Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The First Time; or, Practice Makes Perfect

This being our anniversary, it's time to talk about sex.

When I was a newly-wed, I worked at a theater. One afternoon, as I was working on tech with two other girls, the subject of sex came up, and both were surprised to hear that I had been a virgin when I got married. That set them off reminiscing about their first times. For all our cultural and moral and experiential disparity, we could all agree on one thing: the first time had been awkward, painful, and kind of alarming. This was a bit surprising to me -- surely the heat of the moment ought to be more conducive to getting it on than after a long and stressful wedding day? Not so much, it seems.

There's this pervasive myth that sex always equals pleasure. Sex, so the thinking goes, should always be mind-blowingly fantastic, and if it isn't, something is wrong. How better to insult someone by denigrating his or her sexual prowess? To insinuate that a woman is "frigid" or a man can't get it up is, in essence, calling that person abnormal. Fictional characters do it with a frequency and ease that leaves a subconscious impression that anyone can just hop in the sack and perform with aplomb, or else something's wrong.

Modern orthodox Catholics are justly proud of the way that we've made strides in reclaiming sex from the secular culture and proving that we can do it better because we've placed it within its proper sphere. That's all quite well and good, but it also tempts us into the mindset of "awesome sex through understanding!". Ask a teen why he or she is saving sex for marriage and one of the answers will be, "Because I want the first time to be special." One of the implied benefits of NFP is a better sex life. Listen to a Theology of the Body presentation and you hear that sex is pretty much heaven on earth. A young couple, all in love and high on hormones, could be forgiven for thinking that since they've done everything the right way (waiting until marriage, taking all the classes, having a basic grasp of biology) they're on the way to instant bliss -- just add vows! Unfortunately for our eager friends, the first time is not guaranteed to be fabulous -- in fact, it's pretty much the opposite. For the woman, it's awkward and it hurts (a lot). I don't think I'm the only girl in history to have cried in pain and frustration on her wedding night.

For a while I felt gypped. Maybe if we'd gone on honeymoon right away! Maybe if I'd had more champagne! Maybe if we'd waited until the next night! But you know what? I don't think it would have mattered. There were plenty of times before we were married that I felt more "in the mood" than I did on my wedding night. I'm glad we waited -- not only because God intended sex to occur only in a marital relationship, but also because the bitterness of committing a mortal sin would have been compounded by the shock that sex for the novice is not all it's cracked up to be. I sold my soul, and I got was this lousy lay!

Since sex has a spiritual component, it's important to learn about the Theology of the Body. Since it has a biological function, one must understand the basic principles of Natural Family Planning. But as it's a physical activity, it's the same as any other athletic venture: if you want to be good at it, you've got to practice. For a while. With a dedicated partner. Sex is a learned activity, and it takes more than one roll in the hay to get the basic skills down, and that's before you kick it up to notches unknown. There are better things than instant gratification.


For those shocked and appalled at the idea of talking about sex with my theater compatriots: that conversation turned out to be one of the best evangelization opportunities I've ever had. Using Theology of the Body terminology and a bit of NFP, I was able to explain, to their great amazement, that the Church's opposition to birth control was because sex has an intrinsic meaning of unity and total self-giving that is violated by divorcing fertility from sex. "Wow," said one of them. "I always thought the Church just didn't like people to have sex." So there you have it.

UPDATE: From about half the comments and some private correspondence, it becomes plain that I need to clarify one thing here: all I'm trying to say is, as "a guy" puts it in the combox: "It's sort of surprising that for all we supposedly know about sex, we don't teach the fact that structurally a woman's first time just isn't made, by nature, to be automatically pleasurable. " Perhaps this post is only applicable to young Catholic newlyweds (or those who once were young Catholic newlyweds) who wonder on their wedding night, "Wait a minute! What are we doing wrong? Isn't this supposed to be a wonderful experience, mirroring God's love for the Church, etc.?"


love2learnmom said...


Hallie @ Moxie Wife said...

Happy anniversary!

Kate said...

Wonderful post. :-D
My wedding night was far from perfect too...but I have often thought as you did how horrible it would be to experience that awkwardness, pain, and fear as a single, insecure teenager or young adult. How awful!

And that first week of marriage is a fond fond memory for me after all, because it brought out some of the best in my husband and opened the lines of communication that, with practice, really does make perfect. :-)

(btw, we celebrated 5 years last week. which anniversary is this for you?)

mrsdarwin said...

Happy anniversary, Kate! It's eight years for us, and I'm caught between being amazed that it's already been eight years, and feeling like we've been together all our lives.

