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OffLimits

This week, there was a lengthy profile of Bat Sheva Marcus, a Jewish sex counselor who helps Hasidic Jews with intimacy problems in their marriages. Marcus is merely Orthodox, rather than ultra-Orthodox like most of her clients: she “sometimes wears pants”, and though her synagogue has segregated men’s and women’s sections, they’re side-by-side rather than consigning women to the back. (By ultra-Orthodox standards, this is straying dangerously close to anything-goes liberalism.)

As in other fundamentalist religions, sex in Hasidic Judaism is heavily freighted with guilt and fear. The long list of arcane and arbitrary rules, coupled with terrifying threats for those who transgress modesty – one exhibit at a yeshiva “featured a life-size diorama of a mother bathing her daughter eternally in boiling water” – leads to crippling anxiety about all things related to sexuality.

Marcus’ job is to try to bridge the chasm between theology and reality. Officially, sex is supposed to be a sacred act “full of Shekinah“, i.e., the presence of the divine. But the reality is that countless Hasidic couples, especially women, experience sex as an unpleasant ordeal and avoid it whenever possible. That’s just what you’d expect from people who’ve had no sex education whatsoever, to the point of being ignorant of their own anatomy. The article mentions one Hasidic woman who had three children without knowing what the clitoris is. (I also wrote about this in my review of Deborah Feldman’s Unorthodox.)

“They have zero — zero — connection to pleasure,” Marcus said. “And there’s no vocabulary to start with them. We have an intake form to fill out, and they get to ‘orgasm’ and go to the receptionist and ask, ‘What is this?'”

Marcus’ work is an arduous process of reeducation for these women, who are wary of pleasure and fearful of their own bodies. Talmudic teaching overwhelmingly puts the burden of keeping sex religiously acceptable on the woman, and many of them fear that merely learning more than the bare minimum about it will set them on the path to destruction.

But even when the woman is willing to learn and her husband is willing to try new things, there are still further obstacles. Every suggestion Marcus makes, including touching her own clitoris or reading specially written Hasidic soft porn (“running his hands over his wife’s fully clothed hips”) must be vetted by the couple’s rabbi – and often, the rabbi rejects them:

The suggestions ranged from the seemingly modest to the more direct, from reading romance novels to kissing with the lights on to wearing a lacy nightgown to his touching her clitoris to the use of a vibrator. The woman would take the list home to her husband, and he would take it to their rabbi, who would rule, one by one, on whether these interventions were allowed.

…[T]he Satmar woman answered that she was willing to try if her rabbi consented. But she declared that she was uneasy. She didn’t want her intimacy with her husband to be prost — the Yiddish word for vulgar, debased. “We don’t want to think about it the way the other world thinks about it,” Marcus recalled her saying. The woman soon reported back that the rabbi ruled no on all three.

But for me, the most shocking part of the story comes at the end. You’d think that Marcus herself, the Orthodox sex guru who’s counseled so many women, would at least be comfortable and secure with her own sexuality – but that turns out not to be the case. When asked how she reconciles her job with Orthodox Judaism’s degrading rules about the impurity of the female body, she breaks down in tears:

After one of her seminars, I asked about her own adherence to the menstrual laws, and about why, even now, she doesn’t speak out against them, though she told me they can be profoundly harmful to women’s appreciation of their bodies and to their sexuality. She went silent. She sighed. Suddenly her eyes were more than welling up. “I don’t know why I’m crying,” she said.

While she claims not to understand what upset her, the answer is obvious: she’s struggling with the same unresolved tension as her clients. She’s searching for satisfaction and sexual equality within the boundaries of a belief system that doesn’t genuinely allow for it.

This goes to show that the root problem isn’t ignorance of sex per se, but religion. Learning more about sex without discarding the burden of body-shaming superstition just sharpens the contradiction and makes the psychological pressure harder to bear. Like a prisoner who can see sunlight and green fields through a barred window, they can glimpse a better way but are held back from following it.

By no means is this problem limited to conservative Judaism. Christianity, Islam and other religions have the same fractured view of sex: trying to keep people ignorant as long as possible, but expecting that they’ll just somehow know how to do it and enjoy it once they’re having sex in the religiously sanctioned way. Unsurprisingly, this rarely works and instead results in pain, embarrassment, guilt, and troubled, unhappy marriages.

As a humanist, what I find so dispiriting is that it’s all so unnecessary – the shame, the fear, the pain, the enforced ignorance. That’s not to say I blame the Hasidic women, who are prisoners of a culture that deprives them of education, beats them down with indoctrination and denies them humanity and agency at every turn. They can hardly be faulted if they’re afraid to advocate for themselves, when their entire society has conspired against them to mold them in just that way. Nevertheless, if they and all the others like them could only take that step – if they could take sex out of the darkness of superstition and taboo – they could free themselves of irrational fear and bring far more pleasure and happiness into their lives.

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DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...