Recently the vicissitudes of the Interwebs have me thinking about talking sex with kids.
Not in a creepy way, of course, but in the parent-to-child, where-do-babies-come-from, when-can-I-start-dating, if-I-buy-a-girl-dinner-that-means-I-can-X way.
I’m part of some Catholic Moms groups on Facebook, and several online conversations recently have made clear to me how very, very, important it is for parents to have The Talk with their kids not once or twice, but several times throughout their lives.
It’s also become abundantly clear to me that there’s a dearth in kid/parent-friendly Catholic resources on this subject. So I’m going to go ahead and do something I rarely do on the internet and tout my credentials for offering advice on this subject:
-I am a professional Catholic Moral Theologian. I earned my PhD from the Pontifical Faculty at The Catholic University of America, and I have taught at every possible university level from freshmen to grad students to seminary.
-I am a mother of two boys. I know what it’s like to roll your eyes at crazy-*cough fake*-perfect advice on the internet. I will not pretend that my family exists in some sort of Pinterest-inspired Domestic Church snow globe. We don’t. I know you don’t. This blogpost is about real advice for real parents talking to real kids in a situation where everyone knows everyone else has made mistakes—or would make mistakes given the right (wrong?!) temptations.
-I am a wife and, if you didn’t pick up on it from the “mother” category, I do, in fact, have sex.
SO, here’s my advice on The Talk: Catholic Sex Ed.
(A) Safety First, Second, Third, and Forever
We live in a fallen world, a world of sin. Every human person is a sinner and will commit horrible evils under the right (wrong!) circumstances. As parents, it is our job not only to encourage our children to commit virtue but teach them to avoid vice—including the vice of others. There are a number of resources online about teaching children—from 6 months to 18 years—about body safety. You can [and should] Google them.
In the Catholic world in the United States, we have access to a number of training programs for the protection of children and vulnerable adults (like the elderly and disabled); importantly, these training programs include training in recognizing when a child has been abused. If you ever work or volunteer with children or vulnerable adults through the Church (i.e., through a Catholic school or your parish), you will be required to participate in one of these training programs; contact your parish or child’s school to find out how you can participate. Child protection from sexual assault programs vary from diocese to diocese, but here are the big ones: VIRTUS and STAND.
Remember that even if you think your child is “old enough” to stand up for himself or herself by now, he is not. Victims of sexual assault often have a hard time identifying themselves as victims and/or escaping bad situations, even people who are intelligent, assertive, and physically strong. As a parent, it is your job to guide your child to safety in all things, including sexuality.
(B) The Talk: 2 Ends of Sex
Here’s the Catholic part of the Catholic Sex Talk. Hold on to your hats, ladies and gentlemen, because we’re gonna talk pleasure, marriage, and philosophy all at once. We Catholics get all hot and bothered about good philosophy.
All things have a goal, an end, a raison d’etre—in the Greek philosophical system that the Church has largely adopted, the ultimate end or goal or purpose of a thing is called a telos (pronounced TELL-ohs or TEAL-ohs). Let’s run through a few to make sure you know what I’m talking about:
- A chair’s telos is to be sat upon. A chair which cannot be sat upon (for instance, because it is missing a leg, or has something spiky on the seat), is a Bad Chair. A chair which *can* be sat upon is a Good Chair.
- An ice cream sandwich’s telos is to be eaten. An ice cream sandwich which cannot be eaten (for instance, because it is outrageously overpriced and therefore unpurchaseable and so un-eatable, or because it is poisonous), is a Bad Ice Cream. An ice cream sandwich which *can* be eaten is a Good Ice Cream.
- A car’s telos is to be driven safely. A car which cannot be driven safely (for instance, because it is out of gas, or has a broken engine, or the brake lines have been cut), is a Bad Car. A car which *can* be driven safely is a Good Car.
So the end or telos of a thing is when that thing does what it is meant to do and does it well. When a thing fulfills its telos, it is Good.
With tools that we humans use, it’s usually pretty easy to figure out its telos: books are for reading; tables are for holding stuff; stop signs are for regulating traffic safety. One reason it’s so easy to identify the telos of human tools is because we humans have created them: we know why we made them and what they are for and can therefore easily identify their end goal or purpose.
It is somewhat harder to identify the telos of things we did NOT create. As a little thought experiment, take a moment to see if you can figure out the telos of a pet. Now, what is the telos of a dog? Is it the same as a pet? Different? Why? Is the telos of a [pet] dog the same as the telos of a [pet] cat? [Hint: these questions require more than 5 minutes of intellectual effort. Disagree? Bring it up with your colleagues at work. You’ll see.]
