Betty Duffy

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Getting in the mood

In preparation for Hallie's book release, I was thinking maybe we should talk about sex a bit more often around here. I want to start things off by asking a question.

I read sort of a distressing blog post this afternoon by a woman raised in what she called "the purity movement," by which she meant the culture of chastity rings, abstinence promises, and father/daughter purity dances.

Her argument was that by sublimating her sexuality for so many years, she then had difficulty feeling ok with sex once she was married.

In preparation for the chapter I wrote in Hallie's Book, about fifty anonymous Catholic women filled out a survey for me about their family of origin, pre-marital sexual history, and married sex lives. A similar trend definitely made itself known: that some women have difficulty making the transition from "No, no, no," to "Yes, yes, yes."

Here's the question I wish I had put in the survey:

For Catholic women who feel they have a healthy attitude towards sex (i.e. they enjoy it, and see marriage as the proper relationship in which to express their sexuality), what has been the most influential aspect in your upbringing that helped you develop this balanced attitude towards sex?

Please comment anonymously, if you like, but I'd love to hear what you have to say!


Anonymous said...

Me? I honestly don't know. My husband and I have talked about this before. My mom never had The Talk with me, but we lived on a farm, so I kind of got the idea. The only time she referenced sex to me was in my teens when she'd occasionally refer to fornication, in terms of extreme loathing and disgust. I never read any books on sexuality, either. In fact, I never thought about sex at all until I fell in love with the very first man who courted me, who also happens to be the hottest man on the planet. During our engagement, thinking too much about sex landed me in the confessional every other Thursday without exception. Now, married for nearly 4 years, I am still very much up for intimacy just about every every night. I used to be very shy about initiating things, and though I still am a little hesitant, now I initiate intimacy about half of the time. I feel like my attitude towards that aspect of our marriage is fine, if not a little too enthusiastic. :) But, I'm still not sure why. We did a very chaste courtship, no hand-holding until we were engaged, we did kiss a few times before the wedding.
My only guess parents were not shy about kissing in front of us. They made it clear that they liked each other, and they never tried to hide it. My dad would smack my mom's bottom while she did dishes, or they'd walk past each other and stop for a quick kiss. When my dad left for work every day, they'd go in the laundry room and shut the door so they could enjoy a few goodbye smooches and a hug. Maybe it's something so simple as their example. It didn't mean much to me as a child, but now that I am grown up I am glad they acted that way.

Anonymous said...

EG, I don't remember my mom having "the talk" with me either. I figured it out at an appropriate age. I understood the place sex had within a married relationship. I never questioned that. And all through high school, though I kind of dreamed of having a good boyfriend, there never seemed to be a good enough guy. Plus I figured I wasn't old enough to truly understand love at that age so why waste part of my heart. I didn't date in highschool.
And I rarely went on second dates after high school.
I suppose for me it was an understanding of my maturity level and availability. I held out with everything 'til I met my husband. We met, dated, and married within 9 months. "When you know you know." That was 8 years ago. And to this day the man makes me weak in the knees just with his glance. I too initiate most of the time. I suppose that whole "naked without shame" really held true with us. I remember thinking that on our honeymoon. I thought I'd be nervous and scared but I was so peaceful and happy. No nerves. No shyness. Just readiness.
As far as bases hit before marriage. Well, I probably would have forfeited the prize had it not been for my man and him standing his ground. He was definitely the stronger one (most of the time). He'd ran the bases before and told me "it isn't worth it for the is worth it for a lifetime." And we waited.

My parents dated eachother within their marriage. They hugged and kissed and danced in the kitchen. They were happy. We all knew that.

Lizzie said...

Good question - wish I could answer!
But, I would second the comments about parents being naturally affectionate with each other.
I have clear memories of thinking my parents really did love each other and fancy each other when I was a child - I remember them catching each other's eye, smiling, kisses while out on family walks. This all added up to be a 'good thing' as there was a natural physical affection between them.

