Dirty Sex


Both on my original post on abstinence-only sex ed and on the follow-up, I’ve had quite a few commenters object to my insistence that girls (and boys) shouldn’t be taught that premarital sex makes them dirty. Some of the commenters cautioned that an attempt to remove the idea of premarital sex making one “dirty” can quickly morph into an attempt to remove any residual shame or guilt, thus short-circuiting the developing conscience of an adolescent. Others simply conflated the words “dirty” and “shameful”, insisting that they are one and the same.

“And yes, both girls and boys who have premarital sex are dirty. They have been soiled and will not be pure for their future spouse, if they are called to marriage. What is wrong with saying this? Why is it wrong to make someone feel dirty or sinful if they have engaged in premarital sex (which is dirty and sinful)? It is shameful and dirty and their experience will be baggage that they bring into a future marriage.”

This comment is admittedly among the most vitriolic, but I’m using it here because it’s also a clear, non-nonsense example of this indiscriminate conflation of shame and filth.

In the Catholic faith, all sins are not equal. It’s one of the many things I love about our Church. It’s such a common-sense approach to sin (and life, and everything). Of course stealing a candy bar is not the same as murdering someone in cold blood, and it’s silly to insist that it is. Extra-marital sex, whether it be pre- or post- matrimony, is a grave sin. A mortal sin. So is stealing. So is murder. Let’s say your 13-year-old, in a fit of fury over the Ipod she didn’t get at Christmas, steals one from Best Buy and then owns up to it later. You wouldn’t say to her, “stealing makes you dirty. You are shameful and dirty!” Same thing with a murderer. Murder is objectively worse than premarital sex, but even so, serial killers aren’t usually referred to as “dirty” or “disgusting” unless they are also guilty of rape or sexual assault. Sins that involve sex in any way (even sins where the genitalia don’t participate, like watching pornography) are exclusively thought of as “dirty” or “filthy.”

In The Divine Comedy, Dante’s organization of Inferno and Purgatorio is telling. While Catholics tend to treat sexual sins as some of the worst, and the rest of the world regards the Church’s teachings on sex as borderline obsessive, Dante’s organization of hell (which is reasonable both in medieval theology and in common sense) suggests otherwise. Lust is the least of the sins in both the Inferno and the Purgatorio. In fact, Dante finds Cunizza da Romano, a woman notorious for her many love affairs, in heaven. A priest once told me that sexual sins should be the easiest of the grave sins for us to confess, because they are the least rebellious. Indeed, sex is an act of vulnerability, one that requires a person to be literally naked, physically and spiritually, exposing their flaws along with their beauty to someone else. As such, sexual sin is usually the sin that leaves a person feeling the most exposed, ashamed, and wounded. Yet instead of responding with compassion and gentleness, too often people respond with further condemnation, wielding adjectives like dirty, filthy, soiled, spoiled, or ruined.

Sometimes a caveat is thrown in about forgiveness, occasionally referring to confession and absolution. The thing is, “dirty” is a uniquely physical adjective, and while the confessional might cleanse our souls, it’s not a shower. The OED defines dirty as “characterized by the presence of dirt; soiled with dirt; foul, unclean, sullied.” Spiritual healing and forgiveness don’t cleanse the body. Any adolescent will realize that paying lip-service to forgiveness doesn’t address being soiled, foul, and sullied. I have a million theories about why sexual sins are uniquely perceived in terms of bodily filth, but there are two in particular that I believe work in tandem to foster this connection in today’s culture.

Sex involves a certain amount of messiness. It’s a physical act in a way that few other acts are. We throw our whole bodies into it, sweat, saliva, semen and all. Afterward, we usually feel kind of grimy. The post-coital shower is a thing for a reason. It’s easy, then, to associate feelings of sexual shame with the physical feeling of being dirty. Perhaps it’s even a natural association. The problem with fostering this association is that it creates a psychological link between sex and filth that is extremely difficult to break. Even girls who haven’t had premarital sex but have been taught to associate sex with being soiled will have a hard time dropping that association when it comes to sex within marriage, especially in the early days of marriage, when sex is less likely to be an ecstatic union of body and soul and more likely to be clumsy, awkward, and maybe a little frustrating. Saying that extra-marital sex makes someone “dirty” does not cultivate a healthy sense of shame; it cultivates a sense of irrevocable spoilage, which is directly fed into by our cultural mores.

