When it was time for Rabbi Hannannel Ross, 29, to select a research subject for his master’s in psychology at the Hebrew University, he didn’t have to look too far for inspiration. Religious women, he noted, were actively studying and talking about sexuality, helping to bring down barriers and deliver appropriate education and guidance. Religious men, however, enjoyed no such privileges, their sex lives remaining unstudied and never discussed. Taking to that most rabbinic of platforms, Facebook, Ross put out a call for observant men who were willing to speak discreetly about their sexuality. Soon, scores of research subjects came rushing in.
“Our social structure declares that men have ‘natural urges,’” Ross told the Israeli press recently, “which not only means that men are just boring that way, almost mechanical, but it also means that if men have urges, these urges must be satisfied.” This, Ross added, “works against men, because we perceive of men as devoid of free will, and just victims of their uncontrollable urges.” Even the Talmud, he said, had verses that supported that point of view. But once Ross got talking to his fellow observant gentlemen the picture that emerged was infinitely more complex.
Religious men, he discovered, not only perceived of emotional bonds as an inseparable part of the sexual experience, but also strove for erotic egalitarianism. “The more present the woman is in the love-making,” Ross explained, “the better it is for the men. They want the pleasure to be mutual. If the woman seemed uninterested, the men reported a strong displeasure, an emotional imbalance, and a dip in self-esteem.” Far from being subordinate to their urges, Ross concluded, religious men focused on nothing quite so intensely as their partner’s satisfaction.
In part, he explained, this had to do with the way religious men learn about and perceive sex. Most of his subjects, Ross reported, had no previous sexual experience prior to their marriage, and many refrained from masturbation as well. With marital intercourse being their introduction to sexuality, they perceived of it as primarily a mutual activity, and saw their partner’s pleasure as the best yardstick by which to measure adequacy.
“The fact that the Halacha forbids any sexual expression prior to marriage,” Ross said, “turns the young couple simultaneosuly into both roommates and lovers. Because they haven’t had sex with other partners, and haven’t masturbated much, according to their reports, it creates a situation in which sexuality and couplehood are perceived as one and the same.”
Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.