5 Things Religious People Get Right about Sex

Prefer to listen? I read this post for the Jewish Geography podcast:


Dear Josep,

Yeah, I had a feeling that title would get your attention. 😛

I mentioned to you that I recently began studying to become a madrikhat kallah, a bridal counselor. Premarital counselling in the religious community means something a little different from what it means in other places. It’s not the “therapy” kind of counseling. While we do address various aspects of building a healthy relationship, the main job of a madrikhat kallah (or madrikh hatanim, for males) is fairly technical: to teach the laws of family purity. (If you have no idea what that is, click here.) This is necessary because this will often be the first time the bride will encounter these laws. Unlike with the other Big Two–Shabbat and kashrut–she hasn’t had a chance to learn them organically. So it has become the norm in our community to study with a bridal counselor before the wedding. (In Israel it is actually a requirement to register for marriage with the Rabbinate–even if you are completely secular. Which I find bizarre and fairly pointless, but they didn’t ask me.)

Ideally, a madrikhat kallah is kind of a cross between a premarital counselor, a halakhic teacher, and a sex educator. Unfortunately, not all madrikhot kallah fulfill each of these roles to an ideal degree. There are far too many young women (and men) who begin their marriages ignorant of some very basic information about sexuality, halakha, and/or fertility, and this can cause a lot of problems and unnecessary suffering. I hope to be part of a new generation of madrikhot kallah who will prevent that.

Moving along. You probably don’t remember this, but about a year into our correspondence, we had a discussion about premarital sex: for or against. (I wonder who was for, and who was against? 😛 ) Now as you can imagine this was not exactly a comfortable discussion for me to be having, given that I was still single and all, but I guess it came up, and I decided it was worth tackling. It was a fairly classic disagreement between a religious person and a secular person on this topic, and we concluded by agreeing to disagree, since I didn’t have the experience or knowledge to back up my point of view. You said we would talk about it again in ten years; that my views on it will have changed.

Well… it hasn’t quite been ten years yet, but I think it’s fair to say that I’ve gained enough knowledge and insight to respond with some authority to 25-year-old you. 😉 Now, I’m sure that the current you is probably also wiser and more mature when it comes to this topic, and I bet if we discussed it again, it would be a very different conversation. But I decided to post this on our blog, not as a response to you specifically, but because I think the secular world is very dismissive and disdainful towards the religious attitudes towards sex, and it’s a huge shame, because honestly, I think there’s a lot y’all can learn from us.

There’s more than enough material out there about what religious people can sometimes get wrong about sex–as I mentioned, inadequate sexual education and premarital counselling, shame, etc. etc. etc. I’m sure you’ve heard all that before, and these are things we are working on as a society and I think there has been a lot of progress.

But here are some things I have learned in the eight years since that conversation, about what religious people get right about sex.

1) Modern society’s insistence on the separation between sex and love can be very damaging for monogamous relationships.

This is really fundamental to understanding our original disagreement. The mainstream secular conception is that sex is (and I think you even made this comparison) like a sport: something you do for pleasure with other consenting adults, that you can “get better at” the more experience you have. And the way to enjoy it the most, is to have a variety of different and exciting experiences.

…Well no freakin’ wonder secular society views marital sex as a drag. What’s “new and exciting” about it?

I have a few problems with this view. One is that it’s intellectually inconsistent. You can’t argue on the one hand that sex is completely separate from love, and then turn around and say that remaining faithful to one partner is a fundamental principle of a happy monogamous relationship. It makes no sense. If you believe that remaining sexually faithful to one partner is an elementary criterion for being in a faithful romantic relationship, that means that sex and romantic love must be connected to each other. If they weren’t, why would you care who your partner slept with? It’s her body, she can do what she wants with it; it has nothing to do with you.

Unless it does.

(Or unless you’re one of those polyamory or “open marriage” people. But let’s not even go there. The vast majority of humanity intuitively considers sleeping with someone other than your life partner infidelity.)

The traditional conception of sex championed by the major faiths is that it’s less like a sport and more like, say, figure skating. Sure, you can be a fine figure skater, but if you’re skating with a partner who doesn’t know your routine and whom you don’t trust, things are bound to get awkward. The longer you skate together, the more you learn each other’s strengths and weaknesses, the better you skate together. The analogy isn’t perfect, though, because sex is a lot less about learned “skill” or inborn “talent,” and a lot more about effective communication. We’ll elaborate more later.

2) The entire idea of “sexual compatibility” is based on a very short-sighted view of sexual relationships.