Done your thought experiment? Good, we’re ready to move on. Skipped the thought experiment? Uh-oh, go back and do it. Sometimes, you need to invest some intellectual labor into a thing before you can understand it. If you haven’t done the thought experiment, you are NOT allowed to disagree with me on what comes next.
Human beings, like everything else, have a telos. If you’ve ever wondered the meaning of life, I’m gonna drop it on you right here, right now. So get ready.
The telos of a human being is to be happy.
I’m not talking happiness like giggling at an amusement park or guffawing at a comedian. I’m talking deep-seated, can’t-be-shaken-even-by-clinically-diagnosed-depression, virtue-based-happiness.
That’s right, folks. Happiness comes from virtue. That is, being a virtuous person, doing virtuous things, having virtuous friends, and hanging out with them while doing virtuous stuff. [See a reading list at the end of this post].
As Christians, we have a little extra insight into what true, 100% happiness is:
Happiness is union with God.
Now, there’s one place you are guaranteed to find union with God happening, and that’s Heaven. St. Thomas Aquinas calls that the “beatific vision” of the saints. Some people (and potentially all people) get to experience that perfect happiness while still on earth. You know you are in perfect union with God when God’s will and your will perfectly overlap, not just in what you do, but in what you want and choose and desire.
How do you know God’s will? Well, the Church suggests you take a look at Scripture and Tradition, and, if they’re not providing a ready answer, you consult the wisdom of your well-formed conscience.
How do you get a well-formed conscience? Practice virtue. And virtue takes practice: sometimes you have to pretend to be a good person before you actually become one.
I’ll give you an example from my life: I had these “friends” who I really didn’t like, and I used to talk smack about them to my “real friends.” One of my real friends [a virtuous lady doing a virtuous deed] pointed out I was gossiping [a vice] and suggested I stop. So I stopped gossiping when I was around her. Sometimes that involved literally biting my tongue. I realized my conversations with her were more pleasant than those I had with others to whom I did gossip, so I stopped gossiping with other people, too. Eventually [as in, years later], instead of literally biting my tongue to stop from gossiping about my “friends,” I found I was no longer inclined to engage in vicious (vice-ous) gossip. I had practiced a virtue until it became a virtue I actually have.
But back to sex.
Because the telos of a human being is happiness/union with God, that means everything we do should be ordered toward achieving that happiness. Including sex.
If you don’t usually like thinking about having sex and seeking union with God, boy howdy have you got to read the Song of Songs in the Bible.
The good news is, if you do a thing / use a thing according to its telos, then you are following God’s will, thus drawing nearer to union with God and happiness. So understanding a thing’s telos is important.
There are two ends, two teloi, of sex: union and procreation.
Good Sex unifies the partners. It draws them closer, strengthens their commitment to one another, upholds them in all their purposes, and helps them to face the world with a united front. The union that is the “end” of sex is immediately physical (a man and woman physically united into “one flesh” through the sexual act) AND symbolically and relationally perpetual (a man and woman unified by sex pledge to a “union” in life with their clothes on—they are an acknowledged couple, people who eat and pray together, go to parties together, live together, and are socially recognized as Mr. and Mrs. We Have Sex With Each Other and Make Unified Decisions About Our Mutual Life And We Don’t Do That With Anyone Else. Good Sex unifies not just for an hour or a day or even a year. Good Sex unifies for an entire life.
🡪And, btw, the more you have Good Sex, the more unified you and your partner become.
Good sex is open to procreation between the partners. Good Sex allows the possibility that children might come from the sexual act. Good Sex includes 1 penis and 1 vagina and sticking the penis inside the vagina while it ejaculates without any icky chemicals or rubber or whatever between the two. The idea is that sex is literally creative, indeed, it is through sex that we most clearly image God the Creator…through sex we create life! This does not mean that all Good Sex results in a baby. It means that all Good Sex is okay with a baby as a result.
Now here’s the kicker.
Sex that is open to procreation is open to union.
Sex that is open to union is open to procreation.
How do we know?
Because if you’re okay having a baby with someone, you must be willing to be “united” to that person for a really long time—at least long enough to raise a child to adulthood, and by then you’re probably willing to stay together while you both eagerly await grandkids. And if you are okay being united with a person for a really long time, then you wouldn’t mind having a little mini-me (or mini-partner) running around, looking cute and adding to your unified fun in life.
So now you begin to see why the Church strongly recommends that sex takes place inside marriage: if Good Sex is unifying and procreative, then couples who engage in Good Sex are going to be together for life and making babies, and we generally call that state of being “married.”