Contemporary American culture, a culture that has so influenced other first-world cultures, is profoundly shaped by the heavily Calvinist-influenced Puritanism at its roots. Sex is dirty, according to common Puritan tradition, a dirty (but lamentably necessary) function of a dirty and depraved body. In Calvinist theology, the whole body is dirty, corrupt, depraved, and sin can never be removed. Forgiveness only means that Christ moves to stand between us and God, so that we look clean, although we never really will be. Snow covered dung-hills, that’s what we are. So sexual sins just make us even dirtier, even filthier, even more irreversibly ruined. This is the antithesis of Catholic teaching; even so, the mentality has shaped and molded our culture, which has shaped and molded us, to the point that professed Catholics will say, “Why is it wrong to make someone feel dirty or sinful if they have engaged in premarital sex (which is dirty and sinful)?”

First and foremost, it’s wrong because it is not our responsibility to make anyone feel dirty or shameful. Sometimes it is our responsibility to point out when someone else is engaging in sin. Sometimes (but far more rarely than most seem to think) it’s the only loving response. Certainly in the case of our children, we have an absolute duty to educate them about sin, and to help them identify sins which they are prone to. But the punishment for sin lies in the hands of God. Imposing shame is not the same thing as helping identify sin and form a conscience. Shaming our children, shaming anyone, is a form of punishment which people too often dole out almost gleefully, citing Matthew 18 while ignoring Matthew 9.

It’s also wrong because you’re fostering that psychological connection between sex and filth. By emphasizing a purely physical consequence, you’re subconsciously shifting sex from a physical and spiritual plane with both physical and spiritual consequences to the plane of the purely physical. You can ho-hum about psychology all you want, or take a page from one of my commenter’s playbooks and “suggest that the main reason women feel uncomfortable-to-wrong about sex in marriage has little or nothing to do with their sex education, and everything to do with the way their husband approaches them,” but the human mind is an intricate and powerful thing. You can’t acknowledge that watching porn re-wires a man’s brain while simultaneously dismissing the possibility that hearing “sex will make you dirty, sex will make you dirty” throughout her formative years will result in a woman feeling dirty about sex.

Finally, it’s wrong because you’re contributing to the sexual schizophrenia that has so effectively marred the landscape of our culture, elevating the taboo of sex into a cultural holy grail, paralyzing men and women from developing healthy sexual relationships, stunting and twisting our understanding of sex and of each other until we’re bequeathing unto our children a sexual wasteland. Don’t believe me? Allow the Anchoress to explain:

“Calling sex “dirty” might have been an expedient way for parents and societies to address the complex relationship between our sexual and our spiritual natures; but by not unpacking those complexities clearly, openly, and wisely, past generations became complicit in communicating an idea of shame that has fomented neurosis and an inevitable over-correction. Sex went from being something mysteriously sacred to something efficiently nonchalant.

Sex outside of marriage is not sinful (that unpopular, unfair word that makes us feel bad about ourselves) because it is ‘dirty.’ It is sinful because, when rendered casual and sterile, the act by which we most closely work with God in creation, the act that takes us into the deepest recesses of our physicality — to our very essences — becomes reduced to nothing more than an end unto itself. Sex is separated from the energetic and spiritual realm in which it is most fully and functionally realized. The sin comes, not because we are bad, but because by our willful action we have removed our emphasis from the spiritual and chained it to the corporeal. We’ve assisted in the exploitation of ourselves and others.”

(Elizabeth Scalia, Strange Gods, p 85)

This habit of conflating “dirty” with “sinful” and feeling “filthy” with feeling “ashamed” is so ingrained in our society that although I made no mention of shame being a negative emotion in my original post, many of my commenters assumed that was what I meant.

“Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems that you are saying that anything that causes feelings of shame is damaging?”

That is not what I said. Just a little reminder: I freely converted to Catholicism. We do shame and guilt like no one else, for good reasons. I wrote about Catholic guilt here, and how grateful I am for the suckiness of it. Our Papa recently reminded us that shame is a Christian virtue. In a way, shame is damaging, but it’s damage that must be done so that we can be healed, like setting a bone. I would never suggest that shame is something no one should ever have to feel. I fervently hope that my children grow up with a healthy, proportionate sense of shame that helps them remain in a state of grace without driving them into scrupulosity.

But that’s not what Elizabeth Smart felt after her rape. That’s not what many women feel, even in otherwise healthy and happy marriages. That’s not what I have struggled with for many years.

