The Lowdown on Real Love

Mary Beth Bonacci

Mary Beth Bonacci is a popular youth speaker and the founder of Real Love Inc., a program to help educate and challenge young people to live chastely. She is the author of Real Love (Ignatius Press), a question-and-answer book on chastity for teen-agers and their parents, and We're on a Mission From God , a “Generation X” guide to Pope John Paul II and the Catholic Church. She is probably the only person to have appeared on both MTV and EWTN, the Catholic cable network. Her video, Sex & Love: What's a Teen to Do ?, is a dynamic presentation to teens about the “do's” of chastity. Recently she spoke with Register correspondent Mark Brumley.

Are young people receptive when you speak with them about chastity, or is this, as some people have described it, a “Lost Generation?”

They're extraordinarily receptive. They're only lost because no one is showing them the way. When someone comes and explains things to them clearly and honestly, they're extraordinarily receptive. It's standing ovations, they write me letters, it's amazing.

What is the reason for that receptivity?

I think there are two reasons. One, they know something's wrong. The sexual revolution didn't work; they're the ones who have inherited this mess and they know that that's not the way to go. That leads to reason No. 2, which is that my message is different from that of some chastity speakers. I base everything on not what can happen, the consequences, the horrible things, but on love, and understanding that chastity is a way to find and live love. That's positive, it's what they really want. They respond.

How do many adults respond to young people regarding sexuality today?

We leave them to decide for themselves; we don't give them guidance or tools to decide with. You have a generation of adults who don't know what to say because we were never told. The sexual revolution rolled around and everyone said, ‘Make up your own mind.’ So that now all many parents can say is, ‘Just don't do it—but I don't know why you shouldn't except that all these bad things can happen to you.’ As true as that is, it's not terribly effective.

It often comes down to ‘Don't do it because I said so.’ Right?

Exactly. Or even, “Don't do it because it's a sin, but I can't exactly tell you what sin is.” No one's giving [young people] adequate answers and guidance, and something to get excited about.

What are common misconceptions that young people have about sex and the Church's teaching about it?

That the Church teaches that sex is somehow bad or dirty or evil. That's why they respond when I give them true Church teaching, which is that sex is beautiful, it's sacred and holy. I spend a lot of time helping young people understand why sex is holy and how incredible it is, how it's this ultimate gift of one person to another and how new life comes from it. I try to help them see that when you take sex out of context and use it in a context you're not supposed to, it can do damage. I say that it's like using an antique vase to jack up a car. It's not that the antique vase is bad—it's a good thing—but you're using it in the wrong context and that destroys it.

You distinguish between chastity and abstinence: what's the difference?

I don't like the word “abstinence.” I have no problem with abstinence education, abstinence programs, but I don't like the word. It's negative, it's about what you're not doing. It's not even necessarily about sex. Fridays during Lent are days of abstinence for Catholics—not abstinence from sex, but from meat.

You can't get enthused about the word abstinence. I love the word “chastity.” There's a generation that shies away from it because the word was abused in the '40s, '50s and into the '60s. It came to mean repression or the idea that sex is bad. That's not the case at all. Chastity means that sex speaks a language. It speaks the language of permanent, committed love. It has a meaning, it has a logic. It's positive: chastity means respecting the language of sex so that we can find love in our lives. Part of chastity is abstaining—abstaining from speaking that language when you can't speak it honestly—which is outside of marriage. But it's only part of it.

Are young people looking for chastity?

They don't all know it, but they are. What got me into this work in the first place was realizing that teen-agers, especially teen-age girls, are not having sex because they can't control themselves or because they're incredibly curious. They're sexually active because they're looking for love. And they're not finding it in sexual activity. But as long as all we're doing is saying, “don't do it so you don't get diseases, or so you don't get pregnant,” it's not going to work.

Sure, young people are afraid of getting a disease or getting pregnant—well, some are afraid and some aren't. But whatever they're afraid of, they're more afraid of not being loved. So if all you're doing is taking away the one thing they think is going to get them love, it isn't going to work. But if you say, “No! Here, look! This is where you're going to find real love,” it will.

How do you answer those who say that while they're not for teen-age sex, they think teen-agers should be told how to avoid pregnancy, since kids are “going to do it anyway”?

I answer that simply: cattle are “going to do it anyway.” They have no control. We have different ways of handling cattle because we can't keep them away from each other. So we perform a crude form of surgery on them. Now do we really believe that about our teen-agers—that they can't control themselves, that they're “going to do it anyway”? On so many levels, that's a dangerous message. Do we think they don't hear that? “You're going to do it anyway.” So they think, “Oh, OK, I guess I am.”

From Mary Beth Bonacci's book, Real Love

Like every unmarried Christian, I had struggled with questions. How far is too far? How do I know when I am in love? How do I say “no” nicely? ... Thus, what I heard in my senior year in those chastity talks enthralled me. The word “chastity” brought my understanding of the gift of sexuality to a whole new level. This was not just about avoiding unpleasant consequences. This was a complete “owner's manual” for our bodies. This was about understanding, finding and living love!

When I was in high school, if they had said that there are some teen-agers who are ready for sex and some who aren't, I would have raised my hand to be in the ready line. Who wouldn't? So it's dangerous on that level. It's also very dangerous as a way of trying to protect young people. These devices which supposedly make them safe, don't. When you look at their failure rates, you see they don't work very well. The condom has a 31% failure rate in preventing AIDS and even worse in preventing other diseases. Not to mention the fact that these things can't protect young people emotionally and spiritually. The emotional and spiritual consequences of teen sexual activity, I am convinced, are more severe than the physical. The impact of teen sex on young people's emotions, their ability to date well, on their ability to make a good marriage decision which affects the next generation, on their relationship with God—those bad consequences you can't protect them from. None of this is to say that I think young people shouldn't know the consequences—they should and I tell them the prevalence of sexually transmitted disease, we talk about teen pregnancy, we talk about the emotional consequences and the spiritual consequences. I'm just careful to put it in the context of what happens when we abuse something beautiful.

