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Archive for the ‘Sex and Fertility Awareness’ Category

If you’ve been reading my blog or engaging in real-life conversation with me in the last couple of months, you know that I’ve been reading, thinking, writing, and even starting to practice Natural Family Planning (NFP). You know that I came across the idea when I came across Engaged Marriage, and after having Dustin tell me more about it, I began writing about it myself.

If you didn’t know that, well, now you do. (And if you don’t know what NFP is, I recommend clicking on the link above where Dustin explains it to me).

I have been learning SO MUCH about the subject, thanks largely to the NFP-loving community who has shared all kinds of wisdom with me in the comments to my posts. I also recently purchased Taking Charge of Your Fertility by Toni Weschler and almost had an explosion in my brain from all the learning.

Just a few short months ago, I was a complete dummy on the subject, and now I have become slightly less dumb!

A complication began to arise, however, because Weschler calls it Fertility Awareness Method (FAM), whereas Dustin and all the other cool Catholics I talked to call it Natural Family Planning (NFP). I started using both terms interchangeably, particularly in this post, and it started to get confusing.

They are not quite the same thing although they share the same basic principles.

So I’m going to do you a favour. I’m going to outline the (very simple) differences between FAM and NFP (for those of you who don’t already know), and tell you which term I’m planning to settle on for good, and explain why I’m settling on it.

Here goes.

Similarities: Both NFP and FAM are examples of sympto-thermo methods of birth control. This means that both are methods of controlling your fertility through awareness of the female reproductive cycle. They both rely on observing cervical fluid and taking your basal body temperature, and tracking both of them on a chart, to help you determine when to have sex (depending on what you’re aiming for). Both can be used either to achieve or avoid pregnancy.

Difference: FAM allows the option of using a barrier (i.e. a condom) during the fertile phase to prevent pregnancy, whereas those who practice NFP choose to abstain during fertile periods if they don’t want to get pregnant.

I guess this means there is a slight difference in the viewpoints underpinning the two methods: NFP-users usually believe that all forms of contraception are morally wrong, whereas FAM-users do not. FAM-users thus permit their occasional use.

But FAM-users agree with NFP-users that contraception is problematic for a variety of reasons, including its negative effects on health, the environment, and sexual enjoyment, not to mention its political implications, and should at least be minimized if not completely rejected.

I’m currently on the fence about whether or not I think all contraception use is morally wrong. Brian Killian’s remarkable blog is having a strong influence on my perspective, and I encourage you to check it out.

Nevertheless, for the purposes of this blog, I have decided to stick with the term “Fertility Awareness Method” when discussing the subject.

Here’s why:

  • I like the emphasis on “awareness.” This term highlights the fact that all it takes to control your reproduction is an attentiveness to what’s going on in your body. You just need to open your eyes to the natural processes already happening in your body and you can begin to take control.

One of the problems I have with contraceptives is that they rob us of this power by encouraging us to be ignorant. Contraception disempowers us. Fertility awareness empowers us. Yay for awareness.

  • I like that FAM does not have religious connections. NFP is commonly associated with religious people. This is unfair but true. Many of FAM’s proponents, on the other hand, are completely secular (including Toni Weschler, as far as I can see).

Now, as you all know, I am a deeply spiritual person. I do not try to hide my religiosity. But FAM can benefit everyone, not just religious people, and I don’t want to ostracize non-religious people. By using a non-religious term, I hope to emphasize what we have in common (a concern for the wellbeing of human beings and the planet) and a de-emphasize what we do not share (a belief in God). If we are open-minded I think we can all agree that there are benefits to FAM.

  • I like that FAM provides more options, and can include NFP. FAM only teaches that you can use barriers during fertile phases if you want to; you don’t have to. Weschler actually discourages it because it’s less reliable. So you can use plain ol’ abstinence during these periods if you prefer. It’s up to you.
  • I’d rather see people use occasional contraceptives, just during fertile phases, than reject FAM altogether in favour of the Pill. I understand that for some people, the 10-or-so-day period of abstinence each month may seem like too much of a stretch. I wouldn’t want someone to reject FAM out-of-hand just because of this. I would rather see couples choose FAM and use the occasional condom than completely reject the whole shebang. Maybe once they try FAM this way for a while and grow to appreciate it, they will more willingly consider the all-natural method.

So there you have it. From now on, I’m going with “Fertility Awareness Method.” I’ve even added it to the Category title “Sex and Fertility Awareness” (in the column on the right). But I am still unspeakably grateful to the NFP community for introducing me to such a wonderful system for controlling my fertility, and wholeheartedly support NFP.

You guys are the bomb!

Which term do you prefer, or which one do you use? Why? Which sounds more appealing to you?

What do you think, experts? Have I dealth with the similarities and differences accurately?

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You absolutely need to begin learning about and then charting your menstrual cycles.

Let me back-track a little, and maybe I will start sounding a little less insane.

