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A New Victorianism

In the Venn diagram of my life, Jewish Orthodox feminism took up half, female sexuality the other. Until one day, the intersection of the two came crashing down on me.

Bat Sheva Marcus
April 11, 2022
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This article is part of Figuring Out Feminism.
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I am a 60-year-old sex therapist and Orthodox Jew. I founded one of the largest sexual health centers in the United States and also one of the first advocacy organizations devoted to expanding women’s roles within Orthodox Judaism. I have devoted my professional and communal life to fighting two fronts of the larger feminist struggle. In one, I have worked to empower women to adopt the expectation of pleasure on equal terms with men and to make the medical establishment take women’s sexual health concerns seriously. In the other, I have sought to inspire women to see themselves in the Jewish tradition, and to persuade those suspicious of change that women’s increased involvement is a sincere expression of religious devotion.

Being a sex therapist who lives and works in the Orthodox Jewish community has been a wild ride. While I see hundreds of patients from every walk of life in my practice, I also get calls from Jewish women around the world. And more poignantly, I am often waylaid at synagogue, at weddings, and even once at a funeral, by women seeking advice, suggestions, solace and support as they navigate their sexual health. They know, from public lectures, podcasts, and writings, that I talk unselfconsciously about pleasure, fantasies, toys, vibrators, and erotica. And, as a result, they feel they can too—at least with me.

I know that these are subjects that make many people, especially those in my Orthodox community, uncomfortable. But I also know that the most effective way to approach issues cloaked in shame is to destigmatize and demystify them. Women should own their desires and aspirations, whether sexual or religious, without fear. Empowering women, through frank and open conversation, to understand their yearnings as valid and even holy has been the common thread of my life’s work.

For many years I believed we were making significant progress toward a world with less sexual shame and a culture of wider tolerance and women’s empowerment. Now I am not so sure. It seems to me that those same forces of sex and shame and of demands of conformity have simply reinvented themselves, ruling today’s culture as surely as they did my traditionalist childhood. It seems that we have catapulted back to a world where a new form of Victorianism is cloaked in 21st-century jargon and where people are frightened to defend unpopular positions that they know to be true.

In the Venn diagram of what I do, Jewish Orthodox feminism took up half. Female sexuality took up the other half. But then, in an odd and unexpected turn of events, the intersection between the two came crashing down on me.

In 1997, as part of my activism work, I helped found what at the time seemed to many to be a living, breathing oxymoron: a Jewish Orthodox religious feminist organization. We were successful, with an active national membership and international conferences that attracted a thousand women.

A few years ago, our organization hired a new executive director—I’ll call her Sarah here—a young, talented woman, savvy about social media and brimming with energy and excitement. Shortly after she joined the group, I agreed to serve as the organization’s volunteer president. I poured my heart and soul into the role and was proud of the work we were doing.

In the many hours we spent strategizing and working, we had countless moments of informal conversation and many deeply personal talks. Chatting about courses I was teaching therapists at a sex club or the latest models of a vibrator suggested to me by a manufacturer may seem like odd and inappropriate topics for a professional and lay leader to discuss. But Sarah always encouraged me to talk; she seemed amused and curious to hear about my work and supportive and comfortable with the quirkiness of my career choice.

Sarah and I had, as any leadership team may have, a number of small disagreements (for example, I thought the design of our new website was amateurish) as well as a handful of substantive differences of opinion (whether our organization should call for a ban on the music of Shlomo Carlebach). But these were isolated rare moments among thousands of warm, honest conversations and hundreds of hours of productive joint work. We were a dream team, expanding the organization’s reach and shoring up its finances. We were off and running. At least, I thought so—until something went awry.

In the lead-up to a large national conference we were organizing, there were a number of disagreements between Sarah and me. We disagreed about the number of additional people that we needed to hire (I wanted more support) and, more significantly, whether the recent election of Donald Trump required a significant programming pivot. None of this was unusual. They were examples of the type of back-and-forth I’ve had countless times with colleagues over the years. But the reaction felt different this time. Sarah seemed to go silent, withdrawn, secretive. Over the course of the next several months, our working relationship started to feel no longer tenable. I tried having conversation and opening discussions, and even had the organization hire a coach for her, but nothing seemed to work.

And then it happened. Thinking about it still makes me shake to the core.

Our organization’s vice presidents, both of whom were attorneys, called me and asked if I was sitting down. They said, haltingly, that they had gotten a call from a board member letting them know that Sarah had accused me of harassment. Harassment? I was stunned—and confused. What type of harassment? What were they talking about?

