Is Sex a Basic Human Right?

Over the weekend I watched one of my favorite movies for the millionth time: High Fidelity. In the movie, the main character, Rob, sleeps with this singer, Marie Da Salle (played by Jewish actress Lisa Bonet). In the morning, they start talking about their exes (which is weird, because exes are definitely verboten on one night stands, no?) and Marie says that she’s not going to let her ex get between her and a good lay (except the way she says lay, it rhymes with duck, if you get my drift). And she claims that sex is a basic human right. Rob looks at her incredulously.
Part of me feels like Rob. I mean, we’re not all entitled to sex in the way that we’re entitled to, say, clean water. I wouldn’t give money to an organization that gets people laid, like Jdate, but I might give money to The Water Project. And in case you were wondering, The UN doesn’t recognize sex in its Universal Declaration of Human Rights, though it does recognize the right to heterosexual marriage.

But, I totally see Marie’s point. Sex is necessary for the survival of our people. The first blessing in the Torah is for procreation, and procreation also comes as a commandment, later on after the great flood. There’s a famous midrash (quoted by Rashi in his commentary on Ex 38:8) about Israelite women in Egypt when they were being enslaved. The men had moved out of their houses in order to stop sleeping with their wives, because Pharaoh had condemned all Jewish male babies to death. Women used mirrors to make themselves so beautiful that their husbands couldn’t resist them, and the husbands eventually submitted, returning to their homes and helping to make more Jewish babies. What an extraordinary message–even when it will lead to Jewish babies dying, couples should still have sex.

But is sex a right or a privilege? Are we obligated to do it, or entitled to it?

In Jewish law, within marriage, sex is one of the three basic rights a Jewish wife is entitled to (the other are food and clothing). If a man refuses to have sex with his wife, she can demand a divorce.

And Kosher Sex isn’t all about babies, either. Jewish couples are encouraged to continue having sex after a woman has entered menopause. This recognizes intimate fulfillment beyond baby-making.

Halakhically, I think we have to argue that sex is a privilege allowed only to married people, but as soon as you become married it is a right. That said, I don’t see this backed up by Biblical narratives, where men frequently employ prostitutes and concubines. In fact, if you look closely, it seems like in Tanakh male characters see sex as a right (see Judah and David, specifically) and in rabbinic literature, sex is a right given to married women.

It’s a pretty dramatic transformation. And I’m not sure I find either perspective particularly satisfying.

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