Jenny Ingles, CFCP
How Far is Too Far? - When Avoiding
We're avoiding pregnancy. How far is too far during fertility? This is a pretty common question that I get. Essentially, the question is "what activities can we participate in when we are avoiding pregnancy"? While research seems to indicate that women tend to be more amorous just before and during menstruation, the past six years of experience working with couples tells me that libido peaks around ovulation. My educated guess is that the sudden availability of androgens in the wife's system, coupled with her pheromones that increase desire in her husband, cause an increase in mutual libido. So what's a couple to do (other than SPICE) during fertility when avoiding?
To be clear, this is a two-fold question. First, it is a physiological question about how to not get pregnant. Second, it is a moral question about which activities are sinful and which are not. From a physiological standpoint, CrMS applies the instruction that genital activity is to be avoided in order for the couple to avoid pregnancy. And if there is any question as to what constitutes "genital activity" (as I am often asked), then it's good to note that if there are genitals involved, then it is likely genital activity. The reasoning for this is that bodies are designed to facilitate impregnation. During fertility, Estrogen in the woman's body rises and her body produces a specialized type of cervical mucus known as E Type (also known as Type 4). This mucus is clear, stretchy, or lubricative and has channels in it. These channels are designed to assist sperm in moving from point A (the vagina) to point B (an available egg). If sperm (which does actually start to leave the man's body prior to ejaculation) meets this E Type mucus, pregnancy can occur - without intercourse. This is why CrMS instructs "no genital activity" when avoiding.
On the moral side, this isn't actually an easy answer. People get frustrated with me (and the Catholic Church) for this and want some special list of definitive do's and don'ts. But the reality is that if something isn't intrinsically evil (such as direct sterilization - also called contraception in colloquial use), then the individual(s) involved have to weigh the action, the circumstance surrounding the action, and the intent of the actor to determine if it's moral. So now that I've lost most of my readers in my nerdy moral weeds... on to the answer. The answer is "It depends". A very simple way to try and navigate this is for the couple to ask "would this action lead to intercourse if we were not avoiding?" If the answer is "yes", then it is likely not a moral action. For example, some couples cuddle naked as a normal part of their every day lives, and that action doesn't usually lead to intercourse. For others, it only precedes intercourse. So cuddling naked wouldn't be "too far" for the former couple but it would be for the latter.
This question can get more complicated if the couple doesn't have a good sense of which sexual actions are moral in the first place or if they have a distorted view of what is or is not contraceptive in nature. Sadly, years of Church culture not having open discussion about sex have led to a rise in confusion as many have taken it upon themselves to try and determine actions that are and are not moral. On one end of the spectrum, you have people who advocate for "anything goes in marriage as long as you follow one rule" and on the other end you have a rigid fear of sex as something "dirty". The reality is that sex is a good thing created by God, reserved for spouses, which bonds the spouses and upholds the dignity of the spouses and their union as procreative. There isn't enough time to get into all the nuances of that in a blog. So, for this question, start by determining if the action in question always (or usually) leads to intercourse and go from there. Learn more, ask trusted, knowledgeable people, and remember that God made your bodies good.