A former colleague caught me off guard recently by asking, "Guess what I'm taking off work to do tomorrow?" Shrugging in response, I was stunned by her answer: "I'm taking my daughter to the doctor to get birth control pills."

My heartfelt reply of "Oh, I'm so sorry" bewildered her. She answered my apparent faux pas with an explanation of how proud she was of her daughter for confiding in her and taking responsibility for her impending sexual activity. She had expected me to share in her winsome reverie about this coming of age, as if it were comparable to seeing a child off for the first day of kindergarten.

My second sentence, "Does she know how this will affect her emotionally and physically?" drew more defensive fire. Birth control pills would regulate her cycle. This was a committed relationship between a 14-year-old (virgin) girl and a 16-year-old (previously sexually active) boy. She was even going to have the boy sign a paper stating he was currently free from sexually transmitted diseases. Sex is an enjoyable activity, after all, and this was going to be a very special occasion, one to mark their first anniversary of dating.

She looked at me as if I were in a culture warp, and I looked at her with sincere sorrow. I knew in a few days her daughter would experience sex with a boy who did not love her exclusively and permanently. She would divorce this activity from the commitment, protection, unique partnership, and self-sacrificial love that she deserves as a woman. At a tender age she would begin to manipulate her maturing body with synthetic hormones whose long-term consequences are not fully understood. She would set into a motion a tangled emotional relationship in which sex could be used as a bargaining chip.

And why? To please a young man who hasn't proven that he feels responsibility toward her, undying love for her, or even deference to her physical well-being. Her mother had warned her that her first "experience" probably would not even be enjoyable, but not to worry--she'd get used to it.

In my mind were images and voices of women who similarly had regarded sexual liberation as good, clean fun. Women who, now married with children, could not have their husbands touch them or hold them in certain ways because it reminded them of drunken orgies they'd participated in, in college or high school. Women who were infertile due to damage from sexually transmitted diseases. Women who had to undergo biopsies for pre-cancerous conditions due to too many sexual partners. Women who couldn't get men to commit to a permanent relationship. Women who gave away body and soul to men who devoured both like candy but refused to reciprocate with self-sacrificial love.

I read recently an article in a popular women's magazine about how to get the guy you love to do the things you want, such as cleaning the garage or going to your family picnic. The keys to positive responses from the young gents were sexual favors. "Steam my glasses and I'll help you do the dishes, but really, hey, don't expect much cooperation from me unless I can use your body as a barter." "Take out the garbage? It'll cost you." "Feed my ego and my wildest sexual fantasies, and I may attend your class reunion. Otherwise, the deal's off." "Oh, and if I ever find somebody better at this business, bye-bye."

This is liberation? This is respect for the person? This is the revolution that gives women sexual equality and keeps them from being treated like objects and slaves? This doesn't sound like love, like the love Jesus Christ had for his own bride, the Church, because he "gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such that, that she might be holy and without blemish" (Eph 5:25-32). It doesn't sound like the love that "nourishes and cherishes" (Eph 5:28-29).

Ah, the sexually emancipated retort, but it's much better than repression of sexual desire. Really? Are these the only two options: repression or unbridled lust, both of which lead to degradation of the person? How about the proper use of sex within marriage, the place where sexual activity is guarded from intrusion; linked to mutual concern for the welfare of the partner; private; free from fear of disease or betrayal; committed to building intimacy and future life; and committed to the raising of children together.

Sexual activity outside of marriage is not the same as sexual activity within marriage. The meaning and purpose of the act changes dramatically in each setting. A fourth century bishop, St. John Chrysostom, in his Homily III on Titus, warns that it is not intercourse per se that makes the fornicator or adulterer unclean, otherwise a husband and wife would be unclean also. Rather, the "manner" of the intercourse injures and defrauds the neighbor; in particular, women are abused and defrauded in this manner, because it makes them "common." It is lust verses love, selfishness versus self-sacrifice, self-absorption versus responsibility, using versus nourishing, taking versus giving, experimentation rather than commitment.

Magazines, television, and movies constantly preach sexual liberation to young women. They participate in the lie that this freedom is life-giving outside of a loving, permanent, committed, monogamous relationship. Women once labeled as "common" or "easy" are labeled now as "assertive" or "independent." Beneath the self-assured labels, however, is a despair of ever being cherished as a person. Additionally, women's free gift of body and soul to uncommitted males cultivates their irresponsibility, boorishness, and selfishness.

St. Valentine's Day more likely commemorates an ancient pagan celebration of mating birds than the martyrdom of its fourth century namesake. How unfortunate that today's notion of romance has forgotten both inspirations: saints who sacrifice themselves in love, and birds who mate for life. In an oversexualized culture, we are risking our bodies and souls and neglecting something that demands spiritual cultivation: love.

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