I am honored to have been invited by Professor Brill to respond to his blog interview of some of the authors and editors of the recently published, Monologues from the Makom: Intertwined Narratives of Sexuality, Gender, Body Image, and Jewish Identity (Ben Yehuda Press, 2020) by Rivka Cohen, Sara Rozner Lawrence, Sarah Ricklan, Rebecca Zimilover, and Naima Hirsch.
I was aware of the book’s publication, and had planned to purchase and read it, but had not yet done so. This invitation provided both the impetus and the opportunity to read, reflect, and respond. My short response, upon which I will expand, is this: anyone involved in the Orthodox Jewish community and women’s spiritual physical, mental, and sexual development, from clergy, educators, Kallah instructors, to mental health professionals (including sex therapists who may think they have had heard it all) should read this book. In fact, if you are a woman and Orthodox, this book is likely to have meaning and relevance to you.
Reading through the volume’s entries confirmed for me why I had procrastinated. I thought that reading it would probably feel like work and indeed, it did. As an individual and couple’s therapist and a sex therapist working primarily in the Orthodox community, the concepts and conflicts that are highlighted in this book are familiar: how body image is affected by strict and often shaming messages around tzniut (modesty), the impact of feelings of guilt regarding fantasy, sexual arousal, masturbation, “breaking negia” (engaging in physical contact with the opposite sex(, and the cognitive dissonance associated with the radical shift from the expectation of no physical touch before marriage to wedding night intercourse.
Women in my therapy practice report feeling very alone with their confusion around sexuality and as noted by the book’s editors, this is because sex isn’t talked about. “The more I
talked to my friends about sex, the more I realized that almost everyone had felt lonely or uncertain because of their sexuality at some point in their lives.” (Sara Lawrence Rozner, introduction). The interview and the book’s content deal candidly with these topics, normalizing for so many women that the experiences they have struggled with are shared by so many others. The personal stories also underscore the specific struggles of modern Orthodox Jewish female millennials navigating the integration of their traditional Jewish beliefs with their more progressive values.
In the interview, the editors are asked how the book relates to identity formation. One essay, in which the writer describes that sexually related content presented in the college orientation or discussed in classrooms felt irrelevant to her as an unmarried Orthodox Jewish woman, deals with this very subject. The belief that sexual education does not apply to religious youth and the reluctance to offer such discussion in schools is often based on fears that doing so implies tolerance of sexual activity. Unfortunately, as discussed in my blog article “Too much information or not enough: Addressing adolescent female sexuality in Orthodox Jewish girls”, this prevents access to fundamentally important information about LGBTQ identity, reproductive health, and, most importantly, autonomy and consent . It also leaves curious young people vulnerable to easily accessible but unreliable, unrealistic and potentially harmful sources, such as pornography. Rather than experience a conflict of identity between the spiritual and the sexual, values based sexual education provides the opportunity to strengthen and integrate religious and sexual identities, as noted in the article:
“Adolescents steeped in religious teachings yet exposed to popular culture receive divergent and confusing messages about sex. If they are not processed and balanced with a values based sexual education, the information they do receive is likely at best to be incorrect, and at worst, harmful. Sexual education should not be viewed, however, as a necessary evil required in order to contend with today’s cultural realities. Sexual education in the adolescent years is crucial in preparing individuals for a sexual relationship in marriage and includes elements that do not require experiencing sexual activity. This includes self and body-awareness, positive self and body image, and development of the capacity for intimacy and expressions of love. The development of a sexual sense of self is integral to ability to enjoy sexual relations in marriage.”
One of the most salient take-home messages gleaned from the experience of the book’s contributors, and to which I can attest based on years of clinical experience working with Orthodox individuals, is this: framing the laws of yichud and shmirat negia as providing sexually protective boundaries is potentially harmful. Without an appreciation of sexual agency, autonomy, and consent, a woman who decides to engage in physical touch, as many women will, may not feel sufficiently entitled to boundaries such as ‘this doesn’t actually feel good to me, please stop” or even “this feels good, but I am not ready to go this far.’ The opposite of “shomer” is not “hefker.”
The themes, the content, the pain, and the confusion of juggling the dissonant parts of the sexual self, innocence and guilt, ignorance and curiosity, are laid bare for the reader with content and language familiar to me from my therapy room.
