Friday, December 6, 2013

Book Review: The Sinners Guide to Natural Family Planning

So I read Simcha Fisher's book, The Sinner's Guide to Natural Family Planning. If you're a couple who has just decided that you might give NFP a try, go ahead and read this book. If you are a good and faithful Catholic woman whose marriage is falling apart because your husband is a sex-crazed troglodyte who only wants to use your body as an object for his filthy lusts, you should really, really buy this book and read it right now (forget the rest of this review. Read Simcha. Here's the link.) On the other hand, if you're a couple who has just experienced their Nth NFP failure, you've already called every Priest and theologian that you know, and you're so frustrated that you're starting to think about jumping ship and becoming an Anglican, this book might not be for you.

There are some parts of the book that are really good. Simcha does a great job of portraying the genuine frustrations of being a fruitful, pro-life Catholic and her willingness to tear down NFP shibboleths like “the honeymoon effect” is highly refreshing. Her ability to build a rapport with female readers is quite strong; there were a number of moments where I found myself laughing uncontrolably in recognition. Just that sense of “Thank God I'm not the only one” can be really therapeutic.

She also has a lot of good sound advice for people who are getting over some of the initial hurdles with NFP, like the thing where the woman practices NFP by being completely chaste and pure and a Bride of Jesus through the practice of Holy Frigidity, and the man practices NFP by sleeping on the couch and fantasizing about murdering his wife. Simcha handles the content with a sense of humour and she's pretty up-front about the fact that NFP involves a lot of failure, irritation and general suffering. Also, big bonus, she gives a really good treatment of a lot of the judginess that goes on in NFP circles, and her illustrations of why we don't need to be more Catholic than Paul VI are spot on.

That's the good news. The bad news is that she raises a lot of very, very good questions, and then often does not provide very good answers to them. Some examples of situations this book will not help you with are:

If your reasons for avoiding pregnancy are not merely just and reasonable, but grave and life-threatening, and you can't get NFP to work.
If you have already obtained all of the "marriage building" communication upgrades that NFP could possibly provide and have effectively communicated yourself into a total impasse.
If you have intellectual or ideological reservations, or if your spouse has same.
If you don't come from deep within the Catholic ghetto and questions like "Is it really okay to laugh about sex?" make you feel like you're in the Twilight Zone.
If your problems with NFP are biological or methodological and not psych-spiritual and relational.

And now for the elephant in the room. Simcha describes herself as having "been married for fifteen years, we have nine children, and we’ve used NFP off and on. In those years, we’ve tried, with varying degrees of effort and success, to space pregnancies." Simple mathematics tell us that Simcha has been pregnant for a little less than half of her married life. If we assume that she experiences even minimal lactational amenorrhea, or we assume that it takes her and her husband an average amount of time to get pregnant, she has had no appreciable success in avoiding pregnancy with NFP. It may be that she has genuinely discerned in each case that it was time to get pregnant again, but someone who has a very strong reason why they really can't get pregnant would prefer to have advice from someone who has actually used NFP to achieve that end.

Finally, for the first time ever I get to complain that a Catholic sex-book is gynocentric. The discourse is for women, by a woman, and primarily about women. Men appear in it as people who have to be communicated with and treated with respect and love, but their perspective gets a pretty superficial treatment. There are numerous pieces of advice that are specifically targetted to men, but when I read them I thought “No. That's not how men think. That's how a woman would be thinking if she were behaving that way. Men are different.” Even when Simcha did her research and asked men to tell her their perspective, she was still really only quoting the parts of man-think that make sense to women. I realize that I am also a woman, but when my husband read it that was also overwhelmingly his primary complaint so I suspect I'm onto something.
In short, it's a good primer. It's an excellent antidote to callous NFP legalism. But it leaves a lot of questions that really need to be answered if we're going to find a way to make NFP work for anyone other than a trifling percentage of ultra-motivated, highly-organized super-Catholics.