I really wish I'd had someone talk to me before we got married just to give me an idea of what to expect -- I mean beyond the biological facts of life. Queen Victoria gets a bad rap for telling her daughter, "Close your eyes and think of England," but for getting through the first time, that's sound practical advice. Come to that, maybe it's more important to have someone talk to the guy. :)

Anonymous said...

I have to ask for advice: Since the day is coming too soon with my own kids, and since I never had much "wait til marriage" talk from my parents, were there any memorable words of wisdom, jokes, or anything else that stuck in your mind that made you the type of person to wait til marriage? Obviously your whole upbringing plays the major part, but I'm just curious if there were any instantly memorable quips or pithy remarks that helped to foster this attitude... Thanks!

Sarah Reinhard said...

Great post! I love how you used that conversation at the theater to evangelize. Thanks for sharing this!

Anonymous said...

Kudos for your evangelization efforts, especially on the evils of contraception (something which needs to be at the center of most evangelization these days), but I think swapping "war stories" goes too far. Certain things should be left private between you and your husband. In fact, reverence requires it.

And indeed there is a something to be said for "grin and bear it", as in pick up your cross, quietly.

Catholic teaching on sexuality is not a "how to" manual but rather an explanation for the complementary roles between the sexes. More power to you if you kick it up a notch but that is not theology. Public discussions should be more Ephesians 5 than mechanics.

mrsdarwin said...

Anon at 8:26,

Sorry if you were scandalized. I'm not interested in having a discussion of mechanics, but dealing with the apparently common misconception that sex should instantly bring pleasure, even though so many people's practical experience doesn't bear that out. This may be a discussion that's only applicable to women, I dunno.

As to "war stories": it would doubtless be better to cite Ephesians 5, but there's something to be said for meeting people where they are. I highly doubt if either of my coworkers had ever so much as cracked a Bible in their lives, and any reference to scripture would have dried up any conversation, then or for the future. Some people are biased that way, sad to say.

a guy said...

There's this pervasive myth that sex always equals pleasure.

I was going to say "only for the guy" and see you beat me to it...

Seriously, I think it's good to bring up that the first time for the woman is often not so good, associated as it is with pain. It's sort of surprising that for all we supposedly know about sex, we don't teach the fact that structurally a woman's first time just isn't made, by nature, to be automatically pleasurable.

Anonymous said...

Not scandalized just thinking there might be a better way to approach the topic. You certainly make a valid point about quoting the Bible, but that doesn't mean such discussions have to be conducted in the hip language of our debauched society.

Certain "misconceptions" you address are probably more applicable to women than men, especially if everything they know about the topic comes from movies and not from talks with their mothers.

For both sexes, there are practical and moral reasons for virginity before marriage as well as the willingness to perform one's conjugal duties whether or not one is "in the mood".

bearing said...

I'm kind of interested in exploring the balance between secrecy and frankness -- the right amount of discretion -- when it comes to discussing sex. There is clearly a point beyond which intimacy between husband and wife must be kept inviolate -- between them, private. And yet ... women have much to teach other women, and men have much to teach other men, that is good and necessary.

I have little patience for the sex-is-a-holy-thing-on-a-pedestal attitude. Sex is incredibly powerful and the power must be respected. It's also a lot of other things. The adjective "ridiculous" comes to mind. And "occasionally awkward." And "confusing." And "an opportunity for sacrifice." It's impossible to maintain an attitude of breathless respect in the face of the holy when one is attempting to have intercourse in, say, the eighth month of pregnancy.

There's a tradition of bawdiness, I think, that is distinct from debauchery. Laugh in the face of the prince of this world, and give him a little less power over you.

"In Mrs. Dimble's hands the task of airing the little house and making the bed for Ivy Maggs and her jail-bird husband became something betwen a game and a ritual. It woke in Jane vague memories of helping at Christmas or Easter decorations in church when she had been a small child. But it also suggested to her literary memory all sorts of things out of Sixteenth-Century epithalamiums---age-old superstitions, jokes and sentimentalities about bridal beds and marriage bowers.... Was there not something absurd about that stiff, twinkling archaic world --- the mixture of prudery and sensuality, the stylized ardours of the groom and the conventional bashfulness of the bride, the religious sanction, the permitted salacities....and the suggestion that everyone except the principals might be expected to be rather tipsy?... At every moment [Mother Dimble] seemed to join hands with some solemn yet roguish company of busy old women who had been tucking young lovers into beds since the world began with an incongruous mixture of nods and winks and blessings and tears---quite impossible old women in ruffs or wimples who would be making Shakespearean jokes about codpieces and cuckoldry at one moment and kneeling devoutly at altars the next. It was very odd..." (C. S. Lewis from That Hideous Strength)

As for it being better to learn about sex from our mothers, PLEASE. Some of us would do much better to ignore everything our parents believed about sex. When families -- mothers, fathers -- teach moral evils by word and example, the Christian peer group is poised to do some real good, and shouldn't abandon their friends.