As most of you know, I’ve been thinking and writing a lot lately about natural family planning. It started off as a mere curiosity about something I thought was neat. But I have become increasingly serious about it. As you also know, I am currently trying to get pregnant, so at first I didn’t think NFP was entirely relevant to me. At the same time, though, I have been rethinking the whole issue of birth control since I just recently came off it. And I’m starting to have serious doubts about the necessity, validity and safety of contraceptives in general, and I am starting to seriously consider the value of natural family planning – alternatively (and more appealingly) known as fertility awareness.

Well, to start off my more serious studies into the subject, I took some of my readers’ advice yesterday and took out the book Taking Control of Your Fertility (by Toni Weschel) out of the local library. I flew through the first quarter in the first night. I was just floored by all the information I gleaned from it. I’m not done yet, but I plan to be soon, and then I hope to share with you some of the stuff I have learned. But one thing I have already concluded is this:

All women deserve to know this stuff about their bodies, and it is a shame that most of us live our entire lives in relative ignorance about it.

More than anything else, knowledge is power. And I believe women deserve to have power over their own fertility. As it stands, with most of us knowing nothing about our fertility, we have to be at the mercy of our doctors and gynecologists to tell us where we stand. We have to rely on invasive, expensive, uncomfortable and often painful medical procedures to give us answers about our fertility, when most of the information we will ever need is in plain sight at all times. I am learning that even the dullest of women (i.e. women like me) can learn to recognize the signs of their fertility with relative ease. It just takes some time and attention. And a chart and a thermometer.

If you learn about your menstrual cycle, and learn to detect the various changes in your fertility, I am now absolutely certain you will gain confidence and power.

Did you know that you can easily tell for yourself whether or not you are pregnant without taking a test? With time, you can also tell for yourself whether or not you have a fertility problem, and you can help your doctors immensely in diagnosing the problem.

I had no idea about any of this stuff until now. And I feel totally ripped off that I have never been properly educated about something as fundamental, basic, and important as my fertility.

I now believe that every sexually active woman, whether she is trying to avoid or achieve pregnancy, ought to be tracking her fertility. Just think: no more worrying about whether or not you’re pregnant! No more frantic trips to the drug store during your lunch break to buy a $15 test, just to get a negative result! No more worrying that your bodily fluids are freaky and diseased! By practicing fertility awareness you can know the answer to these questions for yourselves.

Of course, fertility awareness doesn’t work if you’re on the Pill, because if you’re on it you’re not fertile (or at least you shouldn’t be). So I’m starting to think no woman should be on the Pill, either – for their own good. But now I’m venturing into “You’re insane, Kathy” territory again, so I will leave it at that.

I do plan to write an article soon about how the Pill, which was meant to liberate women, may have actually unnecessarily burdened us all. But for now, I’m leaving off with, “Ladies, I think you would do yourselves a huge favour by becoming educated about your own fertility.” I know I am so happy and relieved to have come across this information, and I think you would be, too.

I welcome your thoughts and reactions!

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Hey guys,

Remember Dustin, the really smart and classy guy from Engaged Marriage who answered ALL my questions about natural family planning last week? Well, he kindly asked me to offer some of my own thoughts and reflections on NFP, as a response to the Q&A we put together. I enthusiastically agreed, because I now have lots to say on the subject! Maybe I was a little too enthusiastic. I wrote a lot. Nevertheless, you can find my response over on his cool blog. He gave me the thumbs-up on entitling it “An Educated, Artsy-Fartsy Protestant’s Thoughts on Natural Family Planning.” I told him I felt bad about putting “Artsy-Fartsy” in his permanent archives but he was totally cool with it. What a nice guy, right?

While you’re there, take a look around: he provides fabulous, practical marriage advice (something I don’t do), as well as thought-provoking articles on marriage. I appreciate that he’s young and that he has a fresh, energetic style. I really dig his site. It’s not every day you get to hear about marriage from a young but wise and knowledgeable guy. Plus, his site is real fancy-looking, without being flashy. I like that. I aspire to have such a nice-looking site someday.

If you’re a new visitor from Engaged Marriage: Hi! Thanks for stopping by! If you want to get a general idea of what Project M is all about, you might want to start with this post, which explains my goals and purposes. There’s also my About the Project page, but you probably could have figured that out yourself. Some people get a kick out of my discussion of sex. That’s where this whole things started, actually.

Thanks for taking time out of your busy day to check me out! Blessings!

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I recently came across Dustin Riechmann’s terrific and informative blog Engaged Marriage. I really liked what I saw. I noticed that Dustin seemed to know a lot about natural family planning (henceforth referred to in this blog post as NFP), a subject I’ve been interested in lately. I’ve come to the awareness that lots of people don’t seem to know much about NFP (myself included), so I thought it would be awesome if Dustin would write a guest post for me, and teach me and my readers a little something about it. He graciously agreed, although I wonder if he regretted it a little bit afterwards because I asked him a buttload of questions. He was really nice and answered them anyways. Below is the Q&A that resulted from our collaboration. Enjoy!