  1. As a celibate gay male, my interest in this book (and the topic) is admittedly fairly academic. However, I wanted to applaud your perceptivity, not just about how men think, but about how women often think about how men think. I frequently get the sense, not least from talking to my married friends, that "If I were behaving that way it would be because of this, therefore they are behaving that way because of this" is a continual unrecognized assumption, not just in marital interactions, but in a lot of male-female relationships, with or without a sexual element.

  2. I'm curious why NFP has become so championed by a section of Catholics, as if it is a Catholic thing. Just because the Church teaches that it is a licit technique for trying to prevent pregnancy does not mean it is an effective technique or an easy one or a pleasant one to use or a wise one. Blood letting was also once a licit technique for stopping disease but it was never a good technique and no one would blame the Church for its failures. With NFP, it's not like the Church offers it as the Catholic's alternative to artificial birth control. It just doesn't prohibit it as it does physical barriers and chemical contraceptives. But in practice NFP is presented that way, and I think that hurts the Church's credibility. Do you think the Church would be better served by distancing itself from NFP? It doesn't seem to me the magisterium itself is obligated to provide us with any great way to have as much sex with as few babies as we want, and I can't think of any time in the past where the magisterium took up what is essentially a scientific position (the effectiveness of a technique in this case) and didn't end up embarrassing itself.

    1. So, are you saying 'if you have life-threatening reasons for not getting pregnant again just abstain from sex or risk dying?' Not being sarcastic. After all, as you've pointed out, that's what people did for centuries.

      I think the number of abortions in cities just got so high that the Anglican church couldn't stomach it any more and changed their position on contraception. I don't think they foresaw the consequences though ...

    2. Agreed Zeb. It seems to me that if a couple had a truly serious/grave reason which is the requirement, it would not be difficult to implement NFP. The alternative would mean total abstinence which is fail proof since the marriage act is designed for the procreation of children. I'm also not understanding why there is a distinction made in this review (and presumably the book itself) between "just/reasonable" and "grave" reasons (for using NFP) since the Church herself does not make a distinction but uses these terms interchangeably to mean the same thing.

  3. From my experience and what I have heard from others, most of the problems couples have with NFP are biological/methodological. The #1 concern of Catholic women with NFP is also effectiveness.

    Unfortunately, some Catholic groups don't put the proper emphasis on teaching the science of the method or medically supporting couples who struggle. One group lectured us heavily on the "Sin of Onan" while teaching an outdated version of NFP that was little more than the rhythm method.

    It almost seems like some groups take the attitude of "we don't feel comfortable talking about women's health and don't want to take the time to learn how to do it, so we'll just focus more on the psych-spiritual and relational aspects." Which only leads to frustration and discredits the Church.

    Then you have instructors trying to take on the role of spiritual advisors. No. Just no.

    What about NaPro? Yes, NaPro has helped many couples, but it's not perfect. Overall, it seems more focused on treating infertility than cleaning up charts. Couples may need more options.

    The best way to get is for it to work for more couples outside the "Catholic ghetto" become a part of mainstream women's health. This means better education of practitioners and better technology. More endocrinology, less theology.

    1. This is interesting, because one of the big frustrations that I had with NFP instruction was that there wasn't adequate psycho-spiritual or relational support. The spirituality and theology were there, but in a kind of vague, fluffy form: that kind of "stick with it, and your marriage will one day be miraculously joyful" thing.
      It's an interesting problem, because the truth is that as a secular option NFP could be really effective, it has the capacity to provide women with a much healthier alternative to the Pill and it does have in-built benefits in terms of encouraging openness to life and respect for women. The problem is that any program of effective secular NFP is going to include recommendations for how to express your sexuality while abstaining -- and most pro-life Catholic groups are not willing to go there.
      Also, I'm seriously curious whether anyone knows why it is that NFP courses don't include LH tests? You can bulk order them for about $20 for a six month supply (diocese pro-family groups could probably bulk-order them for even less.) They're super easy to use, their efficacy is not effected by sexual activity, stress, sleeplessness, irregular cycles or unpredictable schedules. There's no sitting there looking at your mucus and stressing about whether to describe it as "Stretchy" or "Tacky." It's just like doing a pregnancy test. You pee on a stick. You read the stick. You know if you ovulated. Obviously it's not a solution for the pre-ovulatory period, but even just as a teaching aid for women who are having trouble reading their fertility signs, having that kind of straightforward, simple, reliable test makes a huge difference. But I only found out about them because I have a friend who was dealing with infertility and using ovulation tests to help get pregnant.

