Intimacy During Dating

Dear Grace,
I am in a relationship with a man, but do not know or understand what should be the exact limits in terms of sexual intimacy. For example, do we commit a sin if we indulge in heavy petting?

How good it would be if more men and women asked these questions. I commend you for asking them, for it shows that you are sincerely trying to form and follow a true and correct conscience. This is extremely important if we are to live a good and upright moral life and attain our eternal salvation.

Let me say at the onset that to engage in heavy petting in dating is not upright moral behavior. Some will not agree. This is because there is a prevalent tendency today to think that as long as there has been no sexual intercourse, then it should be okay to “express love or affection” in other ways that involve intimate bodily touching. This, however, is very wrong.

The Catholic Church teaches that all baptized persons are called to chastity. The Christian is someone who has “put on Christ.” He is the model for all chastity. All Christ's faithful are called to lead a chaste life in keeping with their particular states of life. At the moment of his Baptism, the Christian is pledged to lead his affective life in chastity (CCC 2348). Does heavy petting sound like chaste behavior?

The underlying issue here is the misunderstanding and erroneous attitude that much of the world today has towards sex. This is the root of the problem. So many do not seem to understand what sex and sexual intimacy is really all about. In general, the world does not teach us to regard sex as a beautiful and noble gift from God, intended to fulfill His divine plan. Our sexuality comes from God and that makes it something holy. He gave it for a reason. It has a purpose. And the intimate bodily aspects of our sexuality were meant by God for marriage.

Scripture tells us that God, out of His infinite and powerful love, created man and woman in His own image and likeness and gave them to each other saying, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1: 28). God had a plan for marriage. In giving them the gift of sex (which was life-giving) He made it clear that He intended to be a part of marriage and the marital act. Sex was the means by which God willed that the man and woman would be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.

God gives a man and woman the sexual urge and sexual desire so that they will be drawn to each other in accomplishing His plan, but He expects them to be in control of this desire and to use it only as He intended — in marriage. When we do not do so, we offend God — we sin. Sexual pleasure is the reward that is given to man and woman for their cooperation in God’s plan. And even in marriage, our sexual intimacy must be chaste — an intimacy that shows respect, love, and honor for our beloved spouse.

As Christians, we have a moral obligation to avoid sin in all its forms. Would a man who has a history of alcoholism do right in taking a job in a liquor store? Would a woman who has a strong interest in and desire for a married man do well in spending time alone with him? In doing so, each of these persons would be placing himself in what is called “a near occasion of sin” — a circumstance which offers a person an enticement or invitation to sin..

In your particular situation, you have obviously already discovered that you and this man have a strong physical attraction for each other. This does not mean that you should not be around him, but it does mean that you should be very cautious. In light of the Church’s moral teaching, heavy petting in a dating relationship would constitute immoral behavior and should be avoided. You should want to make sure that you do nothing that will lead or tempt you to sin. If you wish to have a relationship centered on Christ, it should be chaste, with a sense of purity in it, with respect for each other’s bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit. “Men and women who are not married should reserve for marriage the expressions that belong to married love” (CCC 2350).

© Copyright 2004 Grace D. MacKinnon

For permission to reprint this article, or to have Grace speak at your event, contact Grace MacKinnon at

Grace MacKinnon holds an MA in theology and is a syndicated columnist and public speaker on Catholic doctrine. Her new book Dear Grace: Answers to Questions About the Faith is available in our online store. If you enjoy reading Grace’s column, you will certainly want to have this book, which is a collection of the first two years of “Dear Grace.” Faith questions may be sent to Grace via e-mail at: You may also visit her online at

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