Sisterhood Blog

Sexual Dysfunction Is a By-Product of Treating the Body as Treyf

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

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There is more to say about sexual health in the religious Jewish community than I could in this earlier post, about a new book designed to help Orthodox parents talk with their children about the topic.

I am certain that there are plenty of sexually happy couples, and I know for sure that there are rabbis out there who make sure the young men about to become husbands know how to please their new wives.

And it’s heartening to know that, as Elana Sztokman wrote in her recent Sisterhood post that “religious women are waking themselves up” in the realm of sexuality.

But I’ve encountered far too many stories of sexual dysfunction among Orthodox married women who experience significant problems because no one ever taught them, in plain English, what the parts of their body are, what intercourse is and all of the other (many!) things a woman should know in order to enjoy sex.

The blogger known as “Jew in the City,” herself a very religious woman who appears on-camera wearing the modest clothing and sheitel says, in this video talking about the longstanding myth that religious Jews have a sex only through a hole in their bedsheet, that Judaism is not a religion “that considers sex a sin” when it happens in the relationships and times permitted by Jewish law.

Yet so often today it seems treated like one anyway.

A friend who is a “kallah teacher” in a very religious community has had young women come to her for classes utterly unaware of how babies are made and even of their own body parts. My friend doesn’t consider it her job to teach these girls the “aleph bet” and sends them back to their mothers for the talk that should have happened years earlier.

A story of sexual dysfunction is mentioned by Orthodox sex therapist Bat Sheva Marcus in this story I wrote for The New York Times two years ago.

She spoke of:

a young Hasidic woman who had been married two years without becoming pregnant. After seeing a fertility specialist, the woman was referred to Ms. Marcus, who discovered that the patient and her husband had no idea that they had never consummated their marriage. “I have variations on that all the time,” Ms. Marcus said. “There’s a complete lack of information about their bodies below their navels.”

That’s an unusual case, no doubt, but still illustrative of a larger phenomenon: regarding the body as a dangerous source of impurity.

What messages does a girl get about her body when the focus is on her keeping it totally covered up from the time she is 3 years old? Sexuality is likely never discussed in the home and even affection between her parents is generally invisible because it’s considered immodest for husbands and wives to be physically demonstrative in front of others.

The focus in Orthodox Judaism today is often a negation of the body as a source of potential ritual contamination. Bodies are treated as a source of fear and anxiety, not comfort and potential pleasure. The bifurcation of the ruchnius (spiritual concerns) and gashmius (physical) has become a gulf so wide that it’s no wonder that parents have a hard time educating their children to have positive relationships with their bodies.

To be sure, there is an extreme in the opposite direction that I also find troubling: girls wearing low-cut, thigh-high dresses to bat mitzvah parties in Reform and Conservative circles, and in less formal environments, cropped tops that show off their hips and bellies.

And there’s no doubt that a person’s view of what is appropriate depends on where they’re standing. I know moms who have no problem with their daughters wearing sweat pants with a brand name that doubles as an invitation “Juicy” across their rear ends, but I think it’s overly sexualizing as well as gauche.

Truth is, with my daughters being 11 and 9, we haven’t hit the big adolescent conflicts over such things yet, but I plan to hold my ground.

I am a big believer in the middle ground, even if it is admittedly subjective, because extremes are dangerous.

There are definitely parts of the Jewish community which finds dangerous letting in any aspect of sexualized American culture, and so goes to great lengths to keep it out. Of course banning secular publications, television, movies and the internet from haredi homes has done nothing to stanch the corrosive effects of sexually dysfunctional behavior of pedophiles in that community.

Sara Diament, author of the book I mentioned above, told The Sisterhood that she thinks that a Christian perspective has influenced the current Jewish religious approach to sex.

She may be right, but I think that it’s more about each generation putting higher fences around the last generation’s fences around the Torah when it comes to anything with the potential for spiritual contamination – and nothing seems to be regarded with more fear of contamination than the sexual self. The secular world has become so crass when it comes to images and references related to sexuality that the frum has come to treat anything related to sexuality as “treyf.”

A powerful example is my mikvah lady’s custom – I’m not sure whether this is a Chabad thing or a wider Hasidic custom or an Orthodox one (commenters please enlighten me) – of having the immersing woman hold her hands out in front of her, crossed at the forearms as if to separate the upper body (which is more pure) from the lower body (which is less so).

I’ve never done it – I find it not only absurd, but disturbing: if we can’t be integrated and whole standing naked before God in the mikvah, the waters of renewal and healing, when can we?


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