of the Hermitage of the Three Holy Hierarchs
The Slow Sex Movement
Right now, the Catholic Church may be regarded as the only institution in the world that explicitly and unequivocally condemns the use of contraception. These days, in the Western world, going on the pill has no greater import for a girl than buying a first bra. Modern society has become bent on making the female body safe to play with—like taking the barrel out of a gun. It’s only the Catholic Church stays firm in opposition to this—Paul VI surprising many with his humanae vitae of 1968, and successive popes following in his footsteps. Many Catholics roll their eyes—for them the issue of contraception is void, shelved in that hidden grotto labelled ‘conscience’. Who wants to breed like rabbits? What woman wants to be enslaved to a brood?
The prevailing culture is so overwhelmingly in favour of contraception that even the most intelligent Catholics come out with “Natural Family Planning doesn’t work—and anyway it’s just another form of contraception.”
At this point The Asketerion would like to strongly recommend a book. “Women, Sex and the Church,” edited by Erika Bachiochi, contains essays on equality, NFP, the priesthood, abortion, infertility, premarital sex, and marriage, among other topics. It’s an intelligent and lucid book. For anyone seeking elucidation about Natural Family Planning, the essay by Angela Franks, “The Gift of Female Fertility: Church Teaching on Contraception”, is invaluable.
Franks takes the reader through the ideological roots of modern contraception, in the shape of the founder of Planned Parenthood, Margaret Sanger. Sanger was explicit in her praise of eugenics and vociferous in her condemnation of the fertile woman as the cauldron of society’s ills.
Yet, feminists, we learn, were not always in favour of contraception. Franks quotes an early feminist, Tennessee Claflin: “washes, teas, tonics, and various sorts of appliances known to the initiated (were a) standing reproach upon, and a permanent indictment against, American women… No woman should ever hold sexual relations with any man from the possible consequences of which she might desire to escape.”
Later feminists were quick to see that the pill, for one method, did women no favours. Strokes, heart failure, cervical cancer—these are all of concern for women on the pill, who, since the ‘sexual revolution’ have been herded onto it in their millions like animals that need sterilising to make them domesticated. Other side effects are almost funny—loss of libido, headaches, depression, candida (all of which make sex the last thing on most women’s minds). Germaine Greer, who is so astute she can’t help sounding Catholic at times, wrote in The Whole Woman of the abortifacient action of some contraceptives:
“If we ask ourselves whether we would have any hope of imposing upon men the duty to protect women's fertility and their health, and avoid the abortions that occur in their uncounted millions every day, we will see in a blinding light how unfree women are. Women, from the youngest to the oldest, are aware that to impose conditions on intimacy would be to be accorded even less of it than they get already.”
There’s the rub.
Feminist/post-feminist generations of women have been trained (by women as much as men) to show half of themselves. The whole woman, to use Greer’s term, is just too scary. Women are taught to dangle themselves, sterilely, in front of men, to offer them no-strings, no-future, no-need-to-think-about-me sex. Women often hope that once men bite and accept the relationship, the gradual revelation of the whole woman will be easy for him to swallow. It isn’t.
Franks provides the startling facts. Quite contrary to what liberals believed they would achieve from widespread use of contraception, divorce is up, child abuse is up, abortion is up. Not just up in a little, statistical sense. UP in a game-changing, society-rotting whoosh. Of course, we cannot and should not lay the blame for all of society’s ills at the door of contraception. But it’s irresistible to note that the moment in history in which sex became easily divorced in our minds from child-bearing was the moment in which the entire game changed: love, family, marriage—brick by brick all that began to be changed too. And then the bricks didn’t fit together and families fell apart.
And who predicted these results? Pope Paul VI for one. And Mohandas Ghandi, who Franks quotes:
“As it is a man has sufficiently degraded (woman) for his lust, and artificial methods, no matter how well meaning the advocates may be, will still further degrade her.”
Many women, and men, may see those words as sexist—and, in some ways, they are. After all, it’s not just men who see sex as a game and bodies as toys. Franks delves deep into women being at war with themselves, and what the ‘contracepting society’ looks like—where looking fertile (ie a normal shape), for example, is no longer sexy; where women see their fertility as something to be killed, fought, shelved (think of Apple’s dubious perk of allowing women to freeze their eggs).
Yet, many will say, if we reject contraception women are left with the option of breeding like rabbits. Not so. In fact, Natural Family Planning methods, which are consistent with Church teaching, are 99% effective when used properly—ie more effective than the pill.
But isn’t the Billings method, for example, just contraception in another guise?
Franks argues not. NFP means a couple (well, ok, a woman) has to pay careful attention to her cycle--and then a man has to listen to what she says and respect her. If they decide to make love on fertile days, both know this may result in a child. On non-fertile days couples can make love—the Church embraces sex as important for bonding and intimacy. What NFP does is ensure an openness to life by not deliberately blocking life on days when conception is likely. It also, naturally, asks that the couple respect the ‘whole woman’ and the ‘whole man’—ie people not divorced from their potential to be fathers and mothers. In Greer’s terms it is indeed ‘imposing conditions on intimacy’—but in a Catholic household these are conditions that nurture intimacy’s growth, and encourage conversation, self-sacrifice, and self-giving.
NFP, Church teaching, is not about saying sex that isn’t fertile is wrong (post-menopausal couples make love; infertile couples make love). It is about saying that when the likelihood of conception is there we don’t scrape the candy off the cake and run. We embrace the full weight and meaning of sex, knowing we may conceive. Or we abstain.
Because that, surely, is the most counter-cultural aspect of NFP--abstinence. In an age of 24 hour banking, shopping and entertainment, people are finding it harder and harder to not have. But for love to deepen between a couple, and a person to move closer to God, sacrifices have to be made in full recognition of what each person is—not a sex toy, but a whole person. And that person may be ill, may be tired. They may be a person who has the potential to have another baby, but has discerned that now is not the right time.
For, as Catholics, we’re called on to love one another as he has loved us. That means loving each other whole—something we, generally, find hard to do. Secular culture likes to deconstruct people—to see ‘work’ and ‘life’ as different things; and ‘sex’ and ‘love’ as two more. But anyone who has known God’s love will know its cohering power—there is no deadwood that can be ignored, no splitting. No part of a person is divorced from another in God’s gaze. The lover’s gaze is called to imitate this.
Church teaching is the real sexual revolution. NFP is in line with the way people are beginning to rebel against our quick, consumerist lifestyle. It’s like the Slow Food Movement: it’s about avoiding artificial ingredients, and eating seasonally. If we add fidelity into the analogy, it’s also zero kilometres. It’s about periods of fasting, and the nourishing feast. It’s time more Catholics joined the Slow Sex Movement.
“Women, Sex and the Church, A Case for Catholic Teaching,” Edited by Erika Bachiochi, Pauline Books and Media, USA, 2010
“The Whole Woman,” by Germaine Greer, Black Swan, 2007