If not sex, what can I do?
How Far is Too Far?
When it comes to intimacy, the million-dollar question is “How far is too far?” Males and females are attracted to one another—it’s a natural, healthy part of life to desire a relationship with members of the complementary sex. With intercourse out of the question, there are ways to grow in intimacy with another and yet remain chaste.
Some people hold that everything up to a certain point is healthy and everything beyond that point is “too far.” While there are some clear boundaries, every couple must evaluate for themselves what is holy and healthy in regard to their physical intimacy. If you hope to develop healthy physical relationships, read on.
Affection Versus Lust
Since every physical act sends a message—even a punch speaks volumes—we must consider what our actions will “say” before we act. In romantic relationships, the goal is to communicate in a loving, giving manner—to be affectionate. Affection is defined as “tender and loving feelings” or a “stirring of loving emotions,” and it stems from a desire to affect someone’s heart, mind, or soul. Affection says to another, “I care for you so much that I’ve run out of words to say and want to show you” or “I want to give you a physical experience that touches and blesses you intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually.”
Affection is the outward expression of something that is occurring within the couple internally; this something is more than physical attraction. On the other hand, lust is excessive sexual desire not controlled by concern for another. Lust does not give; it takes for itself. Lust is an appetite that seeks to satisfy itself at the expense of another and is unconcerned with intellectual, emotional, or spiritual health. It is never healthy, loving, or giving, even in marriage.
Obviously, affection should be the primary goal of every healthy couple—never to use each other for physical gratification, but rather to love each other. To ensure that physical acts are affectionate, a couple must thoughtfully decide when and how to progress physically in a healthy manner.
When to Be Physical?
To know whether a relationship is ready for physical affection, one must first examine the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual bonding of the relationship, or the “friendship” elements. A healthy romantic relationship should be based on a friendship, with physical acts being the “icing on the cake.” A cake isn’t made with icing in the dough; it would never rise. You must first make the cake (relationship) with the essential ingredients of flour (great conversation), sugar (fun together), eggs (similar moral values, spiritual agreement), and brown sugar (respect, honor). When all of these work together and rise, add the icing (physical intimacy). A cake, like a romantic relationship, is incomplete without icing (at least some physical sign that this person is more than a friend). Although no time is specified for adding the icing, the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual intimacy should come first.
As a relationship deepens, the friendship elements should continue progressing at a steady rate, and the physical should slowly follow. In this way, the other intimacies support the physical. All healthy physical acts should be an outpouring of the strong personal connection of the couple. Acts of physical affection progress as the friendship and relationship grows, with the couple eventually arriving at a place where marriage makes sense physically, intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually.
The physical connection is important because it distinguishes a romantic relationship from a friendship, but it shouldn’t be the foundation or the first element of the relationship. The friendship aspects of the relationship may not grow exactly as sequenced in the graph, and that is normal. Some couples connect and grow spiritually before they do intellectually or emotionally. The sequence of growth for the friendship intimacies is not as important as the fact that they should develop before the physical.
How to Be Physical?
Appropriate physical affection at each stage of a romantic relationship will be different for each couple. Most important is that each couple should move slowly physically and focus on affectionate acts only.
Many young people have the misconception that the only options in physical intimacy are kissing, touching, and then sex. Desmond Morris compiled a list of stages of marital intimacy. We’ve adapted it somewhat to illustrate the many physical ways to show someone you care. The first six stages are almost always, on their own, signs of affection. They are:
- Eye to body (looking at someone in a different way than how you would look at a family member)
- Eye to eye (connecting with intense eye contact)
- Voice to voice (revealing different aspects of self by using a unique tone of voice)
- Hand to hand
- Arm around shoulder
- Arm to waist
The next three stages can be affectionate, but they also have the potential to become lustful. Depending on the depth of the relationship and the couple’s intentions in the act, they may or may not be healthy.
- Face to face (kissing, from a cheek peck to open-mouth)
- Hand to head (caressing the face and embracing the head during a hug of a kiss)
- Hand to body (nonsexual discovery of his or her body)
The remaining stages are direct sexual stimulation and should be reserved for marriage.
- Mouth to breast
- Hand to genital
- Mouth to genital
- Genital to genital
Avoid Lust and Sexual Temptation
As a relationship develops, conditions can be present in any of the stages that will lead to too much or inappropriate physical intimacy.