Can you briefly outline what NFP is, and how it works?

In simple terms, Natural Family Planning (NFP) is fertility awareness.  By recognizing the signs that indicate when a woman is and is not fertile during her monthly cycle, you can reliably avoid or achieve pregnancy by abstaining from sex or “going for it” during the fertile times.

For more information, please see my post entitled What is Natural Family Planning?

What is the difference between NFP and the Rhythm Method? Because isn’t that what all our parents used when they had, like, three unplanned pregnancies? [Also: is it the same thing as the Billings Method?]

Modern NFP and the Rhythm Method (a.k.a the Calendar Method) are very different approaches to family planning.  You are correct that the Rhythm Method was used by a lot of folks in the 1970’s and 1980’s as a “natural” means of avoiding (or achieving) pregnancy.  We often joke when we are giving our marriage preparation presentations that many of those in the room were conceived using this method. 🙂

NFP is different.  It’s based on exhaustive modern medical research and it uses several signs to determine whether or not a woman is in the fertile phase of her cycle.  The Rhythm Method used only a calendar as a tool to determine when a woman was fertile, and it assumed that all women had a 28-day cycle.  I think that’s enough info to know that this method lacked reliability!

Modern NFP doesn’t rely on a calendar at all.  A couple tracks a woman’s basal body temperature (her temperature immediately upon awakening in the morning) and the state of her mucus “down there” to track her cycle.  Depending on the method, some also incorporate cervical status and/or the use of a fertility monitor such as the Clearblue Easy monitor.  This tracking is highly reliable and pretty much independent of cycle length or variability.

Oh, and the Billings Method (named after the doctor who developed it) is one of several forms of modern NFP.

Doesn’t NFP still have a really paltry success rate? I mean, don’t accident babies happen left and right when couples try to use this method?

Not at all.  When practiced properly, NFP is 98-99% effective, which is similar to artificial contraception like condoms or The Pill.  The difference is that NFP requires communication between the couple, and it sometimes requires self-control when you want to have sex but are also fertile and desire to avoid pregnancy.  If NFP results in “accident babies,” I’d suspect it is from couples who choose to “break the rules” and take their chances.

When you have sex during your fertile time, you are obviously increasing the chances that you’ll get pregnant that month.  The same would be true with not using a condom “this one time,” forgetting to take your birth control pill or having sex when your pill may not be effective (like when you’re on antibiotics).  If you practice NFP properly, you should achieve the published effectiveness rates of 98-99%.  If you get pregnant doing this, I think God had different plans for your family!

Doesn’t NFP take all the fun out of sex, making it all medical?

No way.  I can see where this would be a concern when you talk about charting temperatures and determining when a woman is and is not fertile.  But in reality, the practice of NFP brings an entirely new level of intimacy to a relationship, and it results in a closeness that simply cannot be achieved with contraception.  I can personally attest to the fact that Sex ROCKS when you are using NFP, and it provides an experience unlike that which can be experienced otherwise.

I think this is conveyed pretty well in my post “How Does Natural Family Planning Benefit Marriage?” and also this NFP Informational Video.

Why should couples consider using NFP rather than just going on the Pill if they want to avoid pregnancy?

The moral and spiritual reasons are well discussed and they’re usually the focus of most NFP articles, so I think an internet search will uncover most of that information.  I would highly suggest that everyone read the writings and hear the talks by Christopher West on these issues.  He really does a great job of relating some heavily theological stuff in practical terms.

In short, the Catholic Church condemns artificial contraception, and so did every other Christian denomination until the 1930’s (many until the 1960’s).  There are many reasons for this, but the basis is that contraception prevents the full exchange of marital love in the act of sex.  When we chose to contracept, we choose to exclude God from the act of love-making.  In fact, we purposely dis-invite him from a process that He created as the ultimate demonstration of love.

Theology aside, all forms of chemical birth control (Pills) can be abortifacients, which means they can cause early abortions when they force the uterus to shed its lining whether or not conception has occurred.  If you believe life begins at conception, this becomes a big deal.

I care about these issues deeply, but the main reason we practice and promote NFP is because of the benefits it offers to marriage.  I’d suggest folks read this post to find out about that, but in short those who practice NFP have a divorce rate under 5% vs. 50% for the general population.

Many other, non-Catholic people practice NFP for the other benefits it provides, including health (it uses no hormones, has no harmful side effects, uses no unnecessary pills) and the environment (no artificial hormones in the environment and no condoms in landfills, to start with).  I actually wrote a post addressing these issues called “Green Sex, Anyone?

Why did you choose NFP over the Pill?

Our story is long and interesting, and I’ll be writing about it in a post soon.  Basically, we used contraceptives for the first couple years of our marriage.  We weren’t really comfortable with it from a health or moral perspective but felt like we had no alternatives.  We even sought counsel from our priest and got no help.

We eventually stumbled upon NFP when we were researching ways to get pregnant (we are planners).  We tried the methods on our own and conceived our son the first full month after we quit the Pill and tracked everything.

