Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
In my childhood, there were few things that the Orthodox rabbis charged with my daily education and my secular anti-religious mother agreed upon, but ironically sex was one of them. From both of these very different points of view I received two consistent messages: Sex was good and sex was something that ought to be talked about, and often.
These conversations came to mind recently as I read author Peggy Orenstein newest book Girls and Sex. A professional journalist, Orenstein delves into the complex and often contradictory messages that contemporary girls and young women receive about sex and sexuality. One of the key strength of the book is Orenstein’s ability to parse how young people learn about these issues. As she points out, definitions of sex and sexuality have always been in flux, changing with the broader social shifts, as they relate to gender, consumption and morality. But the contemporary world, connected and constructed as it is through social media not just from the top down but through interactive participation by young people is making it ever more difficult for girls to navigate.
Today stars like Miley Cyrus may set new standards in outrageous sexualized behavior but their fans, some not yet even teens, can not only copy their modes of dress or mannerism but participate as “equals” on platforms of social media. The ubiquitous cell phone and the selfie allows young people to chronicle their own lives with an intensity similar to that of Kim Kardashian. Not only is this ongoing “celebrity” exhausting but it comes with its own expectations to continuously appear as unrealistically physically perfect as Miley and Kim.
Similarly, pornography, though by no means new, is now readily available without the potentially shameful negotiation that used to come with having to purchase a magazine or film. As pornography normalizes a sanitized and highly choreographed version of sex and is increasingly a platform where young people learn about sex, Orenstein shows that expectations and ideas about pleasure are shifting away from mutual exploration and enjoyment, with a negative impact disproportionately on girls.
Orenstein’s portrayal is generally troubling and leaves me hoping to push back against the general trends. But part of me wonders if perhaps these shifts are cause for handwringing by elders as is the norm in every modern generation. When I was a teen, adults worried about Cyndi Lauper and Madonna who extolled that “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” and “Like a Virgin.” But even if this is the natural order of things, Orenstein posits that one way adults can and should play a role in helping young people shape a positive vision of sex and sexuality is to talk about it with them.
Which is what brought me back to the conversations I had growing up both at home and at school about sex and sexuality. What role did these conversations play for me?
For the rabbis, conversations about sex arose from our daily study of Torah. For my feminist mother it could and did come up in a variety of settings. Beyond the sex is something good –rabbis –it is holy from God; mom –when done right it can feel great — there were contradictions. For example the rabbis limited sex to inside marriage while my mother even as she stressed mutuality and respect placed no such restrictions and helped ensure I had access to birth control before marriage. But even as at times this meant I struggled to square away conflicts in what these two authorities were saying, their points of agreement served as counter to the messages of I was getting from books, television, and on the playground. Sex was part of everyday life. Real people had sex; it was not just sexy but also loving and a means of connecting.
Adult conversations about sex and sexuality do more than just provide a moralizing point of view. The very act of talking about sex and sexuality with these adults played a role in shaping a complex understanding and helping me articulate what I thought for myself. Believing that Torah had something to say about everything, the rabbis encouraged questions of all kinds. One particularly heated discussion arose in middle school when one of our rabbis explained that he would never allow his daughters to read Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret. While I no longer remember his precise rationale, I do remember how heated the conversation became as we vehemently argued that this was absurd. As young as we were, we were confident in the good that the discussions of sexuality and body that Blume presented. Similarly, it was my own understanding of LGBT identities that I brought home from college that challenged my generally liberal mother’s view and helped her own evolve.
Growing up, most of my conversations about sexuality were for the most part with peers, but because these adults made talking about sex a possibility, I was able to engage with them around these topics, knowing not only that sex was something adults did but that these were topics adults talked about as well.
Of course many of these conversations were awkward, but this too is the reality of sex and sexuality. In film it is possible to have a perfect sexual encounter without any conversation. But in real life, most sex involves at minimum a modicum of negotiation and discussion. Inevitably some of those conversations are awkward, but often, as is the case with birth control, essential. And for young people, it is not so bad to have practice at awkward.
In a recent interview with Terry Gross, on the radio show Fresh Air, Orenstein recalled a recent awkward moment that she had with her own older mother who informed her that sex doesn’t stop at 70. While Orenstein was discomforted by the images this formed in her head, she was glad for the wisdom. It runs counter to the majority of the American discourse on sex and sexuality that would have us begin as teens and end with childbearing and involves only “perfect” bodies. Apparently, the value of talking about sex with your children does not end when they go to college.
As an adult and as a parent, I draw on both the religious tradition and modern secular Jewish understandings of sex and sexuality. From the time they were young I talked with my children openly about these issues, both as they came up and as I saw the developmental need. There have been many awkward conversations and eye rolls, but I’ve learned not to let that stop me. There have also been many moments of amazing openness and frankness, which include the two way capacity to draw lines between general discussion and personal privacy.
Talk about sex and sexuality does need to be explicit. Take for example the questions surrounding dress codes and fashion trends. More traditional readings of Jewish tradition encourage modesty and covering up, particularly for girls, with potential to put the onus on proper sexual behavior disproportionately on girls. But, we also created in the image of God and our bodies are holy not shameful. The body positive attitudes of early Zionist thinking can today be seen throughout Israel in a fairly open and sex positive attitudes among the majority of Israelis. So what then to make of school and camp dress codes? Many dinnertime conversations at my house mulled over these questions placing them in Jewish and general cultural context as well as personal experience and preference. And while there no absolute conclusions were reached, both my children have engaged in thoughtful assessment of and sometimes advocacy on these issues in Jewish settings and they can talk thoughtfully about crop tops and the value for all genders of swimming with a top on.
Talking about sex is a Jewish value, one that our tradition teaches us and Jewish culture through the generations upholds. Maybe today more than ever, or perhaps today just as ever, adults have a responsibility to the next generation to talk about sex and sexuality. And as Orenstein drives home in her eye-opening book, the power of that talk should not be underestimated.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.