What does the Church say about setting boundaries in our sex life?
What are the “rules” I need to follow for good Catholic sex?
Good Catholic sex:
Is exclusively reserved for husband and wife united in marriage.
Should be loving and respectful of both partners and their individual comfort levels.
Is not impeded by the use of artificial contraception. Married persons are called to work with God in practicing “responsible parenthood” regarding their family size. They are encouraged (but not required) to learn a Fertility Awareness Based Method (aka "NFP) to aid in this calling.
Requires that the husband never (intentionally) climax outside of his wife's vagina.
Has no genital stimulation (masturbation) without intercourse.
Additionally, couples should not participate in genital stimulation (masturbation), both alone and together, if there is no intention for intercourse. This includes no viewing or reading of pornography, both alone and together.
Please define intercourse.
Intercourse is defined by GCS as the husband’s penis entering his wife’s vagina and ejaculating inside of her.
Please define the "sexual act."
The sexual act (defined by GCS) begins with sexual arousal (incl. physical foreplay like genital touch), leads to intercourse, and (may include, but not necessarily) climax of the wife before, during, or immediately after intercourse. These actions should all take place in the same period of time. Meaning, a couple should not have oral sex on a Monday morning and call it "foreplay" for intercourse on Monday evening.
What do you mean by “intentionally,” regarding the man’s climax?
The nuance that is important here is: did the couple intend for their sexual activity to lead to intercourse?
When couples are still learning their arousal curve - and/or at transitional phases in a relationship such as pregnancy or menopause, some husbands "prematurely" ejaculate outside of the wife. In other words, he intended to ejaculate inside his wife but he climaxed sooner than he expected. Premature ejaculation is not a sin - due to the intention behind the action.
There may be other times the couple participated in foreplay (including oral and/or manual stimulation) with the intention of intercourse in that moment, but something unexpected causes the intercourse to not work out. Perhaps the husband and/or wife is sick and realized their body is not up for sex in that moment, perhaps the man is struggling to climax, perhaps a child interrupts the couple, etc.
So, is everything else allowed within the sexual act?
Yes. The important key is that physical intimacy prioritizes love and mutual respect of one another.
What needs to be considered when we think about love and mutual respect?
There are some sexual acts that should be considered off limits for all Catholic couples: there should never be pleasure gained from demeaning or causing pain to a spouse (BDSM).
There are other positions/acts which may depend on individual comfort levels. No partner should be forced or coerced into a sexual act or position that they feel uncomfortable with. Over time, perhaps comfort level will expand - healthy discussion about individual comfort levels should take place outside of the marital act.
What about lubrication?
Yes, please use lubrication, especially when you’re first starting.
Lubrication should be something simple that won’t cause negative reactions - avoid ones that are scented, warming, etc. KY Jelly or equivalent store brand was popularly recommended as the drugstore option. Some couples use oils, such as coconut oil. Good Clean Love, Blossom Organics Natural Lubricant, and other organic products are commonly used too. All can be purchased online or in your local store. Try them all until you find one you like best!
What about lingerie?
Yes, if you feel comfortable with it, go for it! The idea is not to use lingerie to be looked at with lust, but to allow the husband to see his wife with reverence and awe. Not all couples use lingerie, but many couples will find that wearing different clothing can help enhance their sexual experience.
You can find lingerie in local department or boutique stores, or there are many Christian lingerie stores found online. Look for pieces that you feel comfortable and beautiful in.
What about oral stimulation?
Yes. A husband can orally stimulate the woman’s genitalia within the sexual act. A wife can orally stimulate her husband’s penis within the sexual act. As long as they both feel comfortable with it and it follows the guidelines listed in question 1.
What about sex toys?
Yes. Sex toys (i.e. a vibrator) can be used as long as it is respectful, comfortable, and within the sexual act (intercourse should take place just before or after). A vibrator, etc. should not be used by an individual masturbating alone.
What about xyz position?
All sex positions are allowed: considering love, respect, comfort.
The Church has not explicitly weighed in on anal sex as a form of foreplay (the Church doesn't explicitly weigh in on most sex specifics). However, Good Catholic Sex would be hard pressed to find an example of a time that anal sex would be loving, respectful, and comfortable for both partners. You can have great and beautiful sex without needing to experiment with anal stimulation.
We are “TTA” (trying to avoid a pregnancy). What is allowed physically between us, when we are abstaining from sex?
Kissing, hand-holding, cuddling, massages, hugging are all fully appropriate. The key here is couples should refrain from intentionally arousing one another (most especially to the point of climax), if they don’t intend to have intercourse.
An example: If a couple is casually cuddling in bed, and the husband has an erection (and/or the woman feels sexually aroused), the act of arousal itself is not a misstep. To continue to act on that arousal, however, is where couples risk falling into “near occasion” of sin. A couple should not feel ashamed of their desire for one another, but it would be prudent for them to move themselves to a less arousing situation. A big reason it would be prudent is because when a woman is ovulating she has an enhanced desire for sex (and her husband often has an enhanced desire for her in return). Thus, it becomes much harder to redirect after one/both are aroused. The couple risks either engaging in intercourse or sexually frustrating one another - losing sight of the love and respect owed to a marriage relationship.
Looking at these answers, I think we haven't been living our marriage according to Church teaching. Are we in a state of sin?
If you were participating in actions that are against Church teaching, but you were genuinely unaware that you were, you are technically not in a state of sin. Talk with your spouse about your new understanding, and commit to live your marriage in light of Church teaching. If you are aware of Church teachings but willingly going against them, GCS encourages you visit the Sacrament of Confession to seek help from a trusted Catholic spiritual director or advisor.
