An interview with the authors of “How Far Can We Go? A Catholic Guide to Sex and Dating”
The award winning book How Far Can We Go? A Catholic Guide to Sex and Dating has recently been released in the US by Paulist Press. I had the opportunity to ask the authors, Leah Perrault and Vox-Nova’s Brett Salkeld a few questions about the book and how it came to be. FWIW this book is the best book of its kind which I have read, so give the interview a read and get yourself a copy of the book.
Can you tell us a little bit about who you are and what your ministry is?
Leah: I am married to Marc, and we have a daughter, Robyn, who is just about four and a son, Eliot, who is six months old. We have made our home in Saskatoon, close to family and under great big prairie skies. I work for the Diocese of Saskatoon as the director of pastoral services. I have a Master’s of Arts in Pastoral Theology from St. Michael’s College in Toronto.
Brett: My wife Flannery and I live in downtown Toronto in Student Family Housing with out two little guys, Toby and Oscar. We’re expecting number 3 in March. I am currently working on my doctoral dissertation in Theology and hope to find work in the near future as a university professor in Theology.
Leah: Our speaking and writing ministry began when we were undergraduates at Campion College the University of Regina. As young adults, we found that most discussions among our friends and colleagues eventually led to relationships and sexuality. Conversations led to invitations to speak to youth groups, young adults, classrooms. Over time, we have expanded our repertoire, but the sex, dating and marriage talks remain very popular, especially since the publication of the book. Our website, howfarcanwego.com provides more details about our speaking on other subjects. These days we are both doing a lot of custom speaking work, tailored to the needs and interests of the school, church or group who contacts us.
How did this project get started?
Brett: I think there are at least three factors that led to us writing a book. The first is that almost every time we gave a talk someone would come up to us afterwards and say something like, “My daughter had badminton tonight and she couldn’t be here, but she would have really loved this. Do you have something I can take home for her?” Other people asked if they could video tape us for their friends who couldn’t make it. So one big impetus for the book was simply to have something available for those who couldn’t make it to the talks.
A second reason we ended up writing a book is that people are very careful with bringing in speakers about sex and dating. Sometimes we would end up in 3 hour phone interviews before giving a 1 hour talk. Some people want to know exactly what you’re going to say before they let you in. In a way this is understandable given the difficulty of cleaning up a mess if a speaker really misses the target. On the other hand it could get frustrating. Sometimes you’re thinking, “If you already know everything, why don’t you give the talk?” Having a book makes this process much easier. We can tell people, if you like the book, you’ll probably like the presentation. If you don’t like the book, we’re probably not the ones you want for your youth group.
The last factor is that we would never have thought ourselves capable of writing a book until we were enrolled in our Master’s degrees and came to realize that our theses were basically like writing a book. Once it became clear that we would essentially be writing books for school, writing a book didn’t seem so intimidating. (In fact, the American publisher (Paulist Press) that picked up How Far Can We Go? has also published my Master’s thesis. It’s called Can Catholics and Evangelicals Agree about Purgatory and the Last Judgment.)
Once it became clear to us that it would be good to have a book, and that it wasn’t unreasonable to try to write one, we put in a proposal to Novalis, the Canadian Catholic publisher. They were very interested and supportive right away.
What resources influenced your model for dating?
Brett: We are part of the John Paul II generation, so when we had questions about this stuff in early undergrad, we went looking through his stuff and other things in the tradition. Of course, there is very little explicitly written about dating in the Catholic tradition. Essentially what our model does is take a Catholic theology of marriage and work backwards from it. If sex belongs in marriage because it is the physical manifestation of a full gift of self, as John Paul II says, what should people who are in a serious relationship, but have not yet made that full self gift in marriage be doing? What should their relationships look like?
When we were working out a model to answer these questions, we assumed that dating was done for the purpose of discerning your future. That doesn’t mean it isn’t fun too, but Catholic dating has marriage as at least a remote possibility.
One big key for our model came when Flannery, who is now my wife, and I went to see a priest we were close with when we started dating. We knew we shouldn’t have sex, but we had very different ideas about appropriate physical intimacy at that stage in our relationship. When we asked Father Peter for advice, he didn’t give us any specific lines, but instead starting asking us questions about our relationship in general. He made it clear that physical intimacy has to correspond to the other ways of self-giving in your relationships. And this is true for everyone, whether dating, married, friends, family members, whatever. Physical intimacy is an important way that human persons communicate with one another, but it needs to say what the rest of the relationship is saying or it can really hurt people.