Anonymous said...

Good update--of course a discussion of how certain pious and educated Catholics end up with such misconceptions might be useful.

And yes of course the topic can be addressed by peers as well as actual mothers/fathers. But there does need to be a maximum emphasis on reverence and purity.

(Good to see the C.S. Lewis quote--his space trilogy deserves more recoginition for its exposition of the evils of contraception.)

mrsdarwin said...

Good update--of course a discussion of how certain pious and educated Catholics end up with such misconceptions might be useful.

Well, that's easy: no one sat down with me right before the wedding and said: "Look, you might have heard that it will hurt the first time. It will; more than you expect. That doesn't mean that you're not doing it right or that it will always be that way. It simply means that the first time hurts. Just get through it so that you can move on from there." I don't believe there would be anything irreverent or impure about such a statement.

Perhaps you are bothered by my being flip in my phraseology while writing my post; I only intended to show that I don't take myself too seriously.

Anonymous said...

I suppose you are looking forward to such a conversation with your own children!

Now you will be able to help them understand important aspects of sacrificial loving.

And just maybe for your friends this is t.m.i.?

entropy said...

"Look, you might have heard that it will hurt the first time. It will; more than you expect. That doesn't mean that you're not doing it right or that it will always be that way. It simply means that the first time hurts. Just get through it so that you can move on from there."

That is perfect.

mrsdarwin said...

Anon, I am sorry that this post strikes you as t.m.i. I was hoping to strike a chord of sympathy with readers who might (as several of the commenters have) recognize and remember their own experiences, since, as I've stated, I don't think that this "first-time shock" is an uncommon thing. I don't think, though I'm open to correction here, that I've crossed the Gov. Sanford line.

For my folly, I've taken the penance of re-reading my own writing until I'm sick of the piece and wish I hadn't posted it in the first place.

bearing said...

"But there does need to be a maximum emphasis on reverence and purity."

"Maximum?" Purity, yes; reverence, I think I will have to disagree. A "maximum" emphasis on reverence is appropriate for the truly sacred. It's appropriate for a discussion of the nuptial Mass, for instance.

But it's not really necessary to have "maximum reverence" in discussions of the nuptial bed.

Husbands and wives don't always Engage In The Marital Act. Sometimes they screw. I think that's just fine. More than fine, sometimes. :-)

Brandon said...

One of the parts of Humanae Vitae that is often ignored by conservative and liberal Catholics alike is this the one where Catholic married couples are called to do exactly the sort of thing that was done in this post:

Among the fruits that ripen if the law of God be resolutely obeyed, the most precious is certainly this, that married couples themselves will often desire to communicate their own experience to others. Thus it comes about that in the fullness of the lay vocation will be included a novel and outstanding form of the apostolate by which, like ministering to like, married couples themselves by the leadership they offer will become apostles to other married couples. And surely among all the forms of the Christian apostolate it is hard to think of one more opportune for the present time.

I'm glad you posted it, Mrs. Darwin; it's about time that Catholics actually started doing what Paul VI called them to do forty years ago. An essential part of HV's teaching on the subject of sex and marriage was that Catholic doctrine on the matter absolutely required practical and new efforts "to create an atmosphere favorable to the growth of chastity so that true liberty may prevail over license and the norms of the moral law may be fully safeguarded." This cannot happen without communication on the subject of sex that is both frank and Catholic.

Enbrethiliel said...


Mrs. Darwin, I didn't leave a comment the first time, but now that Anonymous has made you question what you've written I feel obliged to tell you that I think it's GREAT.

It's easy for someone to hide behind anonymity on the Internet and act purer-than-thou, but it's much harder to discuss the Catholic view of sex in a way that is both helpful, compassionate and accessible--which is what you did with your colleagues and have done again with your readers.

Barb Nicolosi once pointed out that you couldn't make a good case for or against anything without being fair enough to portray it accurately. I think the way you've presented Catholic teaching on sex (versus the world's own ideas) is, while not purely theological, very well balanced.

Anonymous said...

Mrs Darwin, I loved this post. So, so true. I was also a bit unprepared for my wedding night, and I remember it well. I didn't think that your post was at all inappropriate.

--Elizabeth B.

Anonymous said...

No apologies necessary. You have struck a chord with your readers, and obviously it is a topic worthy of some generalized discussion.

And no apologies here for thinking such topics should be treated reverently and delicately.

Enbrethiliel said...


How about an apology for insinuating that Mrs. Darwin wasn't treating the subject delicately and reverently?

Pro Ecclesia said...