This was one of your main arguments in favor of premarital sex, and you were not alone in this argument. There is a common idea it is necessary to “try it out” with a potential partner before getting married, to make sure you are “compatible.” And when you’re a young secular person who hasn’t been involved in a real long-term relationship, of course the idea makes sense. If you’re picking up a girl at the bar and heading to a hotel room, all you’ve got there is two strangers with no basis for knowing what the other person prefers, and no relationship of trust and communication to work it out. What if she likes X, Y, and Z and you don’t? Bummer. Well, that didn’t go well. Awkward.

But in a long-term monogamous relationship those things are completely irrelevant. Why? Two reasons:

  1. You have your entire lives to figure it out. When you are with a partner who you trust and feel totally comfortable with, you can make compromises, you can try different things, you can experiment, you can learn together. You can make mistakes, you can laugh. You can have an awkward and disappointing experience… and then try again tomorrow. It’s a whole different paradigm–and it’s the very paradigm that makes marriages work. Commitment to sticking it out even when things are messy and difficult, and communicating effectively throughout, are essential to a healthy relationship of any kind.
  2. People change. Their desires, needs, and preferences change over time. We get older, our priorities change, our schedules change, our physiology and hormones change, and let’s not even talk about pregnancy and babies, right?…

My point is, a couple’s first sexual experience is actually a pretty terrible “sample” by which to measure the success, or lack thereof, of their potential sex life. The question of “What if he likes X and I like Y?” is far less important than the question of, “Do I feel comfortable enough with him to discuss what I like and don’t like? Does he feel comfortable enough with me to do the same? Are we open to listening to each other and learning about the other’s needs, and adapting to each other as we grow?” That is real compatibility: good communication. And that is something that can be tested, built, and nourished without ever getting in bed.

Sex is not a “performance” that either succeeds or fails. It’s a journey you embark on together. And it gets better and better with time. Which brings us to the next point:

3) Studies show that statistically, married people are more satisfied with their sex lives… and the more *religious* they are, the more satisfied they are.

Yes, you read that right. A survey by the Center for Sexual Health Promotion at Indiana University found that married couples have more frequent and more satisfying sex than their unmarried counterparts. A study by the University of Chicago found that married, religious Christian women had much more satisfying sex lives than their non-religious counterparts.

Well, that kind of flies in the face of the “sexually suppressed puritanical Christian” stereotype, doesn’t it?

It is a known fact that both divorce rates and infidelity rates are lower in religious communities. “Aha,” says the modern secular person, “but that’s probably because divorce is taboo in those communities and more people are stuck in loveless marriages.”

Are they? The data tells a different story–at least when it comes to Jews. A survey by the Orthodox Union found that Orthodox Jews are significantly happier in their marriages than the general population, and there have been other studies (University of Georgia, University of Toronto, and a report by a professor at Oxford) that showed that Jews had happier marriages than members of other faiths.

“But what if it’s just ‘ignorance is bliss’?” protests the modern secular person. “That they don’t know what’s out there, and what could be better?”

Right back atcha: what if it’s people who engage in casual sex who don’t know what could be better? What if they are missing an entire dimension to sex that makes it so much more than a mere pleasurable physical experience?

To me it seems that modern secularism conceives of the “quest” for a good sex life the same way we conceive of the “quest” for, like, the tastiest strawberry in the batch. Gotta try ’em all before you can judge which is the best, right? But hello, we’re not talking about an experience with a strawberry, we’re talking about an experience with a person! An experience that can be a powerful one of utmost connection and love. It’s the difference between reading Shakespeare as a teenager, and reading Shakespeare after earning a Ph. D. in literature. An experience of entirely different depth, that you can’t even comprehend before you get there.

Even if you dismiss all that, and want to argue that we’re “settling” for an only mildly tasty strawberry… wouldn’t you rather be the guy who is totally happy with his strawberry, than the guy constantly thinking about the tastier strawberries that might be out there?…

It's not the size of the strawberry, it's the sweetness of the sugar. Or something. Okay, how about we lay off the strawberry analogy?
Okay, maybe let’s lay off the strawberry analogy.

4) If you successfully build your relationship on effective communication and trust, when you wait until marriage, you’re at a significant advantage for starting a positive long-term sexual relationship.

