself?”