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Swimming against the Stream

We are told that a certain amount of sexual training is necessary. If a young woman marries without any sexual experience at all, she should not expect to be able to satisfy her husband. What do young people have to say about this?

In the first part of this article, we examined two frequently encountered arguments in favor of young people experimenting with sex before marriage. Here we will focus on another argument that often appears in the popular media. We are told that a certain amount of sexual training is necessary. If a young woman marries without any sexual experience at all, she should not expect to be able to satisfy her husband. In the same way, a young man ought to acquire some sexual experience if he wants to be able to satisfy his wife. In other words, premarital sex is beneficial, since then one knows where and how to do it so that it will be “cool.” What do young people have to say about this? We will start with two testimonies.

“‘I want a wife who will perform well in bed,’ a friend of mine once told me. I suppose he was under the influence of a momentary intoxication occasioned by watching some film on TV. ‘If that’s what you want,’ I replied, ‘Why don’t you go to an escort agency. There you’ll find girls who do nothing but hone these skills that seem to interest you so much’” (Martin, aged 19).

“I can just imagine having sex with an ‘experienced’ girl. ‘Mikey,’ she says to me on our wedding night, ‘tickle me here. That’s where Joe tickled me, and it felt very nice. Oh, thank you, that was great. And now I’m going to give you a little surprise. You’ll see how good it makes you feel. Everyone else I did it to liked it very much. And now, Mikey, we’ll make love. But you’ll have to put on a condom. Here you are, I bought fifty yesterday. We have to take precautions. Wouldn’t you know it, I’ve had so many partners and I was caught napping only twice. But I’ll put in a little vaginal suppository as well, and everything will be fine.” Sex addicts love such pleasure machines. As for me, they scare me like Frankenstein. If I marry, it will be to a virgin only!” (Michael, aged 19).

Premarital sexual experience harms and even destroys marital relations in many ways. In addition to the obvious factors highlighted in the above two testimonies, there are two less obvious and yet very important considerations that deserve attention here.

First of all, the conditions attending premarital sex are always far from ideal. For example, it is almost always accompanied by feelings of fear (of pregnancy, of rejection, of discovery), guilt, and other negative emotions. The problem is that these feelings become permanently associated with sexual intimacy and are subsequently transferred to the marriage situation. Like it or not, that is the way our psyche works. The experiences attending first sexual encounters become “imprinted” — to use the psychological term — on the emotional sphere.

Second, the partners acquire a false conception of sexual intimacy, since they do not fulfill its natural purpose. This also negatively affects the quality of future relationships. Motives and purposes are of great importance in life. Heads are not for knocking down walls, as the expression goes. Sexuality also has its own prescribed purpose. Used in accordance with its special purpose it brings joy and happiness. Used for any other purpose it wreaks harm. What is the natural aim of sex? The aim of the sexual act is both to produce offspring and to express love. (But love certainly does not consist — as the media constantly suggest — in the mere arousal of desire and then satisfying it with the body of one’s partner. This is what happens in an encounter between a prostitute and her client, but there is no love here.) The sexual act becomes an expression of love only when there takes place within it an unselfish bestowal of the self upon another, a self-giving, an entrusting; when it is an act of deep union of one’s life with the life of the spouse, a fusion not only of the bodies, but also — and above all — of the souls. Moreover, it can be so only when this gift of the self is permanent — “until death do us part.” (This giving of oneself for life is of absolute key significance to the sexual act. If it is missing, then the union between the woman and the man is more like the transaction between a prostitute and her client than the marital act, whatever exalted feelings the couple might have about what they are doing.)

In premarital sex there is no giving of the self for life. Even engaged couples are not yet spouses. They may decide to go their separate ways at any time, even right before their wedding, without any consequences or obligations. No one will hold it against them. “What a pity,” people might say in such a case, “but of course they have every right to do this.” To a greater or lesser extent, engaged couples are aware of the fact that their real journey together has not yet begun. They are still conscious that their relationship is provisional. That is why their mutual self-giving cannot be complete.

Only their wedding vows made before God and witnesses (their families, representatives of the Church, and the state) constitute a guarantee of their good intentions and decision to unite themselves with each other as sacramentally and legally contracted spouses. For this purpose no better institution exists. The Church protects marriages with the full weight of her authority. So too — at least partly — do civil law and social opinion. This gives the married couple a sense of security and permanence, which is so important for their mutual self-giving.

False aims

Now what are the reasons for engaging in premarital sex? Let us consider two instances. A girl may — as mentioned earlier (see LOA #13) — feel validated in a premarital union. Sometimes life with her lover seems better than life at home, where no one has time for her. The boy takes an interest in her. He tells her he finds her attractive. A young woman may also decide to become sexually active to counter feelings of loneliness or because she fears she is unattractive. But this is not what sexual intimacy is for. (The gift of sexuality is not intended to alleviate painful relations with our parents.) In such instances, there develops a predictable pattern of response, which becomes more deeply rooted the longer one remains in this sort of union. When the woman marries and finds herself in a bad mood, or suffers some setback or failure, she will tend to seek in sex a remedy for the resulting pain. The marital act undertaken for this reason is far from what it could and ought to be.

