Chastity is probably one of the most talked about topics among young people. There is an abundance of speakers, books, magazine articles, and much more, that address the topic. Many of the available resources do a very good job of convincing one why chastity is important. However, for so many people the question still remains: “How far is too far?”
An individual may strongly desire to live a chaste life, and understand the folly of intercourse before marriage but what about other sexual acts? Must we refrain from all sexual expression in order to be chaste? What is safe and what isn’t? These kinds of questions plague the minds of most everyone at some point in time, not just teens or young adults.
The difficulty is that there are no set guidelines to answer the question. Nowhere in the Catechism does it draw an exact, firm line, aside from sexual intercourse itself. What can “turn on” one person may have no effect on another. So these ambiguities mean this question has no quick and easy answer.
The best way to address this dilemma is to recognize that chastity is not only a set of actions or lack thereof but a mindset. The first recommendation for living a chaste life is to set boundaries with your partner, and hold both yourself and your partner to them. This is, of course, an important step, but it doesn’t go far enough. While setting boundaries is good and necessary, the reason for the boundaries is more important.
If you set boundaries only because you think it’s what you’re supposed to do, it becomes much more difficult to keep to them. It’s simply human nature to want to cross the line. A teacher of mine once illustrated this by saying that even if a couple sets a boundary of nothing below the neck, they can still do almost anything they want if they stand on their heads. While this was clearly meant to be a humorous exaggeration, the point is that boundaries for their own sake don’t mean much of anything. We will try to rationalize ways to not actually cross them, so we avoid guilt, but still do what we want.
In order to truly internalize the boundaries we have created and be able to keep them requires a change in the frame of mind. Every relationship should be based on love, respect, and commitment. All three should play a role in every aspect of the relationship, including sexual expression. It’s easy to justify sexual acts with the commonly used excuse: “We really do love each other.” However, there is an important distinction between “love” and being “in love.” Love is putting the other person above yourself and wanting what is best for him or her. It’s not about the warm fuzzy feelings, the way he smiles at you, or the way she cocks her head to the side and looks so cute when she pouts. While these may all be true, they don’t make love real. Real love isn’t about what they do for you, or how they make you feel. Real love is about truly caring for them and wanting whatever is best for them, even at cost to yourself. Being “in love” is much like a fad. It may seem very real, but it comes and goes and has no real depth. Why share such a crucial part of yourself with something as fleeting as a high school fashion trend?
Commitment is another important element. With every sexual act performed, from something as simple as a small kiss, all the way through to full intercourse, you invest piece of yourself in that person, a piece you will never get back. You can never get back your first kiss, or those memories of that one passionate night with the person who swept you off your feet. Even if that person completely leaves your life, you can never get back the parts of yourself you invested in him or her. And the farther you go the more you invest.
While STDs, single parenting, and heartache may be very legitimate reasons for saving sex for marriage, the most important question should be that if you don’t feel ready to permanently and publicly commit to one person, why would you invest your entire self in them? And this does not only apply to intercourse. This question should play an intrinsic role in every sexual act. How willing are you to give this person something you know you will never get back, no matter what goes wrong?
Respect is the third element in a relationship. It is important to remember that you are not the only one making an investment. Your partner is investing in you as well, and will also never get his or her investment back. How is trying to make your partner invest as much as possible just to satisfy your desires, a sign of respect? While sexual expression is not by nature selfish, bad, or destructive, it becomes this way when the focus is primarily on pleasure. There is no denying that yes, it is pleasurable, and should be. However, its purpose is to unify and strengthen a couple, not simply to satisfy physical wants. Since sheer pleasure is not the ultimate goal, it should therefore not be the ultimate motivation.
However, none of this really answers “How far can you go?” And in truth, there is nothing that can really answer that question across the board. There are those who feel that even the smallest kiss is too much to give away, or take from another without the permanent commitment of marriage. There are others who are much more relaxed about kissing. Neither is necessarily right or wrong. Because different people all come from different places, react differently, and are in different situations the question of “how far” is more individual than universal.
So, what is the best solution? Pray, follow your conscience, and have serious talks about boundaries and the reasons for them. Focus on love, respect, and commitment to each other in all your decisions, and use them as guidelines. While this will in no way eliminate temptation or “sticky situations,” it will make the murky waters clearer and make it much easier to avoid pitfalls, and steady your course toward holiness and chastity.
(Amy Wurzelbacher is a freelance writer living in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.)
This article has been re-published with written authorization of Catholic Match, LLC.
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