We have used NFP for both moral and marriage-benefit reasons ever since, which has been about 6 years now.  We had one other (planned) daughter during this time.

The lack of awareness about NFP and its awesomeness are the reasons we love talking about it, and it was one of the motivations behind starting Engaged Marriage.  I should note, though, that NFP is only one part of what we discuss at Engaged Marriage since it is focused on all areas of marriage (marriage preparation, finances, communication, children, romance, etc.).  In a sense, though, all of these issues can be related back to the practice of Natural Family Planning.

Be honest: how long does the average couple have to abstain every month in order to avoid pregnancy?

This will vary depending on the cycle length, the individual woman’s fertility signs (how obvious they are) and just how stringent you want to be about avoiding pregnancy.  As an example, I’d say if you have a 28-day cycle and have dire reasons for avoiding pregnancy, you are probably looking at 10-12 days that you’d avoid sex during the possibly fertile time.  This is obviously just an estimate, and you can reduce this number quite a bit if you have obvious fertility signs and/or are okay with a bit higher “risk” of pregnancy.

Do you have any advice or words of reassurance for couples who want to try NFP but are really afraid of getting pregnant? (e.g. because they’re in school, or have medical conditions that make pregnancy dangerous)

First of all, this is probably a good time to put in a disclaimer to let everyone know my wife and I are not certified as a teaching couple for NFP.  We had training to practice it, and we’ve had great success, but we have not been trained to teach others the specifics.

That said, I would simply point out that when practiced appropriately, NFP has the same “success” rate as artificial contraception.  The only 100% effective means of avoiding pregnancy is abstinence at all times.  I think a lot of couples need to ask themselves whether their reasons are as dire as they might assume at first thought.

The most intimidating time for those who choose NFP is probably the transition away from artificial birth control and the first month or two of using the natural method.  For advice there, I’d recommend the fantastic advice offered by Batrice Adcock (20-something RN and NFP instructor) in the comments area of this post.

What about for women who have really irregular cycles – can NFP accommodate that?

Totally.  My wife has very irregular cycles that can be anywhere from 28 days to 50+ days in length.  We have had two children in the six years that we have used NFP, and both were planned and conceived in the first few months of trying.  Like I explained above, modern NFP methods do not depend on a calendar, and they accommodate irregular cycle lengths easily.

What do you do to help you to abstain during those fertile interludes every month? Do you have any effective techniques for getting through those times? [Is that a really personal question?]

Do I sound like I am afraid to talk about personal issues? 😉  Well, my wife and I follow the teachings of the Catholic Church, which tell us that oral sex has its place only as part of foreplay and shouldn’t be the “culminating event” so to speak.  So, we don’t do that during our fertile times.  We simply abstain from sex.

Abstaining comes down to willpower and a focus on our love for each other.  Sex is awesome, but it’s not the basis of our relationship (that would be called lust).  We can abstain for a few days if we really don’t want to get pregnant.  Incidentally, my wife loves having this time to just hug, kiss, embrace and be romantic with “no strings attached” and no expectations of sex at the end of the night.  It also creates an awesome “honeymoon effect” when you get past the fertile days and are ready to be intimate again…good times!

Why do you think NFP is so little talked about these days? To be honest, I’ve never seriously considered it as an option before. Everyone assumes we will use the Pill. I invite your conjectures as to why this is the case.

For one thing, when NFP is discussed it is unfortunately spoken about as if it’s a “Catholic thing.”  In reality, there are a lot of groups out there using NFP for a variety of reasons (health proponents, environmentalists, naturalists, even feminists), and morality is only one.  Regardless, anything that is considered too Catholic is sometimes dismissed as not applicable to the mainstream.

Unfortunately, many OB-GYN doctors also don’t give any credence to NFP.  Frankly, it requires too much individual attention, and there is no money in NFP.  There is big money in the sales of contraceptives (watch the commercials during any primetime show or sports event if you need confirmation of this).  It is easier and more lucrative to simply push pills and tell people to “suit up” with a condom.

Fortunately, the trend is pointing toward growth in NFP.  And people like me are helping to spread the word about this counter-cultural means of planning our families and enhancing our relationships!

Where can I learn more about NFP? Like, from doctors and nurses and stuff?

Like I mentioned above, you may be hard pressed to learn much about NFP from your OB-GYN, but it doesn’t hurt to ask.  There are a lot of great resources online, and I’d suggest that folks check out the websites of the Couples to Couples League and the Marquette University Institute for NFP.  They should be able to find a local training course, and that is how you should really learn the ins and outs of NFP and put it into practice.

For more non-teaching-specific info, I’d ask people to check out a great site called NFPWorksBlog.com for more information.  Also, I’d love to hear from everyone by email through the contact page at Engaged Marriage, on Twitter (@EngagedMarriage) or on our fan page on Facebook.

Thanks, Dustin!

I hope that was an informative for you guys as it was for me! Let me know if you have any additional comments or questions. I would love to hear from you (and so would Dustin!) Next week(ish) I hope to post my response to this interview on his fine blog.