    2. Well, as an NFP instructor, I have to say, Simcha's book has a wide audience. I disagree that that the most common concern is biological or methodological. The most common issues I see are relational. It's difficult to use NFP effectively when there are trust issues, maturity issues, self-discipline issues, fears, lack of communication, etc. Each marriage is different and each has their own challenges, but relational issues play heavily into NFP use and effectiveness (both for avoiding pregnancy and achieving pregnancy - remember NFP can be used to acheive!). I have seen one "method" (read: unexplainable, falls into the 1% "failure rate") pregnancy and yet countless, countless relational concerns. This is why I love Simcha's book (and in all fairness, it is called "The Sinner's Guide... " She makes it clear it is not about the biology or the method, but a book specifically about relational issues).

      That's not to say concerns about biology or methodology aren't out there and valid... it's just I disagree that those are the number one issues.

      I also feel like it's unfair to "calculate" Simcha's use of NFP... we have no idea when her cycles return after pregnancy (I have seen them return as early as 60 days for breastfeeding women), and using the method to space... even if for only a few cycles, is certainly valid. I appreciated her writing on how she came to peace with her fertility and large family. Does it address "method pregnancies" or very real fears in regards to life-threatening illnesses? No. But I didn't expect this particular book to!

    3. The reason for noting that Simcha has been pregnant an awful lot is simple: I also used NFP to "space" my babies until I had a miscarriage with serious health problems and realized that I could no longer tell myself that I was practicing "family planning" when the truth was that, just doing the math, I was getting pregnant almost as often with NFP as I had without. Even for someone like me (I'm one of those 60 day breastfeeding women) when I was using no family planning at all it still took me, on average, about 9 months to a year to get pregnant after giving birth (I suspect that even though I resume ovulating very quickly postpartem that my body, on some level, knows that it's not ready for another baby. Because once I hit the one year point, one charting mistake and I'm pregnant. Period.)
      Anyway, when I started using NFP, there was a really intense psychological desire to believe that all of the heartbreak and effort were actually doing something, so even though I kept getting pregnant I kept coming up with narratives that justified the failures: I had kind of cut corners. Maybe I was kind of ready for a baby again. Maybe it was sort of planned. Maybe. A little. It wasn't until I really hit the wall and was in a position where getting pregnant again was out of the question, health-wise, that I sat down and soberly assessed the situation. I'm not saying that's necessarily what Simcha is doing -- in some ways, she's a very different person from me, but a lot of her descriptions and arguments are eerily familiar. They sound like the kind of things that I was telling myself two years ago. Also, using NFP for a couple of cycles is not the same thing, in any way, as using NFP over a long period of time. The thing where you do it, and hate it, and do it again, and hate it again, and then agree that it's only for a couple more months...well, anybody can white-knuckle it for a couple of months if they know that it's going to over soon. I've done that. But doing that won't give you a lot of insights that are going to be helpful to people who are faced with long-term, grave reasons why they can't get pregnant.
      That's why I gave my list of situations where this book will not help. I also gave a list of people who I think it would help. That's what a book review is for: it tells potential readers whether this book is going to meet their needs. Personally, I didn't expect it to deal with "method pregnancies" or difficulties in charting -- but some readers might expect that, and they should know "Nope. Not this book." Personally, based on the table of contents, I did expect it to help me with the question of "How do you deal with it when your husband hates NFP so much that he fantasizes about going on an axe-murder spree in an NFP training centre?" I didn't feel it dealt with that question. It joked about it, and that was nice because gallows humour is always comforting. But after the jokes, most of the advice is just basic relationship stuff. I was hoping (not very much, but still a little) that there would be an insight here that would help with my situation. There wasn't. Based on what I've heard from other couples, I'm not the only person who is in that boat and I think it's only fair to say "If you're one of these people, this book isn't what you're looking for."

