[Ah, spring, that heady time when a youth Catholic’s mind turns to, “Is this a sin?” And to answer these questions, and generally provide a brief respite in the tactical politics which we all enjoy so much, I present a book review written by my wife, the lovely MrsDarwin. Enjoy. –Darwin]
In my days as a young unmarried Catholic, I often suffered through chastity talks or had dating manuals pressed on me. The Protestant dating manuals (or, more accurately, not-dating, since apparently dating is right out in those circles, to be replaced by the nebulous concept of “courtship”) were painfully earnest in their descriptions of hypothetical couples who were keeping their relationships 99.44% pure by following strict rules of behavior. Chastity talks were even more painful because you had to be there in person, squirming in your folding chair and wishing the floor would swallow you as the speaker hemmed and hawed, or, even worse, was wildly enthusiastic for Purity! There seemed to be no happy medium between either rigid guidelines that seemed designed to minimize contact between a couple, or hazy exhortations to purity that gave one no practical guidance in the matter of a relationship rooted in reality.
After the discussion following this post about the proper level of physical interaction before marriage, Darwin ordered a book on the subject by Brett Salkeld, a fellow blogger and acquaintance. Brett and his co-author Leah Perrault know this sad scene all too well, and they have written a refreshing remedy and valuable resource, How Far Can We Go? A Catholic Guide to Sex and Dating.
Here are two famous answers to the question “How far can we go?”
- Keep both feet on the floor.
- Asking “How far can we go?” is like taking your girlfriend or boyfriend in your arms, walking to the edge of a cliff, and asking, “How close can I get to the edge?”
We had to write this book because we think both these answers are unsatisfactory. We think we can do better. The first answer is very practical, but anyone with a little imagination can get around it. In trying to set out an easy-to-follow guideline for Catholic couples, it ignores the question of Christian formation. It says that physical intimacy is only about how you act, and has no connection to the kind of person you are called to become.
The second answer is much more dangerous. The foundation of the metaphor it uses is that sex is roughly equivalent to suicide! In other words, sex is dangerous and sinful. Any advance in physical intimacy is just getting you closer and closer to the edge of the cliff. When we give answers like this it is no wonder the world thinks the Church is down on sex!
…One of the reasons that Christian books on sex and dating have given a misleading view about sexuality is that they ignore the essential communicative aspect of sexuality. Sexual sin is presented as crossing some vague boundary partway up an imaginary list of increasingly intimate physical acts. But, in the context of physical intimacy, sin isn’t crossing an arbitrary line. Sexual sin is about using your body to lie to your partner (and probably yourself) about the nature of your relationship. There need to be one or two clear lines about what is appropriate for unmarried people, but those lines are not drawn to keep people from acts that impure in and of themselves. They are drawn to keep people from lying with the language of their bodies. This book, then, is not primarily about which acts are and are not permissible. This book is about learning to speak the truth with your body.
One thing I really appreciate here is that Salkeld and Perrault have a respect for their young audience, and don’t treat the question “How far can we go?” as an attempt to find out how much whoopie one can get away with, but an honest query about what is right and appropriate at any point in a relationship. (I snickered out loud at their description of a youth group leader who answers this question from a young couple by saying, “I’ll let you in on a little secret. Your relationship will do much better if, instead, you ask yourselves how pure you can be.” If you haven’t heard twaddle like that, you haven’t been around the Authentically Catholic! youth scene much.) They emphasize from the start that their model of dating “presumes that those who use it are sincerely trying to live holy lives. If you’re hoping to find loopholes so you can get away with as much as possible and still say you’re following Catholic rules, this model isn’t for you.”
Just what is this model? It relies on honestly answering the question “How much of myself does God want me to give to this other person?”
Sex is not a shortcut to intimacy! If you want to have sex but don’t want to get married, you need to look at your reason for not getting married. If it’s not a very good reason [the financial demands of a big wedding being an earlier example], work through it and then get married. If it’s a good reason, it’s probably a good reason not to have sex. Sex speaks a profound language of the body that is both a sign and a source of the kidn of unity that married people share. If you’re not ready for marriage, then you’re simply not ready for the demands of a relationship that includes sex.
If you understand our explanation of the Church’s teaching on premarital sex, you should be able to follow our dating model. It works on exactly the same principle; physical gifts of self ought to reflect our self-giving in other areas of a relationship.
The dating model the authors set forth is firmly rooted in responsibility and free will: not a “one-size-fits-all” set of rules (because every person and every relationship is unique), but guidelines for discerning at each step of a relationship the appropriate levels of not just physical intimacy, but spiritual, intellectual, social, and emotional intimacy All of these are often bound up with one another because humans are bodies and souls — what effects one must effect the other. One of the most common-sense statements in the book is that intimacy needs to grow gradually over time, and the authors provide examples of couples at different stages of life and relationship — high school students, couples in college, working college graduates, and high-powered career men and women — to show how this discernment can play out in various ways. There’s a fun set of graphs that examine how all forms of intimacy progress over the course of the journey from perfect strangers to spouses. The authors aren’t shy about expressing the Church’s teachings against common sexual pitfalls such as pornography and masturbation, and clearly explain the reasons for these teachings. They are unequivocal on the Church’s teaching against premarital sex and activities that try to mimic the effects of sex, and devote the last chapters of the book to marriage and NFP.
I absolutely recommend this book — I really think it’s one of the best resources I’ve encountered for an honest and balanced treatment of what it means to be a faithful Catholic moving toward marriage. For what it’s worth, I find the authors’ discussion of sexuality and intimacy in relationships to be very true to Darwin’s and my experience of having a real and intense and Catholic unmarried relationship while trying to steer a good course between prudery and prurience. This is the book I’ll give to my own children to read when they’re old enough for such discussions, and I can give no higher praise than that.
UPDATE: You can hear more about Brett and Leah’s approach and speaking work at their website: http://www.howfarcanwego.com