This article is based upon a thesis written within the framework of the Bar Ilan University Gender Studies program, under the advisement of Prof. Tova Cohen and Dr. Ronit Irshai.
In prenuptial counseling sessions S. learned that bleeding should occur in first time sexual intercourse. She didn’t bleed, and for weeks she didn’t know what to do or who to consult. She was worried that something was the matter, or that maybe they had done something wrong. The manual that she had read before the wedding had not mentioned the issue and she was left helpless and isolated and did not share her distress with anyone.
Research on the subject of sexuality and the body has gained impetus with the development of feminist research in recent years; however, the voice of traditional women in different cultures, characterized by religious faith and practices, has not yet received sufficient attention. In religious society discussion of sexuality is still regarded as taboo, and few studies have been done in this field. Among the topics which have been researched are studies of sex education, manuals on sexuality, and studies which discuss various aspects of the halakhic laws of family purity and how they affect women. In this research I sought to listen to the voice of national-religious women coping with sexuality and the body in the period following marriage, and to grant them a presence in the general narrative of the national-religious woman.
Overnight, a woman who was educated all her life to be modest and to cover her body enters a new world of an intimate relationship which involves sexuality and the body. That same body which she has learned throughout her life to cover and hide, to conceal and banish – suddenly acquires significance, identity and corporeality. At once she is exposed to a range of unfamiliar, surprising, and sometimes even painful experiences. This article seeks to reveal these women’s reactions to this definitive and dramatic transition in their lives, from single to married life.
The study is based on interviews with ten national-religious women, married between one and five years, who told me about their various challenges in the period following marriage. The main aim of the study was to create an initial general picture of their varied strategies of coping with the acute transition from single to married life; from modesty, covering-up and concealment, to sexuality and revealing the body.
The issues which arose in the interviews fell into three major categories:
A. Initial coping with the discovery of the body and sexuality in the period prior to marriage, on the wedding night, and in the period following marriage.
B. The process of renewed acquaintance with the body, establishing sexuality, sexual intercourse and the question of orgasm.
C. Coping with the halakhic laws of family purity, while focusing on self-examination, the ritual bath, and referral of questions to rabbis or to female experts in laws of halakhic purity.
I was told many stories during the interviews, and the women who agreed to speak to me showed rare courage in the openness with which they shared this intimate subject with me. All along, their narrative walked the tightrope between, on the one hand, a strong desire to achieve sexual fulfillment, fulfillment as a couple, and creation of a positive intimate experience and, on the other hand, pain, helplessness, and isolation. It must be emphasized that for everyone, men and women, the first time that one has sexual intercourse is an unforgettable moment, a definitive experience which influences subsequent sex and sexuality. But as shown below, for religious women this moment is closely connected to the orthodox way of life and to the religious and halakhic discourse.
A. Discovering the body and sexuality before and after marriage.
Frequently the first reaction to discovering the body is surprise. This is what emerges from C.’s story, on the eve of her marriage:
“When the prenuptial counselor spoke to me about the hole from where, actually – I don’t know what to call it [embarrassed laughter] – the penny suddenly dropped about how much I don’t know about it. I’ve got something in my body that I’m not aware of at all. I suppose there’s a difference between women who use sanitary pads and women who use tampons, they’re more aware of that place; if you use pads you don’t get to meet it every month, and the penny suddenly drops and you realize that you don’t really know your body…”
The young bride, who is already at an advanced stage in her wedding preparations, doesn’t even know what “that hole” is called, that part of her body which she has only just discovered. She assumes that other women, who use tampons, are familiar with this organ, but she, who has been menstruating for years, isn’t even aware of its existence. Her choice of the expressions “the hole”, “that place”, “it” (in Hebrew, all in the masculine), indicate distance and alienation towards parts of her body. This is also evident in her body language, facial expressions, and general discomfort in speaking about this intimate experience.
Most of the interviewees described the first night as an unpleasant experience, to say the least:
“On the actual night, I remember it hurt a lot at first, I remember that I really pushed him out a bit, […] he said to me the whole time, ‘You’re rejecting me.’ I really pushed him away, and I said to him, ‘I’m not rejecting you; I’m rejecting the pain…’
“It was – I didn’t dare say it – traumatic, I suppose, as if something had been stuck into my body without my agreeing to it. I didn’t agree. I knew in my mind that it was going to happen, but I didn’t realize how invasive and hard that thing that enters you is, I really remember that feeling.”
The memory of the first night is frequently described as an experience accompanied by physical pain. The pain is frequently caused by fear, which causes the body to become tense and form a barrier when penetration is attempted. For many of the women, the experience was accompanied by disappointment resulting from the difference between what they imagined would happen and what actually happened.