They seemed just as confused as I was. But the vice presidents were worried; apparently, Sarah had suggested that she was thinking about lodging a formal complaint against me for harassment as well as against the organization’s board for ignoring various other complaints she had made about me. Her accusations were unclear and amorphous, but she claimed that I had frequently made her uncomfortable, that she had complained about this to numerous board members, and that no one had done anything about it. They were clearly rattled—and as a result, so was I.

I started to dig through the recesses of my brain to see what could have warranted the complaint. I frantically filtered through the literally thousands of conversations we’d had over the past years. Most of what I remembered, until the sudden freeze, was hard work interspersed with laughter and a few deeply personal conversations about our lives and families. But as often starts to happen in these situations, you begin to second-guess yourself; you wonder whether something did happen, but you just forgot.

The vice presidents were baffled too, trying to remember snippets of conversations, expressions of frustration, criticisms, or disagreements. I started to ask around, trying to gain clarity. In shock, I found that Sarah had spoken to many mutual acquaintances during the previous months. With each person I spoke to, I encountered new accusations. I felt deeply humiliated. Each conversation was excruciating. Here were people with whom I had worked, people I respected, and I was asking them to repeat awful things I had supposedly said or done. They were horribly uncomfortable, as was I. I began to feel a deep sense of shame. It made it hard for me to breathe, sleep, and work.

There were any number of lighthearted remarks that I had made in confidence when I believed I was speaking to a supportive friend and colleague, one who seemed curious about and interested in these topics too. I remember telling her about the time I sent vibrators to a number of senior board members who had expressed interest. They had loved the surprise gift, and one told me she couldn’t stop laughing when she opened the box. Once, before a trip to Cancún with my husband, I asked for movie recommendations because, I joked, “There’s only so much beach, reading, and sex you can have on vacation.”

But what came back to me now was quite different. Conversations about appropriate dressing for donor meetings, clothing choices and colors that worked well on photography, became accusations of “constantly comment[ing] on her appearance and body parts.” I once told her I deeply admired a local scholar and was “into her and had a girl crush,” a comment that later came back as a distorted and crass assertion. After Sarah posted an article about fasting while pregnant on social media, I made the mistake of asking her, in our next private conversation, whether she was expecting. She wasn’t. I was beyond mortified by my mistake. What woman hasn’t had nightmares about asking another woman if she is pregnant when she is not! I must have apologized 10 times. But later I heard from others that she still felt I had “body-shamed” her.

I know these might not be the most common topics for presidents and executive directors to share, but Sarah never expressed any discomfort. She often laughed at our offbeat conversations.

When the accusations came in, our board agonized about what to do next. Sarah threatened board members with a lawsuit and demanded a settlement. Board members worried that unless we paid her to sign an NDA, she would continue to spread her accusations and damage the organization’s reputation. Afraid of what publicity with the headline “Feminist Organization Ignored Abuse Complaint” would look like, we did what professional organizations now do whenever an allegation is made: We brought in an outside attorney to investigate.

It is deeply humiliating to be dragged to an attorney, even a lovely one, to try to explain that you didn’t say or do something, or that you said something that has been taken completely out of context. Especially when you consider yourself a champion of women’s rights and dignity. It is humiliating and engenders shame.

Then two things happened that I believed would lead to a quick resolution. First, it turned out that, while living in a different city, several years earlier, Sarah had accused someone else of harassment. In that case, it had been an elderly professor and a congregant at her shul. After police were called and charges lodged, nothing came of it. But it deeply disrupted the man’s life and divided the community.

Second, the attorney came back with a clear answer of no pattern of harassment, sexual or otherwise. Yes, he said, there might have been some inappropriate comments over the three-year period, but harassment? No.

You’d think that would be it, right? Case closed?

The episode did not end. Things went from bad to worse. And here is where I learned just how powerful the pressure to conform is, and how paralyzing the fear of communal censure is. It also brought home to me how much stigma and fear still remain around normal, healthy discourse on sex.

The board was divided. I and a handful of its members felt strongly that to give in was to capitulate to extortion. Others wondered how would it look if it got out. “It doesn’t matter what the truth is,” I will never forget one board member saying. “It doesn’t matter because we will be condemned before anyone actually looks at the facts.” Which, given the current world’s trajectory, doesn’t seem so crazy.

For years, my work empowering women to speak openly and frankly about their sexuality had been a source of strength and pride for our organization. I gave sessions at our conferences on speaking to your children about sex or reclaiming your own sexuality. Invariably, these sessions were packed. When it became apparent that one of the most effective ways to teach women about sexuality was through their premarriage classes, I spearheaded the creation of an international training program for kallah (bridal) teachers. We trained teachers from around the globe who went on to teach thousands of brides and grooms. The program made international news and was widely copied. The podcast I co-host, “The Joy of Text,” broke barriers in the religious community and opened new space for grappling with complex, taboo topics. For years, our organization had championed the work I was doing. Now, suddenly, I was under fire for precisely that work. Respectful, open, and healthy discourse about sex had become a liability.