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(This is the conclusion of my Sex Education series.  Continued from Part Four: The Party. The whole thing began here, in Part One.)

For your own sake, I am not going to tell you about our wedding night.  That would just be cruel. I don’t want to do to you what others did to me.  Before I was married I had one friend tell me about her orgasms and it made me wish my brain would spontaneously combust.

Also, you may not mind hearing about my experiences while I’m a twenty-three year old grad student, but inevitably I will eventually become somebody’s weird mom.  I’m already kind of dorky now; there’s no telling how lame I could get in twenty or thirty years.  And then everything will be different.  I will in all likelihood become the stodgy, out-of-shape middle-aged woman using obsolete slang that you see wearing tacky makeup and jogging pants up town.  And Ben will probably grow some kind of unfashionable facial hair in his forties to counteract the loss of hair on his head and will continue to insist on wearing shoes that don’t go with his pants.  You might know us personally or see pictures of us at that time, and then you will most certainly not want to hear about me and Ben on our wedding night, or on any night for that matter.  So I will spare you.  Instead, I will speak broadly and abstractly on the subject so you can imagine it has nothing to do with my personal experience.

First, though, I must say that everything worked out just fine and none of my sex-talk-induced fears were at all justified.  I don’t know what was wrong with those two women who filled my head with all those ridiculous, scary ideas.  They must have both been working through some major mid-life issues at that time or something.  Indeed, many women I’ve talked to seem feel “discomfort” at first.  You have to take it slow to begin and prepare for some awkwardness and lots of talking.  For anyone reading this who actually does have really high expectations for the wedding night, I want to make it clear that it can be pretty uncomfortable and awkward for a while.  But as far as I know, there is probably one couple in every thousand that has the problem where the man absolutely does not fit inside the woman: that was a totally freak occurrence and so if you are a virgin you have nothing to worry about at all.  Oh – except for the doctor’s exam.  That, on the other hand, is every bit as nightmarish as I had anticipated.  I went in for one about a year after I got married and have never been back (The horror!).  I had to take the rest of the day off to recuperate – to just shudder for a couple of hours.   Of course, there are plenty of women out there who feel differently about it and talk about their gynecologists like they talk about their dentists.  But these women for obvious reasons are not my friends.

Secondly, the young pastor couple was right: sex in a married context can be fun.  All kinds of hilarious possibilities open up when you get that comfortable with another person’s body.  For one thing, I get to terrorize Ben with all kinds of horrible night clothes.

Here’s the story: right now I really like going to bed in a long-sleeved cotton nightgown with stripy tights underneath.  It’s cozy, it’s hip, and I think it’s a rather cute ensemble.  I go to bed looking like a quirky but comfy young punk-rocker.  But only when the two pieces are worn together.  Once, after a couple of years of being married, when changing into this outfit before bed, I unthinkingly put on the tights first and then removed my top, so that for a few moments I was standing there in just a blue bra and my stripy tights, chatting with Ben about my day while he reclined in bed.  Suddenly, he looked up at me from his book, and a look of horror crossed his face.

“What are you wearing?”

I looked down at my stretchy, hip-hugging, knee-length, black-and-white pants.  Without the little mini-dress over top they looked absolutely absurd.  They reminded me of elf-tights.

“What, you don’t like them?” I asked, bending my knees a couple of times to give him the full effect.

“Oh, stop!” he said, putting out his hand to block out the disturbing vision with his palm.

“What – You don’t like my tights?  You don’t like my dancing?”

I began to perform a jig for him – or at least, what I vaguely understood to be a jig – in the spirit of my leprechaun pants.  It involved the kicking-up of heels and elaborate flourishing of arms.  Kind of a mix between Riverdance and The Urkel.  It was very racy.

“Stop, oh stop!” he cried, covering his eyes in desperation.  “I never want to see that again!”

Of course, this means that Ben now gets special striped-tights dance performances on quite a regular basis.  I totally have the body for it.  It’s very intimate.

As a married couple I am also free now to pat his butt whenever I am so inclined, and it happens to be often.  He calls it molestation, and we have a running joke about how I routinely molest him.  Sometimes I follow him up the steep stairway in our house with my hands on his butt and there is nothing he can do about it.  See what I mean?  Being married is awesome.  We also have plenty of other bedroom jokes but I am not going to share them with you.

I also want to pass on some fabulous advice that my youth pastor gave me when we had our chat about sex.  He said, “Everything that you think you know about sex from TV: forget it.”  And he was right.  Sex just does not happen like that.  The first couple of times do take some careful planning and in-depth verbal communication.  It’s some pretty complicated stuff and you do have to talk about it.  Also nightgowns never just slip off effortlessly, and there’s a good chance that elbows and knees and hair will get in the way.  I elbowed Ben in the eye at least three times within the first month, and he still has a way of pinning me down by my hair any time I get close to him.  In addition, you will be self-conscious about garlic-breath and hairy legs and bumping noses and an infinite number of other things you can’t possibly anticipate beforehand.  But all of that is just fine because you love each other and know you have a lifetime to figure it all out together.