Absolutely NOTHING wrong with this post. And NOTHING for which you should feel the need to apologize. And, for goodness sake, don't second guess your decision to post this, ESPECIALLY given the chord you've obviously struck with your readers.

You revealed nothing about the intimate details of your marriage bed (or at least nothing that anyone else hasn't also experienced). Nor did you treat the subject irreverently or indelicately.

In fact, I am puzzled that anyone would take exception to this fairly innocuous (albeit candid) discussion.

BettyDuffy said...

I think that "reverent and delicate" should at times cede to "honest." There is good to come from this kind of discussion within the right context. And I've often thought that NFP courses should include a section on mechanics. It is not a sin to enjoy the marriage bed. In fact the "grit your teeth and bare it" method looks a bit like "using" a spouse's body for pleasure. Pope John Paul II gives a very frank commentary on this stuff in "Love and Responsibility"--even going so far as to say, it isn't over, until SHE's over.

Well done, Mrs. D.

Anonymous said...

No insinuating here. I took slight issue with certain turns of phrase for the reasons given.

The author explained why she chose to address it the way she did. And made some very valid points when doing so.

I am grateful that comments are permitted and given thoughtful consideration.

Riptide911 said...

Thanks, Mrs. Darwin, for another great read. From a young single guy's perspective, thank you for some valuable advice and good perspective. With so much bad advice and false suppositions, this was VERY refreshing and informative.

Anonymous said...

I have just read this post; hopefully it is not too late to leave a comment. Excellent post, Mrs. Darwin. Sometimes honesty is needed. I remember being terrified the closer our wedding date got. I had heard about "pain" and "blood" being involved. I was almost to the point of getting cold feet over the whole thing; even though we were in love and wanted to spend our life together. Fortunately I found a book which was very helpful in this regard (won't go into details, I don't want anyone to have to get out their smelling salts!). Suffice it to say that we got through the wedding night okay, and we will celebrate our 37th anniversary in a couple of weeks.

Jenny said...

I think a little more honest conversation is necessary. I have a friend who was so alarmed by the pain and "awkwardness" that she was in the doctor's office two days after her wedding to find out what was wrong with her. She was relieved to find out she was normal but felt a bit mislead in her expectations.

mrsdarwin said...

MKM, Congratulations on 37 years!

I think that since sex is such a prevalent topic (heck, I remember hearing about sex and people "doing it" on the playground during second grade -- we were seven years old -- no one even really knew what sex was but the boys liked to joke about it), people assume that it should be as easy to do as to talk about, especially since something one wants so much ought to happen so naturally, no?

But since that doesn't seem to be the way it works, there needs to be honest discussion about how sex works, especially the first time. It doesn't necessarily need to be in a public space like this, but acknowledging publicly that there is a need for better information is the first step to making sure such discussion happens privately.

Ana Braga-Henebry said...

"It's easy for someone to hide behind anonymity on the Internet and act purer-than-thou, but it's much harder to discuss the Catholic view of sex in a way that is both helpful, compassionate and accessible--which is what you did with your colleagues and have done again with your readers." ---
I would add to this kind and commonsensical comment that the secret ingredient in both Darwins' posts is the balanced, refreshing humour. Very hard to go. Kudos.

bearing said...

Another thought --

About that bit about "mirroring God's love for the church," etc. --

The specific image is Christ as bridegroom, Church as bride, no?

Consider this:

Consummation hurts the bride because the bride is physically and permanently altered by consummation. It probably helps a bit, but doesn't make the hurt go away, that she is (let's hope) willing and eager for consummation. Consummation hurts because consummation changes her; she cannot help but be changed by it.

So, yeah, the mirroring goes on. "Wonderful?" No, and yes.

Enbrethiliel said...


Very interesting, Bearing!

cminor said...

I skimmed this post several days ago and my jaw dropped today when I came back and saw the number of comments!

MrsD, I thought it was tastefully done. Also necessary. Anyone who considers this TMI should try going through Catholic NFP instructor training sometime.

Betty and anyone else interested: There is some published material on mechanics that addresses issues like this one in the NFP literature. Admittedly (though I've been out of the loop for a while; things may have improved) there is reticence about discussions in that direction.

Steve said...

Late to the party here, but in case anybody's still reading...

My wife and I were both virgins on our wedding night 3 years ago. Do to some reading beforehand (We didn't know much better and got generic "Christian" advice).

It wasn't perfect. Nor even good. But just as this post did, it set the expectations.

Knowing what we were going into, the awkwardness and pain didn't lead to disappointment. In many ways, I think it was very fruitful--sharing that strange experience was probably more soul-baring than had it been perfect cinematic romance.

While that sort of experience would be subpar today, my wife and I have nothing but fond memories of that first evening.