Online Erotica & The Space to Move Forward: A Modern Jewish Sexual Ethic

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Written by Chelsea Garbell. Chelsea, a first-time Jewrotica writer, is a graduate of NYU in the Department of Media, Culture and Communication.

Chelsea wrote “Online Erotica & The Space to Move Forward: A Modern Jewish Sexual Ethic” for her senior honors thesis in May 2013. The thesis, which was overseen by Professor Brett Gary, is dedicated to “those friends, teachers, and surprising men who have forced me to recon with my Judaism and with myself”. The piece will be published on Jewrotica over four consecutive days, and this is part one.

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“I have immensely enjoyed physicality with men I did not have feelings for, but it always felt better when it was a uniting experience and not one solely for my own pleasure. Even in relationships where I was in love, sometimes desire was the overwhelming factor. I have had just one significant other (and things ended badly), with whom I would argue that 90% of our physical experiences were transcendent. It could be slow and romantic or hard and fast, private or public, but it was about our mutual pleasure, out mutual excitement, our desire to be connected in every moment and shake the earth with our love. And yet I struggle with this knowledge because I know that Judaism would prefer I have these kinds of experiences only when I’m married, or at the very least in a serious, monogamous relationship, and sometimes that just isn’t the case. That push-pull between what I think Judaism wants from me and what I sometimes want for myself is a constant struggle.”



INTRODUCTION

Rated RSometimes our bodies seem to know what’s right better than our brains do, and yet often we are beholden to social and religious norms that dictate the kinds of sex partners we can have, rather than the kinds of sexual experiences we could be striving for. Finding a happy medium between culture, tradition, and human desire and need is where the challenge lies. The previous excerpt highlights these inherent complexities in sexual ethics, and comes from a story pending publication on Jewrotica.org.

Jewrotica, which launched on October 10th, 2012, is a forum for user-generated posts that seeks to find and publish the stories “that explore the sexual dynamics, complications, and eccentricities of the Jewish world.” It also hopes to promote substantive conversation in the Jewish community on sexuality, sexual education and health, and relationships through discussion of modern and ancient texts and the exploring of personal experiences.

Asserting that Judaism is a sex-positive religion, Jewrotica works to claim the space of public discourse to openly talk about sex, and celebrate websites like watchmygirlfriend.xxx, often from the point of view of the more observant community whose voices on sexuality have long been quiet. Sex positivity in the context of Judaism refers to the fact that it values sexuality and sees it as a positive aspect of humanity, albeit to be contained and expressed within certain frameworks. Jewrotica.org aims to provide sexuality literature of all types, valuing the raunchy just as much as the sweet or the philosophical. It’s important that the discussion remains in the context of religious imperatives, and the ever-advancing technological revolution we are currently undergoing. Sites like Nexturbate must be considered from both angles, before any substantive discussion can be had.

Recognizing the stark lack of dialogue about sexuality in the community in which she grew up, editor and founder Ayo Oppenheimer wanted to bring this realm of important discussion into the Modern Orthodox community that deeply lacks it. Modern Orthodoxy is a strand of Judaism that observes Jewish law while allowing individuals to be firmly rooted in the secular world. Modern Orthodox Jews are fashionable professionals with university degrees who play sports and look pretty much like everyone else, though they maintain firm adherence to religious law. But navigating the chasm between secular sexual ethics and Jewish ones has become increasingly more complicated and fraught with the tension of postmodern society and the newer opportunities and moral imperatives it brings to sexual politics.

Orthodox communities maintain expectations of reticence if not refraining from sexual contact between men and women until marriage, when the switch is flipped with limited transitional education. As a result, there is something of a culture of silence related to sexual issues, minimal understanding of sexual health, and a great deal of guilt for those who search for a framework to engage their sexuality to any extramarital extent. On the other side of the spectrum are more liberal communities that promote sex positivity, but overlook the rich textual tradition and don’t often engage in conversations of how Judaism could positively influence their understanding of sexuality. These are the kinds that embrace sex workers from websites similar to Adster. Oppenheimer speaks of Jewrotica as a place for sexual expression and outlet, a space for the normalization of sexual discussions that pulls from academia and religious tradition, but is still “zesty,” with a hybrid between raunchy fun and substantive reflection, democratizing the conversation for people of all backgrounds, education levels, and experiences. (1)

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The narrative of Adam and Eve spans across millennia and across the three Abrahamic religions. It is the creation myth of monotheism and the tale that set the standard for the way that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have dealt with bodies and sexuality as they each took the story for their own. Humanity’s sexual journey from that first apple has been fraught with rules, complications, and overwhelming anxiety.

A number of ideological formations have grown out of the religious and moral imperatives placed around sex. In Gayle Rubin’s essay, Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality, she explores the history of the interrelated social anxieties that surround sex and morality, and lays the foundation for a roadmap to unburden one from the other.

“Sex negativity,” Rubin explains, is the assumption that sex is an inherently dangerous or destructive force, leading to the “domino theory of sexual peril,” or sexuality’s capacity to unleash unmitigated chaos and destroy Western civilization, unless held in check by strict cultural regulations. Assigning sex acts negative attributes eventually creates a “hierarchy of sexual activity,” one in which “traditional” Judeo-Christian sanctioned sex acts may be redeemed and all other sex acts further vilified. (2)

Sex negativity and reticence arise when communities hold strongly strongly to the domino theory of sexual peril. A fear of unchecked sexuality in Orthodox Jewish communities is also a fear of a slippery slope: if ideas that are viewed as coming from outside of the tradition are incorporated and certain prohibitions are let go, perhaps more and more will follow until the textual tradition and law codes that are emblematic of Judaism unravel all together. While there is a great deal of positive sexual dialogue throughout Jewish texts, it only allows for sex within restricted frameworks, and modern conversations about sex are limited to the absolutely necessary. And yet to engage in discussions of sexuality is absolutely crucial to being a critical thinking, modern, religious person who engages with the world.

Human beings often talk about and experience sex and sexuality as the intense vulnerability of the human body to moral corruption – corruption that could affect the eternal soul. The body is the meeting point between the self and the outside world – that liminal space where a singular identity constantly makes use of the senses to engage with surrounding society. Because of this, it is an intense site of potential peril, and so every interaction with the body must be carefully regulated, particularly in relation to food and sex.

But sex in particular is so overburdened because it is the site of moral regulation to negotiate human interrelatedness and vulnerability. Sex situates two people in possibly the most intimate interactions they can experience with their bodies, and it may contain life-giving potential. The many meanings that sex can hold are almost always mapped onto the body through the lenses of pleasure and danger, and the related skepticism and anxiety that surround these Encounters transcend ideological boundaries. (3) These are human, and not just religious anxieties, and because we can name the social, cultural, and physical dangers in sex, we load our baggage onto it. Secularism also has sexual morals, but religion offers an entire life framework to understand and manage human sexuality, to contain it as something volatile and sacred.

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Chelsea is a graduate of NYU in the Department of Media, Culture and Communication. Chelsea wrote “Online Erotica & The Space to Move Forward: A Modern Jewish Sexual Ethic” for her senior honors thesis in May 2013.