Friday, July 03, 2015
Making Catholic Sex Sexy
This week is natural family planning awareness week. And during this NFP awareness week, I am acutely aware that 98 percent of Catholic women use contraception of some form.

We need more than an awareness week. The whole Catholic approach to NFP needs a massive overhaul. It simply isn’t working.
Allow me to preface everything I am about to write by expressing my deep respect for the courage of the Church and of so many men and women in defending NFP’s radical and profoundly dignifying teaching in a culture that values artificial birth control as much as breathing.

Last night as I cooked dinner, for instance, thirty minutes of primetime news was devoted to contraception coverage: “Bureaucrats in Washington want to force all insurance companies to cover the pill on taxpayer dime.” “Men in Indonesia are trying out birth control pills!

I picked up an old copy of the New York Times only to land on a story of a couple who tried NFP, had a statistically average number of “unplanned” pregnancies (contracepting or not), freaked out, threw NFP to the wind, and got a divorce. Yawn.

This is indeed a culture where promiscuity is branded as empowering and contraception is an assumed part of life. So this is not an attack on anyone standing up to the culture. I’ve sat through enough doctor’s visits and sipped my way through enough cocktail parties to know I am viewed as a cultural freak if I’m not on the pill. Speaking out against the pill? Even freakier.

That being said, I can honestly say that, having had NFP preparation before marriage and knowing many other women who have as well, it’s no shocker to me that so few Catholic women and couples have joined the NFP bandwagon.

First, it’s poorly branded, if branded at all. Do a quick Google search and you get anything from a clunky website with a picture of the Vatican and the bolded words “ecological breastfeeding” to pictures of cheeky babies everywhere. Lesson number one in marketing: If you are trying to sell to women who are seeking to avoid a pregnancy, maybe baby pictures aren’t the best tactic.

But more importantly, it’s marketed in a profoundly unsexy way. My NFP workbook features on its cover a woman in baggy pastels with a grocery bag balanced on one hip, a baby on the other. Awesome! I want to be her! On the contrary, I find I have not opened it once since getting married.

My guess is 99 out of 100 21st-century women trying to navigate the decision about contraception would see that cover and run for the hills. It’s simply the cultural reality. You cannot appeal to today’s women stuck in the I’ll-get-a-nanny-for-my-1.2-kids-and-make-big-bucks mindset with images of cheesy women carrying grocery bags. You just can’t.

Second, many NFP classes are off-putting and inappropriate. Couples should not be sitting together for hours on end before they are married talking about sex, cervical mucus, ovulation, penises, and vaginas, surrounded by fifteen other couples to look at in case you get bored. It is not exactly a recipe for purity of mind. Imagine sitting in a room with your fiancé and 30 strangers, forced to chant the refrain “Mucus trumps all!”

Who wouldn’t be creeped out?

The way I see it, women should get the biological preparation, while men should get a more 30,000-foot preparation — how to be supportive, how to be engaged, how to be ready for the fact that you cannot have sex whenever you please. They can get the gory details after the wedding bells have chimed. Mixing the sexes when dealing with a sexual topic is just un-Catholic. I had to review my fertility charts with a male teacher I hardly knew. Not appropriate.

Third, some variations of NFP are overly complicated. Thermometers, mathematical charts, codes and symbols, oh my! Mess one thing up? Have another helping of math and symbols! On day two of our course, my now-husband leaned over to me and whispered, “I have three degrees and I can't even figure this out.”

As another woman put it, “I shouldn’t have to do a daily algorithm not to get pregnant.” The truth is, you don’t. Anyone who tells you otherwise is misleading you. Unless you have a medical condition, in which case you should consult with a medical professional.

Finally, many classes are not taught with the appropriate mindset. Couples can practice NFP but retain a contraceptive mentality. Since NFP is so effective, one can use it to avoid having kids indefinitely, like one couple I know. One couple’s instructors bragged about not having their first kid for three years — for no other reason than they felt like it. Another woman described her NFP class to me as nothing more than “Catholicism’s version of birth control,” where “NFP trainers throw statistics at you about how NFP is more effective.”

NFP should be taught within the context of Humanae Vitae. In fact, reading the encyclical would be the ideal first activity in any NFP class. Because NFP does not give you license to be the hormone-free version of the I’ll-get-a-nanny-for-my-1.2-kids-and-make-big-bucks woman. Waiting for and spacing children should be done only for serious reasons, something couples should have personal, serious conversations about, possibly even with a priest or spiritual director.

The Church is right to be gravely concerned about rampant contraception use in the culture. But this issue might pose a log-in-our-own-eye scenario. Right now, the Church’s women use artificial birth control at the same rate as everyone else. And its approach to attracting women and men away from contraception is better suited to a 70s, free-love world rather than a culture where women strut the streets in pantsuits and out-earn men.

NFP must be re-branded as something empowering, a better option than ingesting hormones, a lifestyle that puts women at the reins of a healthy and fulfilling sexual life, something compatible with being a contemporary woman.

The theological component is crucial. But to get the theology, first we’ve got to get women in the room. Pique their interest. Hint that you offer something different from the libido-reducing, unknown side-effect-causing, hook-up facilitating stuff everyone else is selling. Because the dirty little secret is, women are sick of all that. They are hungry for something different. They are hungry for what is hiding beneath clunky websites, stuffy classrooms, mucus refrains, and baggy pastels.

Imagine if ads ran on buses in our metropolises displaying modern women of all ages and races with the simple words, “I am NFP” — and a fresh, correlating website with clear information about the methodology, who to call, when the next seminar is offered. Imagine if each diocese had an NFP spokeswoman who did not look like she sews her own clothes.

Imagine if NFP became sexy. Think big. Think crazy. Maybe then more sex would start to be truly Catholic.

Ashley E. McGuire is the editor-in-chief of Altcatholicah.

Photo Courtesy Susan NYC.

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