This is one of those "other things" posts to which my title refers. I have a sixteen year old daughter who is preparing for confirmation. As part of the process, she is taking a class this summer on Theology of the Body. I was flipping through her book tonight to see how they answered the question that was on my mind as a young dating adult, namely "How far is too far?". Now, I realize that as this is primarily a book blog that not all my readers share my moral and religious beliefs, so I'll explain them briefly: I'm Catholic and I believe non-marital sex is wrong, and often just plain dumb. That of course leads to the question "What is sex?" as in that infamous quote "I did not have sex with that woman"
So how did her book answer that question? It said that it was the wrong question to ask. It then went on to talk about how people can easily set those limits on others; it is for themselves that they have more trouble. It talked about what you would want someone doing with a sibling, or with your future spouse. That's the same kind of answer stuff I read thirty years ago said, and frankly I don't think it is any more help now than it was then. Anybody who really wants to live a "Sex in the City" lifestyle isn't going to be asking that question--they are going to be wondering if they should spend the night after the second date or the third. Kids who ask that question are kids who want to be chaste but who are living in a culture that is not.
Robert Frost once said that good fences make good neighbors. They set boundaries, they are easy to find, and within their confines you are reasonably safe. Yes, you will always have those who want to balance on the fence, not really knowing which side they want to be on, or not wanting to appear to be on the wrong side, and yes, those who try a balancing act are more likely to fall than those who stay on their side, but most people find a marked boundary easier to respect than "not too far away". In the case of sexual activity, though I am not an expert on teens or on psycho-sexual development, I think giving them rules like "What would you like me to do with your future spouse?" is like asking a seven year old not to go "too far". A seven year old lacks the experience and maturity to define "too far" in a given situation. A teen who has never had any sexual experience has no point of reference on which to draw sexual boundaries. Surely hand-holding is ok, a good night kiss is normal (but can the mouth be open, and how long can it last?) How about a hug? How close, how long? As a young adult I looked to books for guidance but I either saw the "third date" rule from Cosmo or "no sex, stay chaste" in religious books. No one would help me set the fence I really wanted.
The funny thing is that as an adult who has now experienced sexual relations within the bond of marriage, I'd set that fence differently if I ever have to date again that what I did in my younger days--now I know what I was playing with; then I didn't. To me, sex is reserved for marriage, but we can be affectionate before marriage. The difference between sex and affection isn't a matter of whether you get to second base or third base or inside or outside or bathing suit areas--though those can be clues. I suggest a clear boundary for the fence--sex is private, affection doesn't have to be. I'm married to my husband. We are both affectionate and sexual, but we are sexual only in private. We touch, hug, or kiss in public but these are brief contacts or other actions not designed to (immediately) arouse. I suggest that the bright line (for those who really want to remain chaste, and not just in a technical fashion) is that those who aren't married shouldn't do anything in private that people of good taste don't do in public.
It just seems to me that if kids ask that question, they should be given a clear answer. What do you think?