Anonymous said...

I suppose I was lucky enough that my mother DID have "the talk" with me, when I was only 6, and I learned well. However, at the same time, physical affection was not modeled for me. (I've never seen my parents kiss, and only hug a couple times, and I actually have seen my Mom actively recoil from physical affection.)

In part.......the fact that I saw my parents' obvious unhappiness, which seems to grow with every passing year, sort of taught me the importance of having a healthy physical relationship. (Along with reading Theology of the Body, and several related books.)

Anonymous said...

In my upbringing? It's hard to figure that one out. I wasn't raised Catholic (I entered the Church my freshman year in college). My parents divorced when I was eight and it was pretty obvious to me even at that age that a big reason was a string of affairs my father was having. He remarried and seemed happy, and I was close to my stepmother; I remember lying awake as a child, thinking that I would lose my grip on reality if that later marriage fell apart too.

Much later, in the years after I entered the Church, I came to believe that sex outside marriage was a major cause of the suffering of children, and if only people would work hard on nurturing their own marriages (including with being generous and charitable to each other in their sex lives, so that both people felt satisfied and loved), a lot of kids' lives would suck less. Maybe it's a naive belief. But I can't deny that it formed me. I came to believe that we are supposed to do our level best to meet each other's desires. What do you know, if both partners try, it turns out pretty good.

Just after I became engaged, my father and stepmother's marriage nearly fell apart. It came out that he'd been having more affairs. I nearly made good on my vow to lose my grip on reality. It sure colored things as I began my married life. I wound up cutting myself off from them because I could not take the drama. They stuck it out, and some years later we're trying to patch things up. I think there is some hope for that.

So I guess you could say I went to the school of "do the opposite of what I do and you'll be okay."

Dwija {House Unseen} said...

It seems that the more naturally independent the person is, the less her upbringing has a definite impact on her adult life. I was raised with the no, no, no model, but my life was weird and circuitous and filled with various step parents and half-siblings, so it was kind of left up to me to decide what I thought was right. So of course, because that is a stupid thing to leave up to a teenager, I made some bad choices. Then I met my husband, who is so freaking fantastic and *good* and doing the right thing became both harder and easier at the exact same moment. But man, the second we got married, we had NO TROUBLE in the intimacy department.

Interesting how the common thing among your responses so far is that we all think our husbands are delish :). Or maybe women with delish husbands are more likely to answer questions like this. Anyway, I'll stop talking because I didn't make myself anonymous and now everyone is going to know that I talk too much....

MaryJane said...

Dwija's comment about "delish" husbands has me wondering about something, which may or may not be exactly on topic but I'd really like to hear what other people think:

I have two friends who are not Catholic, but b/c of their husbands' jobs/ graduate school have found themselves attending get-togethers of Catholic women. At more than one of these events, the Catholic women would sit around and complain about having to have sex with their husbands - one said she'd just rather read a book, etc.. Another time, when they were at a party with other couples, one couple shared how the wife laughed at her husband on their wedding night.

My non-Catholic friends were horrified that these women were not at all interested in sex with their husbands, and moreover that they would be so disrespectful to discuss it in front of mere acquaintances!

Is this common? What kind of woman is just that un-interested in her man, and why is she so loud about it? (I bet if their husbands were discussing not wanting to be with their wives in front of everyone, these wives would be pretty upset.)

So far everyone who has commented seems like they'd be equally horrified... so what is with women who don't want to have sex/ dislike sex with their own husband?

(Fyi: I'm unmarried, but Catholic, and plan on having lots of sex when I actually get married!)

MrsDarwin said...

My mother never had "the talk" with me, and my parents' marriage, later to end in divorce, was a model of how not to be physically intimate. It was, in fact, an object lesson in how withholding affection can really ruin a marriage. I did hold very strongly to the idea that fornication was the Worst Sin Ever (a view that I've since relaxed, having learned about so many more sins as I've gotten older) but I do think that that strong barrier helped me to stay strong in the face of lots of temptation when I was dating and then engaged. When you're in the heat of the moment, you've got to hold on to something.