Leah: We were young adults ourselves when we developed the model. We were trying to figure out how to date in a way that would prepare us for whatever vocation God had in mind for us. We wanted dating to be fun but also respectful of our own and others’ dignity. We were frustrated with the predominant models for faithful dating that had been offered to us: either don’t touch each other at all or draw arbitrary lines based on someone else’s advice and then try not to cross them.
When I met Marc’s fabulous French family for the first time, he walked into the house and kissed everyone on the lips. By the time I came a second time, his dad and other male relatives were giving me quick greeting kisses on the lips. While it took a little while to get used to that, it gave me an insight that we’ve been relying on for a long time. In healthy relationship with our families, friendships and even strangers, we navigate physical intimacy based on the whole context of the relationship. As we get to know people, our whole lives become more familiar to one another. Touch progresses along a continuum, according to the time we spend with someone, the commitment we have and with reference to social norms. Hormones often make this natural process rushed and a bit urgent when people are attracted to one another, and secular society’s norms around sex and dating aren’t helping young people to heed the Church’s wisdom to save sex for marriage. We needed a dating model which would help young people navigate growth in physical intimacy, develop skills to discern God’s plan for them, and develop a reverence for the mystery of the person they love. All of these skills are highly transferable to marriage, friendship and the rest of life, no matter where the relationship goes.
Can you give a brief synopsis of the dating “model” you propose?
Brett: The model grew out of our attempt to answer the title question of the book “How Far Can We Go?” Young people were asking us this question, as they ask almost anyone who works with them. They mean, primarily, “How far can we go in terms of physical intimacy?” or “Which physical acts are OK and which aren’t?” This is driven by a natural inclination towards physical intimacy, and that’s a good thing, but we thought it would be important to channel that natural desire into a way for discerning healthy relationships in general. While it is important to point out a few things that young people striving for chaste relationships should not be doing (e.g. engaging in acts that simulate sex or getting themselves into situations where avoiding sex becomes a real challenge), it is also important to teach young people how to be self-aware enough about their relationships to be able to answer this question for themselves.
In order to do this, we came up with a way for people to picture their relationships. There are actually graphs in the book! The basic structure is something like this: the person you will someday marry, started out as a stranger. You have to navigate the journey from stranger to spouse. That means you have to navigate from zero intimacy to full intimacy and from zero commitment to full commitment. But intimacy and commitment aren’t merely physical realities. They are social, spiritual, intellectual and emotional. To grow in intimacy in a healthy way is to grow across all the areas of human relationships. The best way to judge if your physical intimacy is healthy is to ask questions about the rest of your relationship. “Do I feel like he listens to me?” “What do my friends and family think about her?” “Am I able to pray with this person?” Our model teaches people how to ask questions about their relationships in order to gauge what a healthy progression of physical intimacy should look like. It helps them to keep all areas of their relationship in mind when they consider questions about physical intimacy.
And, if young people date in this way, they can use that natural desire for physical intimacy as a tool for discernment. It is very easy to a relationship’s physical aspect to take over so that people become blind to what else is going on in the relationship. Many young people are hurt when they get trapped into bad relationships that seem so intense when physical intimacy that has gotten out of hand. When physical intimacy is always gauged with reference to the broader relationship, it is easier to recognize and get out of an unhealthy relationship and it is easier to protect and nurture a good and healthy relationship.
Finally, physical intimacy itself comes to mean more, even if it is less intense for a time, when it is consciously linked with more than animal attraction. People can tell the difference between a kiss that says, “I care about you deeply,” and a kiss that says “I’m having trouble controlling myself right now.”
You say that the book is written for teens, but you have a short chapter which functions as a note to parents, teachers, and pastors.
Leah: We discovered very early in our speaking career that most adults are ill-equipped to support young people as they move through their dating years. Some didn’t follow the Church’s teaching themselves and feel a knowledge gap or hypocrisy, even though they hope young people will make wise choices. Others want to prevent their kids from heartache and hurt by making the decisions for the young people in their lives. And these reasons are usually coupled with a general discomfort with talking about the subject!
We also discovered that speaking to youth with their parents, teachers and pastors in the same room increased the likelihood that both young people and the adults in their lives would talk to one another about sexuality and relationships. When mom and dad drove the family home from the presentation, their teenage sons and daughters would initiate conversations with their parents about the presentation material – often for the first time. Parents came back to us with gratitude and a measure of awe. We think this is preferable to that awkward meeting after a presentation when young people walk into the kitchen to the dreaded, “So, what did they have to say about sex?”
And finally, our model assumes that relationships are not private. They are part of the social nature of our humanity. This means that my dating affects my friendships, family, work, school, church and service in the community. All of these people can help to support those who are dating to make wise and healthy choice in and about the relationship. If I am called to marry someone, my relationship should make most of these other relationships even richer.
