As a sex therapist treating women and couples in the Orthodox community, I am confronted daily with the seeming paradox of messages regarding tzniut (loosely defined as modesty) and healthy sexuality.
Young couples that are socialized against premarital physical intimacy, and receive little or no formal sexual education, are expected to engage in, and hopefully even enjoy, complete sexual relations immediately after marriage. They may experience a cognitive dissonance around sex, leading to difficulties in sexual functioning.
I highlighted this conflict at a recent lecture to women in my own community, who gathered to learn more about how to enhance marital intimacy. I spoke about how sexuality is not just about engaging in physical relations but encompasses several domains of development which include, among many other factors, positive body image, confidence, and security. I suggested that while modesty in dress and behavior are legitimate values, they should not be taught in ways that shame, blame, objectify, or instill fear regarding male lust.
A few weeks after the lecture, I received the following query from one of the participants:
One issue that you mentioned when I heard you speak left an impression on me. You said that despite raising our daughters with a sense of tzniut and appropriate behavior before marriage, we also want to raise them with a healthy sense of their sexuality and, later, a healthy understanding of and attitude toward sex, before they are sexually active. This seems like a big challenge! If you could share some of your wisdom, I’m sure many would appreciate it.”
Is this really a challenge? Must tzniut messages and values proscribing premarital sex result in dysfunctional sexuality after marriage?
This question comes up often, and most recently was re-visited in a passionate blog post by Dr. Elana Sztokman, who points out that “Orthodox women are socialized into constant, excessive pressure to cover and comport our bodies…Our bodies are a thing to be feared and covered and talked about.”
With all those negative messages, Dr. Sztokman ponders, how are women supposed to be sexually uninhibited and free once they are married? “All that obsessive cover is magically transformed into the secret kallah (bridal preparation) classes, where you learn that you’re going to be getting naked in front of your new husband and having sex.”
These are important and legitimate questions and it’s time to consider solutions. The first step is to dispel the expectation that sexual education begins with the kallah instructor. The road to development of healthy sexuality begins at home. Sexual development begins at conception and how we as parents raise our daughters from infancy can shape their sexual sense of self.
Here are ten tips to consider from early childhood through adolescence, and upon marriage:
Acknowledge what feels good: Validate your child’s senses. Whether its back tickling, bubble baths, the smell of a jasmine flower, or the warm sun shining down on a chilly day, point out how wonderful it is to feel physically pleasant sensations. Teach girls to experience and not just accomplish things. Do not stop or discourage your daughter from self-genital stimulation. It’s normal. When appropriate, you can explain that it’s a “private” activity.
Touch: Touch is a basic human need and the ability to receive and feel safe with touch is basic to sexuality. Hugging, cuddling, massages at the spa for her 16th birthday, help prepare young women for sexual life. I was recently told that teachers at some ulpanot (religious girl’s high school) discourage hugs between students. Teaching girls to respect each other’s boundaries is good, but a completely touch-free environment is not. It is amazing how many young brides are unable to engage in sexual touch because they are not used to ever being touched at all.
Facilitate a positive body image: Do not disparage your daughter’s physical qualities, ask her if she really “needs” a second portion of dessert, or tell her she should lose weight if she wants to find a husband. Women come in all shapes and sizes, and health, not thinness, should be encouraged. Be a positive role model and never say, “I am so fat” in front of your daughters.
Exercise (and wear what you want in the gym): Girls need to know their bodies, feel strong and in control, and comfortable within their own skin. Don’t say, “don’t swing your hips that way, its not modest.” Say yes to Zumba, belly dancing, yoga, and let girls be comfortable in shorts and tank tops. All these activities are available in girls- and women-only settings. Discourage heavy outerwear or “modest pool wear” at women’s only swim. What for? Save the bathing skirts for family beach outings.
Let her primp: Be patient with your daughter’s need for personal space and time spent getting dressed and “primping.” Often, this behavior merely reflects teens’ attempts to maintain some sense of control over their rapidly changing bodies.
Talk about sex and genitals: When kids ask questions about sex, parents should provide open and honest answers at a level appropriate to the child’s age. If adults do not provide accurate information, children are forced to rely on their peers or other potentially inaccurate sources. And don’t whitewash body parts. You can say vulva and vagina and explain the difference. How else can she tell you if something hurts or itches if she doesn’t have the language for that body part? Acknowledge it, or it won’t exist for her. And don’t tell her that tampons are only for after marriage. This also sends the message that her genitals are currently irrelevant.
Use media as an opportunity: When you let kids watch violent scenes in a movie, but run to turn off the TV if there is a kissing scene, you send a negative message. Who was kissing and what was the context? This is a great opportunity to talk about values around sex, normative feelings of desire and arousal, as well as how to teach about boundaries. If you see an advertisement of a half naked woman selling a product, rather than “prutza* shame” the model, use the opportunity to talk about the objectification of women’s bodies in advertising.
Model healthy sexuality: Let your kids see that you and your partner love and are attracted to one another and don’t be afraid to kiss and hug when they are around. Even if they act averse, don’t believe it; deep down, kids love to see that their parents are affectionate. Lest you think this can only work in modern Orthodox households, even Haredi couples, who traditionally don’t show physical affection in front of kids, can send positive messages with affectionate words and behavior.
Encourage your daughters to “tell me what you want, what you really, really want”: To enjoy sex, one need to be able to say things like “this feels good” or “this is uncomfortable”. If girls do not learn the language of asking for, or anticipating that their needs be met, they will have a hard time experiencing pleasure.
Don’t frame Nidda laws as “protective”: Dr. Sztokman states “You go from one extreme to the other without anything in between. …there is no such thing as affection which is not sexual — a man is not even supposed to pass the salt to his wife when he can’t have sex with her because you never know where passing the salt can lead to.” However, you wish to explain the “harchakot”**, let’s not attribute them to the need to make boundaries. That makes the perceived force of touch as turning immediately to sexual intercourse into something scary and uncontrollable, and can create anxiety in many young women, particularly as they return home from the mikvah.
Encourage autonomy: In order to say yes, you have to have the option to say no.If a woman is told that she must “provide” sex because her husband expects, wants and needs it, she will understand that her body does not belong to her, and this will affect her ability to view sex positively.
* loosely, the Jewish version of slut
**Rabbinic proscriptions against physical closeness during menstrual bleeding and 7 days thereafter prior to immersion in the mikvah