Leonard J. DeLorenzo introduces a new series, Letters to a Young Catholic, in which he…
Letters to a Young Catholic: How to have sex
If you found this letter online, the title may have deceived you. You will not find any diagrams in this letter, nor will you discover descriptions of techniques. If you were looking for things like that, you have to look elsewhere, but before you do, I would encourage you to examine your motives.
I am not writing to tell you how you can have toe-curling sex or anything like that. Catholic and other Christian writers who promise that are deceiving you, even if they don’t mean to. They are deceiving you in the way of desire by leading you to desire the wrong thing in the wrong way. Catholics do not merely have alternative means for seeking out the same end in sex as popular culture, as if this was all really about maximizing pleasure.
At the same time, though, the Catholic understanding of sex is not, not about pleasure. Rather, this is all about fulfillment, which is not opposed to pleasure but goes beyond it. This is also about joy, which is not opposed to happiness but goes beyond it. Fulfillment and joy require sacrifice, but that is not the same as never-ending self-denial, whereby life becomes drudgery. This is about the fullness of life.
As I have tried to do all along with this series of letters, I want to level with you and speak directly, but to have a chance to do so, I have to ask you to stick with me. I will do my best to speak honestly and I hope you will do your best to listen attentively. Later, if you want to flip this around and have me listen, email me so we can extend the conversation: firstname.lastname@example.org.
I have a twofold answer to “how to have sex.” First, be there. Second, pledge yourself. Now let me explain what I mean.
You might think it obvious that if you are to have sex, you are going to “be there.” Leaving aside the strange ways in which people are “there” or “not there” for sex in the digital age, don’t we have a sense of what it means to be somewhere but not actually be there? If you’ve been reading along with me over these months, you may remember talking about just this in most (if not all) of my previous letters. To really “be there” requires both attentiveness and transparency.
Attentiveness has to do with the singular focus of your entire self: mind, body, spirit. Transparency means being free of deception or duplicity, and being completely honest with and available to another person. Attentiveness and transparency are the twin disciplines for intimacy.
It is common for modern Christian writers to talk about something like intimacy when talking about the true meaning of sex. They typically point to the closing verse of the second creation account in Genesis (the one that leads to Adam and Eve) to support their claim. That is where we are told that the man and his wife were naked without shame (cf. Gn 2:25). What this means seems obvious: They bore their bodies to each other without bashfulness or lust. The quick move, then, is for popular writers and speakers to say something like, “This is what sex within marriage gives you: sex without sin or guilt.”
I got that message a lot growing up, first from the nondenominational youth group I attended with my friends in middle school, and later throughout college from popular Catholic chastity speakers. What silently formed in my mind was some vague notion that getting married was like gaining admission to an amusement park: once you’re in, you can seek after pleasure without impediments or regret.
But here is the crucial thing that is almost always left out of the “naked without shame” mantra. When at the close of Genesis 2 we encounter the word “naked” in English, what is being translated is the Hebrew word arrummim. When we then move to the first verse of Genesis 3, where the serpent is introduced, and we read that it was “the shrewdest of all the wild beasts,” the word we read as the superlative form of “shrewd” is the Hebrew word arum. What we miss in English is that to be “naked” (arummim) in this context means to be without guile or shrewdness (arum).
What does it mean to be shrewd or full of guile? It means to be hiding something — namely, to be hiding what you’re really about. Your words or your actions say one thing, but your heart and your intentions say something else. If we investigate the question the serpent asks at the beginning of Genesis 3 and then his further arguments, that is precisely what we see: the serpent is deceiving about its enterprise.
So what does it mean to be naked without shame? Yes, absolutely, it means for the man and the woman to bear their bodies to one another, but it also and crucially means that they know each other. They are “transparent” to one another, and they are “attentive” to one another. They are not hiding anything. What they say and how they act, what they think and what they intend are all aligned. They are “there” in every sense of the word.
This is what we are created for.
This is far from merely gaining admission to an amusement park. Rather, this is about becoming the kind of people capable of complete attentiveness and full transparency. Sex is about this kind of union: the full intimacy of being there.
In a book about her conversion, my friend Abigail Favale wrote candidly about the sexual misadventures of her early young adult years. In particular, she talked about the lie and confusion of contraceptive sex, which is intentionally closed off from the conception of new life.
At that point in her own life, rather than understanding and appreciating her own body and how it worked, Abigail says that the only thing that mattered was swallowing a pill to make sure that her body malfunctioned. While talking about one particular relationship that stands as a representative of several others, Abigail wrote this:
“There’s a language that the body speaks during sexual union. A wordless promise of total self-gift. The body says: I am wholly yours; I belong to you; I give myself, even my capacity to create new life, a gift that can’t be taken back. When there are no spoken promises alongside this corporeal speech, the language of the body becomes a lie. With his body, he said: I give myself to you. With his words, he said: I don’t want you” (“Into the Deep: An Unlikely Catholic Conversion,” Cascade, $25).
Abigail is describing sex without the pledge of yourself. In particular, what the man she was with was doing looked like full acceptance of Abigail, but at the very same time, he was rejecting her in her fullness. He did not want her capacity to bear life within her body; he did not want her beyond this moment; he did not want to pledge himself to her, come what may. And, as Abigail attests, she did not want to pledge herself in that way either: to new life, to continued commitment, to the future.
The severing of sex from the possibility of conceiving new life is the great lie of the last 100 years. I know I might sound like a cranky, prudish religious complainer when I say that, but I want to tell you the truth. The truth is that sex closed off to new life diminishes our dignity.
It is the mission of every generation to give rise to another generation. That mission means bringing about the next generation’s existence and endowing that generation with what is most grand and beautiful. Every generation must give life and teach the next generation the way of life.
The sexual union between man and woman is the genesis of an entire society. Two persons, equal in dignity though distinct in identity, cooperate to bring new life into existence. But the crucial next dimension is that the responsibility to that new life continues, because what began in the sexual union is completed in the commitment to give the child what is best, and form him or her for the fullness of life.
Sex necessarily entails a pledge of yourself, if sex is to be true. You pledge yourself to being there for the other person in all his or her fullness, and you pledge yourself with the other person to be there for the good of the new life that may come to be. This is how we become “like God,” who creates life and nurtures his creatures to the fullness of life.
You may have noticed that I ended up presenting the unitive and procreative dimensions of sex, which accords with Catholic teaching. Moreover, the only condition in which you can fully “be there” with and for the other person and “pledge yourself” to the other person and with the other person for the next generation is within a committed, stable and permanent relationship — namely, marriage. Have I therefore just tried to sneak in what you might already consider a stale and outdated teaching about sex? That was not my intention.
My intention is to tell you the truth and be truthful. I wanted to give an account of what sex is and how you have sex, in its fullness. It is about a union that is in the flesh but more than flesh, and it is about a pledge that happens now but does not end now. Anything less is too little.
There is clearly much more that could be said about all of this, and I am fully aware that significant and deeply personal issues abound in this discussion. There are many more paragraphs that cannot fit in this letter, including ones you yourself might write. For now, then, I hope you will receive my words in the same spirit of generosity with which I have sought to give them, and take me up on the invitation to follow up by email if you so desire.
Leonard J. DeLorenzo, Ph.D., works in the McGrath Institute for Church Life and teaches theology at the University of Notre Dame. Subscribe to his weekly newsletter, “Life, Sweetness, Hope,” at bit.ly/lifesweetnesshope.