Brett: One very practical challenge is the fact that teens have a very wide diversity of reading capacities. And reading capacity does not necessarily line up with the seriousness of relationships that people are in. We had to make it readable to everyone without making it seem childish to more mature young people and/or stronger readers. Capturing just the right tone was an important goal for us.
On the other hand, a book is very satisfying because when you’re done a talk sometimes you think, “Did I say that the way I wanted?” “Did I approach that question well?” With a book you have so much time to write, re-write, read, re-read, double-check with your co-author, send to an editor etc., that by the time it’s in your hand, you can be pretty confident about what you’re putting out there.
I believe you both are aware that “sex talks” given by Catholic youth ministers tend to either glorify sex as something near to an experience of heaven, a tact which some might call “hokey”, or they get so deep into the nuts and bolts that they fail to adequately convey the sacred aspect of the conjugal act, that is, they inadvertently vulgarize it. How did you attempt to avoid falling into either error, finding the balance between a sexual realism and an adequately sacramental view of sex and sexuality?
Leah: Oddly enough, Brett and I have a lot of comfort talking about a subject that most people find awkward. We have tried to bring humour and reverence to the subject without allowing sex to become disembodied or vulgar. I am not sure we have always managed to do this perfectly for every group to whom we have spoken – I think our audiences and readers will be the ultimate critics on that front. That said, we are fairly rooted in our own very real and very blessed marriages. We have experienced the sacramentality of the whole married and family life, including, but not limited to, sex with our respective spouses. We find that when sex is situated in the proper place (in a marriage and as only one part of a whole life together), it emerges with a sacramentality that is proper to God’s plan.
For example, I often remind young people that, despite having a wonderful and healthy sex life, I spend much more time in my marriage doing laundry and changing toilet paper rolls than having sex! Making meals and caring for our children offer us opportunities to love and serve each other, as well as God – not unlike making love. When we talk about life as the place where we meet God, it is easier to see how sex can be playful, funny, forgiving, challenging, fulfilling and holy, all at the same time.
What did you do with your retreat material to make it book-ready?
Brett: We did a lot of translating work from the more interactive format of the talks into a book. We couldn’t ask the reader questions and then work from their answers like we do in live talks, so we relied on the questions we have been asked most often to add material to the book.
Leah: The book was also different in that we often give two presentations (Sexuality and Dating and then Sexuality and Marriage), but the book combined these two parts. The middle of the book contains new material to provide the transition, including a chapter on how you might know if you are called to marriage and a chapter on the spirituality of marriage.
And, mostly, a book is more formal than a presentation, so much of the material that we use to bring in humour and break the awkwardness of the subject didn’t make the book. [All the more reason to have us come to speak, if you liked the book.]
Can you explain the importance of having parents, teachers, and pastors read the book “with” their teens?
Brett: One of the best things we hear from parents after our talks is that they can finally talk to their kids about sex. It works as a great icebreaker because now you don’t have to say “What do you think about sex?” but you can say “What do you think about what those other people said about sex?” It gives kids a little bit of space to talk. The other thing it does is to provide parents and kids with a common language and some common starting points. Parents often don’t know where to start. They know they should talk to their kids about sex, but they have no idea where to begin. If the book is at all like the talks, it should give people a good starting point and a lot of content for future conversations.
Do you have any plans to complement the book with additional books, a video series, or anything of the sort?
Brett: Right now, our only complement is the website: howfarcanwego.com. It has excerpts from the book, a link to buy the book, some personal info about Leah and I. We are currently working on a page where teachers can post lesson plans that they used with the book so that other teachers will have a webpage full of ideas for how to put the book to use in the classroom. This should also be helpful for youth and young adult ministers.
Leah: We frequently get requests for a college edition of the book, as well as for a Protestant edition. At the moment, there are no formal plans for either, but we have spoken to both university students and non-Catholic audiences. I am currently writing a new book for Novalis on a similar subject, but not a direct sequel. Theology of the Body for Every Body will be published by Novalis in the spring of 2012. It will be the same style and length as How Far Can We Go? It’s going well, but I am missing my co-author in the writing process!
[All that said, if any publishers, media outlets or wealthy benefactors want to work with us on complementary material, we are certainly interested in conversation…]
What was your approach to writing the book? Why did you choose to structure the book in the way you did?
Leah: We wanted the book to be accessible, engaging, short and theologically sound. So, we set out to write a book that uses every-day language without falling victim to over-simplification. We have always assumed that young people are smarter and more capable that most of the world acknowledges.
