Safe Sex and Family Planning – Twin Oxymorons

Happy Belated Valentine’s Day

There it goes – another Valentine’s Day, done and dusted. The annual celebration of the lusty side of love, the hearts and flowers, the candy and wine, the romance and the sex has come and gone, mending and breaking hearts as it has done for as long as I can remember.

On the surface, it’s a holiday centered on mawkish sentimentality, but seething underneath vibrates a current of hot passionate physical desire for nothing less than ending the day with a night of ardent sexual coupling. For most couples in the 21st century such pleasures, however robust, fall into the category of “safe sex.”

The “safe sex” myth
Couple at bonfire
Photo by Wesley Balten

But really? Is there such a thing? Half a century ago, in our early years as a dating couple safe sex meant “avoid getting pregnant.” Only refraining from genital intercourse offered anything like “safe sex.” I remember being warned in high school health class about possible infections, but because the teachers stayed fairly vague about intercourse itself, the cause of infection remained a mystery – and the  one sure way to avoid it – just say no, of course.

The problem with drawing a line in the sand and dropping a curtain on the other side was –  it raised our curiosity.  Just how close could we get? What was safe and what wasn’t?   As Catholic kids, we had an even more nebulous rule to follow, “Don’t do anything that was an occasion of sin.” To follow such a dictate meant being able to name the “sin” and intuit the “occasion.” Clearly, the wrongful act was “going all the way,” but how far along the way could one go before the “occasion of sin” aspect kicked it? What was the point of no return?  The moral dictum assumed one.  If you could always stop short of the sin itself, then nothing could constitute an “occasion of sin,” which is a pre-state that once achieved made sin inevitable.

If all that rattles in your head like stones in a tin can, it’s no wonder. Much of Catholic moral reasoning during our youth felt like running on a hamster wheel – all noise and getting nowhere.

Now nearly a quarter of the 21st century is already history, but what constitutes “safe sex” is not much clearer than it was in 1962. Since then, the societal mores shift dubbed the “sexual revolution” has vastly altered our understanding of with whom we are free to be sexually intimate.

Contraceptives
Photo by Reproductive Health Coalition

Also changed is the age and the life stage at which young people become sexually active. Centuries of caution were set aside in less than a decade because the widespread availability of a “birth-control” pill caused women and their partners to believe they could decide if and when they would become pregnant, independent of their decision to have sexual intercourse.

a house of cards

As Jay and I discovered very early in our marriage, however, there is no easy fast track to safe sex, and “family planning” depends on the architecture of chance. By 1964, Enovid, the first readily available reversible birth control, was tentatively approved by some of the Catholic Church’s pastoral advisors.  It was argued that it helped couples practice “natural family planning” because it made it possible for a woman to pinpoint when she would have her menstrual cycle. Their argument convinced us and my doctor.  I began taking the pill the month before we married.

None of us knew that the medication had been rushed into production despite concerns about serious side-effects.  In 1964 Pope Paul VI convened the Commission on Population, the Family and Natality. Many representatives to the commission urged the pill’s acceptance by the church.

Surgery sutures on belly
Photo by Sharon McCutcheon

Jay and I blithely gave ourselves over to a blissful life of frequent and, as we believed, now “safe” sexual intimacy.  But eight months after our wedding, I was hospitalized for major surgery on both ovaries.  I lost all by a fraction of my left ovary to tumors. My surgeon warned me against taking Enovid. Even more emphatically, he told us our chances of conceiving a child had been greatly reduced. Despite the fact that had hoped to postpone having a family until we finished school, he counseled us against using birth control of any kind.  We needed, he said, to be open to whatever possibilities for conception that might randomly occur, given the injuries to my reproductive organs.

We were not the only victims. In the next two decades, birth control medications would be linked to the risk of blood clots, heart attack, stroke, depression, weight gain and loss of libido as well as the risk of ovarian cancer, iron deficiency anemia, and pelvic inflammatory disease.

In 1968  Pope Paul VI ultimately declared his opposition to the pill in the Humanae Vitae encyclical. Jay and I never again returned to the practice of birth control, but our faith in two institutions that had been the bedrock of our youth – science and the Catholic Church was profoundly shaken.  The pope had made his declaration against the advice of the married Catholic on the commission. In the new climate of the church since Vatican Council II, laypersons knew their voice counted.  To be so blatantly swept aside when the issue at hand was clearly in their sphere of expertise called into question for us and many others, the church’s moral authority not just on family planning, but about other deeply divisive concerns as well.

life’s great maybes

Jay and I would remain members of the Catholic Faith Community, but with an expectation that hierarchy could and should sometimes be questioned for the good of the community as a whole.

As for the small community – the family unit, we would discover that adding the word “planning” to the word “family” represented at best wishful thinking.  Families aren’t designed, they are astonishingly serendipitous. And we would learn to live by the motto, “We’ll know more later – maybe.”

8 children peering through banister
Phots by National Cancer Institute

“It’s a bizarre but wonderful feeling, to arrive dead center of a target you didn’t even know you were aiming for.”
― Lois McMaster Bujold

I’d truly love to hear from you about experiences, momentous or trivial, that turned out to be so different than you expected, they changed your life in some important way.

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