My dad did tell me several times that he thought that people who advocated the "no kissing before marriage" rules were wrong, because a relationship needed even that mild form of physical affection to bond and strengthen it. I took his advice to heart -- my husband has never been starved for affection, I hope, in the 14 1/2 years I've known him.

I've never had a problem with intimacy in our marriage, but I have grown much better at opening myself up past initial tiredness or not-quite-in-the-moodness. And the results are always worth it. :)

Anonymous said...

I got "the talk" from public school (just say no, but here's a condom in case you say yes) and my parents said "just say no until marriage". I was also fondled by a youth pastor at our protestant church when I was 13 or so. I don't know if it was rebellion or a lack of a relationship with my father (he was very distant emotionally, and extremely controlling by telling me what to think, feel, and how to act). But I had several sexual relationships in high school and college, my goal was to land a good husband, to me at the time it was anyone who wouldn't reject me. My now-husband and I had a sexual relationship for years before we married and he reverted and I converted to the Catholic Church. We have a great, holy marriage. We wish we had a sex life now, but with mass reproduction and health issues surrounding my fertility, we are not having sex. at all. we still love each other very much, enough to abstain completely to prevent pregnancy. I feel like it's payback for my pre-marriage relationships, which caused devastating almost marriage ending effects on us, with jealousy and guilt for something we can't change but only regret. I pray, pray that I can do better by my kids and talk to them frankly and honestly about how HARD it is to stay a virgin until marriage but how WORTH it it is. I think the parents not willing to talk to their kids about it are just sticking their heads in the sand, and they are giving the secular world permission to teach their kids about sex instead.

Anonymous said...

I think I have a pretty healthy sexual relationship with my husband DESPITE my upbringing- large Catholic family,
NFP using moderately hippyish counter-cultural porn obsessed parents). Yep you read that right. It was all over our house for a long time and I was exposed to it at a young age (8 or 9).

Grace, faith, repentance, Sacrament of Reconciliation and the Eucharist, and perhaps those family rosaries as a child got me through it. Everything they told us about sex before marriage ended up being true - "you don't want to get too attached to someone before you're ready for a commitment" and "boys use love to get sex and girls use sex to get love" being the ones that I remember most clearly.

I think you can get over your past and move on, and thankfully, in my 70s upbringing, little was made of sin, especially the pre-marital sex kind, that I wasn't too hung up on not being in a state of grace for about 10 years or so. All changed with the sacrament of marriage and the fact that God sent the perfect person for me into my life, and by the grace of God, I recognized him as such.

Anonymous said...

Interesting responses. I've been married for the past few years or so and would love to have sex all the time. I generally initiate, insinuate, attack... ;o) Oddly enough, my husband is the reticent one. He was a seminarian for many years and I think it has been hard for him to change his whole mindset after saying "no" to his own emotions and impulses for so many years. At first, I was incredibly frustrated, since I miraculously held onto my virginity (in spite of several close calls!) out of respect for my future husband... I thought once I was married, we'd be getting it on all the time. But it has been a slow process of him becoming more comfortable with his own sexuality and me learning to be patient and accept that process. We are getting there... I sometimes fret that the roles have been reversed, but oh well.

As for what shaped my ideas about sex, I think it is partly that I'm completely comfortable with my body these days and I find sex to be joyful and sometimes even humorous. I don't see any dark shadows or lurking shame. I love the intimacy and the tenderness... for me, it's something bright, plus there is always that happy expectation of conceiving. I think sex is somehow even better when you're looking to make a baby together.

BettyDuffy said...

These comments are very interesting.

I have a feeling there are going to be as many variables as there are responses--though I hope more people will respond.

To answer Mary Jane, I think there are a lot of reasons why women would come together and discuss problems in their sex life, not least of which is just to know they are not alone. Many women, of variant backgrounds and beliefs have difficulty enjoying sex. And even those who do enjoy it, go through phases when it's not a high priority.