    4. Anonymous1 from the thread below again: Melinda, I completely agree that the prospect of long-term NFP is a VERY different experience from using NFP to space pregnancies. I'm also one of those women who gets no benefit from breastfeeding, other than the privilege of 10 weeks of abstinence at which point my cycle comes back. And I get pregnant almost as soon as we stop avoiding. So I have no doubt that Simcha has a lot of experience, despite the numbers. But I appreciate your point that long-term vs. short-term NFP are VERY different experiences. And using NFP with extremely serious health concerns is also a completely different and scary experience.

  4. Anonymous,

    One problem is how some NFP instructors classify "method problems" vs "relational problems". There is a tendency to dismiss biological difficulties using the method as a relational problems.

    I remember having this conversation with a prior NFP instructor:

    "There's a lot of abstinence on this chart and we're having trouble determining peak. Is this normal?"
    "You're charting perfectly."
    "But this is over 2 weeks of a 26 day cycle!"
    "Oh, you just need to learn how to strengthen your non-sexual intimacy."
    "Would temping [or OPKs] help?"
    "That's not part of the method. You're charts are perfect. You don't need them."

    I'm sure our instructor would have said we had "maturity issues" or "self-discipline issues". The reality was that we needed support for correcting a minor hormone imbalance that was causing extended periods of possible fertility. Cutting abstinence from 12-15 days to 7-10 days makes a huge difference. I've found that relatively few instructors help couples with reducing abstinence.

    Marquette uses the ClearBlueEasy monitor, which is essentially an expensive OPK reader. But many people like it.

    We had two unplanned pregnancies due to unexpected "double peaks". We didn't know how to tell the difference between a return of fertile CM (which we should chart) and post-peak discharges (which we could ignore). Temping helped. OPKs are amazing. We've caught a couple "double peaks" by using additional symptoms.

    As for "recommendations for how to express your sexuality while abstaining", nearly all secular programs discuss this. On the Catholic side, we've been interrogated by one instructor on this subject and threatened with eternal damnation by another. Which is neither helpful nor appropriate.

    "How do you deal with it when your husband hates NFP so much that he fantasizes about going on an axe-murder spree in an NFP training centre?"

    Haha—so true.

  5. Melinda,

    We did get psycho-spiritual and relationship advice from our NFP instructors. The problem is that it was absolutely terrible and did more harm than good.

    If you were struggling with abstinence, this meant that either you (1) really wanted a baby and should throw caution to the wind, regardless of how serious your reasons for avoiding were or (2) the husband doesn't love his wife and is using her for sex. There was a lot of gender stereotyping (men need sex, women need love and want lots of babies) and little recognition of either a husband's need for intimacy or a wife's sexual desire. There was a lot of shaming for struggles, with one instructor interrogating us our "non-sexual intimacy" and another organization simply threatening us with eternal damnation should we engaged in non-Church-approved behavior.

    The overall theology was vague from one organization. From another, it was legalistic—The Church says we may not do X and as Catholics we must obey the Church...or else.

    In all fairness, more organizations are taking a Theology of the Body approach now, which does give a better explanation of the why. Still, some presenters can overly romanticize marital sexuality and they seem to double-down on the gender stereotypes. If you don't fit these stereotypes as a couple, it can be more confusing than helpful.

    1. I think this is very well put, particularly on the gender stereotypes. I couldn't agree more!

      In addition, I would say there is something strange to me--and I'm a woman--about the very idea of "non-sexual intimacy." We're actually pretty good at that. But, if you're doing "non-sexual intimacy" right, it doesn't really help with abstinence, actually. In fact, we've found it makes it harder!

      Good review, Melinda! I have been reading your blog admiringly for about half a year now. First time posting (anonymously because I'm a technological dunce who has not figured out how to create an online-bloggy identity). Just wanted to say, thanks for your writing!