I looked around and felt I had been trapped in a Kafka novel. Here were women with whom I had worked side by side for close to 10 years, who now thought I should “take a break” from the board because of the optics. The women on our board included some of the strongest, smartest women I know. But I watched many of them crumble under the collective pressure of what-ifs.

Reeling, I resigned from a board I had founded, grown, and championed for 20 years of my life. I resigned because I was sick of fighting and heartsick at the organization handing over money to Sarah—money I had worked hard to raise for a cause I believed in. I resigned because I was not going to be bound by a nondisclosure agreement. I resigned because I no longer had the strength to rebuild a fractured board. I resigned because if this organization was no longer about empowering women, bucking restrictive mores, and speaking truth, I could no longer be a part of it.

And I resigned because on the bad nights, the shame was overwhelming. I couldn’t help second-guessing myself—replaying every conversation and every interaction, wondering whether something I had said or done had been improper.

I went quiet for years, living with the scars of this experience. Eventually, I was ready to put it behind me and move on. But in the end, it was my years as a sex therapist that rescued me.

Every day, I work with women who are overwhelmed by feelings of shame and guilt about aspects of their sex lives. Rationally, these women know that sex is not bad and that they have done nothing wrong. But the inability to talk about it openly creates its own kind of shame. Secrets and silence have an insidious way of worming their way in and eating at your soul. As a sex therapist, I know that the only way to fight the shame of a secret is to take it out and look at it in the light of day.

I made a decision. I do not want to be complicit in a culture that worries about perception at the expense of truth. And I certainly will not participate in a culture that infantilizes women, feeling the need to shield them from open conversations about sexuality. I am done being silent about what happened. And so, when the subject comes up, I speak. I tell people the story. I am writing about it here. I have no doubt I will be blasted on social media, but that is exactly the point, isn’t it?

Over the past two years, I have often thought about a formative moment for me, which was some 25 years ago at the first international Conference on Feminism and Orthodoxy. A month prior to the conference, a keynote speaker, an Orthodox rabbi, threatened to withdraw from a panel when he learned we had also invited one of the first women ordained as a rabbi by the Conservative movement to speak. He felt that he couldn’t, in good conscience, speak at the same conference as this Conservative colleague. Our organizing committee, filled with passionate, devout women, struggled mightily. Most of us believed that the Orthodox rabbi’s presence was pivotal in establishing the conference’s Orthodox bona fides. We decided, however reluctantly, to disinvite the second scholar.

The discussion would have ended there, except that Blu Greenberg, the conference president and a guiding light, spoke up. She made it clear that the committee’s apparent direction was unacceptable. If you start a movement by abandoning what is right, she explained, then there is no use in moving forward. She respected the committee’s right to make the decision, but she would need to resign if the second rabbi was disinvited. In the end, we did not back down—we did not disinvite the conservative female rabbi. Unsurprisingly, the male rabbi did not withdraw, and the conference went on to great success.

There are, I think, two warnings buried in my experience of the past few years. The first is that Blu’s courage is a depressingly rare thing—and at the current moment, rarer still. The desire to conform, the fear of opprobrium, the obsession with appearances, the pressure to quietly take the path of least resistance, and the need to signal one’s allegiance to whatever popular position dominates the moment—they are stronger than I could have imagined.

The second is that as a society, we seem always to find new ways to submerge sexuality, to repress direct adult discussions of sex, and to assume weakness and vulnerability in women rather than power and strength. The new movements for social justice are supposed to restore dignity and rights to women, but I am afraid that because of our litigious society and social media, they risk creating a reality in which any conversation about sex, any attempt to flirt, and any healthy sexual encounter are all suspect and become fodder for legal action. We women fought the good fight to liberate ourselves from a society that told us what we can and cannot say, feel, and do. We did not fight that battle to push us full circle into a new cycle of shame and Victorianism, to be told we are too fragile to hear about sex at work and too weak to express what we need and want from our work environment and relationships.

In the end, as a sex therapist, I worry about the ramifications for healthy, open discussions of sexuality. The interplay between sexuality, power, regret, aggression, memory, and empowerment are complex and endlessly nuanced. But I know too many therapists who are terrified to speak publicly about what so many of us discuss privately. When even experts are frightened, it is a symptom that something has gone terribly wrong.

Bat Sheva Marcus is the co-founder of Maze Sexual Health and author of Sex Points: Reclaim Your Sex Life with the Revolutionary Multi-Point System. You can follow her on IG @drbatsheva or TikTok @theDrBatSheva