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Swim against the Current: Save Sex for marriage (Part one)


More than ever before, young people are opting to have sex before entering into the state of marriage. “What is the point of remaining chaste?” they ask. “Why wait?”

Peer groups, youth magazines, TV, other means of mass communication, and even school textbooks give all kinds of reasons why young people should engage in premarital sex. What do they claim? In part one of this article we will analyze two frequently presented dogmas of popular culture:

1. “Being in love entitles one to sexual activity. Sex is the natural completion of every loving relationship.”

2. “Human beings have sexual ‘needs,’ which — like all other needs — have to be satisfied, so long as the right ‘precautions’ are taken. Sex is a natural appetite.”

At first blush these claims seem quite reasonable. But on closer examination, they could not be further from the truth.

‘Being in love’ entitles one to sex? Not marriage?

“But we love each other,” they say. “It feels good being together. So what’s wrong with us having sex?” Here we have to look at the broader context, for then we will have no difficulty understanding that the first fundamental “wrong” in this instance consists in breaking God’s commandments. This is the greatest evil. God is our creator, and our sexuality is an integral part of His creation. If God gave us the sixth and ninth commandments, He did this for our good. God truly wants sexual intimacy to bring a man and a woman the best fruits possible and make them happy. But this is possible only when they are united with Him. That is why in the divine plan, sex is intended to be a sign, a seal of the sacrament of marriage, an experience of God’s love embracing the mutual love of a man and a woman. It is meant to express the unselfish gift of the self to one’s spouse in Jesus Christ, forever; and this is possible only within the sacramental bond of marriage. It is Christ Himself — and only He — who, in the sacrament of marriage, bestows upon the man and woman the right of become “one flesh” (Eph 5:31). Thus sexual intimacy becomes something infinitely greater than a mere experience of sensual pleasure.

Sociological research shows that it is not love that craves sex, but selfish desire on the part of at least one of the partners. What does this mean? To all intents and purposes, it means that the woman ceases to be treated as a person worthy of respect and becomes an object to be used for the man’s own pleasure. In effect, the woman becomes a kind of plaything. The man has no interest in developing a relationship with her. Marriage and having a family hold no interest for him. He is driven by different motives altogether: he wants to play with her for a while. Alas, many girls consent to this role of sexual toy, and the models put forward by the mass communications media only confirm her in the conviction that this is a normal state of affairs and that this is how relations with a man are meant to be.

“We are created for love. In love we find self-fulfillment. But love is not a matter of a few moments spent in a sexual frenzy. It is a matter of one’s whole life. If love is mature, sex ceases to be all-important. It is all-important only to those who do not know what true love is. Sex without love is plain copulation. People copulate like animals, and they call this love” (Barbara, aged 22).

What drives a woman most powerfully during her maturing years is the quest for acceptance. She seeks companionship not so much to experience sensual pleasure as to feel accepted. She wants someone to find her appealing; she seeks recognition, understanding, and a measure of tenderness. Where this recognition is lacking in her family or milieu the desire to find someone who will validate her in this way is more keenly felt. If she finds validation in a relationship with a man, she will bond with him emotionally. All too easily she may take this experience to be that of true love. In the end, to keep her boyfriend on a tighter leash, she consents to give him “proof of her love” (especially if he has been persistent about it). But she does not find what she seeks. She is used rather than loved. Other motives pushing girls into premature sexual relations include peer pressure, thrill-seeking, curiosity, wanting to “keep up with the times,” etc. But sexual intimacy is not meant to serve any of these banal aims. Its natural purpose is much, much higher, more important, and more beautiful. Indeed, sexuality is something holy and not to be profaned in this way.

But let us assume that the boy and the girl are really in love. May they then seek sexual intimacy so as to perfect their “love”? Life experience shows that rather than deepen and strengthen the relationship, premarital sex actually causes it to die. From a purely psychological point of view, this is explained by the fact that the “partners” do not give themselves to each other totally, for their commitment is not permanent. A temporary relationship of this kind lacks the sense of emotional security and trust that undergirds a constructive union. Fear of pregnancy, doubts about one’s partner’s conduct and his or her motives, feelings of guilt — all these factors result in the sexual act not being that total and mutual act of self-giving which human nature craves.

