Updated: Mar 6
Trigger Warning: This post deals with explicit and psychologically raw topics.
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 74b)questions how Queen Esther could have allowed herself to have a sexual relationship with King Achashverosh, since this would constitute a potentially cardinal, public sin. Without getting into the Halachic intricacies of how those criteria are defined (which are addressed in depth by commentators and scholars) I would just point out two points that the Talmud itself makes in response to the question:
1. Esther [made herself like] the ground of the Earth (ie she was entirely passive and did not engage in sexual activity from her end.
2. Achashverosh was using Esther solely for his own pleasure- this was not mutual pleasure, intimacy, or even “relations.” This was a despot selfishly using a woman’s body.
Are you familiar with the phrase “dead-fishing?”
There are several meanings, but I didn’t learn the term from any professional training; I actually learned it from my clients who've used it colloquially over the years.
It’s a slang phrase used to describe the phenomenon of one partner taking a completely passive role during sexual activity- laying there like a limp, lifeless fish, while the other partner engages in sexual activity with them, or more accurately “to” their body.
Often, client couples will come for help, with the husband complaining that his wife often “dead fishes” during sex, and wanting her to take a more proactive role.
There are different reasons why someone may “dead fish”- the most upsetting one being to surrender to the violence of sexual assault; the strategy being that if one “cooperates” by not resisting, there will be less aggressive bodily harm.
A (relatively) more benign reason might be exhaustion- where the person is simply too tired to participate but willing to receive touch.
The most common explanations I’ve seen in my practice are disassociation and disinterest. Disassociation is a trauma response, where the person is mentally disconnecting from the physical experience, often due to the physical or psychological pain of what’s happening, or the pain that the trigger conjures. Disinterest is where one partner doesn’t really feel excited or aroused, but is acquiescing to passively being “used” for sex by the other partner.
If these explanations for the behavior sound like what’s happening is psychologically unhealthy, it’s because it usually is. Dead-fishing is a good example of the complexity of consent, and how sometimes what may technically seem like “consent” even if verbal permission is given, doesn’t feel so consensual to the bodies and nervous systems involved.
If you’re engaging in sexual activity with a partner who is “dead-fishing,” chances are s/he is not doing so to be passive-aggressive, rejecting, hurtful, or insulting. The likelihood is that this is a person who is not enjoying what is happening*, but feels afraid, guilty, or in some other way not-free to stay “stop.” That person probably needs some space and patience in that moment- not sex. (Are there exceptions to this generalization? Yes. But this post is to raise awareness of a phenomenon that is sadly common.)
*This can be true even if the person’s body seems to be showing signs of physiological arousal- lubrication, erection, even orgasmic response do not always indicate pleasure or consent. They can sometimes be biological reflexes, which can be confusing to both partners.
Maybe Achashverosh didn’t realize that Esther wasn’t a willing, happy participant in his self-indulgence; more likely he didn’t care.
But good people, moral people don’t want to subject a partner to a dead-fish sexual experience. If you have a partner who “dead-fishes” when you attempt to be intimate, a good idea is to stop, and lovingly, patiently check in to see if s/he is ok. Ask if you should stop for a while, if there’s something else they would prefer to do or try. This can possibly lead to a vulnerable and fruitful conversation about your sexual relationship, about how to make it more mutually enjoyable, and/ or whether to seek more guidance so it can be healthier.
**To learn about how we can do a better job educating the next generation toward healthy, holy sexual development and experience, see this: elishevaliss.com/sacrednotsecret **