Sex and Modern Orthodox Singles: Between Halakha and Reality

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.

The truth of the matter is, as Modern Orthodox Jews postpone marriage beyond their late teens and early twenties, the likelihood of refraining from all or various sex acts significantly decreases, and often these young adults have little to no sex education. Dr. Marcus & Rabbi Linzer explained that in the Orthodox community, young people very often fall into sex without any planning. They view crossing that line as an all or nothing experience, not taking contraception into account. Almost as if they avoid thinking or talking about it, then they can avoid some of the associated guilt.

I thought back to my high school halakha class, and the girls in it who were infamous for getting the rabbi off track by asking provocative questions. I think one girl was trying to avoid a quiz the day she demanded to know why we weren’t taught about sex and condoms. “If we teach you about condoms, we’re condoning sex,” was what the answer boiled down to. This is the same argument used today to promote abstinence-only education agendas in public schools across the country. And guess what? It is 100% wrong. A 10-year U.S. government study found that abstinence-only programs do not delay initial sexual activity or lower rates of pregnancy or STIs. In some cases, abstinence-only education actually lowered youths’ willingness to use contraception. Pretending young people don’t have sex doesn’t lead to delayed sex, only to unsafe sex.

This year, the Girl Scouts are facing a cookie boycott for the second year in a row. Organizations belonging to the religious right are penalizing these girls for honoring women leaders who are pro-choice advocates. Undeterred, the World Association for Girl Guides and Girl Scouts is running a campaign this year called “The World We Want for Girls” that demands “non-judgmental sexual and reproductive health information and services to all.” These are the kinds of healthy educational plans that are so absent in the Modern Orthodox world. Providing “non-judgmental” health information and services is not the same as providing free-reign, and it is an important step in furthering the conversation about what happens in this community.

I am mindful both of halakha and of reality, which leaves things in a tricky balance. And yet the fact of the matter remains: many Modern Orthodox young adults are choosing to engage in sex acts, and they need to be safe. A recent article in the Forward, “What Happens to Sexually Active Orthodox Singles?” touched briefly on some of these issues, but mainly focused on discussions emerging in Israel. We need these conversations in America, and we need them now. We need a practical approach to sex education in all of our day schools, not just a select few. We need more women answering questions for other women, in the way that Girl Scouts empowered me to do, and in the vein of JOFA, Maharat, and Yoetzot Halacha. We need ownership of these issues, we need to face them head on.

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