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Written by Elana Maryles Sztokman, PhD. Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman is a feminist writer, educator and activist, and two-time winner of the National Jewish Book Council award. She blogs at “A Jewish Feminist”, www.jewfem.com.
A few months ago, I was at a conference on Jewish feminism at Bnai Jeshurun in Manhattan, speaking on a panel about visions for the future. We talked about a lot of typical feminist issues – gender wage gaps, women’s leadership, sexist cultures – and it was all interesting and important. But right before the panel was about to end, the panelist to my left, an impressive woman named Rachel Tiven, asked for the microphone one last time. “I promised my friend I wouldn’t lose my nerve to say this,” she said. “So here goes: If you want to do something really feminist, go home and have sex. Have lots of great sex with the person or people of your choosing. That is what feminist liberation is about.”
This comment took everyone by surprise. But the sort-of nervous laughter was an indication not only of shocked awkwardness but also of the strange place that sex has in our society, all around us in commercialized forms but nowhere comfortable for real, serious engagement. The more her words echoed inside of me, the more I realized how right she is. We don’t really talk about what good sex is, what healthy sexuality is, about our deepest desires. And for many people, especially women, that often translates into a kind of trap, of feeling caged in to a life in which our desires and our sensualities never really see the light of day. We never really free our sexuality.
A lot of this has to do with sexism, and with lingering messages about what makes correct womanhood. So much of sexism and patriarchy in Judaism is about how society owns women’s sexuality. The ubiquitous discussions about modesty, for example, which have morphed into a society-wide obsession with women’s clothing choices and an astonishing spread of slut-shaming practices even in secular schools, is a reminder that women’s sexuality is still considered communal property. The idea that anyone with authority can take it upon himself or herself to police women’s and girls’ bodies, at proms or in bus ads, remains frighteningly persistent.
Practices of gender segregation, which are couched in language of “modesty”, also turn women’s bodies into objects of sexual gaze rather than women’s own personal flesh, the tool with which we live our lives and breathe and love and feel.
And then there is marriage. Concepts of Jewish marriage are not only rooted in heteronormativity but also in gender hierarchies around whose needs – including sexual needs – come first. And although feminism has enabled us to make huge inroads to undo this, the work is hardly done.
Cultural expectations are women’s dedication to serving men’s needs are still powerfully intact in many places. For many women, entering marriage still means entering a position of servitude – whether that entails putting one’s career last, becoming the primary caretaker, or ensuring that the husband is sexually satisfied. To be in a traditional Jewish marriage often means to be stuck in Jewish ideas about what women are. Our bodies are for service of the whole, for the service of our intimate partners. Everyone’s needs come first. Serving our own needs isn’t even on an agenda. So many women do not even know what their desires really are.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how, despite some incredible social change, these models of gender identity still play with our minds. For some of us who were brought up with incessant chatter about our bodies – be modest but be pretty, be alluring but don’t expose yourself, cover up elbows and necks but make sure you look good, be fashionable but not arrogant, wear heels but don’t swagger, wear lipstick but not too red, lose weight but girls shouldn’t sweat – there can be some lingering traumas around our sexuality that have not really been named. This chatter silences our own inner voices, our own ability to ask what we feel and what we want. If the entire community owns my body, how am I supposed to use my body for myself, for my own pleasure and my own needs? For me, the layers of conversations about my body in my family of origin – about my stomach, my ankles, my thighs, my chin, my arms, and my chest – left me with a very pained relationship with my own body, one that took me more than 15 years to unravel.
And I haven’t even mentioned the mikveh. What do mikveh practices teach men and women about what healthy sexuality is? That if you don’t touch each other for two weeks, then one night a woman goes out to frantically scrub and clean her body, and then dunks naked in a pool while some strange woman watches her and declares her “kosher”, this will magically bring sexual excitement into your bedroom…..How many layers of dysfunction does that induce? And what’s worse is that the practice is couched in whitewashed language about how “beautiful” all this is. Right.
So I think about what Rachel Tiven said, and it seems to me like so much of what we as a society have identified as sexist practice is about women’s relationships with our bodies. And I think it’s time, as she said so powerfully, for the feminist agenda to say out loud that our goal is to enable women – and men – to own their own sexuality and their own bodies. A woman who is having lots of great sex with whomever she chooses is probably a very liberated women. Just that act alone helps undo so many of the underlying patriarchal messages in Jewish society.
This is why I decided to create a brand new telecourse called “Desire: Sex, Judaism and feminism.” It’s a five-week online course featuring some of the best sex teachers around – including Jewrotica’s Ayo Oppenheimer – to help liberate women and men from old and unhelpful sexual messages that are inhibiting our own liberation. I created the course in some ways for myself, to help advance my own healing and my own freedom. I figured, if I can use this, I’m sure there are lots of others out there who can use it, too.
Desire: Sex, Judaism and Feminism, a new telecourse offered by www.jewfem.com , is a five-week program that begins on July 1 and is open to people all around the world, of all genders and all backgrounds. All sessions are recorded and you can watch any time. For more information, go to http://www.jewfem.com/telecourse/brand-new-telecourse-from-jewfem-com.