In the seven-and-a-half years I’ve been married, and given my interest in becoming a madrikhat kallah, I’ve come in contact with a few programs and books geared towards the general public about how to improve one’s sex life. And after that conversation with you, I was actually kind of surprised–and fairly self-satisfied 😛 –to discover that for the most part, they don’t focus on “physical technique”; they focus on how to make a meaningful connection, to communicate well, to understand your partner’s needs and desires, to flow with your partner, to listen to your partner. Sure, there are some technical details that are important and helpful, but let’s just say it ain’t rocket science, and there’s plenty of very easily accessible material addressing it.

Now don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of religious couples who do not learn how to communicate well before marriage, and there are plenty of religious marriages that start out badly in this area. But for the most part, it’s not because “they don’t know what they’re doing”; it’s because they don’t know how to listen and communicate with each other. (Important note: this is all putting aside various disorders and stuff that may be affected by an overly restrictive or harshly negative view of sex in the community. That’s also an important conversation, but it’s a different one.)

And you know what’s the most effective way to learn to listen and communicate with each other? Listening and communicating–in a setting that does not involve the pressure, tension, and vulnerability of a first sexual encounter.

You asked me once how it’s possible to date somebody without ever touching him. I laughed. “You…. talk?” I suggested. “You…. spend time together?” I later explained that building a relationship without touching each other gives you the opportunity to lay the foundations of your relationship by learning how to communicate through other means first. I know that a lot of people think–as you do–that casual touch means nothing. Science, however, begs to differ. Your body releases certain hormones in response to touch, which can influence how you think about the person you are touching. There was a study that showed that people gave much bigger tips to waiters who touched them lightly on the arm, versus waiters with whom they had no physical contact. Touch is more powerful than you think, and it can affect your judgement, especially when there is sexual attraction involved.

I think what you were really asking me, though, was–how do you express romantic affection for someone if you can’t hug or kiss him or her? Good question, Josep, and that’s exactly my point! Everyone should know how to communicate love through means other than touch. Touch is a most powerful tool for communication. But other kinds of communication are just as important, and they tend to get neglected when touch is on the table.

So yes, dating without touch was hard. It was very hard. But both Eitan and I learned a lot from it. The communication skills we mastered during that period have served us very well in our marriage. And the magic of this moment was definitely worth the wait:

First time we ever held hands.
The first time we ever touched on purpose.

5) A li’l self-control ain’t never done hurt nobody.

This is a major beef I have with the common attitudes of mainstream society. They tend to equate self-control with suppression. The very idea of waiting until marriage is just ridiculous in modern culture. “Puritanical.” Either you’re a crazy religious person, or you’re an old-fashioned prude.

The thing is… there’s a middle ground between an unhealthily negative and oppressive attitude towards sex and the kind of “openness” that characterizes modern culture.

You know why this attitude is really strange to me? Take eating, for example. Fad diets are all the rage these days. The media is full of information (and misinformation) about which types of foods to eat and which to avoid. This can be taken to quite an extreme; the language people use to describe eating habits (“clean” eating, “sinful” food, [insert name of diet here]-“legal”) sometimes speaks in terms of morality. People talk about eating unhealthy food as though it is some kind of moral failing. But even without that extreme, there is this totally accepted idea that for the sake of your long-term physical health, you must exercise self-control.

Why is this a totally accepted idea about long-term physical health, but not about long-term sexual health? Why does nobody tell young people about the damaging effects of overexposure to pornography, for example? Why does nobody tell them that people who engage in casual sex tend to be more anxious and depressed than their monogamous peers? With all this focus on educating teens about STDs and birth control and consent, no one dares to raise the question whether the complete lack of boundaries among young people could be damaging to them in some way. There has been a lot of awareness raised in recent years about consent, and exactly what it means, and how to be sure there is consent, etc. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a very important conversation, but… the entire thing is completely bizarre to me because in communities like mine, that distinction is hardly necessary. Barring situations of abuse, it is abundantly clear to a religious man when it is okay to have sex with a woman and when it isn’t. He doesn’t have to sit through a “sexual consent class” in college to figure this out. Even within a marriage, halakha is very explicit about consent. A man is not allowed to have sex with his wife if she is drunk, sleeping, angry at him, or otherwise disinclined. These ideas have been incorporated in Jewish law in black and white for hundreds of years. Very clear boundaries make these situations so much easier to navigate.

In summary. I’m not saying it’s impossible to have a healthy marriage or long-term relationship if you engage in the kind of sexual behaviors that are considered normal in secular culture. Of course not! What I’m saying is, don’t pity us religious people for our strict boundaries around sexuality. Those very boundaries might be what make us statistically more likely to have happier marriages. And the “sexual freedom” that characterizes modern culture might actually work against you in the long run.