B. The process of establishing sexuality and the question of orgasm
D., married for two and a half years, told me that she loves her husband greatly and wants to make him happy, but whenever they have sex, something “misses” and nothing happens. She is embarrassed to go to a bookshop and buy a manual, and of course she does not intend to look for information on the Internet, but she doesn’t know what to do. She has never experienced orgasm and she does not even know how to say so – not to me and especially not to herself. Regrettably, this story reoccurred in not a few interviews.
G., on the other hand, told me:
“I feel that … I achieved very good and liberating experiences with my body before marriage in this process. But – […] something within me dares to go the whole way but is very alarmed by it, and that’s where there are pangs of conscience. Even when I was, like, with my man, and suddenly it was nice and I did enjoy it, there were then a couple of days or a night of a kind of awful alarm, and yes, a lot of guilt about how do I dare, and it’s gross, and I’m repulsive and disgusting for being like that, that I’m like… that I’m, like, into it, that I’m doing it and making an effort for it, to enjoy it like that, like it’s gross, disgusting.”
Here is a description of the development of sexuality in a process which includes many regressions. The woman opens up to her sexuality, tries to accept it and even enjoys it, but immediately draws back in alarm. She swings like a pendulum between daring and ‘going the whole way,’ and, on the other hand, alarm, disgust and self-revulsion, and she simultaneously experiences two emotionally-opposed extremes – ‘nice,’ ‘enjoyment,’ and ‘making an effort,’ as against ‘gross,’ ‘repulsive,’ and ‘disgusting.’ She doesn’t accept her desire to ‘make an effort for it,’ and she feels threatened. Her defenses are based on rejection of her body and negation of the sexual experience. Only at a later stage would the feeling of alarm be replaced by ‘terrific,’ and the rejection turn into a wonderful experience. Gradually she would open up to explanations that would help her to find an internal balance between sexuality and sanctity, and instead of seeing them as contradictory, she would reach – at a much later stage – the understanding that the need for sex is a totally physiological requirement connected to the act of creation. God created her like this, and she could allow herself to be sexual with all the difficulty entailed. ‘It’s okay to be occupied with it, for it to have a place, it just exists…’ From the moment at which it would become clear to her that this was a natural urge of divine origin, she would be prepared to accept it as a gift.
However not all the women find the balance which enables them to enjoy their burgeoning sexuality without feeling guilt and self-revulsion. Many interviewees expressed confusion and difficulty in bridging the gap between sexuality and intimacy on the one hand and sanctity and spiritual elevation on the other.
“I think that even after marriage, I like what I was directed towards in prenuptial counseling, that it’s something sacred, something special. But it still seems something less than real life, less human…”
Me: Very high…
“Kind of less possible to say that yes it’s also mine and it’s part of my life and it’s good and it’s like that and it’s cool that it’s like that, and it’s part of everyone’s lives, and it’s not perverse. Not that it’s sacred and that it’s just the spiritual elevation of a couple. Do you understand…? It exists and it’s really great, it really does feel like a connection that’s very special for me but… but it comes from there.”
“I remember that sentence that she [a friend from the army] said, something about women who say they experience orgasm, and it isn’t orgasm. That remains mysterious to me, that there’s sex like that, that maybe there’s something that I don’t know.”
Me: A feeling that you’re always missing out?
“Yes, yes. I think that the number of times that I felt that “Wow,” that’s it, relative to the number of times… really few. Now I’m into it, uh… I feel much better than when I was in a state of guilt. I really feel this is something that belongs to the two of us and that we’re learning together. I can see it happening, there’s a rhythm… Also, it seems to me something that, like, I don’t want to admit to anyone that I don’t enjoy it one hundred per cent, or that, like, I don’t manage to, and you see I’m admitting it to you now and that’s good…
“I really had doubts about whether to take part in this interview, because I said… I’ve got so much now, why do I need to get involved in such a sensitive matter, and really I felt I could communicate, that I’m not afraid of what I might say, of what you would know about me…”
This woman has been married for over two years, she is the mother of a little girl, and she has sexual intercourse regularly, but, she says, since she married she has not experienced orgasm and she doesn’t know how to. She has never admitted to herself or to others that she doesn’t enjoy sex. From her point of view, the interview was an opportunity to acquire information on the subject, and much was revealed. During the interviews I encountered two more married women who had not yet experienced orgasm.
The issue of religious women’s orgasm is one of the important issues which arose in this study. According to the research of Labinsky et al, about 9% of religious women do not manage to experience orgasm, as against 1% in society as a whole. The present study can explain this data insofar as these women do not have access to information in this field. They don’t achieve orgasm because they don’t know how. The mantle of shame and modesty prevents them from searching for the information they need in order to understand how their body works, and the information that is available to them does not include the necessary knowledge or does not correlate with their emotional state. These women are caught up in a vicious circle, in which the sexual relationship with one’s partner is based not on enjoyment and release but on feelings of frustration and missed opportunities which are physically ingrained and in time become permanent. A period in which the woman does not experience orgasm has a deep and decisive influence on her continuing sexual development and the development of her sexual relationship with her partner.