And that leads me to my last thought: I’m only talking here about sex within marriage.  I can’t tell you anything about sex outside of marriage since I’ve never experienced it.  And I really don’t think I’m missing out.  I’m sure it’s got its positive sides too but ultimately I believed that married sex is infinitely sexier, more beautiful and more romantic.  In fact it’s downright poetic.  You’re uniting your body with a person who has committed his entire life to you.  He has promised to stay with you for life, protecting you and caring for you and listening to you until you die.  He has chosen you above all others and has promised to never touch or love or look at another person in that special way as long as he lives.  It melts my heart just thinking about it.

Here’s something I wrote about sex shortly after I got married, when I was still about twenty, addressing those people who seem to think that married life is dull and conventional and unexciting.  It’s a little bit sentimental, but hey, I was young.  Nothing really has changed; I just wanted you to know that I was still a fresh, sappy, dewy-eyed newlywed when I wrote it:

You just don’t understand – don’t understand what you’re missing. You can’t understand why God would have commanded that we do it this way because you’ve never experienced it.

You’ve never known what it’s like to see your beloved cast down his eyes at the sight of another disrobed on the television screen, because he is saving his eyes for only you.

You’ve never known what it’s like to see his innocent face focus on yours, wide-eyed, as you explain what a woman’s body is like, because he’s never known one before.

You’ve never known what it’s like to press your mouth against lips that have only felt the curves of your own against them.  Not because they couldn’t or didn’t sometimes want to, but because he wanted to share that sensation with no one but you.  You don’t know how sweet these innocent kisses are.

Raw and untouched, our tender skins kiss warmly against each other so that soul mixes with soul.  When we separate I carry a blend of him.  Only him.  Were miles of earth or the divide of death to stand between us, that imprint of love would remain, would never fade.

Nakedness, for us, is inextricably bound up with love.  By love, I don’t mean powerful feelings of excitement or adoration, or temporary fits of passion.  I mean the devotion that makes you swear that you will never abandon or give up on the other – not under pain of death or the intoxication of infatuation.

I will never, ever forsake you.  I will never, ever choose another over you.  I will never take my eyes off you.  I will never leave you stranded.

Nakedness, for us, is a symbol of forever.

*     *     *     *

So, here are a couple of really beautiful experiences I want to share with you that can’t possibly make you gag.  They’re nice, I promise.  And I think they’re all the sweeter because we’re married.

My absolute favourite kisses are the ones he steals when I’m still half asleep.  In fact, nothing in all of my experience compares to this sensation.  In that instant I am suddenly awakened to the vague consciousness that my sweet beloved is right there – touching my lips with his own.  His kisses are warm and fragrant with just the right amount of tickle . . . warm little pillows touch my face, and my whole being is tenderly nudged into the awareness that I am wholly beloved.  In these moments I cannot reciprocate – I am barely crossing the misty borders of consciousness – but I know I’m not expected to.  The kiss was freely given, with no anticipation of any kind of return.  That, to me, is love.

Another supremely romantic moment for me is when we hold hands in bed.  It happens every so often that we are both tucked under the warmth of our blankets, our minds each in their own little universes, winding down, slipping into sleep; when suddenly, his hand slides gently between the sheets, touches mine, and slowly folds over it.  We lie there, motionless, wordless, in the dark, holding hands like adoring teenagers on a first date, and fall asleep like that.   I couldn’t possibly wish for more in life.  These are the reasons God invented marriage and sex.

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(Continued from Part 3.)

Then there was another event that changed the course of my sex education.  My cousin had invited me and Ben over for dinner one Friday evening, and we had gladly accepted.  We went up to the front door together, my cousin answered it smilingly and I stepped into the entrance room.  Suddenly I noticed something very strange in the living room: a makeshift clothesline strung across the far wall with trendy colourful panties pinned along it.  My eyes widened with sudden insight.  Oh no.

“Surprise!” yelled the crowd of young women who burst out from behind the couches.  My fiancé kissed me on the cheek.  “See ya!” he said airily and turned to walk back to the car.  He had totally been in on it.  I was paralyzed.  This was my lingerie party.

It has recently become quite a common practice among our particular Mennonite community to throw lingerie parties for new brides.  It’s kind of like a bachelorette, I am told, without the male stripper.  Most brides before me had hinted severely that they wanted one; I had hinted severely that I didn’t want one.  Lingerie parties made me feel uncomfortable (which I’m sure comes as no surprise to you at this point).  Admittedly, at least lingerie didn’t sound as bad as negligée – it sounded more updated and youthful to my ever-discerning ears – but it still just didn’t quite work for me.  All that lace and silk and stringiness just made me cringe.  It wasn’t for me.  I wasn’t girlie, and I never showed my skin any more than I absolutely had to.  No skirts above the knees, no low necklines, and no shorts ever under any circumstances, except to wear over my modest bathing suit when swimming.  I’m not at all self-conscious about my body – not about its shape or size or colour at least – but I just wasn’t comfortable being a sex object.  I was brainy, not sexy.

