My favorite essayist, Daphne Merkin, has a piece in the new issue of O: The Oprah magazine, about discussing the topic of sex with her 19-year-old daughter. Titled “Stop Acting Like the Virgin Mary!” — after what her mother exclaimed when the writer brought up fears relating to her own virginity as a young woman — Merkin treats the topic with some delicacy.
Bringing literary wit to the most ribald of topics, Merkin has written extensively about her own erotic life, most infamously in a 1996 New Yorker essay, “Spanking: A Romance.” The last section of her collected essays, “Dreaming of Hitler,” is devoted to disquisitions on matters explicitly Jewish.
Merkin is my favorite essayist for her fearlessness in excavating what lies beneath the polite evasions on topics that most prefer to gloss over. She is never anything but ruthlessly — though artfully — honest. We’ll see what, if anything, she eventually writes about the sad trouble into which her brother J. Ezra Merkin has dragged their family name. (J. Ezra Merkin is the money manager who was last week charged with civil fraud by the State of New York, for “secretly steering” $2.4 billion of client money into Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi scheme.)
But in O magazine, Merkin writes of that rarest of moments — being invited into a conversation her daughter is having with friends from their high school. She is asked to weigh in on the issue of whether oral sex (which, sadly, always seems assumed to be something that boys will receive from girls) is more intimate than sleeping with guys. She writes that they come to no conclusions, but simply a deeper appreciation of “the complexities of sexual arousal.”
There is so much rocky emotional terrain to be delicately navigated by mothers when dealing with our adolescent daughters (and sons).
Sex and sexual identity. Body image and food. Class consciousness and social dynamics.
None of it seems easy, though I am grateful to have a paradigm of Jewish values in which to root discussions around relationships and sexual behavior with my children. That said, I’m not sure which group has more of a challenge — Orthodox Jews, who live in a community where discussing these issues in detail is not typical, and so they are largely ignored, which engenders its own problems, or liberal Jews, where Jewish values as they relate to these issues may be part of youth group and Hebrew school lessons, but not always a part of our thinking as parents.
In a world in which black-and-white positions around religion and sexuality are easy to understand (if not always to integrate into the messiness of real life), it isn’t easy to live consciously “in between,” religiously and culturally. I try to communicate to my children the deep value of being comfortable with our bodies and sexual feelings, while also treating themselves and others with dignity — and I hope that it will help them navigate the difficult shoals of adolescent and young adult relationships.