“You often hear people say, ‘What do we need that piece of paper for? Love is all that counts.’ To marry a girl before God, your family and friends; love, fidelity, and marital honesty ‘until death do us part’ — can all this be of no account?! It is precisely these things that are a sign of our love for each other! Wanting to be with someone for the rest of your life, starting a family, having children — all these things, meaningless? Meanwhile flitting from one woman to another, from one bed to the next, is supposed to be love? Why, it’s more like prostitution without paying than love” (Martin, aged 20).

“‘Being in love’ is self-centered. ‘It feels good to be with him,’ enamoured girls tell me. ‘He makes me feel good…’ Then I ask them: “How long would you stay in love if your beloved broke his back, had to sit in a wheelchair for the rest of his life, and you had to feed and wash him and change his diapers? What if someone else became interested in you then? Someone young, handsome, healthy, and rich?’” (Matthew, aged 19).

What then is love? Are “being in love” and “love” the same thing? The more passionate the feelings, the greater the love? Not at all! Passionate feelings may, but need not, accompany true love. You can be in love and yet not love at all. And you can love without being in love at all. We learn whether we really love or not when the state of ‘being in love’ passes, for usually it does pass away.

There are many kinds of love. The Greek language, for example, has four words to express what in English is expressed by the single word, “love.” Children love their parents, and parents — their children. We love our siblings. A teacher loves her pupils in her way, and a physician, his patients. We say that Mother Teresa of Calcutta loved the poor. We are even supposed to love our enemies!

There are many kinds of love, but all of them have one thing in common, lacking which, we cannot say that we love. Love in its deepest sense means caring for the good of another person (therefore it is the very opposite of selfishness). Love is the unselfish concern for another, for his or her good, even though it may be hard and demand effort. Sacrifice, then, is a more reliable measure of love than ardor of feelings. Love need not always be accompanied by exalted, or at least positive, feelings. But, on the other hand, true love always yields happiness.

Love has more to do with the will than with feelings. We need to remember that a couple entering the state of marriage pledge to love each other for the rest of their lives. The very fact that love can be promised in this way means that it is a free choice and not some emotional reflex independent of the person himself. If love were not dependent on our free will, we could only promise what we feel at a given moment and hope it will endure. But marriage is a promise and not some fuzzy expectation.

But to return to our main thought. What concern does a boy show for the good of his girlfriend when he asks her to have sex with him? The list of negative consequences of premarital sex is very, very long (we will detail them in part two of this article). What concern does a girl show for the good of her boyfriend, when she gives in to him? What joint concern do they show for the good of the child, which even though they do not want it, may result from their sleeping together? Do they give others a good example by their conduct, i.e. do they care about the good of others? Is, then, what they call “love” really love?

“Those who have sex before marriage, since they ‘feel’ they have the right to engage in it, learn that pleasure stands in first place. This is a road that leads straight to betrayal. A married couple must do what is good for both sides, and not what they feel like doing at any given moment. The good of the spouses and family, from which true happiness flows, is more important than a passing moment of pleasure. It is this that must stand in first place, and our desires and passions must take second place” (Robert, aged 29).

To become loving people we need to work hard on ourselves and not just have occasional good feelings toward one another. Love has to be learned, unlike ‘being in love,’ which comes (and goes) unbidden. We need to learn how to love (one of life’s most supreme achievements) and only then allow ourselves to “fall in love.” Many young married couples are terrified to learn just how quickly “their love has passed.” The problem here lies in the fact that they did not learn to love authentically — either others or each other; and that which has passed was only the state of “being in love.”

The effort of abstaining from sex before marriage is the best school of love. You will not find any real lovers among those who have given up the struggle for purity.

“Only when I stopped indulging in sexual fantasies about my girlfriend, when I stopped contriving ways of dragging her into bed, when I began to treat her as a friend and not as a potential lover, when I began to have normal conversations with her, without sexual undertones — only then did I begin to love her. Lust is diametrically opposed to love. Lust excludes love, since it is mere selfishness” (Luke, aged 20).

Great ideals, values, noble principles always require self-discipline and a daily struggle on our part. We do not achieve them by “staying loose.” We need to work hard on them every day; but then that is why they bring us so much satisfaction.

“Sexual needs” or the sexual urge?