I think it's a good idea to speak to a trusted female friend or older woman who shares your values if you are having trouble and are looking for ways to improve things. However, it's never a good idea to get together and bitch about husbands for any reason.

There's a fine line to draw there between relieving valid frustration with a significant problem in a relationship, and just complaining because it feels good to do. And hopefully, any problems that you would take to guidance have already been discussed with your spouse.

BettyDuffy said...

I just wanted to say thank you, also, to those of you who have responded so honestly. I think there's plenty of evidence here that we don't need to throw the baby of chastity education out with the bathwater. Another fine line to draw might be between the words "education" and "control."

nicole said...

I was never made to feel that sex was bad. My parents were very clear about the potential consequences and what they thought the value of waiting was. So, I've never felt that it was wrong to want to have sex. Instead, I learned (also in college, not just from my parents) that sex is a good thing with an appropriate time for it.

My sister got pregnant right after high school, not married. Again, it never seemed like the sex was wrong, but rather the circumstances. And when I got pregnant while we were engaged but not yet married, our disappointment stemmed from our lack of control, not from regarding sex as a negative thing.

Anonymous said...

Betty, I think I might've read the same blog you did. If it's the same one, I think the abusive, bare-bottom spankings this woman received until she was 14 (if I'm remembering correctly) complicated things.

I am shocked at my own healthy marriage and sex life, frankly. My parents didn't tell us anything, and had a dismal marriage. I remember hearing them argue about sex when I was young (they thought we were asleep). They sent me to a parish sex ed retreat which was so-so. The highlight was hearing a married couple talk frankly about how difficult and worthwhile it was to wait -- the lowlight was being told that things were sinful that aren't actually sinful (eg. looking at yourself naked in a mirror for any reason, even medical ones, was a sin). The only thing my parents told me was that if I ever came home pregnant, someone would have to "scrape me off the wall." Yikes.

My saving grace was my best friend's family, which was way healthier than mine. They expected their daughters to wait until marriage (only 2 of the 4 did), and their positive words and example helped me. Another thing that helped was meeting a truly wonderful man and marrying him.

I didn't become a Christian until I was 21, and had done everything but have intercourse with a long-term boyfriend. Then I struggled *not* to while I dated and was engaged to my husband. In the end, I think our good sex life is the result of God's grace, a man who is a fantastic husband, and my best friend's family.

Needless to say, we are doing things differently with our kids! We've had a few "talks" with our two oldest boys, and my husband took our oldest away for a weekend when he turned 10 to talk about guy stuff, including sex, but also about treating women with respect. He has great parents, who taught him well -- and now I get to benefit from that. We hope to not have just one "talk", but instead have an ongoing conversation with all of our kids.

Anonymous said...

I didn't have informative parents - I was just told that sex was for marriage and that was that. My parents were not affectionate and I was not raised in any religion. I really thought sex outside of marriage was fine, no big deal. I actually figured I wouldn't "bother" getting married and might even have a child on my own, like Murphy Brown.

What changed all that is my husband. I was impressed that he was such a "one woman man" and I felt very committed to him despite myself. And ending up wanting to marry him, despite myself. And discovered that sex within marriage is a very different thing. On our tenth anniversary, we married in the Church (after my conversion) and I'm surprised how different sacramental intimacy is from "plain old marriage intimacy".

Our children are young but I struggle with how we will handle "the talk" and dating and such. I don't know anyone who waited until they were married and the people I have read about who did, married young. I don't have anything against people marrying young but I wonder if sometimes people don't marry too young just because they want to have sex??? And how do I go against the flow and encourage chastity for my kids?

Anonymous said...

My sister married very young and ended up marrying a gay man. He avoided all intimacy in their "courtship" and she being a practicing Catholic, viewed his restraint as a virtue. In all due fairness to him, he was struggling with same sex attraction and wasn't sure if he was truly homosexual or not. Three kids and 15 years later, their marriage ended in a bitter divorce. She is in the process of obtaining an annulment.

