Abstinence v. Birth Control: Making a Case

When I published this abstinence post a couple weeks ago, the response was overwhelming. Within 5 days, it was the most read post on my blog, and the numbers keep climbing. Clearly, speaking honestly about one of the most difficult aspects of NFP needs to happen more often.

Following the popularity of that post, I posed a question in my Instagram stories: how long do you actually abstain? The results were astounding. Of the 30+ women who responded, all who were in regular cycles reported periods of abstinence between 10 days and 2 weeks, regardless of the method used. Women who abstained around 10 days had shorter cycles of <28 days, while those who abstained for 2+ weeks had cycles that were 30 days or more. Several women noted even higher amounts of abstinence due to serious illness, postpartum or menopause. 

Needless to say, that is a much higher number than what most were taught in marriage prep. Many were led to expect periods of abstinence of only one week, since a man and woman’s combined fertility is 5-6 days (based on life of sperm and life of egg combined). While this is true, such a period of abstinence is entirely dependent on precise prediction and confirmation of ovulation, which can only be achieved through daily ultrasounds during the fertile window. Few women have the time, funds or need for this, therefore, fertility awareness methods set a wider window of abstinence to accommodate a window of ovulation.

For whatever reason, the truth has been hidden and people are suffering for it. Abstinence is a huge cross that few couples are prepared for upon marriage. When abstinence becomes unbearable, or when babies keep coming despite strict adherence to a method’s rules, couples naturally question the sanity of church teaching. How is birth control absolutely never licit no matter the situation? 

The Best Possible Sex.

It’s very easy when presented with this cross to feel like the Catholic Church is cruel or out of touch. It is worth examining why she holds to this teaching no matter what. 

The Church understands and celebrates the importance of sex within a healthy marriage. As a result, her teaching is meant to help married couples have the best possible sex. Yes, you read that right. Holy Mother Church wants her children to have a great time between the sheets and that’s the reason for the rules. Great sex isn’t about a certain position or spontaneity or frequency or sterility. It is about the total uninhibited unity of a man and woman, period. 

Why Not Birth Control.

There is a growing number among non-Catholic circles who are starting to understand the seedy history and debilitating side effects of hormonal birth control (HBC). Both male and female birth control were developed simultaneously, but when some men reported shrinkage and depression, it was immediately scrapped. Women were reporting far more serious side effects, but developers only slightly adjusted the dosage of hormones and fast tracked it to the market. Studies show that HBC chemically alters a woman’s body and brain to the point that she not infrequently loses the desire for sex altogether, even while it renders her totally “available”. The stark contrast with feminist ideals is starting to catch on and a burgeoning number of secular women are turning to fertility awareness.

While it is very easy to make a non-religious case against HBC, barrier methods can be difficult to dismiss on non-religious grounds. It is worth noting that condom effectiveness is based on absolute perfect use, an elusive feat at best, and are well known for diminishing pleasure and sensation. Neither factor could possibly contribute to an enhanced sexual experience.  

Birth control promises the best possible sex, but it just doesn’t deliver. It claims to grant us what we want whenever we want it without consequence, never admitting that what we get will be a knock off of the real thing. Where birth control is ultimately attractive is in its appeals to our selfish human nature. But self-gratification is not a recipe for long term satisfaction, and the Catholic Church isn’t the only place where that holds up. 

A Secular Case for Abstinence. 

The fact that sexual abstinence is so distasteful is due in no small part to the fact that we’re accosted with sex on a daily basis. The secular message is loud and clear: sex must be frequent and on demand, and infrequent sex is unhealthy and indicative of serious problems. 

Frequency, however, is a horrible predictor of satisfaction or health in any area of life. Oddly enough the practice of fasting is having it’s day in secular fashion. You may have heard of “dopamine fasting” currently being popularized by psychologists in Silicon Valley as a way for those in the tech industry to increase productivity by taking planned breaks from the over-stimulation their jobs require. Many people are currently wrapping up what’s known as dry January, where adherents commit to giving up alcohol for the month for the health benefits.

There are also secular groups acknowledging the negative effects of pornography and masturbation on a person’s psychological and sexual health, and are providing online support communities for those trying to quit both, styling themselves “fapsternots” on Reddit threads. More and more the direct correlation between over-saturation and decreased enjoyment and unhealthy behavior is being recognized and addressed by those beyond religious affiliations. 

Abstinence as a means of renewing our enjoyment of or maintaining a healthy relationship with an activity, or discovering other aspects of personality is not a Christian-only construct. It is a widely accepted truth. The distinction is that within secular circles, abstinence serves primarily to increase one’s productivity and personal happiness, while within Christianity, abstinence can be a purifier that helps us shift our focus from the things of earth to the things of Heaven, aka dying to ourselves. 

He who marries will have affliction.

None of this changes that fact that sex is just doggone wonderful, and couples, particularly newlyweds who fought to maintain chastity, have a hard time walking away from the banquet they can finally partake of for short stints once they’ve had a taste. No argument exists that will make abstinence easy or fun, only at most more palatable or bearable. 

The fact that abstinence can become an area of conflict for married couples should not be cause for concern, though couples should never shy away from seeking outside help if they have a hard time resolving these conflicts on their own. I find it rather appropriate to note here that Paul stated in 1 Corinthians 7: “it is a good thing for a person to remain … [unmarried]” because “[married couples] will experience affliction in their earthly life, and I would like to spare you that.” As I once heard a pastor humorously note, this isn’t on the list of options for readings at a wedding.

Marriage is the institution where two selfish sinners unite with the intention of loving each other with a divine love. That’s a huge amount tension! When trouble arises in a marriage because of that tension between the human and the divine, it actually means that marriage is working precisely as it was designed. 

Faithfulness hurts. Holding to a teaching we don’t like or fully understand will stretch us and test us. But that’s exactly what Jesus told us would happen if we should choose to follow him. When we marry, trouble will come and that is ok. The rules don’t exist to make us miserable. They exist so we can grow in love and fight to attain Heaven. 

*This post was featured in the Theology of Home Daily Collection.