Pop culture talks about “sexual needs” and not about the sexual urge. The term sounds better, since we also speak about the need for food, drink, oxygen, and sleep. All of these are essential needs that must be satisfied. But has anyone died from sexual abstinence as one would from hunger or thirst? Some would have you think so. But there are many people who either from necessity or by choice live in total sexual abstinence for long periods of time — even their entire lives. And not only do they not die, but they get along perfectly well. On the other hand, those who admit of no limits to the meeting of their “sexual needs,” fall into self-destructive addictions.

“Is a priest’s celibate life more difficult than marriage? I do not think so. Of course, a person living a celibate life must renounce many pleasures. But the lack of a particular pleasure is not the end of the world. Joy and happiness are linked to love, not pleasure (and that includes sexual pleasure). One can love God, one’s neighbors, truth, nature, art, one’s work, and many other things besides. A married couple must also renounce many pleasures in order to build a happy marriage. A good, happy, and loving marriage is not an easy thing. Kindness and love are difficult to practice in either state of life. Wisdom and self-discipline are as necessary for the celibate person as for the married couple. Spouses who cannot live without sex for a greater or lesser period of time will not enjoy a happy marriage” (Fr. John, aged 26).

Sexuality plays an important role in shaping our lives. Putting it another way, a great deal depends on whether a person can control his sexual appetites. The life of the English writer Oscar Wilde is a good illustration of this. Gifted with a superior intellect, he had a brilliant academic career and won the highest awards in the area of literature. From these sublime heights he fell to the bottom. In his book De Profundis, written in prison, he said this of himself: “ The gods had given me almost everything. But I let myself be lured into long spells of senseless and sensual ease….Tired of being on the heights, I deliberately went to the depths in the search for new sensation. What the paradox was to me in the sphere of thought, perversity became to me in the sphere of passion. Desire, at the end, was a malady, or a madness, or both. I grew careless of the lives of others. I took pleasure where it pleased me, and passed on. I forgot that every little action of the common day makes or unmakes character, and that therefore what one has done in the secret chamber one has some day to cry aloud on the housetop. I ceased to be lord over myself. I was no longer the captain of my soul, and did not know it. I allowed pleasure to dominate me. I ended in horrible disgrace.”

Oscar Wilde states that he ‘ceased to be lord over himself.’ In other words, he became enslaved to his sexual urges and the pleasures they gave him. Sexual addiction is as hard to master as drug or alcohol addiction (in fact, it is harder). Its consequences are equally tragic. A person ceases to be free and responsible. He is at the mercy (or unmercy) of his addiction. Where does it lead him?

Free and responsible people do not sexually abuse children, rape women, seek out prostitutes, betray their wives, or spread venereal diseases. Yet these are precisely some of the bitter fruits of sexual addiction. In the United States alone, according to the organization Sex and Love Anonymous, there are several million “sexoholics” requiring treatment. The vast majority of them (80%) are men, since it is they who for the most part make up the clientele of the pornographic market, the main contributor to sexual addiction. Standard treatment of this condition involves total sexual abstinence, which may last for several years! Here, then, we have an instance of the therapeutic benefits of avoiding sexual activity; indeed, one’s very salvation depends on a long period of abstinence.

Below are a few brief extracts taken from the testimonies of recovering sexoholics (men and women) as cited by Dr. Patrick Carnes in his landmark book on sexual dependency Out from the Shadows:

• “In the early stages of my journey I was sad they had taken away all my sexual delights. Today I am boundlessly grateful for that long period of time when I was able to mature and grow.”

• “Celibacy finally brought me down to earth; I was able to stand on my own two legs and look reality in the face.”

• “Celibacy enabled my wife and myself to see that there is life beyond the bed, that real intimacy does not mean genital intimacy.”

• “Only in celibacy did I come see myself as a man.”

• “Total celibacy is a wonderful thing. I began to feel that my body was really mine. I began to take possession of it.”

• “Celibacy enabled me to focus my thoughts. It released a new kind of energy in me.”

• “It (celibacy) gave me access to my feelings, enabled me to gaze deep into myself, to experience the delights of life, to be present to myself, my higher powers and nature.”

• “I realized you could go on living without sex, and much better at that. For me it was a great discovery.”

