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Girls & Jews & Sex

A new book by Peggy Orenstein brings up questions about how to think Jewishly about our daughters’ sexuality

Marjorie Ingall
March 30, 2016
Photo: Walter via Flickr
Photo: Walter via Flickr
Photo: Walter via Flickr
Photo: Walter via Flickr

In Girls & Sex, Peggy Orenstein deploys statistics the way a ninja uses throwing stars: They’re precisely aimed, aware of your weak spots, and surgically targeted to cause pain.

Orenstein uses this data to create portrait of tweens, teens, and twentysomething girls—young women who are subjected to a constant blast of imagery showing girls as objects, who receive terrible (often wrong) sex education (if they get it at all), who view sex as a performance, who are far more interested in boys’ pleasure than in their own, and who are clueless about their own bodies. Here’s a sampling:

• A 2013 Boston College study found that female students were graduating with lower self-esteem than when they entered the school; boys’ self-esteem rose. Orenstein writes that the girls blamed, in part, “the pressure to look or dress a certain way.”

• A study of middle- and high-school girls who were shown sexualized pictures of female athletes subsequently “scored higher on measures of self-objectification than those who saw the same athletes engaged in, you know, actual athletics,” writes Orenstein.

• A 2012 survey of 4,000 young people found that most wished they’d received more information from parents before their first sexual experiences.

• A 2013 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 1 in 4 college women and 1 in 5 high-school girls had engaged in binge-drinking within the last 30 days. (On average, they had six drinks on each occasion.)

• According to the longitudinal “Sex Lives of College Students” survey, the number of girls who fake orgasm has been rising steadily from less than half in 1992 to 70 percent today.

The upshot: The book, which blends research, interviews with 70 girls, and conversations with psychology and sex-education experts, is a demoralizing read. My heart breaks for girls who stress endlessly about being desirable, who see themselves as an object for the male gaze and can imagine no other way to be.

The one bit of comfort I take (entirely selfish, I own it) is that some of its conclusions don’t ring true for my daughters’ community. The book deals overwhelmingly with straight, cisgender girls; my daughters’ funky, fierce urban public school seems much more diverse than the environments of the girls Orenstein talks to. Girls & Sex views the Internet with a lot of suspicion; I’ve found, on the other hand, that the universe of Tumblr, fanfic, and social-media advocacy has been a huge force for education and good, one that questions the objectified and disempowered portrayals of girls in mainstream media. (In fact, I see Tumblr serving the purpose that ’zines did back in the early ’90s, encouraging healthy skepticism and rejection of limiting gender and sexual roles.) In my parental experience (yeah, there’s no way I’m going to talk about my daughters’ experience, because if I tried to include them in the writing of this piece, Maxine would immediately crawl mortified under the sofa and Josie would roll her eyes at my old-white-lady intersectionality-clueless ignorance of the Real World and go into her room to listen to Twenty-One Pilots), sartorial choices vary much more than they do in the book. The girls Orenstein interviewed go out to parties wearing sky-high heels and tiny skirts; while that’s how girls at my nephews’ b’nai mitzvah in Northern California looked, I’m much more likely to see girls in Doc Martens and baggy vintage clothes. I realize that my little bubble is not America (I seem to recall a certain Republican presidential candidate ranting about “New York values”), but many kids here seem to have a different experience of adolescence than the one Orenstein portrays.

Nonetheless, I was really struck by Orenstein’s citing a 2010 study in The Journal of Sexual Medicine by researchers at Indiana University indicating that only one-third of girls aged 14-17 reported masturbating regularly, and fewer than half had tried even once. Orenstein talks to a youth advocate named Charis Denison who talks with kids about sex, substance abuse, ethics, and social justice; Denison notes that many girls start having sex without a clue about their own pleasure. “I talk to so many girls where the first person to actually touch their clitoris is somebody else,” she tells Orenstein. “It’s hard when you’re trying to have a sexual experience with someone and you don’t know what feels good to you … [s]o if someone is choosing to become sexually active with someone else, it’s really good to be sexual with oneself first.”

This quote got me thinking. (OK, so did another quote—by a college student who said, “In my gender class, I’m all, ‘that damned patriarchy.’ But at night … the only thing I care about is: ‘Does this skirt make my ass look good?’”) Reading Orenstein, I wondered how we can help our daughters explore and appreciate their own bodies. And how can Jewish parents in particular teach our daughters to love and value their bodies, despite the Torah’s relative silence about female sexuality, and despite generations of that damned Jewish patriarchy quashing the pride and confidence our girls deserve?


I chatted with Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, editor of The Passionate Torah, a collection of essays about Jewish sexuality, and author of the forthcoming Nurture the Wow: Finding Spirituality in the Frustration, Boredom, Tears, Poop, Desperation, Wonder, and Radical Amazement of Parenting. Yeah, I know Judaism has some woman-positive stuff to say about women’s sexual fulfillment in the sacred bond of marriage (the mitzvah of having sex on Shabbat, the husband’s obligation to satisfy his wife sexually, as laid out in the ketubah), but is this stuff relevant to unmarried girls’ sexuality? Ruttenberg’s perspective: Absolutely.

“We’re all created in the divine image,” she told me in an interview. “Part of our life force is sexuality, getting to know these great bodies we’ve woken up in, bodies that can do things and give us pleasure. It says in the Talmud that when we get to the world to come, we’ll be asked about the pleasures in the world we were permitted but didn’t take. That doesn’t mean eat the cheeseburger, but of anything that’s kosher, why didn’t you take advantage of it? Have the brownie! Have the glass of wine! Your body is delicious and available to you, and you’re meant to explore the deliciousness.”

