Catholic Bloggers Refute Resurgent “Sex is Dirty” Narrative – UPDATES!

If you look around our landing page today, it might seem like we’ve got sex and abortion on the brain, here at PatheosCatholic.

It’s not true; we also talk about music and tv and baseball and gardening and books and politics, of course. But Calah Alexander, who is dealing with pneumonia, managed to write a barn-burner of a post yesterday about the ill-advised trend in abstinence-only education, that equates a teenage girl’s imperfect chastity with filth and worthlessness:

You can’t tell a girl that having sex is like being a chewed and regurgitated Oreo and then expect her to be totally excited when it comes time for her husband to chew her up and spit her back out. You can’t teach a girl that her sexuality is a prize for a man, that the whole purpose of her existence as a sexual being is to be used by someone else at the “right” time and in the “right” way, and then wonder where these silly girls get their “objectification” martyr complexes.
It’s time to have a serious conversation about abstinence-only sex ed, and how it is not only failing but damaging our youth. It is screwing up our cultural understanding of human sexuality just as thoroughly as the hedonistic effects of the sexual revolution are. There very well may be some good abstinence-only sex ed courses out there, but they are certainly not the norm. We need to create a new way of teaching children about human sexuality, a way that emphasizes their essential dignity as rational, spiritual, and sexual human beings. We should strive to teach them to grow in virtue, to gain temperance, to master their passions, and to love for love of the other, not out of desire for pleasure, power, or possession. We should be teaching human sexuality as a series of positive moral developments that boys and girls must attain before sex can be truly enjoyed. We shouldn’t be teaching our kids to white-knuckle it through puberty and then glut themselves as soon as they say “I do.”

The question is not whether or not abstinence-only education is working…There is no excuse for Christians to close their eyes and pretend that abstinence-only sex ed is even a tolerable thing, much less a good thing. This dehumanizing approach to sexuality is not an acceptable alternative to the Planned Parenthood-driven over-sexualization of our kids. I will not settle for my kids learning anything less than the full theology of the body, and neither should you.

It’s a long post well-worth reading and perhaps discussing with friends and family. The comments at Calah’s place and on Facebook have been mostly thoughtful.

Jumping off Calah’s piece, Sam Rocha writes:

Augustine’s Confessions is among the first developmental accounts of the human person in the West. So on and so forth. This could go on and on for some time…I won’t bore you because there is more than thoroughness at stake: these theories have teeth. And they bite. The very notion of the human person has been manufactured and revised and toyed around with by any number of forces for as long as we’ve been able to record it, but the physical body is conservative in the classical sense. It resists innovation and change by being what it is and doing what it does.

Marc Barnes, who is not-yet 20 years-old himself, writes frequently on human sexuality and youth. He contributes to the site and here at Patheos he has written three times this past week on issues of “female purity”, the “purity culture” and why virginity is sexual. Unsurprisingly, in none of these posts is he run-of-the-mill.

Meanwhile, Mark Regnerus, who also writes here at Patheos, at the Black White and Gray blog, has a piece in Christianity Today wondering about making the case for marriage, even early marriage.

I was raised in a Catholic culture that treated all-things-sexual as implicitly “dirty” and in a family where “purity” was held at such a premium that it fomented downright madness in some family members. When I was sexually abused, all of that messaging played into it, and I guess I’m still dealing with that, myself. I’m all for talking about sex with our kids in a healthy way that ties the body and mind to the spirit — so that even with raging hormones and a million media prompts urging kids to have sex, they have more to think about (or cling to) than, “I have urges but they’re all dirty.”

By all means, we must teach kids that virginity has value and that it is worth bringing into marriage. And yes, we must teach them why illicit sexual activity is sinful — they need to know. But “dirty” implies worthless and disposable, and if the ideal is not met, we don’t throw people away over it.

We don’t let them throw themselves away, either, because they feel awful because they’ve sinned.

We have to do better.

As I hoped she might
, Elizabeth Duffy has also weighed in on the abstinence-only question:

Abstinence is not just “The absence of something” as I’ve seen it termed lately. It cannot be reduced simply to “not doing.” It’s the practice of self-mastery over one’s physical urges, the abnegation of the body for the good of the soul.

Regarding the fourth precept of the Catholic Church, “You shall observe the days of fasting and abstinence established by the Church” the Catechism says:

“The fourth precept ensures the times of ascesis and penance which prepare us for the liturgical feasts and help us acquire mastery over our instincts and freedom of heart.”

Abstinence also protects the freedom of others.

Yeah, read it all.

In a follow-up post, Duffy closes out her thoughts with grace

Leah Libresco brings up the rear by addressing this subject of worth and identity via Game of Thrones and Much Ado about Nothing

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • Joseph Moore

    The most important thing to teach children about sex can only come through the lived example of a loving marriage. The mechanics and the possibility of sin won’t mean much unless the there is something profoundly good and holy to measure them against.

    That loving marriages are getting rare in many places is a great triumph of evil, and a great theft from children.

