Sisterhood Blog

Sex and Women’s Pleasure Debated in the Orthodox Sphere

By Elana Sztokman

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It seems that sex is on everyone’s minds this week. (“Just this week?” The cynic replied.) It’s not just on The Sisterhood that sexuality in Jewish life became a focus, but also elsewhere on the Jewish Web.

Asimon, “Israel’s Women’s Site,” for example, announced that in honor of “May is Masturbation Month,” they are holding a raffle to give away a free vibrator. Meanwhile, on Unpious.com, a rather funny post about financial pressures and family planning turned into a talkback debate about women’s sexual pleasure.

“Isn’t ‘the mitzvah’ about making sure that she is satisfactorily pleasured?” a commenter named Gigi wrote.

“I’m not sure the mitzvah has much to do with her having an orgasm,” Hassidic Rebel replied. “The entire concept of Judaism placing so much emphasis on pleasing a woman sexually is more or less the invention of apologists and kiruv [outreach] professionals. And you can be certain no chosson [groom] teacher in the chasidish world ever mentions orgasm to his charges, let alone emphasize it as an inherent part of the mitzvah.”

Kafhakela disagreed. “HR – You are clearly wrong on this… [I]t is clearly defined in Shulchan Aruch…the sexual responsibilities that a husband has to his wife. The Shulchan Aruch doesn’t mention orgasm specifically, but from the context there is no room for doubt that the husband has to please his wife in bed, just as she has the same requirement to him. ….The chassidishe which don’t teach these things, are probably hoping that the couple will figure it out on their own, as most do.”

Finally, a woman, Laura, chimed in. “Ancient texts were only able to be as modern as was possible at the time, and the Bible and biblical texts were pretty modern by those standards. … Obviously, the Talmud is not going to speak about orgasm because documents of that time — or people of that time — did not speak about orgasms. But if the texts mention satisfying a woman … why is that a form of apologia?”

This entire discussion reminds me of my friend Jackie, who often counsels women — mainly Orthodox women — to reclaim their sexuality and develop what she calls “sexual literacy”. She teaches women to actually sense and experience their own bodies, and to become open and explorative in their partnerships. She also runs “toy parties”, teaching women how to use sex toys. Jackie, like Hasidic Rebel, is very critical of the way sexuality is taught in the religious world.

“When I openly discuss sex with Orthodox women,” said Jackie, who asked that her last name not be used in print, “and they tell me ‘I could take it or leave it’, I think that it is a cause of concern. These women are not enjoying themselves the way they should. God made sexual pleasure, and many women need to learn to enjoy themselves and use the gift that God gave us.”

Teaching Orthodox women to explore sexual pleasure can be a challenge in the religious world, where sex revolves around the woman’s menstrual cycle, in which couples are forbidden from all forms of touching for two weeks of every month. As Viva Hammer, a popular Orthodox writer-blogger, wrote this week in a post titled, “What Mikveh Means to Me – Sex in an Orthodox Jewish Marriage”:

[T]he discipline required to follow the Code of Jewish Law on nidda [menstruation] is almost unendurable…. Every single day of the woman’s cycle has to be counted, to determine the monthly anniversary of the beginning of her last period, when she either has to do some more internal examinations or temporarily stay away from her husband. It was like being in a whirlwind, with a constantly changing status having dramatic consequences. Checking, measuring, withdrawing, responding. None of it was on my cue, all imposed by this massive external book of law….. Apologeticists for the nidda laws claimed that each time a woman returns to her husband after the period of separation is like a honeymoon, all fresh an new again. Nonsense! I didn’t need the separation of nidda to come back to my husband with refreshed interest; I enjoyed the constant company of his body.”

These conversations are an essential element of women’s empowerment, and it is encouraging that they are taking place within Orthodoxy. It’s one more vital way in which religious women are waking themselves up.


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