Who knew there was so much to learn about sex? Married for 21 years, the mother of four girls, three of whom have reached adolescence, a teacher of brides from unconventional backgrounds and a yoetzet halacha who spent two years studying both the halachot and the psychological, physiological and sociological aspects of family purity laws in Nishmat, I thought I had little left to learn short of changing direction and going towards sex therapy, and yet, the recent course I took to be certified as a sexual guidance counselor was full of new and important information.
The course was coordinated by Michal Prins, and Rabbi Rafi Ostroff of the Yahel Center and Talli Yehuda Rosenbaum as the academic advisor. In the course of writing her doctorate on sexual pleasure among young women in the national religious community, Prins created the Yahel Center together with Rabbi Ostroff as a place for couples to come for sexual education. Couples who need therapy of any sort are referred to the relevant professionals but Prins, at her own initiative and with a lot of energy and plucky enthusiasm, began meeting with couples in order to provide basic information about the differences between male and female sexual response and how to turn a duty on the woman’s part into passion and pleasure. The trickle became a flood and on average Prins receives 4-5 phone calls a week, largely from men who want to help their wives become more expressive in the bedroom. The range of ages is from young newlyweds to couples who are married for 25 years. The religious observance levels also range from “light” to ultra-Orthodox. The issues bear no reflection on strict or minimal observance of family purity laws before or after marriage.
It is truly astonishing how, despite the glut of information on the internet on the subject, many couples struggle from day one of their marriage to find a rhythm that includes both partners in a way that gives mutual pleasure. While this is true of the secular public as well (one only has to read a recent New York times article http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/11/11/women-find-orgasms-elusive-in-hookups/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0 that despite female college students’ interest in casual sex, a study of tens of thousands of students revealed that women largely do not receive pleasure from the hook up culture. As one woman, age 23 put it, she was never taught to have good sex), what is unique in the religious camp is the difficulty in figuring out who to turn to with such intimate questions. While before marriage, there may be a bride counselor who provides some sexual education in addition to the halachic material, there may not be a groom counselor doing the same and finally, what is often very abstract to the couple before marriage, even those who have not kept strict no-touching boundaries, suddenly catches them unaware after marriage and creates a deep chasm in what they were taught would happen from the wedding night onward and what happens in reality. It is imperative that the myth that family purity laws mean a satisfying sex life and happy marriage be debunked. In fact, the first study to investigate sexual satisfaction in women who practice Taharat Hamishpacha, demonstrated that many Orthodox women reported feeling unprepared for sexual life.
Instead, couples need to be prepared for investment of time and energy (hopefully with a sense of humor) and the understanding that they are not alone in this struggle.
Prins asked one of the couples she helped to come and speak to our group. Without divulging their own personal issues, they spoke of how absolutely unprepared they were for the reality of a sexual relationship. Both were graduates of modern Orthodox schools so they were not unfamiliar with sexuality. However, he had been led to understand that after years of self-control, the bedroom would provide him with a regular and sanctioned outlet and she thought that after enjoying pre-marital touching, her path to sexual pleasure was ensured. Both were wrong and to heighten their frustration, the aloneness – that they must be the only ones in this situation – made things very tense. Finally, they heard of Yahel and called for counseling which was effective almost immediately. To their surprise, when they began tentatively sharing their experience, they found that most of their friends had similar stories and had ended up at sex therapists, or eventually resolved it on their own but with much stress along the way. Now they have become advocates for lifting the veil of secrecy that surrounds the religious sexual experience so that other couples do not feel so alone.
Prins’s course, which was academically coordinated with Talli Yehuda Rosenbaum, an individual and couples therapist and sex therapist who is also a physical therapist, included a balanced curriculum of sex therapists, gynecologists, educators, rabbinic authorities and much more.
Every Thursday evening, a group of 19 women met for four hours with women coming from all over the country. The women included a reform rabbi, the usual assortment of national religious representatives from all ends of the spectrum (meaning with and without hair coverings, of course) as well as a mix of Sephardim and Ashkenazim. The women, largely in their thirties and forties, were therapists, social workers, educators, a doctor and women who work on the hot line for sexual abuse. I was privileged to be the only yoetzet in the group which allowed me to become a resource for Nidda questions almost immediately.
During the last session, woman after woman explained how the course was life changing for them. Therapists who had skirted around sexuality in the treatment room were now able to bring it front and center to the table. A social worker specializing in sexual abuse admitted that it was a relief to learn about normal sexuality. Several women said they were able to open up dialogue on these topics with their teenage and adult children in ways they had never been able to before. Many of the women laughingly said that their husbands waited up on Thursday night to hear the new information they had learned in the course. Although I had come into the course with a certain amount of information after finishing two years in Nishmat’s Yoetzet Halacha program, I found myself deepening and expanding my knowledge base and fine tuning facts that I had not fully absorbed. A fellow yoetzet recently called to consult with me regarding a post-partum woman experiencing pain during relations. Brides whom I taught during this period were fortunate to receive far more explicit sexual information than I had ever given before. I felt like we were pioneers in a new venture that will have long-lasting effects on the Jewish world for years to come. It is with tremendous regret that we parted ways on Thursday night. But a reunion is already in the works. I wonder what the topic will be?