Anonymous said...

Non-Catholic, evangelical here. (I find myself reading quite a few Catholic blogs lately... weird. Guess I'm not a very good Baptist, hehe.)

Farm-raised. Never had "the talk" - we raised dogs, and after assisting my mother in the breeding of a pair at a relatively young age, she handed me a book on dog reproduction... and at age ten, I started raising rabbits, so... yeah. I guess I just learned by osmosis? LQTM.

Heck, we never even "talked" before my wedding - like two days before she commented that we needed to "take a walk and talk about some things" but... we never did. My mother's not much for physical intimacy, so... yeah.

Which madeit interesting for me - one of my strongest love languages (if not THE strongest) is physical touch, but I premuch lived in denial of this until after high school, having grown up in a very fundamentalist church - I. Wasn't even comfortble with "friend" physical touch (I'm talking platonic, hugging other women, etc). Anyway... came to a realization about love languages and how we are all different, and such, and now I am very mucha hugger, etc.

That said, I still struggle with the whole idea of "men are the initiators" and "men always want sex mor e than women" because... well, the vast majority of the time it seems like I am more interested in sex than my hubby. *headbang* this has been a struggle for me - feeling like there must be something "wrong" with me, either that I'm weird hormonally or that I'm doing something "wrong" when we're having sex, or whatnot.

In my head, I know sex is good. :P But I still struggle with aforementioned things. Is it just me?

Anonymous said...

My parents were very informative--lots of sex information growing up--and I can't remember not knowing what intercourse consisted of. But they also said sex was for marriage.

While I didn't wait for marriage, I definitely waited Longer than a lot of my peers who started having sex at 13 and 14. And though I was in college before I lost my v-card, I think the fallout from that relationship was traumatic enough to realize that what my parents said about sex belonging in marriage was true. I was very depressed by that sexual relationship--it made me feel divided and cynical and hateful towards people who loved me.

Fortunately, my husband didn't pressure me to have sex before marriage. He wasn't a virgin either but we decided to wait til marriage, and we did.

I was rather haunted by our pasts for awhile. My own memories were pretty strong and showed up often when my husband and I were having sex. I really hated that. And then I was paranoid that he was doing the same thing--thinking about other women.

Time has made things better. I've gotten over the past, basically by not allowing my imagination to have as much power as I thought it did.

And my libido has been high my whole life, before marriage and still. I'm not too worried about it. Neither is my husband.

anony-gal said...

I don't have any idea what to attribute my healthy-ish attitude toward sex. (I say "ish" because I think there is always room for improvement) Although my parents were affectionate and talked a lot about being in love, I think my mother had some issues that only became obvious to us kids as we grew older.

I am in the same situation as anonymous-Baptist-farm-girl above, where I seem to initiate more than my husband. I don't know why, just like I don't know why most of my friends who confide such things confess to having lost all interest in sex (in their late 20's or early 30's).

In answer to MaryJane's question, no, I don't know anyone who has done that. It's really a shame that those women were so openly talking about that with other people, esp. folks they hardly knew.

liz o. said...

Theology of the Body. 'Nuf said.


Anonymous said...

My parents were open about how sex was a gift from God, and how it was meant for marriage. But we also had talks that were very strict - that sex outside of marriage was not making love but making hate. And when that didn't make sense to me, when lust felt like love - when Satan was really grabbing hold of me - I fell into the same old trap that a lot of young women do - and had sexual relationships outside of marriage.

When my husband and I met we knew we wanted a chaste courtship - if only because we were tired of the rat race of sinful living and a world where lust is entertainment. The complications of it all. The consequences were so not worth it.

Terrible when I look at it that way because really, at the time, when we were dating and talking for hours on the phone and cautious about how every conversation would go, it seemed like a loftier ideal. That chaste living was the only way the world would be saved. And we would show the world how it was done.

