Our Gemara on the bottom of 81b to 82a discusses if a vow to abstain from sexuality constitutes a vow of עינוי נפש personal affliction, or categorized as a vow of matters between husband and wife. The halakhic nafka mina (practical outcome) has to do if the vow will remain in effect subsequent to termination of the marriage. The halakha is that vows of personal affliction, when annulled by the husband, are permanently removed. On the other hand, vows that interfere between the husband and wife relationship are only temporarily suspended, and should the marriage end via divorce or death, the vow is reactivated.
Shitta Mekubetzes (81b) wonders how it is possible for the Gemara to even consider that sexual abstention would not be a personal affliction. The idea that we abstain from sexuality on Yom Kippur stems from it being considered an affliction (and some opinions even hold this prohibition on Yom Kippur is not merely rabbinic. For a full discussion see Peninei Halakha Yamim Noraim, Yom Kippur 9, footnote 1. But even if they are rabbinic in origin, it is clear that the linguistic understanding of personal affliction includes sexual deprivation.) The Shitta resolve this question by suggesting that for men, sexual deprivation is considered a personal affliction, however, for women it is not experienced as something painful.
Of course that’s not to say that women do not enjoy sexuality or suffer from lack thereof, and even furthermore, it is one of the marital obligations. A man must give his wife sexual pleasure (Shulkhan Arukh EH 76:7). Therefore, the Shitta it’s not saying that sexual deprivation is not problematic, or in someway emotionally depriving, just it is not felt in the same way by women as a physical torture.
Is important to keep in mind that in general, various rabbinic pronouncements about the nature of men and women are most of the time meant in a general statistical manner, and not an absolute form. I certainly have witnessed otherwise healthy heterosexual men who, in different ways, have feminine sentiments, and otherwise healthy heterosexual women who have, in certain ways, masculine traits. What does the current research say about the subjective experience of sexual deprivation amongst genders?
Much of current research indicates that sexual disparities are subject to sociological conditions instead of innate conditions, as researchers Dawson and Chivers (“Gender Differences and Similarities in Sexual Desire”, Current Sexual Health Reports
ISSN 1548-3584, Curr Sex Health Rep ,DOI 10.1007/s11930-014-0027-5) referencing research by Brown NR, Sinclair RC (J Sex Res. 1999;36 pp. 292–7):
“The sexual double standard hypothesis posits that men are socialized and encouraged to hold more permissive attitudes towards sexuality, whereas women have been socialized to hold more conservative sexual attitudes and suffer greater social repercussions when they are sexually expressive and assertive.”
Such research supports the idea that it is not really about their innate biological status. However, I believe there is bias in the social science research community to promote an agenda to “prove” that there are identical traits between men and women. I think this stems from a misguided wish to protect women from discrimination, because once you suggest genders are different, it is easy to suggest one is superior. However, this is a poor argument and “not following the science”, because we need to be objective and not fear if findings do not support a particular popular sentiment. (If only that attitude was taken toward other current important social and medical matters, where scientific concerns were discussed objectively, and not politically!) Regardless, a moral and just society does not discriminate against people despite innate differences. Differences are not inferior, just different.
Even if these particular findings about sexuality are accurate, it is still not a refutation of Chazal’s estimation, because the rabbis did not differentiate between social and emotional realities, and physical realities. Their point was simply about the subjective truth of the experience. If they understood women as not feeling as much physical anguish from sexual deprivation, then their keen insight and wisdom is applicable, regardless of the etiology, be it social or physiological. There are numerous instances in the Talmud where we see that the subjective experience is more important than the objective truth. In truth Talmudic medicine like ancient Greek medicine made little distinction between mind and body, mental anguish and physical anguish. One of the most resonant examples of that is in regard to the case of a person who was so lovesick that he claimed he would die if he could not be with a particular woman. While the rabbis wrangled back-and-forth about whether this would be permitted for the sake of saving a life, and they concluded that it would not, they never doubted the person’s subjective experience that he was in mortal danger (See Sanhedrin 75a). They forbade him, despite believing that he was in mortal danger.
However, other findings suggest something that is closer to the Shitta’s idea, as quoted further by Dawson and Chivers :
“Along similar lines, there is evidence suggesting that women and men differ in the objects or goals of sexual desire. Mark, Fortenberry, Herbenick, Sanders, and Reece reported gender differences in what people want when they experience sexual desire, finding that men desired pleasing their partner, pleasure, and orgasm, whereas women desired intimacy, feeling sexually desired, and emotional closeness.conservative sexual attitudes and suffer greater social repercussions when they are sexually expressive and assertive.”
We see from here, that desire for sex might be different than sexual desire. To quote something my father-in-law Rabbi Michoel Miller Z”L said to me when I was relatively newly married, “Women give sex to get intimacy, and men give intimacy to get sex.” Perhaps not the only way of looking at things, and while it could be seen as cynical or at least simplistic, it also wasn’t such a bad observation.