This is a real thing, and it’s not a fabrication of our society to excuse away guilt and shame. It’s not just desserts for sleeping around. It’s not a natural reaction to husbands objectifying their wives. It’s not any of the other things that people claim it is to ignore the inconvenient suffering of real people, and the responsibility that lays on us, our generation, right now, to find a better way to talk about sex. You might not know what that better way looks like. I don’t either. But that’s no excuse for continuing on with the status quo and turning a blind eye to the damage that results.


One of the hazards of blogging from home is trying to think through complex issues while being interrupted 4,700 times to refill water, break up fights, kiss boo-boos, get the toddler off the kitchen counter, and fish kitchen tongs out of a four-year-old’s pajama drawer. Although I spent an inordinate amount of time on this post, I’m not completely satisfied with the coherency of it. This is an issue I’m still trying to work out for myself, so please leave any thoughts you may have below. Also, I am not presenting myself as an authority on this, so comments about how I’m destroying the fabric of Christianity with my feminist angst and lukewarm morality won’t be deleted, but they will be annoying. Constructive criticism, per favore.


  • CS

    I have some thoughts:
    1. “Dirty” is an emotional, controlling word laden with the burdens of patriarchy and its female cooperators. “Purity” has become tainted by that; I think that it is like “modesty”: people treat it like it is some kind of code imposed from the outside whereas it is meant to describe a virtue that flows from within. I think we might have to make a real effort to rehab the term “purity” and maybe NOT use it until we figure out how.

    2. Parents in the age group of about 25-45 are struggling with the gift of Theology of the Body, simultaneous with the curse of Baby Boomer parents’ inability to deal well with sex. Either they tossed the whole sexual morals thing, or they were part of the reactively pearl-clutching, shame-driven Rest who stayed on the straight and narrow. I may be painting broadly here, but this is my general impression. Anyway, we need to share resources on how to talk to our kids and do it in the positive way without too much of the other crapola baggage we are carrying messing that up.

    3.Sex Ed for Catholic and other Christian parents needs to start from the early ages: I think that we have to know and teach the foundational principles of what a human being is, what it means to be an embodied, eternal person, and how we are to meet each other as immutable and valuable beings with a moral worth entirely derived from God’s love– as opposed to other people’s judgement, assessment, etc. Before I ever said much of anything to my kids about sex, I did try to convey that people have their primary identity in their relationship with G-d, and that we are never, ever to treat others as if we can assess their worth OR use them for our own purposes. “People are not for use.”

    4. I like what how you made some distinctions between the meanings of “shame”. I think that rape is kind of a red herring in this whole discussion, except for Elizabeth Smart’s original story, of course. Rape victims feel shame in part because they *have* been treated like a tool, “for use”, and it is so very hard not to believe that someone else’s opinion of what you are is true. This is partly a brain thing, for coping, and it can be made worse by the level of boundary-less-ness (is that a word?) that a person has *before* they are raped. Rape victims who have very strong emotional and psychic boundaries are far less likely to be affected, long term, by shame, in my experience. But when society and/or culture reinforces the ideas that we are tools, or that we ought to really care what other people think about us (especially as women) AND the whole purity/ruination thing on top of it…well that is a serious stew of Effed Up for the person who has been raped to deal with.

  • BrotherSka

    The most common source of problems in relationships is that the couple misinterpreted their mutual feelings of attraction as love. This normally results in the couple trying to keep up appearances after about 5 years and wondering where the ‘love’ went.

    It is important to know that attraction is an emotional feeling that may fade, while love is a promise that has nothing to do with attraction. Love is a promise to
    do 4 things. For the man:

    1. To accept everything that he knows and does not know about her before they
    are married.

    2. To accept her regardless of what happens in the unknown future as they both age – for better or worse, richer or poorer, sickness or health for as long as you both shall live. Even if she is disfigured by an accident or crippled by illness, he promises to accept her.

    3. To forgive her later. Since neither of them is perfect, they both depend on each others’ forgiveness.

    4. To encourage her to improve. This 4th one gives purpose to their relationship – otherwise it will get boring.

    If they are both ready to make and keep these promises to each-other, then they are ready to love. When they keep them, they demonstrate their love for each-other.

    After they formally make their promises at their wedding, they complete or
    consummate these promises with sexual intercourse. Every time that they subsequently have sexual intercourse, they reinforce their promises – it is truly a wonderful and mutually satisfying physical, mental and emotional experience.