A man who has never learned to control his bodily desires is interested only in satisfying these desires, that is — in pleasure. Sex, for him, is a source of sensual pleasure and nothing else. In submitting to him, a woman merely reinforces this attitude toward sexuality. There could not be a worse preparation for marriage. When such a man does not receive his “due portion” of sex, he will feel psychological discomfort (like a smoker who suddenly finds himself unable to obtain a cigarette). He will try to relieve this unpleasant state by coercing his wife to do her “duty” (often by threatening to find another partner.) In such a relationship, the woman is little more than a used object, and of this she is often painfully aware.

“My husband treats me like a thing of no special value. He never shows any feeling for me. He does not give me his love. He does not confide in me” (Mary, aged 28).

“A wife knows when a husband uses her body for masturbation. The worst thing is that he is not satisfied with this situation either, since he thinks this is what intimacy is all about. The baggage of experiences we bring into marriage often makes cripples of us. Only those who have learned to be demanding of themselves are ready for sexual intimacy” (Isabelle, aged 26).

Sometimes we even hear it said that the more sensual pleasure a woman gives a man (or vice versa), the better their sexual relationship. Such a notion of sex, clearly false and terribly primitive, can only be called masturbation, since it aims at nothing more than giving and achieving pleasure. What underlies such thinking is the unconquered habit of self-abuse. True, a woman or a man gives more “satisfaction” than masturbation performed alone. But pleasure remains most important. The person recedes into the background and serves as a mere tool for achieving one’s own selfish desires. There is no self-giving, no love here, just as there is none in masturbation. There is only lust.

The joy of loving

The marital act expresses love (for that, in addition to procreation, is its purpose) only when it is a free gift of the self. Free! — that is, not under the compulsion of an urge or habit. A gift! — that is, something undertaken not with oneself in mind, but with the thought of giving one’s spouse joy, the joy that comes from something that is yearned-for and long awaited. Love is not selfish.

The feeling of being loved is incomparably more important than mere sensual pleasure. The joy of being loved by one’s spouse can also come from abstaining from physical intimacy. “Out of regard for of my tiredness or my not feeling well, you passed up having sex with me. You did not insist, because you love me.” Thus the ability to control oneself also becomes an occasion for giving. From this flows true and profound happiness for both spouses. The height of sexual delight lasts only for a moment. Fleeting pleasure and enduring happiness are vastly different things.

Then take the opposite case: the sexual act (or “making love” as it is often called) can result not from love, but from selfish lust. “All you are interested in is my body. You need me only as a means of satisfying the habit you once fell into.” And even if the partners do achieve sexual gratification, the whole thing will leave a bad taste in the long run. For can “using” someone — or using each other — really bring happiness?

The sexual act is intended to be the language of love. If the expression of love is missing, it wounds. There is a moment of pleasure, but there is no joy of union and mutual confiding.

“We have been married for ten years and have three children. Our sexual intimacy gives us greater and greater satisfaction. This comes from our having experienced so much together. Many things unite us. We are closer to each other than ever before. Our love grows stronger. The spouses bring all of this into their lovemaking. Sex is like a good wine: it gets better with age” (Theresa, aged 30).

Sowing a bad harvest

Many people, especially the young, think they can do whatever they feel like without suffering any consequences. Big mistake! We shape our future today. As we sow, so shall we reap. A married couple’s experience of sexual intimacy depends on how they treated their sexuality in their youth. If they used sex as a way of obtaining pleasure, securing a mate, avoiding loneliness, assuring themselves of their attractiveness, etc. then that is the model of response they will have created for themselves. And they will bring this false concept — I repeat, this premarital concept of sex is always false — into their marriage. Bad attitudes, bad response patterns become a barrier to understanding and experiencing what sexual intimacy could or should be. If for several months or even years we use our sexuality wrongly, then will we begin to use it correctly upon receiving a marriage certificate? No! For this is how we will have conditioned and taught ourselves to behave in the state of marriage as well. Thus the fewer sexual experiences we have before entering marriage, the less we have to heal and repair later — that is, insofar as they can be repaired.

Sowing a good harvest

What is the first act of a couple entering marriage as virgins? They have preserved intact the gift of their bodies. It has cost them much hard work, but this is what makes the gift so much more precious. Each physical temptation they overcame, even before knowing each other, was an expression of love for their future partner. In this case, the marital act is — and we can say this in full confidence — a solemn event. In partaking of it, the spouses bestow upon each other something for which they have worked hard and for a many years. Moreover, they give each other the most intimate part of themselves, reserved and saved exclusively for that one person. This binds them in the most profound way. The marriages of chaste couples are strong! 

“Engaged couples who save sexual intimacy for their wedding day experience on that day a fullness of joy that reaches to the very bottom of the heart. But that is not all. As someone who has been married for sixteen years I can confidently say that this joy does not decrease; indeed, it grows stronger with every year and sheds a palpable warmth on the our whole union. In addition, we can take justifiable pride and satisfaction in the fact that despite great hardship, despite the “world” living so differently, we have always been for each other only. This helps us immeasurably in remaining faithful and dealing with the deepest marital crises” (Eve, aged 40).

Through premarital sex we squander something of extraordinary importance. Because of it, we are no longer able to bring our married partner the gift of our self — the greatest gift, saved exclusively for our spouse. We have broken it up into small change. It has passed through several pairs of hands. All too often, the person has little more to give than the mechanical ability to arouse pleasant feelings, a skill honed through previous relationships. But of what importance is this!

In the third part of this article, which will appear in the next issue of LOA, we will examine yet another popular myth that entangles young people in premarital impurity. Among other things, we will discuss so-called “sexual compatibility.”

Fr. Jan Bilewicz OFM

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

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