“Time Magazine and Francis Fukuyama, Raquel Welch and a series of Popes, some of the world’s leading scientists, and many other unlikely allies all agree: No single event since Eve took the apple has been as consequential for relations between the sexes as the arrival of modern contraception.” ‘Adam and Eve after the Pill, Paradoxes of the Sexual Revolution,’ Mary Eberstadt, 2012
Quite a few years ago, because of our work with youth and engaged couples, we were asked to give a talk on sex to a group of high school age students. At one point during the talk, while Rita was starting to talk about HIV and the thirty or more sexually transmitted diseases ripping like a prairie fire through young and old alike, I was quietly off in the front corner of the classroom getting dressed.
I put on surgical room booties, surgical scrubs, mask, goggles, cap, and I double gloved with latex. By the time I was fully garbed, of course, even though I hadn’t spoken a word, I had their full attention. I held up my other prop, a sad, deflated condom[i]. In their health classes in public high schools, much had been made of “safe sex:” condoms being stretched over bananas and other directives of socially acceptable orthodoxy regarding such things for teenagers. I said, “What I have on is what medical practitioners do to protect themselves from AIDS and HIV infections (along with hepatitis, gonorrhea, syphilis herpes and all the rest). Holding up the shriveled latex penis cover, I said, “And this is what they tell you is going to protect you.” Let’s look at that a bit.
Theatrical, perhaps, but they weren’t hearing this anyplace else, so we may as well have made it memorable. I pulled out my other props: a basketball hoop with the net tied at the bottom with twine, a basketball, a two-gallon metal bucket and a package of BBs. We asked them what the failure rate was for adults within a given year for condoms to prevent pregnancy. The manufacturers will tell you 98% effective. The statisticians clarify. Yes, 98% if used perfectly every time, but in real life with real people, condoms, if used as the sole means of contraception, fail at a 15% rate within a year. Do you think young people in the heat of the back seat or couch or beach blanket are going to be able to attain perfection? More often or less often than 85%?
Next, I asked how many days a month can a girl achieve a pregnancy? The answer is two or less as her egg travels down the fallopian tube. Fertilized, the egg morphs almost instantly into a tiny, tiny human being with all the unique DNA information necessary for maturity. Next, the new minute human implants in the uterine lining, utterly transforms the young woman’s body into a perfect baby nurturing environment and begins the growth with which each one of us started. Basic embryology. Unfertilized, it is flushed out of her body in the normal cycle of menstruation. The male sperm lives for between twelve hours and at the outside seven days. Usually, it lasts less than five days. To be safe, let’s use the outside range of egg and sperm for a total of nine days. I then asked them how many days a month can a sexually transmitted disease transmit? “All of them,” our bright students correctly answered. If imperfectly used condoms normally fail at a 15% rate to block a pregnancy, how will they hold up against STDs? Not an inconsequential question.
What happened to the basketball and the BBs? The last piece for them. I popped the basketball into the tied net, and we all watched it hang up, trapped. Finally, I put the tin bucket under the net and poured in the BBs. Clamorous metal noise commenced. I asked what is the ratio in size of a human sperm to a Human Immunodeficiency Virus? Are you ahead of me? Basketball to a BB is the answer. How was that 15% looking now? Is Russian Roulette with only one bullet in the cylinder safer than two? We ended the science conversation by telling them that their best protection against pregnancies for which they were nowhere near ready to be responsible or against sexually transmitted disease, sometimes incurable, was not between their legs, but between their ears.
“She with whom I had lived so long was torn from my side as a hindrance to my forthcoming marriage. My heart which had held her very dear was broken and wounded and shed blood.” ‘Confessions, Book Six, Chapter Fifteen’ St. Augustine
After the science lesson, we discussed with them that sex had been both made too much of and trivialized in what they saw and heard everywhere in our oversexualized culture. Undoubtedly, sex is important to human closeness in men and woman relationships, but it is not the whole truth, or even the most important truth, about intimacy. In most of what they read and watch, sex is distorted, limited to a binary viewpoint- either fantasy graphic or fantasy romantic, utilitarian porn or Cinderella. What is the true end, the whole, the nature of, the ‘final cause,’ the purpose of sex? To strengthen the union between men and women in the most personal of ways? Yes. Also, to develop new human life, form families, continue our species? Just so. A two-fold purpose deep in our nature, inextricably entwined. Unitive and procreative. Who tells the young of this? What terrible responsibility do we shirk in not doing so?
The union of the sexual act is both profoundly real and profoundly symbolic.[ii] But it is only one aspect of the intimacy of man and woman. Total vulnerability and openness. Total gift of one to the other. Total trust and sharing of our dreams, hopes, fears and fragility. Total openness to new life, both within us and separate from us. Centered hopefully on vows of permanence one to the other necessary for family and optimum child rearing. Not quick hook ups: pneumatic encounters with quick fix orgasms to assuage our powerful drives or to prop up our drooping egos. Each urgent event possibly short circuiting other less urgently compelling communication so necessary to our long term mental, psychological and spiritual health. Each casual or frenetic sexual encounter with underwear quickly discarded on the floor requires protection, but not condoms: soul protection, cauterizing nerves, connections, sealing off part of our self that will diminish our capacity to truly share ourselves with another person. Each ephemeral encounter first exposing, then hardening by necessity those aspects of our uniqueness and personality that are best healed and nurtured by vulnerability and by love. Love of the other for the other, not a selfish yearning for reciprocity out of bottomless need, but sacrificial and total. Love as deeply desiring the good of the other, for the other, not ourselves. In the light, not the darkness. Therein lies the power and the presence. Sexual intimacy rooted in this love is all in. Nothing held back. No barriers.
In the end ‘sex’ and ‘safe’ are alien to one another. Sex is not safe. It is not supposed to be.
“In the ‘Republic,’ the well-nurtured youth is one ‘who would see most clearly what was amiss in ill-made works of man or ill-grown works of nature, and with it a just distaste would blame and hate the ugly even from his earliest years and would give delighted praise to beauty, receiving it into his soul and being nourished by it, so that he becomes a man of gentle heart.’” C.S Lewis quoting Plato in his “Abolition of Man” in the chapter “Men Without Chests.”
[i] Too many words needed to address the disconnectedness of condoms. They are a barrier method of contraception with all that implies. As cuddly, close and intimate as spooning with your beloved while wrapped in aluminum foil.
[ii] See Ephesians 5:31-33. Far beyond the scope or abilities of this blog post or blogger to investigate marriage as sign and symbol of God’s intimacy and love for His people.