Curiosity is a powerful human trait, and although on the surface they say that nothing catches people’s attention (and their clicks) like that three letter word, the truth is that there is something far deeper going on inside each and every one of us.
Sexuality is probably the most contentious, sensitive, misinformed, misused and abused topic on the planet. That is why I have been wrestling with myself for a long time as to whether or not to write this post. But, as Rabbi Kook wisely said: “I don’t speak because I have the power to speak; I speak because I don’t have the power to remain silent.” I have come to realize that one of the greatest ills of society, if not the number one, is the fact that we are either overexposed or underexposed to sexuality. What I mean by this is the fact that we are bombarded, all day every day, with sexuality of all types: commercial marketing, news of sex scandals and sexual abuse, #MeToo, movies and novels, and of course pornography, to name just a few. As of this writing there are 25 billion results for the word sex in Google. In fact, we have probably never had an age in human history as flooded with sexuality as this one. As one writer put it: “Pornography is the wallpaper of our lives.” The average age a child, and I stress child, is exposed to pornography is 9 years old! And yet, most of what we see exposes us to a very negative picture of what sexuality actually is. Almost none of what’s out there informs us as to what about and why sex is a truly productive and necessary component in our lives.
Which leads me to the underexposed part of sexuality in our society: the fact that it is rarely discussed in a healthy, respectful, educational, mature, productive, and positive way. I am not speaking of the doctors, therapists, teachers, clinics etc., I am speaking of the street, the media, and even the average home. I have taught countless groups about the Jewish viewpoint on sexuality, taken hundreds of ladies on tours of the Mikveh (http://www.simcharabbi.com/411428650) and prepared dozens of brides-to-be for their marriages. And yet, time and again, when I ask my students where they learned about sexuality from, it is almost never from their parents or teachers, and almost always from “the street” – their friends, the internet, movies, novels etc. What a shame! How can that be healthy, positive or productive? A good way to test whether or not sexuality is being properly transmitted is to ask yourself: If you have or were to have a child, would you want them to watch/hear/see/believe in/ or do the things that they are exposed to today? I am certain that the average parent or person would say no. I know it is uncomfortable for parents to discuss sexuality with their children, I have had many of them tell me as much, but would we rather our children learn about such a crucial topic in the wrong way? We all want our children and the world at large to have the correct approach to sexuality; one which is based on respect, morals, values, growth, and intellectual honesty.
In general, I believe that most people have a difficult time discussing sexuality in a mature, comfortable, healthy, open and non judgmental way. Why? After all, sexuality is a part of the human experience – we are all born with a sex drive. In my opinion, there are several sociological and psychological reasons as to why this is the case.
Firstly, sexuality is a very personal and private area of our lives that runs very deeply into our existential identity. Our gender and our own sexual history, and the way that it manifests itself in our lives, informs every part of who we are. Gender identity, body image, self-worth, self-esteem and self-respect are all highly intertwined. Sexuality lies at the intersection between the biological, emotional and psychological needs of a human being. It involves a delicate balance of all of the necessary ingredients in human existence. We live in a world filled with so much confusion and distress regarding all of the above; and teenage puberty tends to be a time when parents not only have to deal with their teenager, but with their own unresolved issues and insecurities as well.
And that leads me to my second point. We are taught from day one that sex is a biological function, like breathing, eating or sleeping. There are three problems with this notion: 1) this implies that you cannot live without it, that you have to have sex in order to function and survive; 2) this implies that sex is a physical, biological act devoid of all nonphysical elements such as the emotional, psychological and intellectual components that advise all other areas of our lives; 3) this implies that like breathing, if a person is healthy, sex happens naturally without any effort, investment or difficulty. All of these problematic implications help explain why our world is filled with so much pornography, infidelity, teenage sex, rape, sexual abuse, sexual dysfunction, and divorce. Without fail, one of the top reasons for divorce is problems with sexual intimacy.
There is a third reason why our world has become so dysfunctional in the realm of sexuality, and that is the fact that the sexuality that we are exposed to is purely pleasure-based. The focus is completely on the high that one can derive from it. Again, as I said above, this focuses purely on the physical element of sexuality. But even more importantly, pleasure-based sexuality focuses on and promotes the “what’s in it for me” attitude; what I can get out of sex and my sexual partner, verses what I can give, build and create from it. This attitude of egocentric, pleasure-based sexuality also explains why pornography and masturbation have become so prevalent, and why it is so destructive to relationships and to healthy sexuality in our world today. Never before have we had such an epidemic of addicts and sexaholics. After all, if sex is all about the high, then it is no different than drugs and alcohol! Ironically, then, like breathing, it really does becomes something that I cannot live without and have no control over! This also helps explain why marriage and procreation are on the decline – if it’s all about personal pleasure and gain, who needs anyone or anything else? Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology, said: “The pursuit of pleasure has almost no contribution to life satisfaction. The pursuit of meaning is the strongest contributor, the pursuit of engagement is also very strong. Where pleasure matters is if you have both engagement and you have meaning, then pleasure is the whipped cream and cherry on top.”
In Dr. Haim Ginott’s groundbreaking work, “Between Parent and Child”, he discusses whether masturbation is merely a form of self-gratification or actually a form of self-abuse: “Emotionally, for parents, masturbation is hard to accept. And perhaps parents are not altogether wrong in not sanctioning masturbation. Self-gratification may make the child less accessible to the influence of parents and peers…he does not have to depend on pleasing anyone but himself. Without much effort and without the help from others, he has the whole world and its pleasures at his command…Persistent masturbation may become too ready a consolation for mishaps and failures and too easy a substitute for efforts and accomplishments. Children’s entry into civilization hinges on their willingness to delay or give up immediate gratification for the more lasting satisfaction of parental and (later on) social approval…self-indulgence is not progressive; it does not result in social relationships or personal growth…The solution lies in so involving the child with our love and affection, and interest in the outside world, that self-gratification will not remain his only means of satisfaction. The child’s main satisfactions should come from personal relationships and achievements.”
Obviously, as mature adults speaking to young adults we need to have age-appropriate, non-threatening, calm, trusting, respectful conversations. We must be frank but not too invasive nor too revealing of our own personal lives. We should not go into sexual details that can lead to incorrect behavior in children who are too young to process the information. We should teach our children from a young age about modesty, and responsible and appropriate behavior towards the opposite sex. And, we must be vigilant against outside influences that distort our children’s view of sexuality.
Sexuality is a powerful force, but that force can be positive or negative. Sex can be used to abuse, exploit, corrupt, pervert and debase. But sex can also be sacred, positive, loving, constructive and bonding. Sex can be used to strengthen and solidify relationships and create new life – literally and figuratively.
Interestingly, Judaism’s system of Taharat Hamishpacha (Family Purity), and of having sex with only one partner within a binding and committed marital relationship, fulfills and emphasizes all of the necessary ingredients for a healthy sex life: the focus on non-physical needs – verbal, emotional and psychological; the focus on delayed gratification for more lasting satisfaction; the focus on mutual responsibility –on the other – on giving and receiving; and the focus on the relationship itself, with pleasure as a means of strengthening that bond – not as an end in and of itself.
We all want to see a world where sexuality is healthy and happy. So please, let’s talk about sex!