This past Sunday, two people passed along a link to a story that appeared in The New York Time Magazine that they thought I would find interesting: The Orthodox Sex Guru.
At first, I kind of brushed it off. I was somewhat familiar with Orthodox Jewish culture. I understood and accepted some of the rules, especially for women, without question. I never heard the few Orthodox Jewish women I’ve met complain, especially rules about modesty. No complaints, no controversy, right?
A few years ago, I was working for a company that specialized in small business and retail marketing. One of our clients owned a boutique that specialized in fashionable clothing for Orthodox Jewish women. Until then, the occasional Orthodox women I had seen were usually dressed in dark and dowdy clothes. They often looked much older than their age.
The owner of the store was someone no one would ever expect to be an Orthodox Jewish woman. She was in her mid-30’s. Her hair and makeup were modern and chic. Her wardrobe was enviable. She carried off her business savvy with bold confidence.
While I waited for her before our first of several meetings, I did some serious shopping. Until she mentioned it, I wasn’t aware that there wasn’t a single pair of pants in the store. Orthodox Jewish women are forbidden to wear them. Skirts and dresses must be below the knee. Shirt sleeves have to fall at least below the elbows, even during the hottest days of summer. Shirt necklines can’t go below the collar bone.
The word “modesty” came up frequently, about every other sentence. It was hard to wrap my around that concept in a fashionista’s paradise … a boutique that I wound up dropping several hundred dollars in during the time I worked with her. I had always taken modesty as not just about concealing the body but not drawing attention to a woman’s attractiveness, too.
What struck me most odd was how a polished, good looking college-educated businesswoman could still hold onto the beliefs she grew up with in a highly segregated and patriarchal religious community. The Orthodox Jewish community in my area is small, about 1,000 people. They all live in a small, concentrated area that’s close enough for people to walk to their synagogues during Sabbath. Could that kind of close-knit community keep its people believing that its rites and rules are normal? It seemed to be the case with my client.
We never talked about sex, but after reading Bat Sheva Marcus’ story in The New York Times, I was stunned to realize how much shame about sex is embedded into Orthodox Jewish women. The stories and the lessons learned about the persecution of “wayward women” are horrifying. A man cannot look at a woman’s genitals during sex. Lights have to be out and a sheet must cover the couple. What joy is there in that? Aside from trying to conceive children, what’s the point of Orthodox Jewish sex?
It’s not so much the lack of fun and joylessness that struck me about Orthodox Jewish sex, but the level of sexual health ignorance among Orthodox Jewish women. How could a woman birth three children and not be aware of her clitoris and what it does or having no idea what an orgasm is. The average non-Orthodox Jewish person has a tough time visiting a doctor about sexual health concerns and problems. Imagine what it’s like for an Orthodox Jewish woman or man.
Can Orthodox Jewish people, women and men alike, be truly happy or have fulfilling marriages with these kinds of views and practices about sex? I don’t know. I’ve never had conversations about sex with any Orthodox Jews, and it’s unlikely that I ever will.