However, apart from lack of knowledge, during this period religious women experience dissonance, a disparity between the ethos of modesty, seclusion and concealment to which they have been educated, and the newly-discovered information about their body and their sexuality. The transition from single to married life entails a huge conflict of consolidating and acquiring a new identity, which is sometimes contradictory to the familiar identity consolidated not long ago, during adolescence.
“This rift, between what I was used to and what is really happening […] I feel it’s really… it’s caused many very difficult […], very upsetting things…”
The brides, on the eve of marriage, arrive at this moment with their feminine, physical and sexual identity on the lowest rung of their ladder of identities, if it is anywhere at all. They describe varying intensities of cognitive dissonance: the new information which they receive as they approach the wedding night does not correspond to their familiar cognizance, and is perceived as contrary to their self-perception. This dissonance creates tension and anxiety which they try to reduce by means of varied strategies. At best, it vanishes when the woman finds the inner balance within herself and is able to contain the new information, norms, and demands without undermining her identity. This process is dependent on the woman’s ability to contain the new information, on her degree of openness [her flexibility], and on the place of feminine identity in her world.
It seems to me that the dissonance does not originate only from the disparity between the women’s knowledge prior to marriage, the discovery afterwards and their sexual experience in practice, the leap from ‘everything is forbidden’ to ‘everything is permitted’ and the first taste of the new world which also includes that first acquaintance with the opposite sex – it is a more profound experience of an identity crisis. Until immediately before their wedding they had to adapt their identity to an abundance of social dictates, to be a modest, demure, bodiless, asexual ‘good girl;’ overnight they are on their own, helplessly up against completely opposite social dictates, which include sexual freedom, relating to one’s body, enjoyment, and desire. In the eyes of many, these demands are alien and belong to a forbidden world distant from concepts of religiosity and sanctity.
In these situations women feel isolated because they do not have role models or significant figures of reference whose behavior and patterns of discourse they can internalize. Because in religious society there is a complete taboo in matters of sexuality, and the ideal model of the religious woman focuses on covering-up, concealing and silencing her – the brides do not have a model to observe and to learn from, neither in the early stages of their lives nor at this crucial stage.
The young bride is forced to make her own way, to search for information, a model, or guidance which will contribute to the consolidation of her feminine, sexual, and physical identity, to immerse herself in new ‘identity work’ that will enable her to integrate the self-identity that she has built until now and the new sexual identity which is expected of her upon entrance to the world of intimacy and sexuality. The degree of personal wellbeing that she will feel or, alternatively, the degree of stress, will be determined by her ability to find the information she needs and to merge it coherently within her new identity, in a way which will provide her with an answer to her abundant needs.
“I didn’t feel that I was ready for the first night and not for the rest, either. I was lucky that I have a sister with whom I’m close; she got married before I did and I felt that I could approach her.”
Me: Did you get up in the morning and say to yourself, I need to talk, I need to consult someone, or did it take time?
L.: “It took two days. We got married on Thursday and at the Shabbat Hatan (the Sabbath following the wedding), […] she just asked me, how are things, and I said …uh… and I could talk to her; we agreed between us, me and my man, that I would talk to her, because we were both in shock.
L. was lucky that at a very early stage, two days after her wedding, she already understood that she needed to turn to someone, and she had someone to turn to. It must be emphasized that she specifically turned to her sister because she was married and was perceived by her as experienced. Also, she did so with her husband’s knowledge and his consent. However many interviewees felt uncomfortable sharing this matter with others and remained isolated:
“I wish… I didn’t have anyone to talk to… I didn’t have a best friend; there wasn’t anyone to whom I felt I could turn, to whom I could talk, no-one!”
“…I felt that I just didn’t know and that I didn’t dare ask. […] A feeling that no-one is going to teach you how to do this…”
“…I said, maybe, but who am I going to ask? What shall I do? I really had a problem. I said to him: ‘I feel alone in the world. I want someone with whom I’ll feel comfortable talking about this.’”
Some women understand the importance of searching for information and they overcome the embarrassment and the taboo surrounding this issue and turn to prenuptial counselors, to sisters, sisters-in-law and friends, or search the Internet, in order to resolve their physical and mental distress. These women report significant relief after applying for help and say that it was the right thing to do. It’s interesting that they mostly do not turn to their mothers, and this raises the question as to why there is such a distance between mother and daughter specifically in matters requiring counseling and guidance.
