Every year around this time, I wonder if this will be the year I try and “do something about it.” These are the weeks we call Shovevim Tat, the weeks that some communities choose to focus on the area of sexual holiness and holy sexuality. Some will take the opportunity to discuss the pornography epidemic, others to double down on the nidda laws, and still others will discuss the general issues of modesty or promiscuity in society. There is no shortage of topics to tackle, but I would like to humbly suggest a vital one: the shortcomings of religious premarital education.
This is not a comfortable or easy subject, nor one I would have chosen to pursue. I never intended to specifically treat sexual dysfunction. But sometimes, no matter where you try to run, a task finds you. The cases pour in, the information flows, and then one day, somehow, this is what you do.
I understand that what I am about to say does not apply to everyone across the board. But it applies a lot. More than most people realize.
As a general community, we do a lot of extraordinary work- volunteer work, chessed, philanthropy, tzedeka, charity, Torah, education- there are wonderful networks for those seeking a job, a spouse, special accommodations, financial assistance, medical care- the list goes on. But there is one area, where I believe we need to take a long hard look and say: We can and need to do better for our youth. For lack of a better phrase, I’ll use the term sexual education.
It probably started from a good place. The desire to keep children innocent, pure, and able to focus on childhood. Wanting to discourage teens from giving away their bodies before they were mature enough to understand what that means. But like many phenomena, sometimes we can go too far, to the detriment of those we are trying to protect.
Some families and school systems largely ignore children’s and teens’ sexual development. They literally skip whole sections of TaNaCh and biology to avoid the subject. They figure they will be able to play catch up at some point before the wedding. Others address it vaguely or partially, leaving big gaping holes to be filled by shame, confusion, experimentation, and school bus lore. Still others actively forbid and suppress any and all related conversation or open activity, restricting access or exposure to any perceived stimulus. They may also condemn and berate the natural curiosity and tendencies of healthy teens, so that any thought, behavior, or temptation is either repressed or vilified. By the time young men and women are ready to settle down and marry, it’s often too late to undo all the years and harmful effects of this maleducation. What does that look like?
For boys: terrible shame around their bodies and minds. Fluctuations between excitement, arousal, pleasure and fascination to guilt, denial, desperation, and secrecy. Don’t look at girls, or pictures, or videos of them- it will turn you into a crazed animal. But don’t worry, guys- once you get married- you’ll get your payback.
For girls- tznius- that loaded term. Girls are often taught to cover up, don’t run, don’t sing, don’t flirt, don’t even THINK about boys. Don’t read or watch any material that could possibly access your feminine interests. “Good girls” don’t think about these things. But then, you get engaged, take kallah classes, and oooh- guess what? We change the rules on you. We go from no no no to absolute must- 0-100 in one night. Aren’t you lucky? Isn’t that special? No need to cover up now, girls- rip it off on demand. By now you’ve lost interest? Scared? Confused? Pain? No matter, it’s a mitzvah, don’t you know? It will feel good eventually, probably, maybe… It’s still not going well? Not normal, oy- you need help. Call a professional.
I don’t mean to mock. I should be grateful for a system that keeps therapists so busy cleaning up the mess. The thing is, for every couple that ends up in our offices, there are so many more who don’t and suffer. I'm not looking to assign blame; this is not any one person's fault. But it doesn’t need to be this way. There is some communal change occurring, but we need more, better, and faster.
The opposite of one extreme is often the same problem as the other: This system arose as a prophylactic antidote to children and teens being prematurely sexualized, as is common in Western society. Yet the opposite extreme also sexualizes them- in a different, but equally damaging way:
Another problem created by this educational vacuum is child and teen sexual behavior. In absence of guidance, validation, and rules, young people will create their own norms. How many young adults come in and tell me about the nocturnal extra-curricular activities in sleep-away camps and sleepovers, the juvenile exploration in the dark? It goes on in a variety of ways: live and virtual, consensual, peer-pressured, and coerced, for pleasure or as aggression, same sex and opposite, with other children, or by predatory adults. If knowledge is power, then ignorance is disempowerment. Some who were abused by their own siblings as children are sure that their siblings also had no idea that what they were doing was wrong. Ignorance is dangerous.
Some young women present with marital sexual attempts as though traumatized. Their husbands and other trusted ones want to “unearth the trauma.” As devastatingly common as these traumas are, sometimes the marriage itself was the trauma. The sudden and mandatory indoctrination into immediate sexual performance from one day to the next, often with a man not well-known to them, and externally regulated and monitored by authorities. Scary stuff for many sheltered 19 year olds. How many have cried bitterly about the bait and switch of planning a wedding only to find out near the last minute what was to happen after? I realize this sounds dramatic, but it is. Just ask them.
Young couples often come into marriage with completely different expectations, or none at all. They may lack the vocabulary to express what they feel, what they want, what they don’t want. One spouse may be more assertive, while the other just capitulates. Other cases, they are both timid, tap-dancing around their awkwardness, not wanting to rock the boat. And in still others, they may both have strong opinions, but lack clarity on what is reasonable to request in terms of quality and quantity of sexual activity.
It’s such a lonely problem, too. When you botch your first batch of challah-baking, you can ask a friend or neighbor for tips and laugh about it. But no one sits around the Shabbos table with peers going: “Well, we still haven’t consummated- what finally did it for you?” People don’t discuss this stuff.
It’s not just up to premarital educators, although the really good ones make a world of difference. (Thank you for your efforts!) As parents, teachers, therapists and mentors, we need to make it safe and appropriate for children to learn this information naturally, accurately, and gradually. To be at home in their bodies and understand the changes, the feelings and thoughts that accompany puberty. To respect the boundaries of others and feel empowered to demand respect of their own. To both feel and calibrate their attraction and urges. (It’s not enough to only try and prevent our children from being victimized, we must also work on raising people less likely to exploit others.) We should teach them that they can come to us with any questions they have without fear of judgement, being dismissed, reprimanded, or being told “you’ll find out when you’re older.” And perhaps most importantly, they deserve to know what marriage is and entails, what they are signing up for, before the hall is booked. They need us to do better for them, and we can. That’s my plea. (And don’t worry about me, I can get a different specialty.)
For those looking for Jewish guidance on this issue, I highly recommend two books to start: Talking about Intimacy and Sexuality by Yocheved Debow, and Talking to Children about Intimacy, by Sara Diament. I also linked to my digital course below: Sacred, Not Secret: A Religious Family's Guide to Healthy, Holy, Sexuality Education.
The sedras of Shovevim Tat begin with slavery, suffering and despair. They segue into miracles, redemption, and hope. (In the merit of resilient women who initiated empowered sex with their husbands.) And they end with receiving the wisdom of Torah, and the construction of a magnificent and holy abode, in which the Holy of Holies, also called the “master bedroom of the sanctuary” housed beloved embracing cherubs to represent the sanctity of intimacy. Chazal teach that a good marriage is a difficult as splitting the sea. But just as we went nationally from oppression to freedom, split the sea, became spiritually enlightened, and donned splendor and glory, may this year’s Shovevim season bring the same salvation to those who need it.