    If they have sexual intercourse before making the6ir promises, then he show that he is capable of justifying forsaking her for a younger, shapelier rival when she get older. If he is able to restrain himself when his attraction for her is at its highest, then he shows her that he is capable of resisting the rival that will inevitably come.

    Men should be allowed to prove to their fiancee’s and themselves, that they are capable of keep their their promises.

    Source: Attraction is a feeling. Love is a Promise. by Grenville Phillips, president of Walbrent College. (LoveIsAPromise.wordpress.com)

  • Surprising

    Three To Get Married by Fulton Sheen is the most comprehensive book that you will most likely ever read. It’s beautiful! http://www.ewtn.com/library/MARRIAGE/3GETMARR.TXT

  • James

    Humans are designed for coitus. The real dynamics of coitus reveals that orgasm is aimed at parenthood but this reality can be ignored in a society that conditions people to look only at orgasm. There is nothing “dirty” about coitus. Engaging in it with someone you are not committed to for life constitutes dysfunctional sexual behavior. That is all. You are engaging in acts that are aimed at making you a parent and yet you do not intend to be a parent. That is just dysfunctional. It is not dirty. It is selfish because you are turning a communal life giving act into a narcissistic pursuit of orgasm feeling. You don’t care why your body can even feel orgasm to begin with, you just want that feeling and you want to stimulate it by means of another person. You don’t care that your body produces gametes for a clear reason. You just want that orgasm. When we look at the biological facts of the action of coitus we see that the act itself is not “dirty” at all.
    Promiscuity is dysfunctional.
    Conditioning people to engage in promiscuous behavior is dysfunctional.
    Calling promiscuous acts “love” is dysfunctional.
    Sin exists but you don’t really need to cultivate shame in order to point out sin. What you need to do is coherently observe why a sin is a sin.
    Teaching people about biological facts of how their body works is much more edifying than trying to impose someone’s subjective label of “dirty” on an action.
    When talking to a stubborn sinner, you want to achieve cognitive dissonance. That’s what inspires conversion. Guilt does not inspire conversion. Guilt happens naturally after someone converts and realizes what they were actually doing when pursuing sin.
    Educate the sinner. Quit trying to guilt the sinner.

  • Aaron

    Tough issue. Ideally, you want your children to maintain their virginity/purity until marriage (or throughout life in a religious/priestly vocation), and our Church teaches that this is an ideal we should strive for. Great emphasis is placed on Mary’s perpetual virginity as well as the virginity of many saints. Our tradition has always held up the ability to maintain lifelong chastity without failure as commendable and praiseworthy. If you lose your virginity outside of marriage, you do lose your claim to something that our Church has always placed on a pedestal. One night of bad judgement – a single failure – and you are “out of the club,” so to speak. It’s a harsh reality, but it’s also a facet of Catholic Tradition that’s impossible to ignore. Culture and human nature inevitably carry this to additional conclusions that have caused great pain, humiliation, and shame for many people (even those who have confessed and are forgiven).

    That said, we also know that many, many great saints overcame lives of unchastity. Our faith teaches that God’s love can forgive every sin. Our faith teaches that sin is inevitable. All of us need God’s grace, mercy, and forgiveness. Much more important than “chastity education” is the need to teach our children the value of being in God’s grace and the importance of turning to God for mercy when we fall and embracing the salvation he offers to all of us.

  • v

    I agree with the author in her post, but I think we also have to talk about the fact that extra-marital sex also has negative consequences for future marriages. So, we need to embrace forgiveness and lose the puritanical concept of “dirty sex”, but not act as if damage hasn’t been done. As certainly as sex is at the very heart of personhood (JPII) disordered sex is very damaging to the person. I think we have a hell of a way to go with marriage prep. I have heard of priests telling engaged people they don’t have to tell their fiancé what they have done in their previous life. This is a huge mistake. They and their spouses will eventually have to deal with it.

  • Kate Cousino

    I think the message our kids (all kids, this is a completely secular framework) get should be this:

    1. Sex makes babies. That’s a basic biological process – that is what is SUPPOSED to happen when healthy male and female bodies engage in intercourse. All of the things we do to try to stop sex from making babies has a failure rate – and some of them have unhealthy effects because that’s what happens when you try to disrupt healthy bodily systems.