If one hasn’t bonded intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually with another, yet acts physically out of a desire to be physical, lust has control. Relationships fail to develop in a healthy manner when lust takes over. Lust focuses on the physical bonding at the expense of the other aspects of the relationship. Lust does not require intellectual, emotional, or spiritual bonding, so it does not need friendship to grow. For couples who focus primarily or too early on physical acts, the other three intimacies typically become stunted, take longer to develop, and are always overshadowed by the physical. A kiss or prolonged embrace becomes meaningless if the understanding of another’s heart, mind, and soul is lacking.
When the physical is not supported by a growing intellectual, emotional, and spiritual connection, the focus becomes lustful. We will call this the “breaking point.” How far is “too far”? Everything after the breaking point—the switch from affection to lust—is too far, unhealthy, and therefore sinful because they are not supported by the other aspects of intimacy. How soon the breaking point is reached will differ from couple to couple. For those who have had previous sexual experiences, the breaking point can come much sooner than for others.
In addition to lust, purposeful sexual stimulation before marriage is “too far.” Oral (mouth to genital) and manual (hand to genital) stimulation, cybersex (stimulation from pictures or words on a computer), phone sex (stimulation from conversation only), and dry sex (sexual gyration and possibly partial penetration with clothes on) can cause many of the same emotional consequences as intercourse. Sexual stimulation before marriage is also unhealthy intellectually.
Logically, it is obvious that purposeful stimulation is designed to lead to intercourse. It’s deceptive to prepare someone for nothing. Even if a male’s brain agrees that a certain point is “how far” he wants to go, his body is inclined to go further. It is repressive for couples to be turning each other on just to “shut down” before intercourse. God designed sexual stimulation to be brought to completion. Training ourselves to turn off the stimulation just when it’s supposed to get good is dangerous. It decreases our ability to give freely in marriage. In regard to sexual acts, God even warns us, saying, “Do not stir up or awaken love until it is ready! (Song 8:4). Whatever leads an individual or couple to sexual stimulation should be avoided before marriage to avoid repression. (You can read more on the topic of repression in “Laying Aside a Myth,” page 74.)
Steven had experienced sex in the past, but desired to live chastely. From his previous relationships, he knew that “French” kissing aroused him and made him want to go further. When he started dating his now wife, they made the decision to not kiss in that way. French kissing was one of Steven’s breaking points.
Steven’s breaking point may be different from Heather’s or Pete’s, but it’s important for every individual, and couple, to know and respect their own personal temptations to lust.
What Can I Do? Focus on Affection!
A healthy couple will recognize their breaking point and avoid it. This knowledge surfaces either from the wisdom of others or from personal experience—individually or as a couple. If a couple moves slowly and keeps motives in check, they do not need to experience their breaking point to know where it exists. A healthy couple will show physical affection without putting each other on the brink of sin. In a loving relationship, if one senses the breaking point soon approaching, he or she will stop the other so that together they can keep the relationship chaste.
Lana and John decided to move slowly physically. During the rare instances in which they were alone and relating romantically, they chose to kiss the other’s forehead if it appeared to either one that they could be heading towards lust or stimulation. This indicated that they needed to slow down physically. With the use of this easy and loving gesture, they chose to keep the focus on affection.
Fun, healthy dating avoids bringing each other to the breaking point or leading the relationship into lust. True chastity allows us to walk away from every date with the respect that we deserve. Dating someone who doesn’t want to push you is freeing and fun!
These guidelines for healthy relationships might seem challenging; however, we must consider the perspective from which they emanate. When it comes to suggestions and rules from the Church, we often become frustrated and view them as obstacles or fences that keep us from experiencing the other side. We focus so much on “the fence” and what’s on the other side that we miss what is around us. Instead of staring at the fence, why not turn around and focus on enjoying all the beauty, fun, and peace that can be experienced within the boundaries?
Chaste couples will cherish and enjoy true physical affection. They will focus the relationship on “How can I be romantic and creative to show I care for this person within the bounds of what is healthy? instead of “How far can I push physical affection before we sin?” A healthy, chaste couple will slow down and savor the journey of discovery and the passion that builds as the relationship develops.
Brad enjoyed sex in previous relationships. However, he described how hugs and holding hands became almost meaningless in such relationships. Then, years after he committed to chastity, he met Mindy. They were good friends for months and bonded deeply, especially on a spiritual level. One night, while walking out into the cold air, Brad pulled Mindy’s arms around him. They walked that way for a short time. Brad later commented on how cool it was to experience that small moment of affection with Mindy. He realized that living the virtue of chastity gave a simple act depth and power. It was just the start of an exciting new adventure.