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How to Handle a Bad Sexual Past

"I regret being a slut," writes an ex-Playboy columnist. That's where to start, but her advice for how to move forward is missing some steps.

When I was New Age, I refused to believe in mistakes. “Nothing is a mistake,” I’d say, “so long as I learn from what happens. If so, it’s a learning experience.” So I “learned” that lying here or fooling around there was wrong. It made for a life of no regrets . . . or at least that’s what I would tell myself.

In reality, I was hurting badly, forcing a cavalier attitude while stifling the natural feelings of remorse from my many wrong turns.

This was especially true in the realm of romantic encounters. As I lived out the recommendations of the sexual revolution—free love and so on—I found that the hype fell far short of the reality. As it turned out, no, I couldn’t have casual sexual experiences and find lasting happiness. No, I couldn’t treat myself or others in a utilitarian sense and feel fulfilled. No, I couldn’t pretend forever that sex and procreation could be separated. It was all a lie, which I furthered along by lying to myself. It was—I was—a mess, whether or not I could admit to my regret and remorse about the whole thing.

Former Playboy columnist and writer Bridget Phetasy wrote in a recent blog post about the failures of the sexual revolution in her own life. She came to a similar conclusion as mine above: she had been lied to. Being promiscuous didn’t bring her happiness, and what hurt most in the process of living out her own sexual revolution was that she had lied to herself. She did not feel good about the entire thing, and she was not okay.

Humans are ordered to the good, and casual sex and whatever else the sexual revolution promotes are ordered away from it. These things seek false love and self-satisfaction at the expense of true love—love, as defined by St. Thomas Aquinas, meaning the willing the good, of the other and of ourselves, which ought to lead us to God and eventually the beatific vision. As such, disordered sexual attitudes and actions clash with the good with regard to our sexuality as God has defined it, being “realized in a truly human way only if it is an integral part of the love by which a man and woman commit themselves totally to one another until death” (CCC 2361). This includes sacramental marriage, fidelity, chastity, charity—all things that are good for us and for our relationship with God, and none of which has much place in the sexual climate of today.

This is why Phetasy came to her “I’m not okay” conclusion. Her sexual behaviors and beliefs were not ordered to the good that her soul sought.

Truth be told, none of us is okay, regardless of the state of our sexuality. That is a truth told way back in the Book of Genesis, starting with the fruit of which Adam and Eve ate: the first sin, and the first human experience of regret. Through the ages, humans have inherited Adam’s and Eve’s proclivity to sin. We can’t fully shake it. But in the verses that follow, we read of our loving God’s plan to save us from the mess of this fallen world: our Messiah.

This connection among sin, contrition, and Jesus is paramount to the story of our salvation. We will sin. Unless we’re sociopaths, we will feel a sense of regret, and with a proper understanding of our natures, the love of God, and the Catholic sacraments, we can express our contrition and receive the beautiful gift of Christ’s forgiveness. It is a cycle of sin and contrition that can be broken and healed only through Christ. Thus, we are not stuck in our regrets.

For Phetasy, however, healing seems to have come from developing a sense of self-love and a healthy relationship with her current spouse. Now she has advice for her young daughter when the time comes for the latter to navigate the current culture’s upside-down sexual mores: “It’s not about waiting until you’re in love to have sex; it’s about making sure that first, you love yourself. . . . Every woman should feel this way: sleeping with me is a privilege. And you have to be worthy.”

That may sound empowering at first glance, but let us be honest: the love we have for ourselves will always fall far short of the love God has for us. Our feelings and thoughts change. God and his love for us never do. Love for ourselves as a beloved creation of God is far more fulfilling than trying to drum up and maintain reasons to “love me for me.”

So what are we to do? How do we process our own regrets in the wake of the faulty Sexual Revolution? How do we counsel loved ones when they have come to realize their wrong turns? Phetasy offers a nugget here and there of partial truth. “Sex,” she writes, “can’t be liberated from intimacy and a meaningful relationship.” The Catholic Church would agree . . . to a point: “in marriage the physical intimacy of the spouses becomes a sign and pledge of spiritual communion” (CCC 2360). Intimacy and meaningfulness are embedded in the sacrament of marriage and the marital act. It is in this sacred space that a husband and wife can enjoy themselves, free of regret.

But mostly, Phetasy gets it dead wrong: “I regret being a slut. I regret it because I regret that those men can say they slept with me.” Her regret is wrapped up in being a sexual partner to someone unworthy of her rather than regretting what ought to be in the forefront: that she didn’t believe in God’s love for her. But it’s with a proper understanding of God’s love that we can benefit through our behavior from the lessons God has taught us, through the Catholic Church, all these many years.

Regret, remorse, humble contrition . . . these are all good things. They alert us to when we’ve done something that harms our relationship with God and neighbor and move us to seek forgiveness in Jesus. As in the Mass, so in this area of life: we start with the Confiteor, and we conclude with thanksgiving for our loving—and forgiving—God.

This is where our focus ought to be, whether in working through the regrets of our own past or helping others work through theirs. It is in God’s love for us—and here’s the important part: in our love for God—that we can properly accept, understand, and work through our remorse. That is the only antidote to our sexually misled culture, its many wrong turns, and a plethora of well-meaning but woefully inadequate advice.

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