Food for thought.

Love,

Daniella

4 thoughts on “5 Things Religious People Get Right about Sex

  1. (Please ignore earlier comment)

    This article was linked to by a friend of mine who is frum, but isn’t usually into the standard apologetics. This was certainly better written than most the stuff we see from Cross-Currents and Aish and the like so kudos for that, but there’s a lot about this article I find rather strange. Just a few points as food for thought:

    “…Well no freakin’ wonder secular society views marital sex as a drag. What’s ‘new and exciting’ about it?”
    Lots of people — not just “secular society” — view marital sex as a drag. They get bored. Look at all these stories we’ve all become familiar with about Christian senators and congressmen, lol. But we all often view marital sex as a culmination of a loving and dedicated relationship. That’s not something the religious have a monopoly on.

    “(Or unless you’re one of those polyamory or ‘open marriage’ people. But let’s not even go there. The vast majority of humanity intuitively considers sleeping with someone other than your life partner infidelity.)”
    No, let’s go there. I see no actual trouble with a consensual open relationship, but I appreciate the appeal to the vast majority of humanity. Still, what you present as a simple truth accepted by the vast majority of humanity is not the Jewish view. Yaakov Emden sees no problem with re-instituting the institution of concubinage (Sheylot Yeavetz, 2.15).

    “Even within a marriage, halakha is very explicit about consent. A man is not allowed to have sex with his wife if she is drunk, sleeping, angry at him, or otherwise disinclined. These ideas have been incorporated in Jewish law in black and white for hundreds of years. Very clear boundaries make these situations so much easier to navigate.”
    cf. Meishiv Davar 4:35.

    “The data tells a different story–at least when it comes to Jews. A survey by the Orthodox Union found that Orthodox Jews are significantly happier in their marriages than the general population, and there have been other studies (University of Georgia, University of Toronto, and a report by a professor at Oxford) that showed that Jews had happier marriages than members of other faiths.”
    Okay, so the OU found that frum Jews are happier in their marriages than other Jews. Okay, no surprise there, they’re the OU.

    But there are studies — weirdly mentioned but not linked to — finding that Jews have happier marriages than members of other faiths…and most Jews are not shomer negiah, do not keep shemiras einayim, and are not acutely religious. But the whole point of your article is that religious people are happier than non-religious people in their sex lives. Odd.

    1. Hi Mark, thanks for chiming in! “Rather strange” is a phrase many of my friends would probably use to describe me, so your impression does not come as a shock to me. 😉

      In all seriousness:

      Marital sex as a drag: Yes, you make a good point, that attitude exists in religious communities as well, and religious people certainly do not have a monopoly on the view of marital sex as the culmination of a dedicated and loving relationship. The reason I put the word “secular” into that sentence was to make clear that I was talking about the same people who see sex and love as being two completely separate things. Perhaps it comes off as a generalization, and you are right to point that out.

      “No, let’s go there.” You are welcome to go wherever you like; I don’t have to come with you 😛 I didn’t want to get into it here because I would get too sidetracked and it’s really a whole topic in and of itself that is only vaguely related to the topic at hand. All I will say is that what you claim is the Jewish view (and Yaakov Emden’s opinion) is not representative of the vast majority of Jewish thought on this topic.

      Meishiv Davar: I never said that all sources are unanimous about this. (I mean hello, this is Judaism. 😛 ) There are plenty of things in halakha and even in the Torah itself that are very difficult to grapple with, and there is plenty of material in rabbinic literature that is extremely problematic, whether it’s regarding the treatment and status of women, attitudes towards non-Jews, or other things that make us modern Jews squirm. No apologetics here. But in this particular case, I’m talking about the halakha l’ma’aseh.

      As for the OU statistics, by all means, don’t accept their research if you don’t think they’re objective enough. The other studies I did not link to because they are not available online and I was only able to find references to them, not the studies themselves. I was trying to glean key data points from a chapter on this topic in Lawrence Kelemen’s “Permission to Receive,” in which he brings a lot of sources to this effect. You are right that they may not have been the most relevant here.

      But I do want to emphasize: my point is not that religious people are happier than non-religious people in their sex lives. My point is that the boundaries built in to religious life are not, as secular society seems to believe, detrimental to our sex lives; that they can be quite the opposite.

      Again, thanks for taking the time to express your thoughts on my post.

      1. “Perhaps it comes off as a generalization, and you are right to point that out.”
        We agree.

