Whether biologically or socially influenced, classic definitions of masculinity assign to men the traits of ambitiousness, competitiveness and a fairly uncomplicated and constant desire for sex. Contemporary culture, largely influenced by pornography, depicts men as sexually assertive whose masculinity is determined by their sexual performance and measured by the frequency of their sexual conquests.
In contrast, our Jewish sources teach us the value of restraint. A gibor (meaning “hero,” a derivative of the word for man, “gever”) is one who can conquer his desire. (Ethics of our Fathers Chapter 4, Mishna 1). The Talmud recognizes the power of the male sex drive and provides several stories illustrating how even our great rabbinic sages were tormented by forbidden lust. While masturbation and forbidden sexual unions are seen as sinful, sexual relations in the context of marriage is both a positive commandment and a highly valued expectation.
The expectations on men to live up to contemporary societal definitions of masculinity, exercise full restraint over forbidden thoughts and actions, yet be obligated to perform sexually with one’s wife, may contribute to feelings of confusion, frustration, and anxiety. Contrary to the popular myth that male sexuality can be easily turned on and off like a light switch, the experience of men can be quite complex. Men whom I have treated in my practice have reported frustration at being expected to initiate sex at the risk of being seen as coercive or feeling rejected when turned down. They report feeling pressured by the expectation that they must always be ready and willing for sex and feel anxious about the possibility of not satisfying their wives.
In order to acknowledge the experience of men and to better understand the complex nature of male sexuality and masculinity, Intimate Judaism co-host, Rabbi Scott Kahn and I recently hosted a panel of experts including Sara Schapiro Halberstam, Dr. Shy Krug and Rabbi Hananel Ross. Sara Schapiro Halberstam, whose sex therapy practice specializes in treating Hasidic men, discussed the love/lust split and presented her findings about the men in her practice who seek outside experiences with sex workers. They often do so because they feel too ashamed to burden their wives with their sexuality or may have difficulty feeling attraction for their wives, whom they perceive as pure and maternal. In contrast, Rabbi Ross, who studied sexuality in a sample of “national religious” Orthodox married men, concluded from his research that while religious men may experience conflict and guilt about their sexuality when single, they successfully channel their sexual desire towards meaningful, loving and mutually enjoyable sexual experiences after marriage. Finally, Dr. Shy Krug explained that the experience of sexual arousal is not controllable, and is a function of the autonomic nervous system. The expectations that are placed on men to completely control and regulate their drive may contribute to sexual dysfunctions such as erectile difficulties, or premature or delayed ejaculation.
The panel concluded with the experts presenting thoughts about how each relates to pornography in the therapeutic setting, and provided tips for groom instructors to prepare men for marital life.
To view the YouTube video of the panel, click here.
To listen to the audio podcast, click here.