    2. You're right about the shaming part. Instead of getting help&compassion, couples struggling with abstinence get condemnation&shame... as if that were going to be effective. Condemnation doesn't work-it makes people compliant (for fear, out of the wrong reasons, it's coercion), defiant... or they just ignore it.

      In "For Better Forever", couples who engage in oral sex and mutual masturbation are targeted for being animalistic, neopagan, "oxycotin vendors" (that makes one think of Walter White in his home lab) It comes across as the angry author's neurotic projections on sexuality rather than... helpful. Not to mention that mutual masturbation is a contradiction in terms... like group solitaire. It does not exist. Calling couples "neopagan hedonists" and accusing them of being immature reflects more on the finger pointer than the one at whom the finger is directed.

      Of course, the condemnation of oral sex&mutual masturbation WITHIN the context of a monogamous one man/one woman marriage isn't one something one gets in abstinence-only sex ed... because it would raise couples up to an impossible standard. And it's not sinful anyhow. It's as sinful as giving one's spouse a kiss or a caress, just in an intimate form proper to marriage.

      Condemning such practices within marriage do more harm than good. Prohibition was repealed 80 years ago... and forbidding it within marriage is... and I'll use the "drug" analogy... it's better enjoyed within a monogamous marriage than outside it. Like it's better to drink bubbly at home... than at a bar&not have a driver. You endanger other lives&you can get a DUI.

    3. Anonymous1: That's the problem with non-sexual intimacy, it just makes you want sexual intimacy even more.

      It seems like a significant number of couples who stick with Church teaching either (1) let their intimacy die and be miserable so that they can "follow the rules" or (2) have very large families (what's responsible parenthood?) ...but that's another topic.

      Anonymous2: The issue of hedonism is one of the dangers of laymen practicing theology and one that I've stepped in myself. There is a lot of writing from the Church about the dangers of the philosophy of hedonism. This does not mean that ordinary sinners that happen to like the same things are "neopagan hedonists".

      In case my previous reply was unclear, we were interrogated about our sexual activities by our instructor, which was extremely inappropriate. IIRC, even confessors are instructed not to initiate inquiries about sexual activities in a marriage. These are very delicate and personal matters.

    4. Anonymous1 here. Right--if you're really working on the "intimacy" part of "non-sexual intimacy," it just makes the spouse more attractive! I can see "non-sexual intimacy" as a necessary alternative to sex for couples who might otherwise never talk (?). But for couples who do communicate on a regular basis--and *gasp!* even enjoy and appreciate each others' minds--"non-sexual intimacy" just adds to the frustration. In effect, it comes to mean: "find a non-sexual Distraction or just ignore each other for a bit. Perhaps tap into the workaholic in yourself for these next two weeks so that you aren't tempted to sin." As a couple, we're realizing lately from experience how deadly this mentality really is. But there is not much support out there for this frustration, other than shaming, like you say. And pat phrases like "sex is a privilege not a right." Wow--that one stings when you're trying to figure out a continuous mucus pattern 10 weeks after childbirth...

    5. Yes. The regular NFP rhetoric seems to assume that sex is the only way a couple relates (hence the need to build non-sexual intimacy). But if a couple is only relating through sex isn't that a problem whether they are trying to avoid pregnancy or not?

      And it sells short couples who are intimate in nonsexual ways all the time whether or not sex is in the cards. For instance, I am pregnant right now, so my husband and I can have sex mostly when we want (kids allowing :) ), but we still talk all the time about everything. We play games together, have our own hobbies, take baths, snuggle, watch movies, read books etc. So what exactly should we ad when we are trying to abstain? Abstaining merely takes something out of our relationship. Trying to be loving just makes us want to have sex more (especially after it's been two weeks). NFP is not hard because we lack nonsexual intimacy. It's hard because our souls and bodies begin to cry out for each other when we have been abstaining for a time.

