STIs, Shame, and the Sabbath: Orthodox Jews Reflect on How They Learned About Sex
Modern Orthodox children aren't as sheltered from secular life the way some more strict Jewish denominations are, but talking about sex is still taboo, and can leave some kids confused—I know I was.
Illustrations by Koren Shadmi
I first learned about sex in the bathroom of my co-ed yeshiva day school when I was eight. While we huddled around an automatic hand drier, two of my kippa-wearing, tzizit-wielding friends told me roughly what happens when a man masturbates: "You rub your dick a lot and then white stuff shoots out!" I listened in horror, unsure if they were joking. I was too scared to ask my parents or teachers and embarrassed to ask my friends to clarify; I wouldn't hear about sex from my teachers until I was nearly 13.
I grew up in Teaneck, a town of 40,000 in northern New Jersey, which has, by my count, at least 18 Orthodox synagogues. For the first 17 years of my life, I split my time in a variety of Modern Orthodox Jewish schools in Manhattan, Paramus, and Riverdale. Half the day was devoted to Jewish classes with the other half committed to a secular curriculum. In these schools, the classes mixed boys and girls together, one of many ways being Modern Orthodox differs from being ultra-Orthodox/Hasidic.
We'd study Talmud, but still read Harry Potter. We'd observe the Sabbath, but still discuss last night's episode of The OC. Despite my relatively-liberal religious upbringing (at least compared to many other Orthodox Jews), there were still limitations and filters through which we learned about the world around us. For example, talking about sex was something that just didn't happen. Nevertheless, thanks to pop culture and the internet, I pieced together some information about intercourse the way any preteen might. Still, my school didn't formally broach the topic until the year before high school when an awkward rabbi who gave us a rough outline of all the terrible things that can happen as a result of sex: babies, disgusting rashes, dick discharges, and, of course, AIDS. Not once during the class was sex described as a mitzvah or something to be celebrated with a partner, which is how some observant Jews interpret sex between married couples.
"While not unique to the Orthodox community, sex education is not about sex in Orthodox schools," says Dr. Bat Sheva Marcus, a modern Orthodox Jew with a PhD in Human Sexuality and the founder of the women-focused sex psychology group Maze Women's Sexual Health. "Rather, it's about how not to get pregnant and how not to get STDs. Nobody talks about pleasure or the kind of framework sex can fit into and I feel like that's what kids are really curious about. And that's what they should be talking about, in addition to how not to get pregnant and how not to get STDs."
By the time I got to college, I felt a huge culture shock. The casualness of sex among my newfound college friends was startling—I had never discussed anyone's sex life before. It was only after considerable time spent with people from different backgrounds that I realized how my introduction to sex affected my own sexuality, and how the lack of sex-positivity ended up complicating my entrance into an independent adult life.
"I'll talk to a young [Orthodox Jewish] girl, and she'll feel horrible about being sexually active before marriage," Dr. Marcus told me over the phone. "This will be a two-year blip in her life, but nobody in the Orthodox community sees it that way. [To many Orthodox teenagers], the things they do when they're 18 feel like the be-all and end-all of life."
Recently, I became interested in finding others Jews who grew up in the small Modern Orthodox world before exploring their own paths. I wanted to know how other people with such a limited education of sexuality as a teenager handled the transition into a world where suddenly sex seemed to be everywhere. I reached out to four former Orthodox Yeshiva students around my age and asked them about what their sex education was like growing up and how it influenced their sexual activity and outlook on sex as teenagers and young adults. The interviews were conducted anonymously (mostly for their parents' sake) and have been edited for length and clarity.
23 Years Old
Grew Up in New Jersey
Currently Lives in New York
Religious Status: Unaffiliated
VICE: What was your sex education like growing up in an Orthodox Yeshiva high school?
Talia: From what I remember, we had what my school called "Health Ed" in 11th and 12th grade. Once a month, for a few months, the instructor—either the school psychologist or the college guidance counselor—went over dealing with stress, sleep, and a very light version of sex education. The sex ed piece was focused on how reproduction works, without much detail.
Did your family talk about sex openly?
Not at all. I never even heard the word sex in the house. We didn't even talk about kissing or what a physical relationship with someone my brothers or I were dating might look like. I got most of my sex ed from watching TV and movies and reading books, which I think my parents assumed. I realized that sex was present in the world, but I had no communication about it with anyone until that mediocre sex ed class in 11th grade.
What was it like losing your virginity?