However, the study shows clearly that a widespread phenomenon is the tendency for the brides, from the start of married life, to take the opposite direction; rather than turning to seek help and advice in matters which bother them, they turn to younger brides, sometimes even to women not yet married, and offer themselves as experienced guides. They do so in order to reduce their own distress, but frequently they cause damage to the listeners, who receive erroneous and partial information based on difficult personal experience.
“I remember a very good friend, who got married before me, and the night before the wedding she whispered to me, ‘It hurts and it can be unpleasant, but the main thing is to be relaxed and to remember that this is your man. ’”
“Since then, I have a good friend who isn’t married yet and I do share my experiences with her, I feel it’s important, and what will happen when she gets married?”
“I have a good friend now who got married, and I wanted to call her and give her these tips.”
“I remember a talk that a good friend gave me, the night before the wedding, she told me, it hurts.”
“I have two friends, […] after the wedding they said to me, use KY, take creams. […] Use a cream, use a pillow to raise yourself, it helped us. Do you understand? Without my asking them, they said it in two or three lines, and the message came across.”
These brides want to help their friends avoid the isolation which they experienced. They choose to ‘help’ others rather than look for help for themselves. This ‘help’ is a particular channel which helps the woman direct her distress in a positive way and express it, but she may cause damage to the new bride, who consequently receives biased and misleading information.
C. Coping with the halakhic laws of family purity
The religious practices required of women are many and varied, and sometimes they are contradictory to the logic to which the woman was accustomed during her childhood and adolescence. If until marriage a woman’s relationship with her body was one of strangeness and alienation, now she is required to know her body well, to touch herself, to carry out internal self-examinations, to learn her fertility cycle, to take pills which upset her hormonal activity, and to immerse herself in the ritual bath in the presence of a strange woman. Already on the wedding night she is expected (if not formally-halakhically) to undress, to reveal her body to a stranger, a man, to have sexual intercourse with him for the first time in her life, and at once to become separated from him in a complex system of purity and impurity, forbidden and permitted, sanctity and corporeality, pain and release. A set of expectations, based on the same set of Jewish values but very different from the point of view of gender, begins to be constructed between the couple. I shall not elaborate here on the broad implications of the laws of ritual purity for the woman’s body self-image; I will confine myself to commenting that, apart from them, the change in the woman’s life is comprehensive – her outward appearance changes with head-covering, her daily routine is different, she moves to a new home, and frequently becomes a mother within a short time, altering the whole course of her life. Even a woman who is enveloped and protected with love and with the joy of marriage experiences upheaval and significant changes at this time in her life.
The social structuring of marriage within the national-religious framework deserves to be examined in a separate study. Undoubtedly these women enter this world willingly, from choice, and with eager expectations. Likewise, the marital relationship and married life has undoubtedly many advantages in the national-religious world, providing women with a secure place and a fruitful pasture for their individual, marital, and familial fulfillment. Nevertheless, this study reveals that together with women’s acceptance of the norms required of them as married women, they experience ambivalence towards this framework. I did not find, however, that they attempted to deal with the residues connected with the wedding night or to search for information in order to improve their sex lives and to achieve orgasm. It is evident that they accept the reality of their lives and do not try to improve it; instead they occupy themselves with rescuing their friends from the traumas that they themselves experienced
The main and most important conclusion arising from this study is that religious women experience isolation, helplessness and weakness in everything related to their sexuality. Certainly this conclusion needs to be substantiated by more comprehensive quantitative and qualitative research; however it seems that it is already possible to point at this worrying picture of traumas and residues, which accompany women over the years, from the wedding onwards into their adult life, and permeate into the intimate relationship and married life. If one also takes into account the intensive lifestyle of the national-religious woman – who usually studies and participates in earning the family’s livelihood, the norms of her social environment involve frequent births, personal excellence (career) and domestic excellence (running a home), and community and other expectations – one receives a picture of a situation in which the body and sexuality are relegated to the bottom of the list of priorities. In all the interviews, the main experience which was realized – throwing light on what the women coped with altogether regarding sexuality and the body following marriage – was isolation. In the context of this study, isolation resulted from the acute social change in a woman’s life upon marriage, from downplaying her body and sexuality as a girl and a woman, to the overall modesty of both partners, which imposes a taboo and total suppression of the issue. Frequently the partner himself is just as helpless as the woman, and both of them together are left to contend with the issue alone, without external involvement or a sympathetic ear.
The recently evident academic awakening of research into the sexuality of religious women is a ray of hope for these couples, the beginning of public debate which may partially remove the mantle of secrecy and extend a supporting and guiding hand to men and women in their first mutual steps in marital and sexual fulfillment.