    6. Yeah...I've never been able to make sense of the advice that somehow NFP will help you build your non-sexual intimacy. I have definitely read a couple of accounts where it's clear that the couple had been on the Pill for many years and that marital intimacy had broken down to the point where they had little interaction apart from domestic details and sex. I wouldn't find it hard to believe that the Pill would have that effect on a marriage, particularly for women who lose their sex-drive completely when they're on it. And in those cases, I can see how NFP would be really marriage boosting. But if you already have a great non-sexual relationship it's hard to believe in the "marriage building" aspects of it. Especially when all the marriage building testimonials are either super-vague, or come from people who clearly had serious problems with non-sexual relating.

    7. Right, I agree completely. It makes sense that for a couple who is at the point where sex is the only way they interact, throwing in some abstinence would help them build nonsexual intimacy. Perhaps that's one of the reasons the most positive NFP experiences seem to come from couples who used the pill for several years first?

      But being married to someone who I am not only sexually attracted to but is also my best friend makes it hard for us to see abstaining as time to build nonsexual intimacy (we build it all the time). We honestly can't be sexually intimate if we feel like we are disconnected emotionally. It just doesn't feel truly uniting.

      I would like to hear some advice for couples who have good all around intimacy as to how NFP can help them.

    8. Melinda:

      You make a good point about how the successful NFP stories are often from couples who came off the Pill. The side effects of the Pill can certainly be bad for a marriage. (If you haven't read Holly Grigg-Spall's book on the Pill, I recommend it.) Still, I've also read similar stories coming after reversed vasectomies, so I think it's there is something more to it than just hormones or just the effect on the woman's body.

      I also noticed that many of these success stories involve relatively affluent older (30+) couples who are in a good position to have (more) children. But these are more "large family success stories" than "NFP success stories".

      As for our story, we had a horribly bad time with NFP early in our marriage; gave up in frustration; nearly got sterilized, but went with the non-hormonal IUD instead; ran into problems with that; returned to NFP out of desperation; had a much better time of it the second time around; then started looking into what went wrong the first time and right the second.

      Looking back on our experience, I don't know if NFP is marriage building as much as certain forms of contraception can be marriage destroying. Contraception allowed us to develop bad relational habits. Our sexual relationship has always been a very positive thing for both of us, but contraception allowed us to take it and each other for granted.

      The Church teaches that contraception can undermine a marriage, while NFP can teach self-discipline, self-control, and a greater appreciation for each other. I would agree with this in general, but it's not as black-and-white as some people make it out to be.


      Yeah, we got ALL of those lines, too. :-/

      Excessive fertile days may be the sign of a hormone imbalance, but some NFP instructors don't do a good job of supporting couples in this situation. Others do make it a priority and do a good job. If the instructor doesn't think sex is important in a marriage, they're probably not going to be very helpful.

    9. The Church has NEVER condemned genital massage/genital kissing within monogamous marriage because it isn't sinful. It's not a sin for a wife to kiss her husband's lips... or for her to kiss him down there. His body belongs to her, and hers to him. The Church is open in condemning sins like abortion, artificial contraception, divorce, same-sex marriage... because they're sins. Genital massage&genital kissing are harmless, loving practices, despite what's said in "For Better Forever" and "Good News about Sex&Marriage." People save themselves for marriage, and they should be free to enjoy whatever they want in marriage, provided it's loving, consensual, and no contraception is used. That's what I was taught in abstinence-only sex ed.

      The primary purpose of sex is affection, shown in an intimate way proper to husband&wife. Even early man saw that sex didn't always lead to babies, nor is sex reserved for those times when women are fertile. There was separation between procreation&sex loooong before the Pill.

      As long as couples save themselves for marriage and are faithful to each other (such as no porn, now THAT is a drug)... they can do whatever they please. That's what the Bible teaches. The Bible doesn't give sexual techniques to married couples;it respects their rights and freedom.