So, due to all these lingerie anxieties, I was a little shaky as I entered the room, both with shock and with fear, while sixteen grinning faces watched me walk in.  I answered the flurry of questions mechanically – about how surprised I was, or what Ben had said to hide the truth – as I looked around and took everything in.  All my friends were there, from ever phase of my life – cousins, elementary school friends, high school friends, university friends, church friends – and all were in their pajamas.  There were balloons and streamers and funky underwear all over the room as decorations.  There were heaps of pillows and blankets strewn all over the room, indicating that this was to be a sleepover, and a pile of gift bags and boxes from local lingerie shops in the corner next to the big sofa chair – my designated spot.  And when I glanced into the kitchen, I saw an absurd amount of chocolatey desserts and sugary snacks crammed onto the breakfast bar for later.  I took a seat in the big plush chair, and at one point amidst the confusion and chatter my sister handed me a copy of the invitation my bridal party had sent out for the event.  It had a photo of me printed on the front, wearing my navy Japanese-print t-shirt, with one eyebrow raised quizzically at the camera.  It read, in bubbly neon letters across the top and bottom, “Kathy hates them . . . That’s all the more reason to throw her a lingerie party!”  I had to admit: they certainly knew me well.

Once I had settled down, we started off the night with some silly games.  One was called “Find the Hottie.”  Everyone had to pop a balloon, as inside each balloon was a balled-up picture of a different man.  Most were cutouts of movie stars and models for designer colognes that had been scrunched up and stuffed inside the balloons before they were blown up.  But one was a picture of Ben that had been taken when he was in grade eight, when he had a really bad haircut.  The girl who ended up with this picture inside her balloon won a pair of undies from off the clothesline.  We also did a mad-lib together – you know, one of those games where you’re given a story with blanks in it, and you have to supply the nouns and adjectives and stuff to make it a complete story.  My bridal party had written it.  The story was loosely based on the theme of my and Ben’s impending first night together, and we all just yelled out words to fill in the blanks.  We ended up with sentences like, “Ben turned to Kathy and shaved her in the bellybutton.  He tap-danced into a hairy mole and said, ‘That sucks.’  In a delighted state, Kathy replied, ‘Do the chickens have large talons?’”  It was quite ridiculous.  I was soon completely at ease, laughing with all my girls, yelling out words like “lustful!” and “kinky!” with the best of them.

Soon it was gift-opening time.  I was rather nervous.  I had never so much as touched this kind of stuff before – I always gave gift cards when I had to attend lingerie parties, and I bought my own (entirely practical) bras and underwear from Wal-Mart.  But my girls started me off easy: the first few items were things like pastel-coloured cotton tanks and underwear sets.  I could totally handle it.  Gradually the gifts turned to things more silky, transparent, frilly and girlie.  Every new item I pulled out got a round of ooohs from the girls and comments like, “That’s so pretty!” and “You will look like a Roman goddess in that!”  I was surprised to find that I was totally cool with it.  I felt pretty okay.  Some of the stuff was genuinely nice.  Even when they said things like, “Ooh, Ben is gonna love that!” I only chuckled and nodded.  Maybe I wouldn’t even mind wearing it, either.

The fact of the matter was, my friends knew me.  They didn’t want to make me uncomfortable, so they didn’t get me anything super-racy or naughty because they knew that wasn’t me.  No nipple-holes, no corsets or boustiers, and no butt-floss.  I didn’t get a single thong in the whole stack, I don’t think.  It was all cotton bras and silky nightgowns and cute eyelet tank tops.

I felt very comfortable there with my childhood playmates and school friends and young female relatives all around me, teasing and smiling at me.  We chatted and laughed and had desserts and passed around the opened gifts, and even started making silly, suggestive jokes and sharing winks and giggles.

Somewhere along the lines, someone had the idea that we should all model the pajamas we were wearing.  (I had by this time changed into a comfy set of tangerine-and-yellow pj’s I had been given).  My sister had brought the family video camera, and my cousin had downloaded some fun dance music – the type that would normally make me shrink with disgust, but which seemed completely different in these new circumstances.  We all crowded in the far kitchen together, set up the camera in the front entrance room, and then took turns walking into the living room to strut our stuff for the camera.  I guess the combination of the sweets, the music, and all the bedroom talk got to our heads, because we all ended up trying to be as “seductive” as we could, which is hilarious for a bunch of Mennonite girls who have never danced in public in our lives.  Girls were blowing kisses to the camera, swinging their hips, and even flashing their bellies at the camera.  It was ridiculous.  Then we decided to put together choreographed dances in groups and have a sexy dance-off.  We got it all on tape.  I have never had so much fun in my life.  It was ludicrous and we knew it, and it was all the more fun because of it.