The structure of the book followed the structure of the presentations. When we gave our very first presentation, we asked the group we were speaking to what they wanted to hear about and over 90 percent of the young people wrote some variation of the question, “How far can we go?” It was the natural starting place. The rest of the book flowed from that. We also added boxes which highlight key ideas and definitions. In the presentation, these would be asides, tangents we would follow or responses to questions from the audience. The presentations have also been aimed at youth and young adults with their parents, teachers and pastors in the room. This has been working well, so we carried the same intended audience into the book.
Is the book intended to be used in a youth group or “formal” setting or it is aimed more for personal reading by individual teens or in a family setting?
Brett: We’re hoping it will work well for both individuals and groups. Many teachers and youth ministers we know are using the book in their classrooms and youth groups. That’s why we’re providing resources for teachers on our website.
By its nature, a book is made for one person to read it, and individuals seem to be getting a lot out of it. Still, I think any time you can talk to others who have read the same thing you’re going to benefit more.
Leah: Parents and pastors seem to be getting a lot of mileage by leaving our book out on coffee tables, kitchens and in bathrooms. The title and cover are pretty irresistible when young people think no one else is looking. Then all of a sudden a family or young group conversation seems to spring up out of nowhere.
Brett: I tell people that when you start out co-authoring a book, you think that you’ll end up doing about half as much work as writing a whole book, but co-authoring is at least twice as much work. You’re both putting your name to this thing, so each of you has to be comfortable with every sentence the other person writes. We think the book is much better because we went back and forth on so many things making sure we got it just right, but sometimes the process was exhausting. I’d write a chapter and send it to Leah, she’d send me her critiques and suggestions and I’d rewrite it with those in mind. Once we both liked it we’d send it to the editor who would send it back with critiques and suggestions. Then I’d rewrite again, send it to Leah again, try get it perfect, and then send it back to the editor.
Some of the chapters went pretty smoothly, but there were a couple that looked like they’d never come together. Sometimes we had each written parts of a chapter and sometimes it was pretty tough to make it all flow. Those were the toughest ones.
Most of the chapters were written by one or the other of us. We’d talk to each other about all of them, but the easiest chapters were the ones where you’d write every sentence yourself.
Leah: Though we now live in two different cities some 3000 miles apart, our speaking ministry began together. We divided up the chapters based on who usually spoke on the particular section in our presentations. The most difficult sections to write were the ones where our styles are different. I am always concerned about pastoral sensitivity and Brett about clarity. When talking about family planning and sexual ethics in marriage, we wanted to arrive at a clear and pastorally sensitive presentation of the Church`s teaching and we hope we`ve succeeded.
Writing the book together has really been a gift now that we have our families in different cities. When groups can`t afford to fly us both in to speak, we have to present all the material on our own. The book keeps us accountable to a shared vision, even if the audiences miss out on having two marriages and both male and female perspectives to draw on.
What kind of feedback have you received on the book so far?
Brett: Early on there was a feature on the book run in a Canadian Catholic paper and a couple weeks later a letter came in denouncing the book, mostly based on the title. The letter made it pretty clear he hadn’t read the book. I wrote in suggesting that he should read the book and get back to us. A couple weeks later he wrote an apology saying the book was “sheer excellence.”
People seem really happy with it. We’ve heard some wonderful stories from kids who have found it very helpful. We’ve had kids tell the people at Novalis that every Catholic teenager needs to read this book. Over and over we’re hearing that this is finally a book on sex and dating for teens that speaks to them right where they are.
Leah: One (Catholic) young woman bought the book and took with her to a Lutheran bible camp. Over the week, all eleven girls in her cabin read the book and they talked about it all week. An Anglican minister in the Saskatoon area has been using it with her youth group for two years now. The response of our Evangelical friends has also been very positive.
Brett: One of the big challenges for us when we wrote the book was to not get pigeon-holed. We love the Church and are disheartened by the polarization in the Church around sex. We wanted to write something that could speak to the whole Church. So far, we have received very positive reviews, praising our approachability, orthodoxy and sensitivity from quite different quarters. This is one of the things we’re proudest about with this book. We think if you can write a Catholic book on sex that doesn’t pit Catholics against one another, you’ve done something important.
On a more official level, we were very excited to hear that the book won a Catholic Press Award. We ended up getting third place in the first-time author category. The CPA blurb said: “An exceptionally practical book for that all-important question of life that is on the mind of every teen and every parent.”
The book has sold well in Canada, selling out the first print-run fairly shortly, and Novalis has partnered with a Polish publisher as well as with Paulist Press in the US to produce Polish and American versions of the book. When we applied for the Imprimatur from the Archdiocese of Newark (where Paulist is located) the censor called it “the best book I have seen for teaching sexual morality to college students or adults.” That was very gratifying.