  • Adam Frey

    Years ago, I worked for a youth outreach group called Generation Life (they’re still around– which preached chastity rather than abstinence. The general notion was that we didn’t want to teach kids to suppress sexuality, but to understand it and reserve it for its proper time (marriage).

  • vox borealis

    Maybe I’m naive or ignorant about these terms in a practical sense, but don’t “abstinence programs” simply teach the efficacy of refraining from sex until the proper time over various birth control methods.How is this *practically* different from what Adam Frey calls teaching “chastity”? I mean, does any abstinence program really teach the total suppression sexuality, or that sex is bad or “dirty,”? I guess Calah Alexander says they do, but I can’t imagine such a thing.

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  • Rebecca Duncan

    I was raised in a home of no faith. You might think that your upbringing was somehow lacking because you were taught about sex like that but be thankful for what you had. It’s better than what most people get. The way I was raised sex wasn’t discussed. It wasn’t because of faith, it was just because of the American culture, or maybe the specific part of the country where my mother was raised. My mother wasn’t raised with any faith either so she passed down that to us. About the only ‘vibe’ I got (I can’t call it anything more than a vibe since it wasn’t discussed with words only a kind of general attitude) was that we shouldn’t be slutty. Other than that it didn’t really matter. If you had a steady boyfriend or whatever, and you felt like you loved him etc, then it would be ok to have sex with him. We just should be careful and not be promiscuous. That’s about it. Sex wasn’t anything special, it wasn’t anything dirty, it wasn’t anything really. Just something you do. No meaning. Nothing else had meaning either, not just sex. Not a very good way to live. Which is why I turned my back on it and became Catholic at 21. Once I became Catholic I didn’t suddenly think sex was dirty…I just started trying to figure out the meaning of it. It’s an ongoing process and it was difficult for a long time, but what I have learned from my experiences as a Catholic is that sex is meaningful in marriage. Beautiful. Outside of marriage it is…well, let’s just say it’s filled with anxiety and a lack of freedom.

  • James

    I was reading through online versions of the old Baltimore Catechism and I can see where Catholics of a certain age would get the idea that sex was wrong and dirty. The teachings on grace, sin, and sexuality were presented very negatively and very legalistically. The BC was careful to point out that even an impure thought could send you straight to hell. Given the power of our sexual drives, this is a recipe for neuroses about sex, as you can see from how it played out in your family.

    The BC was unique to American Catholicism and it seems many of the neuroses are unique to American Catholic culture. (Who ever accused the Spanish, Italians, or French of being neurotic about sex?) This attitude was not present in Polish Catholicism or Austrian Catholicism (Krakow, Poland was part of Austria before WWI) that John Paul II would have been familiar with either.

  • HermitTalker

    Somewhere between telling us as teenagers masturbation was a mortal sin and the public image the Church has, with certain prelates, that all we care about is abortion and M and F marriage, we sorely need healthy JP11 Theology of the Body being as widely taught as “impurity” was driven into us decades ago.

  • James

    My comment disappeared!

  • Adam Frey

    It’s been awhile since I’ve had to look at this, so forgive any imprecision in my answer. Part of the difference may be that “abstinence” is an action, not an attitude, so abstinence alone may result in a warped view of sex. If you teach abstinence alone, the teenage mind may conclude that “other” stuff is ok–heavy petting, pornography, masturbation, etc. “Chastity” presents a view of respect for both yourself and the person you’re attracted to–you’d see them as a partner in the relationship rather than a sexual outlet. Plus, chastity is expected for both married and unmarried alike–for example, a married couple would still have to refrain from impure thoughts, abusive sexual conduct, pornography, etc.

  • vox borealis

    I think agree with you. I guess my main point is that, while Calah’s experience of abstinence (she claims) was highly unhealthy. my experience with the term in this context is much more neutral and even slightly positive. Basically “abstinence” is a stand in for “wait to have sex until the time is right and not doing it is safer than doing it with condoms.” Now, “time is right” can have a wide range of meanings–from a Catholic “only when married” perspective to “I love my boyfriend”/”I have enough money”/”I’m a fully actualized 17 y.o. with a clear sense of consequences”—and obviously not all of these are ideal. Nonetheless, I’ve never been exposed to the bizarre abstinence only rhetoric that Calah claims to have.

    I read her entire piece and while it is a powerful testimony, I’m not sure it holds together entirely. It seems to me that the victim of rape or other sexual abuse feels worthless not because they were taught to value abstinence (though poorly taught abstinence programs may make things worse, I guess), but rather because that is what rape and sexual abuse do. In other words, Calah *seems* to be looking to blame hamfisted abstinence rhetoric where the real blame falls on the perpetrators.

    Can we do a better job in society as a whole teaching the fullness of human sexuality? Of course. Do I agree with Calah’s claim that abstinence only programs are just as bad as the pervasive sexualization of our culture targeted at younger and younger people? No way, I just don’t buy it.