    2. We shouldn’t be scared of babies. They aren’t a curse, and although they are a lot of work and definitely do change your life, babies are a Good Thing – because they are not Things at all, they are People with eternal souls.

    3. We should be scared of being unjust or reckless with other’s lives–which is what we are when we have sex without considering the good of the child we might bring into the world. If you conceive that child, they will be an innocent, but they will bear the consequences of your decision far more than you will. That is unjust. The world is never perfectly just, but we should try to avoid adding to that injustice. If you believe that the best life for a child is one with a married mother and father who love each other, are responsible and self-supporting, emotionally and mentally stable…then wait to have sex until you are THAT person.

    4. Whether or not you conceive a child, when you have sex without consideration for the child you *could* conceive, you have acted with exactly as much irresponsibility, injustice, and selfishness as if you had, regardless of your ‘precautions’. It’s as though you decided to play Russian Roulette, except that you shot into a crowd of children instead of at yourself. The consequences are worse if you manage to hurt someone, but you have relinquished some of your humanity in taking that chance in the first place.

    5. You can always make better choices, and be a better person for it. Your past mistakes don’t need to eat away at you, and they don’t stain you, use you up, or make you dirty. Your body does not belong to your (future) spouse, or your parents, or anyone else, and your body is not polluted by sex. Your soul may be somewhat stunted by selfishness and callousness, but that doesn’t make you less a person, it just means you have some growing to do.

    6. When it comes to finding a spouse, it is the *person they are now* and the choices they make now that matters, not the choices they made in the past. It might be prudent to look to see that someone’s actions are consistent with their values now, but it’s not their past you marry, it’s their future.

    See? No used chewing gum or dirty duct tape necessary.

  • Bob_the_other

    That’s a very well-argued post. I’d add that, there is an element of twistedness in all human beings post sin, and we all limp on our left foot (Dante’s image) because of Original Sin. And all of us bring baggage into whatever relationships we enter, or whatever else it is we do. So, nobody this side of Our Lady enters into a marriage, or does anything else, completely untwisted. To claim otherwise, to claim that someone does start marriage or anything else entirely spotless, is to be Pelagian. Acknowledging this allows us to be charitable to others and to ourselves, and to open ourselves to being transformed by Christ. Both Augustine and Aquinas hold that it is Christ who clothes himself with us, Christ puts on humanity, as much as we put on Christ. Christ transforms us from within.

  • Michelle

    I completely understand that it is a bad idea to associate premarital sex with being dirty, etc. How do we work in the actual temporal consequences, though, in an appropriate way. I feel it is extremely important that I help my children not only understand God’s ability to wipe away all of their sin and restore His life within them, but they should also understand that God does not wipe away our temporal consequences. This is not something to avoid talking about for fear of making someone feel dirty. They have to understand that misusing a gift will most likely result in outcomes that will make life much more challenging for ourselves and those we are called to love. The fact of the matter is if they choose premarital sexual activity they may very well be choosing something that they and their future spouse will experience the consequences of for their entire married life (by consequences I am not referring to a baby, that would be a gift). My SIL, is one of the many women who has contracted HPV. As a result she had to have part of her cervix removed. She was never able to conceive children as a result. This is reality, this is not trying to scare someone. How do we get the consequence message across effectively while keeping intact God’s message that we are never damaged?

  • Jenny

    Calah– I don’t think you’re getting the point. It isn’t that sex itself is dirty–in fact it is quite the opposite as you know. Sex within marriage is holy. But, sex can be misused thus “dirtying” or “sullying” the act and the person engaging in the sexual perversion, be it extramarital sex, masturbation, homosexual acts, etc. A person in this case shouldn’t feel dirty because they had sex, but rather because they had sex outside of the way God intended it to be had. They should feel ashamed because they have offended God. They have taken what should be a holy and self giving act that is open to the procreation of children and twisted it into a lustful, selfish act. We all offend God all the time. Thus the need for repentance and forgiveness.

    However, the Catholic who understands the meaning and beauty of sex will not forever view sex as being something dirty if they made the mistake of having extramarital sex. They should feel the shame of having misused the act of sex and have the resolve to live a chaste life in the future. They will view sex for what it is (holy and good) and themselves as someone who disordered the act and offended God in the process.

    According to the Blessed Virgin Mary (at Fatima, I believe?) more souls go to hell for sexual sins that for any other sins. Sexual sin is grave and a very serious problem for many people in our society today.