        “You are welcome to go wherever you like; I don’t have to come with you”
        Ay. And you’re welcome to not go wherever you like. I will still go. 🙂

        “All I will say is that what you claim is the Jewish view (and Yaakov Emden’s opinion) is not representative of the vast majority of Jewish thought on this topic.”
        I agree that Yaakov Emden’s opinion is certainly not representative and that’s a nebuch. But even Orthodox Jewish thought does not consider his opinion to represent an endorsement of some sort of inherently disgusting “infidelity”. Rabbeinu Gershom’s bans are way, way post-talmudic. Pre-rishonic source literature allow for a pilegesh.

        “No apologetics here.”
        Let’s not get crazy. 😛

        “But in this particular case, I’m talking about the halakha l’ma’aseh.”
        Sure, but the halakha is informed by our modern sensibilities. The Netziv is dismissed as ridiculous precisely because his view is so disgusting to us with our secular, feminist values. You say Orthodox Jews don’t need consent classes, but they do have marriage classes where the don’t-rape halacha is reviewed…And we should note that halacha gets its underlying ethico-axiological values from modern thinking.

        “As for the OU statistics, by all means, don’t accept their research if you don’t think they’re objective enough”
        I haven’t analyzed the statistics, but I do credit the OU with some integrity at seeking to solve problems when they get around to it generally; they obviously have their own bias, but maybe they’re right in their analysis. My only point is that if religion makes happier marriages, why are Jews happier than members of other religions? We’re notoriously assimilating irreligious folks..

        “I was trying to glean key data points from a chapter on this topic in Lawrence Kelemen’s ;Permission to Receive,; in which he brings a lot of sources to this effect.”
        With due respect to Rabbi Leib Kelemen, having read some rebuttals of his work generally, I’d want to see those studies inside.

        “My point is that the boundaries built in to religious life are not, as secular society seems to believe, detrimental to our sex lives; that they can be quite the opposite.”
        I think your article unintentionally ends up making a much broader point, but even this overreaches. I agree with you that secular people tend to be far too dismissive of benefits of religion, and I agree that religion can help a lot of folks live better sex lives. But actually religious boundaries are detrimental to a lot of other peoples’ sex lives. You mentioned the benefits of marriage, but studies have found those benefits apply to gay people as well. You mention how not touching allowed you to better communicate with people, but I found it desensitized me. Boundaries built in to religious life have perhaps not been detrimental to your sex life and the sex lives of many people like you. But they have been detrimental to others.

        1. I definitely agree that our hashkafa and interpretation of halakha evolved with the norms of the societies around us, and as what people describe a “modern Orthodox” Jew, I tend to think of that as a good thing, as long as it is within the bounds of halakha. I do think, however, that modern thinking is also largely influenced by what they like to call “Judeo-Christian” values. That is, it’s not a one-way influence. I think some of the ideas in the Torah about equality and respect for other human beings were absorbed into that system and explored and expanded to include a more universal application, and then reflected back into modern Judaism. And I think that dialogue is exactly what is supposed to happen. But I’m sure the ultra-Orthodox would disagree with me.

          “My only point is that if religion makes happier marriages, why are Jews happier than members of other religions? We’re notoriously assimilating irreligious folks…” It’s an excellent question, and you’re right, answering it (and seeing if their conclusions really do reflect Rabbi Kelemen’s interpretation of them) would require seeing them inside. My impression was that within each religion, as the level of religiosity went up, so did the levels of satisfaction, and that in Judaism the “curve” was higher than other religions, but again, that could be his interpretation of the data.

          In any case, the problem with statistics is that they don’t actually tell you what will happen to you; they only tell you what is likely. I don’t think my statement overreaches, because it is general, and leaves room for exceptions. I tried to make it clear throughout the post that these things don’t apply to everyone. I will certainly agree with you that those boundaries can be detrimental to some. (Homosexuals, for an obvious example.) Being observant is not a guaranteed path to a happy and fulfilled life, despite what the articles on Aish may try to argue. 😉 At the end of the day I’m not observant because I think it’s the Best Thing Ever, but because I believe that it’s what God wants from me, and that that means it’s for my ultimate benefit, even if it doesn’t feel that way all the time. (I think you can see that concept, and my struggle with it, explored more in these earlier posts: “The Sabbath Keeps the Jews–Even When It Seems like It Doesn’t,” “Women in Orthodox Judaism, or: Daniella Opens a Can,” and “I Forgave God.”) I am aware that that belief is an article of faith, a truth that I feel in my heart, that other people don’t necessarily share or understand.

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