Breathless with laughter and exhaustion, we eventually flung ourselves onto the couches and beanbag chairs to watch a chick-flick.  Normally I hate chick-flicks but I was doing everything different today.  Besides, this one wasn’t so bad.  It was Sweet Home Alabama, which is only a little cheesy.  We settled down, glowing from the exertion and hilarity, and just watched contentedly.  I was completely at ease with the world.  For one evening, I had been able to celebrate female sexuality in a safe, humourous, fun-loving environment with all my closest female friends.  Sexuality was suddenly not the serious, slimy, and private thing it was before.  I felt vibrant and young and sensual and happy.  I smiled to myself as I sat there in my pajamas on the couch between girl friends, hugging an overstuffed pillow close to my body and sharing a soft flannel blanket with my cousin.  I felt so loved and cherished, lavished with gifts and surrounded by youth and vitality.  I was starting to feel ready for the wedding night.

(Find the conclusion to all this in Part Five: The Real Deal)

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Continued from Parts One and Two . . .

Praise God, things finally began to look up when Ben and I began marriage-preparation meetings with our youth pastor, who was going to officiate at our wedding.  I had spent my teen years in his youth group and had wanted him to marry us – I had always had a special admiration for him.  He was outspoken and unconventional, always willing to try new things in the church.  His wife was fabulous too – a bubbly, intelligent, fun-loving young woman with heaps of long, curly black hair and a winsome laugh.  Since he was marrying us, the two of them were required to meet with us a couple of times before the wedding to talk things through and to make sure we were ready for the commitment of marriage.  At these little informal meetings, we talked about in-laws, about money and spirituality and togetherness.  Sometimes we drifted off topic and ended up talking about my education or our siblings or the youth ministry that they were still heading up.  These were all good.  But one of these meetings was scheduled to address the topic of sex.  And it changed everything.

I know that being young is not the only criterion for being able to talk about sex in a non-horrifying way, but in this case it certainly helped.  These two individuals were indeed relatively young – in their early-thirties, I’d say – but they were also smart, fun, warm-hearted and talkative.  Plus, the setting was so much more conducive to a realistic discussion of the subject.  We met in their home, a simple little town house, and sat around their small dining room table munching homemade cookies and sipping milk or coffee.  We were surrounded by family pictures and bookcases, and with the July sunlight streaming in through the pastel-coloured curtains.  Their young kids played noisily and drew pictures in the adjacent living room.

“You guys will have so much fun!” the wife smilingly assured us. She repeated these sentiments a number of times throughout our discussion.  This was definitely a different approach for me.  Additionally, nothing (thankfully) was said about negligée, jelly, surgeries, confession of sin, pelvic sneezes or pain.  They even suggested that there was absolutely no pressure to do everything the first night, which was a profoundly refreshing thought for me.  “You’ll be exhausted from the wedding day,” they told us.  “That night, just relax together.  Enjoy being in bed together for the first time.  Cuddle, try a few things if you feel like it, and then sleep.  Then wake up together the next morning and have a really huge breakfast to celebrate.  You’re married now!  You’re free to do whatever you want with each other!  It’ll be great, you’ll love it.”

This was nothing like the wedding night I had hitherto envisioned.  Relaxing with Ben under the covers, snug and warm against his body?  Dozing in and out of sleep, talking things over, slowly warming up to one another’s nakedness, and then celebrating with pancakes, French toast and scrambled eggs?  Could it be?  This sounded . . . entirely plausible.  I glanced at my fiancé, who was holding my hand gently.  He was looking at them pensively and nodding.  He seemed to think their ideas were reasonable too.  This was very reassuring.  Finally feeling free to express some of my secret anxieties, I brought up the issue of pain that everyone kept harping on – didn’t it hurt a lot for the woman at first?

“You might feel discomfort in the beginning,” the woman told me. “But you guys will figure it out together.  No worries.”

Ben looked at me with concerned eyes.  “I won’t do anything to hurt you.  I’ll listen to you,” he reassured me.  I looked into his face and, for the first time, really realized that I wasn’t going to be alone in all this. Somehow I had lost sight of the fact that sex was something that was done with another person – with someone who loved me dearly.  It was relational.  We were in it together.  I was in it with him, and he’d take care of me.  And I could deal with a little discomfort.

“Eventually you will be laughing,” the woman told us.  “Sex can be hilarious.  Just wait till you’re wearing a bra he can’t undo.  I’m telling you, you’re going to have so much fun together!”  The constant emphasis on “together” was probably the most significant element of that conversation.  Ben and I were a team.  Sex was an expression of our love.  I was not alone.

Somehow, in that cozy little house on that summer afternoon, chatting casually with our two young mentors, I didn’t even mind when they offered rather intimate details about the messiness of the whole business or some of their own rather funny experiences.  They were tactful and relaxed.  The whole thing suddenly seemed natural and normal and somewhat humourous.  Everything was going to be totally cool, it seemed.  Maybe even fun.  Who knew?

(Continued in Part 4: The Party)

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