Sex and Modern Orthodox Singles: Between Halakha and Reality

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I was a Girl Scout for ten years, from 3rd-12th grade. I learned how to start a fire, cook for a group, use a pocketknife, approach strangers and make a sales pitch (for cookies), and how to form the deepest of bonds with the strong girls – and then women – with whom I spent every other Sunday. Girl Scouts gave me my oldest friend (the sister neither of us had), my passion for activism, and the confidence that I, as a woman, could do and be anything I set my mind to.

As I grew into my own womanhood, replete with the decisions that entails, I also became more interested in the health and well-being of women and girls worldwide. I learned that family planning is one of the most important drivers of women’s economic stability and, by extension, the stability of entire countries. When women can control when and how many children they give birth to, they are able to attain higher levels of education, higher paying jobs, and better provide for the children that they do choose to have. I lived, I learned, I advocated on social media and in real life. Soon, I took my place in a different space of women. I became the friend they come to when they want to know about sexual health, when they have issues with a partner or spouse, or worries about a form of contraception. I became a member of the group of women answering these questions for one another, creating a sacred space of connection, stewarding a reclaiming of our bodies. But there is an added wrinkle when navigating that stewardship in the Modern Orthodox community, where the kinds of sex unmarried young adults are having are simply ignored in the greater conversation about religious life.

On a recent flight, I took the opportunity to listen to a recent Joy of Text podcast episode. As it began, a smile, hesitant at first, crept across my mouth in delight; I couldn’t be sure if what I was hearing was correct. I remember thinking, “Wait, are they going to say it?” And then they did!  Dr. Bat Sheva Marcus, sex therapist and clinical director of The Medical Center for Female Sexuality, and Rabbi Dov Linzer, Rosh HaYeshiva of Yeshiva Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, both advocated for the use of condoms if Orthodox unmarried young adults are having sex. To be clear, the questioner didn’t ask if it was halakhically permissible (meaning permissible under Jewish law) to have sex, only if, in the case that a couple had made that decision, they should use condoms. The answer was an unequivocal “yes.” Perhaps if the couple was serious and monogamous and tested, then they could move forward with the choice to use hormonal birth control and to refrain from using condoms, but otherwise, it was a simple issue of health and risk to life. Dr. Marcus made the important point that just because you are Orthodox doesn’t mean you don’t need to be safe. Just because you orbit a certain community doesn’t mean you can make assumptions about people’s sexual habits.  I smiled because it’s amazing that this conversation is happening, that people are finally talking about what is actually going on in this community.