What about the media, young people, and sex?

The single biggest problem is the fact that across the board, on every TV show I watch that features indoor plumbing—which means every show not depicting life in the 1800s—every show that features single people, depicts them as having sex with virtually every person they date. It's a given. This is on the most popular shows and it's really a fairly new development. You didn't see it in the '60s.

In the '70s, you got the shows with the side characters who were sleazes and it was the big joke that they were promiscuous. Now, the central characters on the show are promiscuous and they're not portrayed as such; they're portrayed as normal. I find that very disturbing because it's happening on otherwise very entertaining, very interesting shows.

How do parents handle that? These TV shows are part of the ubiquitous popular culture.

There's a two-pronged approach. There are two different assaults on young people when it comes to this. One is actual sexual activity—seeing things of a graphic sexual nature. You'll see more of that in the movies; you might see borderline things on television. The second is something like we're talking about—on a Friends or a Seinfeld where you don't actually see them do anything but it is just assumed that they do. Now with the first situation—graphic sexual information—at all costs they should not see it. It's dangerous and damaging. It imprints on the brain in ways not many other things do and it will come back when they don't want it. The second kind of influence you get on Friends or Seinfeld. I have absolutely no problem with sheltering kids from those shows; I think it's an excellent idea. However, given the fact that the chain is only as strong as the weakest parent, you can count on the fact that your teen-agers are probably going to see those shows somewhere. They need to know how to watch critically. I think parents need to teach them, not by letting them watch those shows but by periodically watching something together and saying, “What's wrong with this? What's going to happen because of it?” They're going to need these skills in life because they'll see this stuff. However you do it, give young people the skills to analyze popular culture and to view it critically. A lot of times these show unwittingly make our point. I watch Friends because I know many of the teens I talk to watch it. You see clearly these massively promiscuous people who've slept with everyone they've ever dated and then suddenly when they're dating they sleep with somebody else and it makes the whole relationship fall apart. Why? You can ask those questions. It's amazing how [these shows] won't mean to but they'll make our point if your eyes are open wide enough to see it.

What about your experience with single young adults? What do you tell them, especially if they've been sexually active?

There's kind of a progression. In junior high, you get a lot of “When is it OK to kiss somebody? When is it OK to go on a date?” Certainly, sexual activity is creeping down into those ages but it's at high school where [if they've been sexually active] they start to say, “How can I start over?” By single adulthood, they're saying more articulately than the high school students, “Are there support groups for adults who want to live [chastely]? Where can we turn? What can we do to recapture this, to embrace this?”

Some people talk about “secondary virginity.”

I don't use the term—not that there's anything wrong with it; I find it simpler to talk about chastity and make it clear that chastity is about the future, beginning today. Those who are starting over shouldn't have a different label on their heads. I just tell them virginity is about the past, it can't be changed. Chastity is about the future and it's wide open. If you're living a life of chastity, it's no one's business about what happened in the past. I think it's extraordinarily important to stress that chastity is about the future; it's not an “I made a mistake so it's too late for me” kind of issue.

There's a perception many parents have that sending their children to Catholic schools will solve their problems regarding teens and sex. What do you say?

I'd call that passing the buck. Parents are the primary educators of their children and I think that the whole “sex education establishment” has taken that burden from them. Parents have this attitude that, “Well, it's a difficult issue to deal with and now I don't have to—the school will. And because it's a Catholic school, it will all be fine.” Wrong. Children need to hear the facts of life from their parents. It's a personal matter, it's private, it's sacred and the home is a sacred space. And the parent child-relationship is a sacred relationship. I think the schools have a twofold role. One is to help the parents, especially in the elementary grades, to support them, to teach them what the Church teaches and why, to teach them about the development of their children—what they're prepared for, at what age. Then, I think that the school has a responsibility to children to inculcate virtue and among those virtues is chastity. I think on the junior high and high school level, schools need to be promoting chastity. Helping children understand how to date well, to understand what the consequences of unchastity are—that's fine.

But the real “sex education”—plumbing stuff—I really believe needs to come from the parents.

How would you sum up your message about chastity?

It all boils down to love, and love means wanting what's best for the other person. Once we really understand that sex speaks this language—the language of “I give myself to you forever”—and that outside that context it causes damage, everything else falls into place. Sex outside of marriage is not looking out for what's best for the other person. It's putting that person at physical, emotional, and spiritual risk. Chastity is love; chastity means looking at this other person and saying, “I want what's best for you. Sure, I'd like to do this; sure, it would feel good. But because it's not what's best for you, I'm not going to.” Chastity leads to love, helps us date better, helps us make better marriage decisions, helps us find love; it's about love.

Mary Beth Bonacci


Born 1963. Single. Full-time writer and speaker on chastity since 1986. Founder and director of Real Love Productions, an organization devoted to upholding and disseminating the message of chastity. Holds a bachelor's degree in organizational communications from the University of San Francisco and a master's in the theology of marriage and the family from the John Paul II Institute in Washington, D.C.


Author of two books (We're on a Mission from God and Real Love , both published by Ignatius Press); writer of a regularly syndicated newspaper column, and consultant to the national Life Teen program. Speaker at 1993 World Youth Day in Denver. Has developed numerous videos, including a series, entitled Real Love , which is currently in release. Her video Sex and Love: What's a Teenager to Do? was awarded the 1996 Crown Award for Best Youth Curriculum.

—Mark Brumley

For more information, call Real Love Inc. at 602-854-1594.