The M word, an addendum to raising sexually healthy Orthodox sons

First published in Times of Israel.

Several years ago, I shared my Ten Tips for Raising Sexually Healthy Orthodox Sons. In my seventh tip, “Explain that sexual arousal is a natural part of being human,” I alluded to the existential conflict of healthy young men whose options for sexual expression are limited until marriage. I believed this conveyed a modestly cloaked message to parents to educate their sons that, despite prohibitions they are taught against spilling seed, sexual arousal and ejaculation are natural, normal and healthy.

Yet, I was taken to task. One reader wrote:

“Something very important is left out of this article. I wish it were in there, but I understand that in a religious community the ‘M’ word can’t be mentioned. But many religious boys feel terribly guilty, and are made to feel terribly guilty by some rabbis about certain things that are very normal, and I fear that can be debilitating and distortive, particularly for more sensitive boys.”

This reader is both correct and incorrect. She is incorrect in saying that the “M” word, referring of course to masturbation, cannot be mentioned in the religious community. It certainly can and is, but it is how this subject is approached that makes a difference in healthy sexual development. She is correct that many religious boys feel guilty and are made to feel that way.

Recognizing that not all educational approaches are this harsh, the messages in this booklet illustrate fear-driven and guilt-inducing tactics, which see masturbation not only as a sin, but a pathology. Masturbation, according to the writer, leads to pornography addiction, sexual dysfunction and divorce. Nocturnal emissions are also cause for guilt and shame. The author, whose book is endorsed by several prominent rabbis, states, “Did you look at inappropriate things prior to the night of your wet dream? Did you have impure thoughts before your wet dream? If so, then you are absolutely held responsible for this wet dream. In this case, it was surely no accident!” “If you are not ‘shomer habrit’” (literally, one who guards his covenant), the author posits, “then your foundation is weak causing your whole spiritual structure to be fragile.”

This is, in fact, a self-fulfilling prophecy. A recent series on Israeli television highlighted the phenomenon of youth who abandon religion and indicated that, for many, masturbation restrictions were at the core of their spiritual demise. If they masturbate, they reason, then they are indeed bad Jews. So, why bother with Shabbat or kashrut? Some turn to drugs. The cognitive dissonance of reconciling one’s religious identity with one’s sexual self is indeed an existential feature of young religious men, one that needs to be addressed in a normalizing, humane way.

Think of it this way. When a religious girl reaches maturity and gets her first period, it is, at best, celebrated (or at least met with a smile), and at worst, ignored. Yes, some of us have heard stories of getting slapped in the face at the onset of the first menstruation, a custom that was likely borrowed from other cultures, but there is no essential shame. In fact, there is great meaning to the potential to create life. A boy’s first ejaculation also represents this awesome potential and the ability to produce sperm and procreate should be acknowledged positively as well. Yet, it most often is met with guilt and shame.

This guilt and shame can accompany every subsequent feeling of sexual arousal, and certainly ejaculation, causing boys to experience anxiety around sex and associate sexual feelings with stress responses. Stress responses involve the limbic system in the more primitive part of our brain that is wired for flight, fight, or freeze, in the face of fear. Some men have described that the anxiety around masturbation is so great, they enter a dissociated (freeze) state, a state of detachment that allows them to tolerate the stress of what is occurring. This disconnection from themselves, coupled with the self-concept that they are already sinners, increase their risk of sexually acting outside of their value system, with pornography, or even prostitution. This trajectory describes a type of developmental trauma.

The negative affect of masturbation guilt on healthy sexuality also affects intimacy and sexual functioning in marriage, contributing to early or delayed ejaculation, or lack of pleasure. Some men become so anxious upon arousal, and afraid of forbidden ejaculation, that they pressure their wives for sex in order to provide them with relief in a permitted way. Women want their husbands to want them because they love and are attracted to them, and don’t tend to find advances that result from this need to be particularly attractive or seductive.

In addition to suffering from sex-related anxiety, some men suffer from an inability to integrate their sexual sense of self with their cognitive, physical, spiritual and emotional selves. One young married man in my practice described that every time he became aroused as an adolescent and felt compelled to masturbate, he felt guilty, dirty, and unworthy. Entering the study hall or synagogue, he felt like a fraud. He could not see himself as an authentic Jew. This feeling continues to accompany him.

Fortunately, there are more positive approaches to raising sexually healthy Orthodox young men that value sexuality and healthy sexual development, while teaching about values, boundaries, and promoting a sense of self-awareness, agency, and control. These approaches must acknowledge that, from a mental health perspective, the developing body, sexual urges, and masturbation are completely normal and healthy.

Much has been written about the historical development of the restrictions within Jewish law on spilling of seed, beginning with the Bible, which mentions the sin of spilling seed in the context of Onan’s refusal to impregnate his sister-in-law, Tamar, as was his responsibility. Later sources include the Talmud, and the Code of Jewish Law, which may have been influenced by kabbalistic and possibly Christian sources.

Regardless of how the prohibition is perceived, Judaism recognizes the value of not always succumbing to every urge, anytime and anyplace. The sexual drive needs to be regulated, as do all of our urges. We act mindfully and reflectively, with thoughtfulness and consideration. Sexual arousal is governed by the autonomic (think, automatic) nervous system, which also controls digestion, breathing, and heart rate. Becoming aroused is part of being alive, and while boys are encouraged to avoid purposefully seeking sources of arousal, for many young men, that would mean becoming socially isolated or walking around with a bag over their heads. And because those developing sperm cells need to come out at some point, there may be times that young men will make the choice to masturbate, or will experience a nocturnal emission. It is not an addiction, not a failure, and certainly, not a reflection on spirituality. Recently, educator and psychologist Rabbi Ilay Ofran, presented an approach that made waves on social media. Addressing the question, asked by many, of how can Jewish law place such an impossible demand on men, he stated, “The objective is not to succeed, but to try.”

In addition to teaching autonomy, agency and boundaries, we must differentiate between masturbation and other sexual prohibitions. Rabbi Ofran stresses that both halachically and morally, pornography, adultery, prostitution, polygamy, and sexual coercion are far more problematic than masturbation. A black-and-white approach indicating all sexual thoughts and behaviors as sinful fails both to properly impart values. It also fails to empower boys and young men to know that they can, indeed, choose to engage, or not, and to take responsibility for their choices.

These distinctions must be part of a broader conversation, both in school and at home. Don’t hesitate to talk about masturbation with your sons. Ask them what they are learning from their teachers and rabbis and balance those messages if they seem to be harmful. Raising sexually healthy Orthodox boys requires encouraging self-respect, as well as respect of others, normalizing the sex drive as a vital and valued part of life, and instilling Torah values that idealize sexual expression in marriage, without coercion, with mutual consent, respect, love and commitment.

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