• “For me it was the only way of acquiring perspective, of seeing the extent to which I had become enslaved and poisoned by sex.” 

The benefits of practicing total sexual celibacy is a theme common to the spiritual and philosophical traditions of both the West and the East. Mahatma Gandhi observed in his Autobiography: “We should not suppose that because chastity is difficult, it is impossible. Chastity is a supreme ideal. It should not surprise us then that its achievement requires great effort. Life without purity strikes me as bland and bestial. Because of its nature, a beast has no self-control. But man is man because he is able to control himself.” At the age of thirty-six, Gandhi took a vow of brahmacharya (complete sexual abstinence), after which he and his wife slept in separate bedrooms. Here is what he would say about it: “When I look back, I feel immense joy and delight. Never before (i.e. before 1906, when I took my vow of brahmacharya) did I experience such freedom and joy as fill me now. Before taking the vow, I was at the mercy of every impure temptation at any given moment. The vow became for me an effective shield against temptation. The great potentiality of brahmacharya daily became more and more patent to me. The great power of abstinence has become increasingly more apparent to me. Every day of the vow has taken me nearer the knowledge that in brahmacharya lies the protection of the body, the mind and the soul. For brahmacharya was now no process of hard penance, it was a matter of consolation and joy. Every day revealed a fresh beauty in it.”

From recent and past history we know that during periods of intense creative effort, geniuses in every field (writers, philosophers, scholars, politicians) abstained from marital relations — often for long periods of time. Many great and famous figures such as Shakespeare, George Washington, and Enrico Caruso had unbridled temperaments. Yet they did not become victims of sexuality. On the contrary, through the process of sublimation their sexuality contributed to their success and raised them to supreme heights of personal achievement.

  Today we pay little attention to sexual energy as a force that can be sublimated, i.e. realized in another way — far more important than physical gratification. A golden opportunity is lost to contribute something positive to every action, if only to add warmth to a smile or the squeezing of a hand.

“By abstaining from sex we direct our sexual urge into other areas of our life. Then we  come to know the joy of creative living, in comparison with which a fleeting moment of sensual pleasure seems as nothing and makes life seem barren and empty. We no longer think of gratifying our passions. We begin to take interest in the deeper meaning of things. We want our partner in life to share in a spiritual kinship with ourself. We find no contentment in using another merely to satisfy our instincts” (Matthew, aged 20).

“When you begin to live a chaste life, you notice meditation becomes imcomparably easier than before. You begin to undertand the writings of the spiritual masters with greater clarity, whereas before they made little sense to you. You begin to find new friends, new brothers in life. You feel life burning within you. You begin to live. Only then do you see that you were hardly alive before; that you were vegging rather than living” (Martin, aged 23).

Sexual abstinence does not mean that I lack sexual desire. It is a choice I make. I defer all sexual activity until the day of my wedding. We should not be unduly frightened by the term “repression.” There are times when we must repress our feelings. Only when we master our negative feelngs can we live with others. Everyone feels aggressive impulses from time to time. What would our social life be like if we held the view that we ought not to repress these impulses?

We grow to be loving people only when we have learned to keep our sexual urges in check. These urges, strong as they are, especially in our youth, can be mastered and tamed. A fire is warm and friendly when it burns in the hearth, but destructive when allowed to roar out of control. The example of many people shows that a well-controlled sexuality is a benign force. But uncontrolled it can become a cruel master — enslaving, demeaning, and harmful.     

Until we enter into the state of marriage, we must accept the fact of our sexuality; but we must also admit the need for self-discipline in this area. At the same time, we need to focus all our attention and efforts on our physical, intellectual, and spiritual growth. During our youth we lay the foundations for our entire life. Lived well, youth is the guarantor of a successful adulthood. We need especially to foster our native talents and strive to be creative: create something of our own, something new, important, even great, in our chosen field of endeavor, be it science, sport, art, social work, or the religious life. Such creative action makes life a most beautiful and happy thing; it prevents us from ruining ourselves in harmful activities.     

In the next issue of Love One Another we will discuss other commonly encountered arguments that draw young people into the quagmire of impurity, for impurity always brings on bad, and sometimes catastrophic consequences.

Fr. Jan Bilewicz, OFM a

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The article was published with the permission from "Love One Another!" in May 2016.




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