Thursday, July 14, 2011

How Far Is Too Far?

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?


  1. Wow, Ruth, that's a good thought.

    I have sympathy with hesitancy to set firm, so-called objective limits, because it's like saying, "To consider your Sunday obligation met, you need to be there AT LEAST by the Gospel and you must stay AT LEAST until the priest receives Communion." I mean, is that really Mass? That may respect the letter, but certainly not the spirit. I guess my fear is that the spirit is, in some ways, even more important than the letter in the context of sex. You can do everything technically "right" and still be screwing yourself up for the future, by viewing sex through a primarily physical lens, when it needs to be a holistic view of the human person.

    OTOH, I see your point...otherwise you're in the heat of the moment, going, "How far is too far?"

    Frankly, I want my children never to be alone in private with a significant other before marriage. Which is wholly unreasonable, and I would never have stood for it myself, so why should I expect my kids to? LOL

  2. Another thing Kathleen is that I think it is almost as dangerous to set unreasonably conservative limits as too liberal ones. As you said, you'd have never stood for never being alone with your s.o. and if someone told you that it was wrong to be, then you'd reject that advice, and you'd be right back to "how far is too far". I read something once upon a time that said you shouldn't do anything with your date that you wouldn't do with a close friend of the same sex--well,I don't even peck my girlfriends on the lips,I don't sit in a movie holding their hands and I don't cuddle on the couch to watch TV. I don't slow dance with them. Something else said "nothing you wouldn't want me to do with your husband"--well,I don't want you hanging on the phone nightly with my husband; if you sit in the same pew as us at church I don't expect your legs to touch his,nor do I expect you to hold his hand,and if you kiss him goodbye it had better be on the cheek.

    Trying to discern how far is too far when you are in the heat of the moment is hard--those heat of the moment things are pleasureable and make you feel loved (even if that's not what the other person means to say); but I also wonder how we expect someone who has never experienced sexual activity to differentiate between sexual activity and physical affection.

  3. To chime in here, with two teenaged daughters 14 and 16, I am right there too. How far is too far should be answered years before the question is asked in reality. By teaching your children that our bodies are ours and that we must respect our bodies as the temples that they are. For the respect of ourselves and an other in this day and age is difficult, if not impossible for our young and the preparation needs to be ingrained young. least that's my plan.

    Thanks both RAnn and Kathleen! Definitely much to think about!

  4. So, Ebeth, if your daughters asked you how far is too far, what would you say?

  5. Anonymous6:37 PM

    Reading this post makes me feel somewhat relieved that I don't have kids and therefore don't have to deal with this issue. ;-)

    On the other hand...
    I am an unmarried (or to be more specific, never married) man, and I have done almost no dating to speak of. So "how far should I go?" is not a question I've had to deal with myself, not just for kids. But if I ever do find significant other, I will have to deal with the issue, as I am committed to living a godly life. So how far would be too far for me? I'm not sure how to answer that. I can definitely say that I would eschew heavy petting and necking (as I'm sure that could easily lead to outright sex). Hand holding, hugs, and short kisses would be ok. But that's about all I can say at this point...

    Any advice for me, ladies? What kinds of behavior did you demand of a fellow when you were dating (if it's not too personal for me to ask)?


  6. What did I demand from a guy I was dating? Not much--and I guess that's part of my issue with this subject. I was somewhat insecure, wanting approval, wanting love. I knew there was a difference between sex and love and I knew I didn't want to have sex before marriage, but I didn't want someone dumping me because I was a prude. The problem with making up rules on the fly is that while I found it very easy to say no to the guy who wanted too much too fast--a guy who groped me on the dance floor didn't get a second dance, much less a date, when I was with a guy I liked one kiss could turn to two, a hand that touched where my sweater pulled up slowly moved up and after the encounter was over I'd wonder if it went too far--and in retrospect, it often did.

    If I had to date again, as I said in the original post, as someone who has fully experienced sexual love, I have a pretty good idea in my mind of the difference between sex and affection, and I'd be affectionate and explain to the guy why were weren't going to be sexual

  7. I like your idea of affection being able to be public and sex being private, although I'm not sure that would stop some people these days! But, I still think your point makes a lot of sense.

  8. "those who aren't married shouldn't do anything in private that people of good taste don't do in public."

    The standard I knew as a teen...for whatever good it did. At least I knew when I was breaking it.

  9. The difference between sex and affection is something many men don't get. I like your rule about don't do anything in private that shouldn't be done in public for the single people. Today's society puts too much sexual pressure on people and because movies and TV are constantly pushing sex, young people can easily get the idea that "everybody's doing it so why not?" which is a big mistake.

  10. Clear and to the point, RAnn. You make sense, and your rule makes sense. Your point about not knowing what you were dealing with back then is one dismissed by those who leave it to young adults to know when they are ready for sex,much like asking the class, "Who wants ice cream?" Only ice cream may make you fat, but not pregnant (or, otherwise, wounded.) Good piece!

  11. Absolutely they should be given a clear answer because if they don't hear it at home, they'll go to their friends and that's the worst place they can go for sex advice. My son is too young so this isn't an issue yet but it's not too far off!

  12. I've been meaning to get back & check the discussion on this for days, and kept getting distracted. I do think the public vs. private is a good rule of thumb. I do think, though, that it's subject to abuse, too. Do you get more specific?

  13. Not unless pressed further. In some ways it doesn't matter what standard you set--some folks will try to bend it as far as they can ie "I did not have sex with that woman". Too much of saying that x and y are ok but z isn't is bound to leave out q so I think a logical system is more important than naming a, b, c,....and putting them into categories, but the system needs as little interpretation as possible. Yes, there are people who sexually grope each other in public, who burrow under clothes, or even, I guess depending on your interpretation of "public" have intercourse in public, but its not normal and such people don't IMO have good taste.I'm not saying my system is perfect, but the main thing that annoyed me about that book was that they didn't even try to answer the question. I'd rather disagree with their limits than have none given. Ideally I supposed both parties to a couple are going to be devoted Catholics who want more than anything to avoid sin but statistics tell us that the vast majority of those married in the Catholic church are engaging in pre-martial sex. I'm sure that no matter what that book said, there are a certain number of those kids who just don't care, and don't plan to "use" any of what they learn in that class, but what about the kid who really wants to do right, and is with a good loving partner who just doesn't "get" chastity? How do you even start the conversation? How do you draw the line? To use a term my dad likes "a latitude of platitudes" isn't helpful in that situation.

  14. Lots of great discussion. I really like the idea of only being affectionate - doing in public/private what folks of good taste would do in public.
    I think that's a wise line to draw. I'll have to share that with my teens

  15. Anonymous3:35 PM

    I like the idea of public and private acts. The absolute thing that caused both of our children to STOP and think was the bandaid demonstration. Putting a bandaid on, ripping it off, on, off another person, again and again. Soon the bandaid was full of dirt and had a difficult time sticking.

    Our son and fiance has had a difficult time. The reason? Even my mother wonders how they are going to do since they have never lived together before marriage. My SIL had the nerve to say," I don't think you should travel so far on your honeymoon- you hardly know each other."

    Outside pressures and standards are so "have sex - NOW" that when you don't you are looked at weird.
    My son said they agreed "no sex until marriage" on their first date!

    Our daughter was trained the same way- made different choices- but still chose to marry. We will see which marriage is stronger in the end---but they are both married. That is more than I can say about most of our nephews and nieces and family friends. Just to make a commitment these days is an amazing thing! My nephew chose to take his gal to Mexico for a week- proposed- and then sent back pictures of their new relationship- in robes- on their bed- looking out the window.


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