  • Rebecca Fuentes

    I agree with you that rape/molestation will make a woman feel dirty or used no matter what her attitude toward sex. Her body has been used as a weapon against her, and she naturally feels defiled by the filth of the person violating her. However, this isn’t the first time I’ve seen women and girls talk about these teaching methods. A woman who has had sex outside of marriage isn’t repulsive anymore than a woman who chose to skip mass last Sunday is repulsive. Both are mortal sins, and both are forgivable with contrition and confession.

    Though it didn’t occur to me at the time, my parents did a good job of teaching that sex outside of marriage is wrong because sex is sacred. It is sacred because it is an expression and renewal of the vows made in the sacrament of marriage. It would be like stomping on the Eucharist. I also think developing a healthy view of sex includes what children are NOT exposed to. We didn’t have TV growing up and only listened to the radio in the morning before school (for the weather report, lunch menu, and birthday club). We all read a lot, but mom monitored what we read. We were certainly NOT allowed to read the teen romance books that were very popular. Reading romance novels in college did a great deal of damage to my concept of healthy male-female relationships in general and sex in particular. They are as damaging to young women as porn is to young men.

    What I wish I had been taught was a healthy model for courtship. Going to college and finding myself surrounded by people experienced with and deeply invested in the dating culture was extremely overwhelming and difficult, and I had no guidelines for how to approach any of it in a morally holistic fashion.

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  • Adam Frey

    My legalistic mind tends to see sex in a more negative light: that if I am having sex with someone but not in a committed relationship with them, I am basically using them for pleasure. One of the pillars of Catholic social teaching is “dignity of the person,” meaning that people are people, not objects. Objects are for use–you use a car, a hat, etc. You don’t “use” a person. Dignity ends up covering a lot of sins: slavery (using a person as property), pornography (using a person as visual pleasure), insult (using a person as an object of derision), etc. Marriage should, in theory, be a permanent commitment to the other person rather than a temporary exchange of fun.

    I realize that the counterargument of the young person is “but we’re in looooooooooove, so it’s ok.” Well, yeah, but if you’re in love, then why not to commit to it before God if you’re really claiming all the unconditional care that love entails?

  • Victor Savard

    (((It would be like stomping on the Eucharist.)))

    Rebecca, “I” thought that “IT” would be silly for me to write about “IT” cause what does sinner vic know about “IT” this so called sex trade, “I” mean SEX skitso? All that we gods could tell YA is what Victor’s so called Two per sent age retardo soul cells combined with that so called diner, “I” mean dino “Jesus” who apparently lived about Two thousand thirteen human years ago won’t accept that we are gods NOW. I kid YA not folks cause after we Gods, “I” mean gods proved “IT” to Victor by countless magical tricks, “I” mean miracles when he died in the early 90′s, those cells still insist that “I’M”, “I” mean we are not real Gods NOW! What do gods have to do NOW so that humans with a small “p” like Victors finally start recognizzzzzzzzzzzzzzing U>S as nothing butt lower case small “g” NOW? All of these problems if YA ask “ME”, “ME” and “ME” are caused by this so called “Jesus” who Victor keeps saying saved him after all of U>S magical transhuman alien gods salvaged our, “I” mean his 98% remaining flesh NOW! Look please help U>S and we promised to cut your strings from Adam and Eve who started all this problem in the first place and……

    End YA say sinner vic?

    Hey high Victor! “I” mean hi Victor, “I” was just telling some of The Anchor, “I” mean Elizzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz that this is a very interesting post and wondering if we could talk her into allowing YA to comment here again butt on second thought we gods better forget bout “IT” cause SEX is just too depressing NOW :(

    Go Figure brothers and sisters in Christ! :)


  • CS

    Yay! This is probably my most favorite Catholic-blogger topic-pile-on of all time. Keep it up!

    Improper teachings about sex are abusive and damaging, even when the word for word message is “technically correct.”

  • CS

    I was raped and I didn’t feel dirty, I felt PISSED. I get pissed off every time I really look at the way people use other people, including their bodies, for their own gratification. And I get pissed at all the parts of culture that perpetuate treating human beings as objects for Use.

    I know many women feel ashamed and dirtied by rape, but that is because of the wrong message their brains have absorbed, starting with that their worth is defined by how others see you and what others do to you. Part of healing after rape is realizing that is not true…and it is not just true about the rape.

    The reality that we have an objective, inherent value *not* changed by other people’s treatment or view of us is a truth that could heal society from *everything.*

  • Rebecca Fuentes

    Exactly right–fornication, adultery, etc are using the other person (and being used by them). That just wasn’t how it was expressed to me when I was a teen. I learned that perspective after college. I received the oddest look when a friend quipped that “Christians all think sex is dirty,” and I told him, “How can it be dirty? It’s a sacramental.” An interesting discussion followed.
    Unfortunately, even the priest at my college’s Newman’s Center supported the second view you mention: if you’re committed to one another and in love, it’s not really bad. That’s when I started going across town to the other Catholic church.

  • Rebecca Fuentes

    Please use the following guidelines for responses to me:
    1. English
    2. Coherent sentences
    3. Make sure your bloodstream is free of mind-altering drugs and/or alcohol
    4. Please use just one of you personalities while writing each response.
    5. Use appropriate point of view