The Church is not stupid. She knows sex happens outside marriage. About 99%* of the time, though, that’s Bad Sex. Sex that doesn’t live up to its telos.
Couples who want to have sex for “unity” without being at least theoretically open to making a baby together are not willing to stay together for a long time, they are not willing to present a unified front in raising a child, being a family.
Couples who want to procreate without being willing to stay together aren’t looking for a relationship and don’t want that baby to be a product of their union: that’s what we’re looking at when you think of a man as a “sperm donor”—good for his genetic material but not for who he is, and that’s objectification. Men who just want to put babies inside women—well, that’s all sorts of The Handmaid’s Tale icky.
Now, there’s all sorts of sex that is not unifying or procreative. There’s rape and seduction and violence. There’s “casual sex” and “hooking up” and masturbation and bestiality and adultery and prostitution and one night stands and friends with benefits and Netflix and chill. All of these are acts of Bad Sex for a lot of reasons, all of which fall into one of two categories: failure to pursue union with a partner or failure to be open to procreation. In other words, they don’t live up to the telos of sex.
Bad Sex is dehumanizing. It involves the objectification—the reduction of a dignified and unique human person to the status of an object—of one or both partners. Objectification through sex is most obvious in the case of rape, but is true also of any variety of the argument, “sex is just fun.” If a person wants to have sex with you “just for fun” or for “pleasure” but is not interested in eating breakfast with you the next day, and every day after that for 80 years, that person is using you for his own pleasure, NOT helping you pursue happiness which is union with God.
Good Sex is humanizing, it is holy, and, as my husband punningly says, “wholly”: it restores original justice, original holiness, and original righteousness (the things lost by sin). Genesis 1 talks about male and female being created together as equals who image God through their relationship with one another—when a man and a woman give themselves wholly, unselfishly, courageously to each other, mutually promising their individual present and future to the other and lovingly receiving the present and future of the other, they so uphold one another’s dignity, so celebrate their own dignity, that they image God’s unity and creativity through their own sexual union and openness to (pro)creation.
So, Catholic parents, when you go to have the Sex Talk with your kids, tell them about the two ends of sex: union and procreation.
Tell them that if they find themselves looking deep into the eyes of someone they think they might love while their hearts race and blood rushes to their nether regions, that they should think: do I want to have breakfast with this person tomorrow? And the day after that and after that until we’re as old as the oldest person I’ve ever seen?
Tell them to ask their partner if they feel the same way.
And then tell them to get up, leave the room, and take a long walk in a public place.
Because knowing for sure if you’d be willing to eat breakfast with someone for 80 years is absolutely impossible when the blood is thumping in your ears and you can smell the animal musk on that super-cute guy/gal you’ve had a crush on for months and you’re breathing the same air.
Tell them that the Church is super smart. Tell them the Church strongly advises you to keep sex in marriage because when you MARRY someone, you promise to stand by him / her (READ: be unified to) as long as you both shall live. When you’re married, you’ve already committed to union, and with that commitment consciously embraced, you can have all the Good Sex you want, knowing that not only do you want to eat breakfast with your spouse every day for 80 years, but your spouse wants to eat breakfast with you.
In marriage, you will never roll over and find an empty space where your sexual partner is supposed to be.
In marriage, the news that a baby is on the way will not run the risk of the guy running out on the girl.
In marriage, your sex is gonna be Great Sex, because every time you have sex with your spouse, seeking union as a couple and open to a baby if it comes, you get closer to God.
Parents, tell your kids that you want them to experience Good Sex, not Bad Sex. You want them to become more human, more loved, more close to God.
Tell them, if they find someone they legitimately think they can have Good Sex with for the next 80 years, to marry the Hell out of that person and enjoy all the pleasure of the marriage bed with them.
*the 1% variance in the statistic of Bad Sex outside marriage is when, in 1% of cases, the unmarried couple engaging in Good Sex is actually already joined in marriage as the Primordial Sacrament. God has written marriage into his creation of human beings, and when two people truly seek one another’s good, truly want to make each other happy [which means union with God, whether or not they know that intellectually], and they celebrate that good-seeking with each other through sex, then they actually are married on the cosmic level.
NB: We live in a fallen world, and if someone says to you, “Hey girl, let’s get married on the cosmic level,” HE IS TRYING TO TRICK YOU. Tell him, “Hey boy, let’s get married in the Church in front of all of our family and friends so that after we start having sex there’s a whole community of people standing by, ready to help us in good times and bad and to call you on it if you try to leave me.” If he balks, he wanted you as an object, not as a person he could eat breakfast with for the next 80 years.
Sanger, Margaret. The Pivot of Civilization. New York: Brentano’s Publishers, 1922.