  6. I admit that I HATE NFP. My husband and I attempted to use it the first year of our marriage and I tried to use some form of it a year and a half ago. We are over five years into our marriage and we still don't have any children. My husband has a medical issue that we fought the insurance company about getting correct for almost four years. He had surgery last year and during that time, we tried to have a baby then, using NFP. Nothing happened. Now, the medical issue has returned in spite of the surgery. On top of that, we attempted to go to a fertility specialist, spent more money than we could afford for just the tests, that's it. So, it doesn't look like there is much chance we are getting pregnant. I don't see much in NFP materials that honestly addresses this issue. I always had problems figuring out when my fertile window/peak was. When the chart/or the app on my phone indicated it was my fertile window, we would try to make a baby but no luck.

    Also, I agree that Catholic NFP groups do need to address the sexuality aspect of it, especially during abstinent times. Its ridiculous that some of these groups are so squeamish about it. The Church is not very clear as to what the boundaries are during those times.

  7. Thank you Melinda for your blog, i see the titles and read a little sometimes, love, Anne Marie

  8. On the whole gender stereotypes issue. The regular NFP prototype assumes that the man always wants sex while the woman rarely does. In this version of man and woman, the wife appreciates the abstinence where she is 'romanced' by the husband. Then the husband appreciates the extra effort the wife makes towards physical intimacy during interfile times.

    However, this assumption completely leaves out couples where both spouses like sex and want it often, or even situations where the wife has a higher libido than her husband. In this kind of a situation the regular NFP story is laughable. Both spouses are frustrated during the fertile time, and both do their best to romance each other.

    1. I get a fair amount of emails on the blog from wives who have the higher sex drive or find sex to be more important for her than for him. The regular NFP stereotype really doesn't speak to the "high drive wife", (whether her drive is higher than her husbands' or not) and it can send some very harmful and confusing messages to the couple.

      Conversely, another concern is where the prototype fits too well—such as where the wife has an aversion to sex or has picked up an overly negative view of sex. The periods of abstinence can make it more difficult for her to become comfortable with sex and overcome these problems. Additionally, an overly legalistic framework of sexuality can make hangups (for husbands and wives) even more entrenched.

    2. Thanks both for this. I'm in the latter category that you mention James: for me, my personal difficulties with practising NFP are entirely methodological -- but so far as abstaining from sex goes it doesn't require any significant self-control at all. On the very worst day of frustration, I can sit down, read a couple paragraphs of Plotinus or Epictetus, and that's plenty to re-establish the reign of Reason and get my "lower self" back in line. Where I have a lot less sexual self-control is on the other side, when it comes to being able to open up and give myself to my husband -- not just giving my body, but giving my attention, giving my desire, so that it's a mutual thing. This is one of my difficulties with the "self-control" narrative regarding abstinence in NFP: it's clearly based on a (primarily) male experience of lust being an overwhelming force that tries to enslave you to you penis. Whereas, for me frigidity is an overwhelming force that tries to enslave me to an abstract rationality that undermines the value and meaning of the body as an integral part of the self.

    3. Our problems were primarily methodological. The problem not only made the charts unclear, but also made the abstinence longer and more difficult. I think a lot of the stereotypes discussed keep NFP organizations from taking these issues more seriously. We were very fortunate when we found an instructor who could sympathize with us and made reducing abstinence (without increasing risk) a priority.

      I have noticed that when wives struggle, the descriptions of the struggle tend to be quite different than the "male experience of lust being an overwhelming force that tries to enslave you to you penis." November's description of "our souls and bodies begin to cry out for each other when we have been abstaining for a time" is similar to what I have heard from others.

      It seems like a large part of the teaching is about teaching husbands responsibility and self-control. The impact on women really hasn't been discussed much beyond either a naive sort of equality or tired stereotypes.

    4. Interesting Melinda. One friend of mine who is very miserable using NFP feels similarly. She works so hard to 'turn off' her desire for intimacy during the fertile time that during the infertile time she has very little desire for sex. Consequently she ends up hating both the fertile and infertile times.

      I've realized I CAN make myself disinterested in sex with my husband but it requires a sort of closing myself off to him. I am more guarded with him and have to keep certain walls in place. I find that I can't seem to keep these walls as just physical, they always seep into the emotional too. I hate blocking myself off from him. It just feels wrong and contrary to marriage and the good relationship we have. The only way we know to keep our vulnerability with each other is to continue to be very affectionate when abstaining. This makes it so sometimes we go too far are are less than Catholicly chaste, but I think that is a lesser evil than keeping walls between us.But sometimes I get the feeling the Church would say we are just excusing sin...