If you continue to struggle, you are not alone. Habits like pornography and masturbation can become highly addictive and thus highly challenging to overcome without specific resources to help. Lean into God's graces through Confession, prayer, and counseling -- seek direct assistance as needed.
We have been struggling with our sex life. Are you suggesting we should try all the types of lubrication, all the lingerie options, all the sex toys, and all the positions until we get it right?
This set of FAQs is intended to be a guide for what is “allowed.” Ultimately the best sex is going to come from communication, patience, and lots of intentional loving toward one another outside of the marital act. Check out this guide (originally written for newlyweds, but helpful for any married couples) for a more in-depth reflection on this topic.
What are your sources for all of these answers?
These answers have been written in light of the Magisterium of the Catholic Church. They are based on research completed for a Master's level degree in Theology at Saint Meinard School of Theology. All sources used are found on the resource page.
I'd like to know "why" these rules exist.
At a certain point, the "why" is too complex for an FAQ page, so if you want in depth answers to "why" questions, check out the books listed on the resources page - specifically West and Popcak. There is a logical explanation behind every boundary, which can definitely be worth learning more about. They can help you become better formed in understanding the significant role of sex within your marriage. That said - you could spend thousands of hours getting lost in the weeds of the "why" questions, or you can spend more time truly enjoying some very Good Catholic Sex.
Ultimately, as Catholics we believe that these boundaries have been established by God. God gives us these boundaries so we can have marriages as he designed: full of life and love.
NFP (Only the very basics)
Can we use a condom if we are TTA?
No. No artificial contraception should be used at any time in marriage. There should be nothing used to inhibit sperm entering a woman’s body and/or inhibit the woman’s ovulation.
What if the wife is using artificial contraception for medical/health purposes?
Women can licitly use artificial contraception for medical/health purposes. However, a couple in this situation needs to avoid sex altogether if she is using the artificial contraception (for medical purposes). There are many reasons for this, but an important reason is that women’s contraception has the possibility of becoming an abortifacient.
It is recommended that women who have a medically necessary reason to use contraception consider alternative methods to address the root cause of her medical concerns (e.g. If she is having exceptionally painful periods, she may find that the root cause is PCOS or endometriosis. Those issues may be addressed with medical solutions that don’t involve birth control.)
Additionally, it is licit for a woman to have a hysterectomy for medically necessary reasons; the couple can afterward continue sexual activity.
I have a lot more questions about NFP…
Although NFP often becomes an integral part of a Catholic sex life, this website is not intended to address all NFP concerns. This is because there has already been thorough explanation of this issue in other resources.
If you have specific personal questions about NFP and use of contraception in your marriage, you can direct them to The National Catholic Bioethics Center.
Female specific sex questions, incl. female orgasm
In our marriage, the wife has a higher sex drive than the husband. Is that normal?
Yes. Contrary to popular culture, this does commonly happen in marriages.
We are really struggling with the female orgasm. Is something wrong with us?
It is very common to struggle with the female orgasm – there is not anything “wrong” with you, you are not “failing” at sex.
Couples are encouraged to explore the woman’s genitalia (together) within the sexual act and experiment with how she is best sexually stimulated. The husband can practice stimulating his wife manually (with his hands), orally, or with a vibrator. The woman can also stimulate herself manually or with a vibrator, in the presence of her husband.
There are commonly wounds that a couple has entered marriage with. For example, many women worked to suppress their arousal instincts prior to marriage (in an attempt to practice “chastity”) and it can therefore become challenging for them to make the switch to being okay with sexual arousal and climax within their marriage. Additionally men and women exposed to pornography (including film and books) will have built up false ideas of how a woman is best aroused.
Does it “count” as sex if the woman didn’t climax?
Yes. It can feel frustrating for the woman, if she did not climax. What is more important is the couple shared an intimate moment of their bodies (and souls) uniting together as one. If the husband is refusing to help his wife climax, that can be problematic. If the couple is lovingly trying to figure it out together, but it takes time (perhaps even years) for them to achieve female orgasm, don’t despair.
Couples (who are not TTA) are highly encouraged to experiment with the female orgasm while she is ovulating – they will likely find it easier to achieve orgasm during this phase.
I heard John Paul II said it was “ideal” for a couple to climax at the same time?
Yes, he did say this was ideal in a book he wrote before his papacy, Love and Responsibility. It's a fairly dense text that often gets quoted out of context.
It's important to clarify, there are many ideals in our world that are challenging to live up to. Thus "ideal" should not be seen as expectation. Ultimately, JPII was trying to encourage a husband to slow down his arousal curve and take a pause to address his wife’s arousal curve, which can often be much slower to build.
Couples who have reached a level of sexual growth/maturity may be able to achieve this more regularly. The rest of us should not despair if it’s just not happening.
I also heard John Paul II said that it would be okay for the husband to help his wife climax after intercourse was complete.
Yes, it is appropriate for the wife to request that her husband help her reach climax after intercourse. (It is also appropriate for the wife to climax before her husband does, as long as it is within the sexual act.) However, post-coital climax can become a further source of frustration for the couple to navigate. The wife can feel "left out" as her husband enjoys the after-effects of climax without her. The husband often feels tired/relaxed after intercourse - and while he wishes to please his wife - he struggles to give full energy/expression during this time.
The post-coital female orgasm will likely depend on the phase of the woman's cycle and the current season of life. Patience, communication, and understanding are required. It is most important to rely on God's graces and not allow the female climax to become a source of frustration.
Many couples struggle with the woman's climax, so you are not alone if you are finding this challenging at any point in the sexual act. The most important part is the sexual act was (intended to be) a loving union of husband and wife's bodies and souls.