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Chastity in Dating: Not Just ‘No Sex’

It's the perennial question: 'How far is too far?'

If you’re Catholic, you probably know that Church teaching forbids sex with anyone besides your spouse. The Catechism (CCC) says, “Fornication [sex between two unmarried people] . . . is gravely contrary to the dignity of persons and of human sexuality which is naturally ordered to the good of spouses and the generation and education of children” (2353). This teaching is based on the Sixth Commandment, “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” and other Bible verses that warn us against sexual immorality, such as 1 Corinthians 6:18.

You may have also heard warnings against going “too far” with your boyfriend or girlfriend. But how far is “too far”?

Some recommend saving even a kiss for your wedding day, or refraining from nearly all physical contact at least until engagement. Their logic is that touches and kisses can start you down a slippery slope to fornication, or create an excessive emotional attachment that’s a shaky foundation for the relationship. Others advocate for plenty of physical affection throughout the relationship, emphasizing the importance of knowing whether you have “chemistry,” as long as you avoid fornication. What’s the truth?

To answer that, we need to back up and understand why actions that aren’t sex might still be sinful before marriage, whether or not they lead you to fornicate. First, Jesus warns us against even looking lustfully at a person. “Whoever looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:28).

What does “lustfully” mean? The Catechism says that lust is the “disordered desire for, or inordinate enjoyment of, sexual pleasure” (2351). Then it explains that sexual pleasure is disordered “when sought for itself, isolated from its procreative and unitive purposes.” In other words, it is good to seek sexual pleasure within the union of spouses who are open to new life, but it is wrong to seek sexual pleasure outside that context.

In addition, the Ninth Commandment says, “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife.” Combining this with Jesus’ admonition about “whoever looks lustfully,” we can see that, according to God, even if we never sin against chastity externally by fornicating or committing adultery, we can still sin against chastity internally, by indulging lustful thoughts and desires. Purposely fantasizing about sex with someone who isn’t your spouse is a sin because the attitude of the will is just as lustful as if you were to act out that fantasy.

Where do acts like kissing come in? There are no biblical commandments or Catechism paragraphs specific to this. But Thomas Aquinas explores this question in the Summa Theologiae, asking “whether there can be mortal sin in touches and kisses.” He concludes that kisses, caresses, etc. are not sinful in themselves if they are done without lustful pleasure, but they can be mortally sinful if they lead someone to consent to lustful pleasure, or if they are done for the sake of this pleasure (II-II, q. 154, a. 4).

Notice how Thomas doesn’t say, “Kissing is sinful,” or “One kiss is okay, but making out is not.” Instead, he points out that consenting to lustful pleasure is sinful. By extension, kisses and touches are sinful if they tempt someone into lust, or if they are done purposely to experience sexual pleasure outside marriage.

This is very important. The Church doesn’t have a precise rule for when, how, and how much a Catholic may kiss his love interest, just as the Church doesn’t have a rule about how many peanut butter sandwiches a Catholic may eat in one day. It’s up to each person to discern whether his consumption of peanut butter has become gluttonous, and whether the way he touches and kisses his girlfriend is lustful.

What do we mean by lustful pleasure? Our appetite for sex is a good thing, created by God. Arousal—the awakening of that appetite—is a natural response to stimuli. Therefore, arousal is not sinful or bad; it’s good and normal, just like hunger. However, arousal is the body’s preparation for sex. So it can be a temptation to sin if it happens outside the context of marriage.

The sexual appetite might, of course, tempt us to sin externally by fornicating. Or it might tempt us to sin internally, by lusting after a person who isn’t our spouse (at least not yet). Because sexual desire tends to be so powerful, this temptation often constitutes a near occasion of sin. And the Church calls us, out of love for God and knowledge of our own weakness, to avoid near occasions of sin. So, outside of marriage, we are called to avoid things that we can reasonably expect will be sexually arousing and therefore a near occasion of sin.

Here’s the tricky part: each person and each couple might be aroused and tempted by slightly different things. So the answer to “How far is too far?” is often “It depends.”

But it’s not as though sex and lust are new—so we can learn from others’ wisdom and adopt some helpful boundaries as starting points. For instance, Catholic psychologist Mario Sacasa points out in his online course “Dating Well” that there are two bare-minimum boundaries everyone should adopt. First, keep all your clothes on; second, avoid touching the “erotic zones” of the body. Undressing and touching sexual organs are very clear precursors to sex, and no one (except a doctor) would do these things without a desire to give or receive sexual pleasure.

Beyond these, I find a pretty clear consensus among experts and couples that brief kisses are usually fine, but “making out” is arousing to most people and should probably be off-limits. One woman told me that she and her now-husband instituted a three-kiss rule (no more than three consecutive kisses at any time) and a “no tongue” rule, to avoid kisses turning into passionate makeout sessions. Another shared that she and her husband chose to save their first kiss on the mouth for marriage but expressed affection in other ways, including occasional kisses on the cheek or forehead. Both had made different, valid choices within the Church’s teaching.

So dating couples can adopt these basic boundaries—clothes stay on, hands stay away from erotic areas, and kisses (if they happen) don’t become makeout sessions. Then they can practice self-awareness to notice if anything else leads them to be tempted into lust and prayerfully discuss any adjustments to the boundaries.

One last note: Temptations are not sins, so there’s no need to be scrupulous if you intend to express affection and happen to experience arousal inadvertently. But if an action routinely arouses you and tempts you to lust, that’s a warning to avoid the action going forward. And if you have consented to lustful pleasure, in thought or deed, going to confession will provide not only the grace of forgiveness, but also the grace to grow in chastity and avoid the same sin in the future. No one is born perfectly chaste; we must exercise chastity like a muscle and grow in it over time, with God’s grace.

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