    5. "But sometimes I get the feeling the Church would say we are just excusing sin..."

      I would say that sexual sin is not the only sin, but our culture, especially "church culture", puts a disproportionate emphasis on it.

      If a couple is making themselves and those around them miserable and resenting the Church in order to follow the rules, they are probably in a far worse spiritual place than the couple who has a happy marriage and a good faith life while taking a more "relaxed" view, so to speak.

      Pope Francis hasn't spoken specifically on this topic, but he has been very critical of those who present the faith as a series of rules. He's also stressed the importance of joy in the life of the believer. (So did B16, but nobody listened to him.)

      There is so much wisdom in Church teaching and it shouldn't be cast aside. I re-read HV 21 about the value of self-mastery in a marriage and I find it to be profoundly wise—far wiser than what secular society is promoting. But at the same time, self-mastery is not an end in itself, but a virtue that is to be built in order to enable us to better love. And like all virtues, it can go too far and become a form of repression or perfectionism.

      In other words, don't make the perfect the enemy of the good.

    6. That's why I've always gone by the line "be faithful, be respectful, don't use artificial contraception"-better for a couple to be happy together than to be worrying about the "every sperm is sacred" rule. The Bible talks about marital fidelity&abstinence outside of marriage.

      Some rules are helpful&useful. But when "rules" make couples miserable, they are more honored in the breach than the observance.

      There's a Catholic therapist who describes married couples who engage in oral sex&mutual masturbation (despite the fact the Catechism clearly teaches it's a solitary activity, NOT about seeking the spouse's pleasure) as "oxycotin vendors","neopagan" and "animalistic" (because these acts don't result in babies-ironic, since animals mate solely for reproduction for the most part, maybe he doesn't consider polygamists animalistic, using his logic) It's better for couples to be seeking each other's pleasure&comfort, rather than building walls between each other. It's clear he resents the happy, bonded "oxycotin vendors" and would rather they be miserable, resenting the Church.... and in his office. It's more important to be concerned over one's spouse rather than one's doing it the right way. No husband in his right mind would repent or be remorseful of orally pleasuring his wife... for the same reasons he'd neither repent nor be remorseful of kissing her on the lips. Nobody repents of showing affection for their spouse. Not anyone with a heart.

  9. The books "For Better... Forever!" and "Holy Sex" are perfect examples of making the perfect the enemy of the good. Condemning oral sex and mutual(?) masturbation within a monogamous, loving, respectful faithful marriage of one man and one woman is... counterproductive. It's no wonder that Ross Douthat showed that in a recent study that women are MORE comfortable with oral&manual sexual practices WITHIN committed (as in married) relationships than outside it. Counseling couples to refrain from such harmless, loving practices leads to more problems (like resentment, infidelity) than it's worth. Besides, most women reach the big O manually&orally, so this therapist probably wants more frustrated wives in his office.

    As long as oral&manual sex are practiced respectfully (and not with contraceptive intent), lovingly, and isn't abused, it's OK. It's only sinful if it causes problems for the couple or used in a contraceptive/abusive way.

    Forbidding it within marriage goes against 1 Corinthians 7, how wives are to submit to their husbands (and vice versa), and spousal rights. Spouses aren't supposed to deprive each other.

  10. Hi Melinda!
    This discussion is so incredibly important. While I'm a single celibate, much of what I've heard in the NFP discussions has bothered me because of the stereotypes that abound and that are repetitively chirped like a parrot by everyone, as though we are all carbon copies going through the exact same sexual struggles/feelings etc. I think the kind of discussion that's happening right here really needs to be brought into the TOB sphere and the NFP groups run by Catholics for whom all the stereotypes fit, so that those who don't fit them can finally feel at home - any thoughts to holding a conference of sorts? :)


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