And yes, that goes for the deliciousness of orgasm. Our ancient texts have a lot to say about male masturbation, but almost nothing about women having a ménage a moi. (You know. Twinkling the little star. Working out at the Y. Buffin’ the muffin. She-bopping.) Fun fact: In the Talmud, there’s a mention in Avodah Zarah 44a of a queen who was in possession of a “monstrous thing” or “abominable image,” which the rabbis decided was an object that “intensified licentiousness” or “a kind of phallus with which she had daily connection.” (Ooh.) The king crushed the item and burned the ashes at the brook of Kidron. And that’s pretty much all we get on the subject. Ruttenberg said wryly, “You can either decide that today we understand what masturbation is in a very different way than the rabbis did, or you can say that our tradition is silent on the subject. It’s an empty space! The rabbis didn’t really talk about it. Crickets. But as parents today we should encourage daughters to explore their bodies and get to know them better, and thereby understand themselves better, which forms a foundation for their relationship to sexuality for all their lives.”

But even talking about masturbation seems radical.

Back in the ’90s, Dr. Joycelyn Elders lost her job as Surgeon General after recommending that masturbation be part of schools’ sex education curricula.

And today, it’s hard enough for many parents to give the standard birds-and-bees talk. Now we’re supposed to talk to them about fluffin’ the kitty, too? Well, yes. When your kids are little, read a children’s book together about sexuality (I recommend anything by Robie Harris), and be open to opportunities (a dumb joke on a sitcom, a sexist remark about female sexuality) to mention masturbation, without censure.

And what of encouraging girls’ confidence and appreciation of their bodies in a climate that shames them for the vast majority of their sartorial choices? Well, if men are uncomfortable with young women’s tank tops—that’s their problem. Dictating what girls can wear to school—whether you call it tzniut or a strict dress code—is both common and unfair. (Orenstein notes the Photoshopping of higher necklines and sleeves onto girls’ yearbook photos, and lots of girls have stories about how much more frequently girls are punished for their clothing choices than boys are—and girls who are non-white or plus-sized are singled out the most.) “When Rambam talks about modesty, he doesn’t talk about what you’re wearing,” Ruttenberg pointed out. “To him, modesty meant not showing off your money, not being the guy who takes up all the space in the room and drowns out other people.”

She continued, “Real modesty doesn’t mean crushing other people’s spirit or policing other people’s clothing. It’s not about dumping your not-fully-developed-spiritual issues about women onto the women. We need to ask men to tzimtzum, to contract a bit. We don’t let dieters shut down doughnut shops!”

She concluded, “If the sun on your shoulders and the sensation of the wind feel wonderful, let your skin show, darling! Enjoy the body you’re given! It’s not an inherently shameful thing.” And, in fact, you could argue that Rambam would have been onboard. After all, he advocated “maintaining physical health and vigor so that the soul may be upright and in a condition to know God” (Mishneh Torah Hilchot Deot, 4:14).

Here’s another study Orenstein pointed out that I found interesting: In the early 1990s, only 3 percent of college women who identified as heterosexual had reported any same-sex experience; by 2008, nearly a third did. That sounds legit to me, here in my world where sex and gender norms don’t seem quite so rigid as they did in the past. (Orenstein may be right to wonder how much of that same-sex activity is “girl-on-girl action performed mainly to titillate guys”… but in the East Village and brownstone Brooklyn, at least, I don’t think that’s what’s going on.) The young women I know seem less homophobic than my peers and I were at their age, and they seem more open to seeing attraction and identity as fluid. And again, the Torah and Talmud don’t have much to say on this whole subject. Ruttenberg pointed me toward Yevamot 76a in the Babylonian Talmud, which essentially talks about scissoring. Rav Huna said, “Women who rub against each other (nashim hamesolelot) are prohibited to marry a priest.” Yeah, some punishment.

Ultimately, parents may find it reassuring to know that studies indicate that girls actually aren’t having intercourse more than they did a decade or two or four ago. “The seismic change in premarital sexual behavior really took place with the Baby Boom generation,” Elizabeth Armstrong, a University of Michigan sociologist who researches college student hookups, told Orenstein. So, why wouldn’t we choose to talk to our daughters about the normal range of sexual desires, about why their urges aren’t shameful, why their bodies are beautiful at all sizes and shapes, about why they shouldn’t feel pressured into having sex with another human being before they’re ready? Orenstein quotes Amy Schalet, a sociology professor at the University of Massachusetts and author of Not Under My Roof, who’s studied Holland’s far more sexually relaxed culture and how it compares to America’s. Our teen pregnancy rate is eight times higher than theirs, their teenagers have sex later than ours and are more likely to use birth control, and their youth report more satisfaction with their bodies and confidence in their desires and more reciprocity in their relationships. Comparing similar populations (white and middle class) in both countries keeps showing that the Dutch approach—talking about masturbation, oral sex, contraception, homosexuality, and orgasm—leads to better health and safety and more comfort with sexuality. “It’s enough to make you rush out to buy a pair of wooden shoes,” Orenstein notes.

Schalet suggests using an “ABCD model” for raising sexually healthy kids. The A is for autonomous—teaching kids to set limits and assert their own desires; the B is for building egalitarian and supportive relationships; the C is for maintaining a connection with your child; and the D is for recognizing the diversity and range of sexual orientation.

This sounds good to me. It helps kids be self-protective and lets them know they can come to you with questions and concerns. It prioritizes communication. And you know, that seems awfully Jewish.


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Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.