Breeding 'Like Rabbits,' Sex by Rhythm Method, and Other Natural Family Planning Myths

Pope Francis in October. giulio napolitano / Shutterstock.com

Pope Francis in October. giulio napolitano / Shutterstock.com

In discussing birth control and population issues when visiting the Philippines recently, Pope Francis said the Catholic Church promoted “responsible parenthood” that didn’t require good Catholics to be “like rabbits.” The frank imagery prompted a flurry of playfully creative headlines that ranged from mocking to woeful. And the byproduct of such reaction stories? The continued misinformation on what Catholics currently practice and what the Catholic Church actually teaches when it comes to family planning.

The pope’s remarks referenced Catholic teaching that prohibits artificial birth control. Family size, according to the Church, should be regulated by abstinence or a form of Natural Family Planning, sometimes characterized simply as trying really hard not to have sex when you’re “not supposed to,” which often fails and results in a ton of kids. Proponents of NFP say the method(s), and its practitioners, are too often misunderstood.

NFP for pregnancy prevention involves charting a woman’s cycles by testing for various biological markers — like basal temperature or cervical mucous — in order to assess fertile days and abstain from sex during that time. According to the World Health Organization, fertility awareness methods like NFP are 95-97 percent effective when used correctly and consistently (75 percent with typical use), and individual NFP models claim higher effectiveness.

Practicing NFP can certainly be complicated, especially when taking into account marriage and family dynamics that aren’t always conducive to the attention it requires.

But while it may be more difficult than, say, popping a daily pill or using an IUD, modern technology — like tracking apps and temperature-monitoting gadgets — is simplifying the process and coinciding with a resurgence in popularity. NFP practitioners say they appreciate the choice it offers — whether the motivation is following Church teaching or simply avoiding synthetic hormones.

Abstinence-Only Sex Ed is Over

Heart illustration, winui / Shutterstock.com

Heart illustration, winui / Shutterstock.com

As a teen, I was taught abstinence-only sex education. I pledged purity, and I made it known to all the boys around me. In my freshman year of high school, I was even voted “Most Likely to Wait Until Marriage” by my peers. The very next year, at age 15, I became pregnant.

Today, nearly half of American high schoolers, aged 14 to 18, are sexually active, according to a Centers for Disease Control survey. Even Christians aren’t waiting until marriage. Among unmarried adult evangelicals under 30, 8 in 10 have had sex.

Somebody has to say it: Our approach isn’t working, and it’s time to rethink “the talk.” It’s time to expand the conversation into territory where many evangelical parents dare not go.

The Dangers of Christian 'Marriage Worship'

Wedding photo, Mila Supinskaya / Shutterstock.com

Wedding photo, Mila Supinskaya / Shutterstock.com

I’ve written before about the seemingly contrasting messages we offer to young people in church about sex and sexuality:

Sex is dirty; save it for someone you marry someday.

Umm, what? Granted, we walk a narrow rhetorical tightrope when discussing sex with our kids. If we tell them it’s actually pretty awesome, and then tell them they can’t do it, that’s a setup for failure. On the other hand, if we focus on the negatives, we risk scarring and shaming them into a life of emotional conflict and struggle when it comes to sexual intimacy.

What we end up with, often times, is a vacuous silence when it comes to the real, difficult issues of sexual identity, impulse, and expression. Add to that the Christian emphasis on marriage, and the result in many cases is scads of unhealthy, sexually awkward young people, married far too early with no idea why.

Study: Muslims and Hindus Less Likely to Have Premarital Sex

 North-Central India, XI century A.D., Sandstone

North-Central India, XI century A.D., Sandstone

With their “True Love Waits” jewelry, conferences and T-shirts, Christians may be the face of the abstinence movement, but Muslims and Hindus are more likely to abstain from premarital sex.

That's the conclusion of a new study in the American Sociological Review, which also found that Muslims and Hindus -- at least in the developing world -- are more likely than Christians and Jews to refrain from extramarital sex.

“All major world religions discourage sex outside of marriage, but they are not all equally effective in shaping behavior,” said Amy Adamczyk of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, who co-authored the study with John Jay doctoral student Brittany E. Hayes.

Drawing on the Demographic and Health Surveys funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, the study included data from 31 developing nations collected between 2000 and 2008. The authors focused on individuals' responses to questions on religious affiliation, marital status, and sexual behavior outside of marriage.

Adamczyk said the study evolved from another study she was doing that found countries with large Muslim populations have very low rates of HIV and AIDS. "I was trying to figure out why that would be,” she said. One reason she considered was lower rates of sex outside of marriage.

Spirituality and Sexuality: Deconstructing Boundaries

Photo by Lilly Roadstones/Getty Images

Photo by Lilly Roadstones/Getty Images

As I began reflecting on my past sexual interactions with men, I tried to bring God into the conversation for the first time.

It was easier to punish myself with guilt, follow youth group-style sexual boundaries or just say, "forget it" and do whatever I desired. I was reluctant to process my sexuality. Not only would it be a lot of work and uncover a lot of past hurt, but what if it unraveled foundational faith and lifestyle beliefs?

Up until six months ago, I had never questioned my decision to not have sex until I was married. I just did what I thought I was supposed to.

Once I began to reflect on it, though, I realized I was angry that God was asking me to wait. Or maybe it was OK to have sex, and God hadn’t told me sooner! I envisioned what would happen if I didn’t wait.