NFP and the Contraceptive Mentality
In concluding this series, I’d like to address the question which originally set me on on this overly extended journey: Is it possible for users of Natural Family Planning to have a “contraceptive mentality” and if so what does that mean in the context of NFP?
I’ve described the contraceptive mentality as: The idea that having sex and reproducing are two activities with no necessary connection, that having sex in no way suggests a desire or willingness to have children with the person you are having sex with.
At root, I think that NFP is formulated in such a way as to be in direct opposition to the contraceptive mentality. According to an understanding of sexuality rooted in human instinct and biological reality, the way to avoid conceiving children is to not have sex. This is also the means of avoiding conception which is considered acceptable by the Church in the context of its understanding of the moral nature of sexuality. NFP is considered morally acceptable by the Church for the reason that it consists of avoiding pregnancy by not having sex, with the modern refinement of allowing the married couple to understand with a certain degree of confidence when it is that they need to avoid having sex in order to avoid conception. Rather than abstaining all the time in order to avoid pregnancy, the couple can abstain for between a quarter and half out of the woman’s cycle, and achieve the same result with relative certainty.
For us as human persons, this requires a degree of self mastery over our natural instincts. The modern NFP-using married couple finds itself in a situation (well housed and fed by historical standards, healthy, and lying in bed with a member of the opposite sex with whom one would certainly not object to having conjugal relations) which would seem to scream: Have sex! Reproduce! But for various prudent reasons arrived at by human reason, they may well consider it important at a given time to overcome that instinct and abstain for a portion out of each month in order to avoid having children for a time.
However, while this use of periodic abstinence to avoid pregnancy does not necessarily involve the contraceptive mentality, indeed emphasizes quite the opposite, I think that as NFP-using couples we do find ourselves subject to the temptations of the wider culture in this regard.
The assumption which has, over the last 80+ years since the use of artificial birth control became widespread, become so basic to our culture as to be completely unspoken and unconscious, even among those of us who see ourselves as standing in opposition to it, is that a happily married husband and wife will have a “good sex life” consisting of regular marital relations, sometimes passionate or creative, sometimes comfortable and familiar, which expresses the couples love and affection for one another. Even for those of us who see fertility as a part of our marriage equal to and related to conjugal bliss, it’s nearly impossible to shake the feeling of, “We’re married; we should be able to do this.”
Some NFP guides try to soften and direct this frustration: During the fertile part of the cycle, if you are delaying pregnancy, is a great time for date nights and cuddling and other non-sexual expressions of affection.
The message seems to be that one should somehow be able to channel all of one’s desire for sex into the non-fertile periods of the cycle. You, as an NFP user can have sex whenever you want, if only you can first have the first have the self control to only want it when you can have it! And you should be able to do this, because marriage isn’t just about sex. Just be organized enough to schedule the non-sexual parts of your marital relationship for the fertile parts of the wife’s cycle.
I think this overly optimistic view of NFP misses a basic understanding of human nature which we ignore to our own confusion and frustration: We are as creatures designed to “want” to reproduce a good deal more than we as thinking human beings desire to, and going against our instincts in this realm requires a degree of self denial which is often experienced as frustration or unhappiness. We are unlikely to feel entirely satisfied while practicing NFP because practicing it means denying our instincts.
This is particularly hard for us in the modern world because the understanding of sex which existed before the 20th century is remote and nearly irrecoverable for us — the understanding which saw it as something of a double-edged sword, intensely pleasurable but at the same time as potentially high in cost. If the relationships of prior centuries often seem to our modern eyes a bit distant or dour, it is in part because it is impossible for us to recover the real sense of potential cost which applied to sexual intercourse — both because pregnancy is less risky now and because even for those who have never in their lives used contraception the idea that “we should be able to have sex” is inescapable.
I don’t think that this is in any way a strike against NFP. Certainly, it makes the spacing of children easier upon a couple than not having the ability to read the signs of fertility, and I think that the reduced sense of risk or fear surrounding sex is indeed a good thing for marital relationships. However, we must at the same time understanding that in seeking to apply prudence to our reproduction, and do so without use of artificial means which separate sex and reproduction, we necessarily will have to exert a degree of self control which will result in some degree of difficulty and frustration. If we deceive ourselves that such things can be achieved without difficulty, we set ourselves up for nothing but frustration and disappointment.
For those of us who reject artificial contraception, not getting pregnant requires not having sex, and not having sex means denying one’s natural desires, which, as any dieter can tell you, requires self denial which is not always pleasant.