In fact, in Professor Brill’s interview, he notes, “I was deeply struck by the tension of those pieces that were healthy and moving forward and those that were confessions of unresolved trauma and pain.” To this, editor Sara Rozner Lawrence responds thoughtfully, “Some of the writers have emerged from their struggles stronger or at least wiser…. But on the flip side, many of the pieces express a devastating amount of pain — pain that is not fully resolved even if, in some cases, less acute.” This honest response appears to recognize the impact of exposing such deeply private and vulnerable thoughts, feelings and experiences. Some writers may have achieved closure with their entries, but others may have just begun to open painful wounds.
This is the most compelling reason that mental health professionals, and in particular sexual health professionals, should read these narratives. This book provides first-person accounts of the extent to which the lack of sex-positive sexuality education and sexually shaming messages can affect healthy sexual development, positive self-image, and sexual functioning. These are messages about which I have been writing for years. In fact, I suggested in a rather glib but popular blog post published in May 2014, entitled Ten Tips for Raising Sexually Healthy Orthodox Daughters, that while modesty in dress and behavior are legitimate values, they should not be taught in ways that shame, blame, objectify, or instill fear regarding male lust. I suggested ways to promote the appreciation of sensual pleasure, facilitate a positive body image, talk directly about sex, genitalia, and menstruation, provide modeling for healthy sexuality and affection, and to encourage assertiveness. For example:
“Encourage your daughters to “tell me what you want, what you really, really want”: To enjoy sex, one needs to be able to say things like “this feels good” or “this is uncomfortable”. If girls do not learn the language of asking for or anticipating that their needs be met, they will have a hard time experiencing pleasure.”
I also discussed not relying on halachic boundaries alone in lieu of personal autonomy and consent. “Not being shomer” does not imply consent. Choosing to engage in physical touch still must involve enthusiastic consent and the entitlement to change one’s mind and to establish chosen boundaries. So too, the “harchakot” which refer to prohibited activity between a married couple during a woman’s menstruation until immersion, should not be framed as “protective”:
“However, you wish to explain the “harchakot” let’s not attribute them to the need to make boundaries. That makes the perceived force of touch as turning immediately to sexual intercourse into something scary and uncontrollable and can create anxiety in many young women, particularly as they return home from the mikvah.“
But talking to girls and young women is not enough. In my follow-up blog post, Ten Tips for Raising Sexually Healthy Orthodox Sons, I related to the formation of healthy sexuality in boys and young men, also through their contact with young women. For example, “Don’t tell your son that by touching a girl, he is disrespecting her. This sends the message that a girl who engages in touch, with agency and mutual consent, is not deserving of respect. Rather, explain that if he doesn’t take ‘no’ for an answer, pushes her into doing things with which she is uncomfortable, or takes advantage of her simply for his own gratification, that is disrespectful.”
Monologues from the Makom highlight inherent conflicts between sexual and religious identity. I am acutely aware of these conflicts for women as well as men, at least in the demographic of people who end up in my office. Guilt-inducing messages about masturbation being tantamount to murder can create existential feelings of shame. (see my blog post The M word, an addendum to raising sexually healthy Orthodox sons). Messages that a wife who may not be in the mood for sex must agree to intercourse if otherwise the husband might spill seed attribute unfair responsibility to women and sabotage their personal autonomy and right to say no to sex. (See my post “I am his vessel”: Influence of male ejaculatory restrictions on women’s sexual autonomy in Orthodox Jewish marriages.) Teaching modesty as a way to protect boys from their own animalistic urges creates fear of male lust (not to mention sabotages young men’s belief in their own ability to self-regulate). Comparing a woman to a tomato that no one wants after it has been touched devalues women and creates feelings of objectification. Monologues from the Makom is a positive step in raising awareness and moving towards change, as well as breaking stigmas and taboos regarding sexuality and Judaism.
I am also attempting to raise awareness through the Intimate Judaism podcast, which I co-host with Rabbi Scott Kahn. The podcast addresses intimacy and healthy sexuality in the context of Jewish family life, navigating topics such as shmirat negia, masturbation, Taharat Hamishpacha, gender identity and sexual orientation, infidelity, pornography, and sexuality throughout the lifecycle. More books, podcasts, and sex-education initiatives that promote healthy sexual development within a Jewish values-based perspective are necessary and welcome.