We still really believe that - the chastity will save the world bit. We believe that porn (which I, too, oddly enough found in my own home at a young age - explained away as research into what was out there or something) is destroying this world. We share a lot of the same understandings of things and have come, struggling through, to some new understandings of the consequences of past sin. We are not always in sinc the way we'd like - but we are chaste and loyal and make love like nobody's business.

And I do believe my husband is delish and that helps a lot.

I don't know if my parents' openness about sex ("we have a great sex life because we were virgins when we got married" they said) helped me or hindered me.

I don't know if our theological training helped us, TOB is heady stuff after all. Beauty in some ways, but it doesn't speak to our marriage in an active way like it does for others I've spoken to.

We had reservations about how NFP is glorified at pre-marriage retreats - as a way to be closer and have better sex when you do get to have sex. When we've used NFP, we didn't find sex to be particularly better than when we weren't charting. Unless you count when we were actively trying for a child. That was a blast. :)

All in all, I feel we're still healing those past sins - but each day that ends and sin hasn't been a part of it - I feel like those influences have less power over our sex life. And I can only attribute that Awesome to my husband and his patience in dealing with me and God who listens to my same old, same old prayers about living a pure life.

Upbringing... I'm just not sure.

Anonymous said...

I'm not Catholic, but was raised, and still am, in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which has moral standards very similar to the Catholic church. I know, from both experience and some reading, that there are a number of women in my own faith that have a lot of trouble transitioning from "no, no, no" to "yes, yes, yes". There's even a book, written by a woman who had a long, hard road to make that transition herself, that's essentially a how-to guide to get that transition made. A well-written, faith-centered book, well worth a read.

Consciously, I don't think I ever had any trouble. But I did have dreams, for years, that I had done something wrong . . . very, very wrong . . . that could never be undone. Slowly they shifted, slowly they changed, to where my husband would appear in them, and I'd realize it was all right. But that was nearly five years.

So, while I know that your question was specifically Catholic-focused, I thought that my data point might possibly help a bit.

Thanks for writing, and for sharing your faith. I find faithfulness, of whatever flavor, inspiring and strengthening. It takes courage to blog your faith, and I thank you for doing it.

Anonymous said...

I'm a little late to the party, but better late then never, right?

I'm a cradle Catholic who was raised by culturally Catholic parents. Growing up they only mentioned sex once, after my brother asked what sex was. The answer was "don't do it, wait until you're married." I think they must have figured that health class took care of it (which I honestly don't remember) or maybe they just didn't know what to say.

Growing up, I remember having friends in seventh grade who were sexually active. The only Catholic's I knew in high school were pretty promiscuous too. So, well I still thought I'd save sex for marriage, I wasn't so sure about all the "other" stuff. If my friends who went to Catholic school were doing it it couldn't be too bad, right? Thankfully, I was focused on school and only dated occasionally. Nothing ever went past a second date....

When I met my husband he was upfront and told me that he had been sexually active before marriage. Initially I acted like it didn't matter (that's what Cosmo says to do so it must be right) but it took me a while once I reverted to come to terms with it. I wish I could say that my husband and I had a chaste relationship before marriage, but we did everything except have sex for the first six months. It was during this time that I started seeking out answers. What we were doing felt wrong. Why? Well, I found a lot of the wrong answers before I found the truth. It was a circuitous, ugly journey but that's what led us to becoming orthodox Catholics (not so sure if I would have come to this point in my faith any other way).

I, too, have more of a sex drive then my husband. For a while I worried that it was me (and sometimes still do). But he confided that he's still struggling with his past guilt....

As for my parents being affectionate...well my mom once said that if it weren't for her they'd never have kids. My father isn't affectionate and never has been. I always thought it was because he was in the military, but even after he retired nothing changed. As you'd guess their relationship is mediocre at best. Like a lot of others have mentioned, they've been more of an example of what not to do.