I was comfortable with it. I was no longer Orthodox and I was dating a non-Jewish guy who was older than me. I actually had to kind of convince him. He knew about my religious upbringing and was kind of nervous about being the one to "take away my virginity." We did not talk about it a lot since it made him nervous. The physical tension was intense and sex actually helped relieve that.
Learning what you did growing up, was there stress at the beginning your sex life?
It took time to reconcile. My mom's reaction to telling her I had sex was, "Your namesake is turning in her grave." Which was rough stuff; my namesake is my grandma. I told her because she asked me straight out and I decided it was silly to lie. My parents and I eventually went to family therapy and sorted it out and we now actually have a very strong relationship. We still don't talk openly about who I really am... I think that's the one thing I wish was a bit different.
Are you open about your sex life with your friends that are still Orthodox?
With the ones who want to hear it, yes. The ones who identify as Orthodox but are having sex themselves like to hear about it and like to reciprocate and share their own stories, fetishes, and general feelings around it. Most of these people are in monogamous relationships and I think they justify it through that. I also know many people who identify as Orthodox and justify their desire for sex by only having anal, because somehow that somehow makes it OK.
23 Years Old
Grew Up in Manhattan
Currently Lives in Manhattan
Religious Status: Self-Identified Pagan
VICE: How did you first learn about sex?
Sam: I think I learned from reading this young adult sci-fi novel in third grade, as well as from conversations with friends and stupid teen movies. I remember searching for the word sex on like Microsoft Word Clip Art in computer class in elementary school and seeing the gender symbols.
Did you learn about sex from your parents or school?
My family never really sat me down to explain because I assume they knew I knew about sex. In terms of sexual content in religious texts, my school usually skipped those passages or used euphemisms we would take literally.
As you got older, did the lack of communication about sex affect you?
In like seventh or eighth grade, I was really repressed and compulsive about trying to adhere to all the micro-details of the ritualistic stuff we were taught to do. It became like a form of OCD that I'd waste hours on—not meditative prayer, but anxious fiddling. Finally, I realized that wasn't what God would want, and then I became much more relaxed about sex. Over the next few years, as I saw adults become more extreme with enforcing these rules, it left a worse and worse taste in my mouth.
What was high school like?
For a while, I managed to fit in among various sub-areas of the modern orthodox bubble, but then as I got older, my relationship with my parents suffered (in the typical ways) and I began to draw away from these sub-groups. I never enjoyed being called or considered "off the derech" (path) because I continued to carry a strong sense of interpersonal ethics. But facts of my lifestyle made me feel like an outsider.
Which parts of your lifestyle that made you feel like an outsider?
Well, I'm gay and I was in the closet about my sexuality and didn't tell people that I was hooking up with people I met online. Inherently, that private aspect of my life made me feel like I didn't belong. In high school, I would ditch school, go on these fucked-up solo adventures, and be very much be on my own. At the end of high school, I ended up beginning to date this older guy who encouraged my personal interests and made me feel like perhaps I had a place I could belong. This relationship was kept secret from almost everyone, besides my closest friend and a teacher who I would talk to about it.
How did your parents react to your sexuality?
My parents knew since I was 16 because they had installed spyware on my computer, so they saw what I was looking at on the internet. My dad took it very bad and our relationship took a downward spin for a number of years. I didn't come out during school because I thought I'd get kicked out, but I wish I had in retrospect. That being said, I don't feel angry at Judaism itself, but rather its institutionalization.
Are you comfortable with your sexuality now?
Yeah, absolutely. The eroticism in the bible (both straight and gay) always seemed pretty explicit to me. The pain I felt related to my upbringing was more of a social isolation. Sexuality doesn't make me feel uncomfortable. I wish I was more open with it during school, and even if being forced to come out to my family was traumatic, I'm still glad it happened.
22 Years Old
Grew up in Flatbush, Brooklyn
Currently Lives in Manhattan
Religious Status: Secular Jew
VICE: Do you remember how you first learned about sex?
Ben: When I was 12 or 13, I went to Jewish sleepaway summer camp. My counselors played us one of the American Pie movies.
So you learned about sex from Jason Biggs?
Essentially. It was my counselors who discussed it with me for the first time, but they were just a few 17- or 18-year-old guys and were probably misinformed themselves.
Did you have any formal sex ed?
Nope, not at that point. I had it maybe in like tenth grade, but by then I already had my first sexual experience.
Do you think you would have benefited from having sex ed before then?
Totally, especially if my understanding of it at that point was just what I gathered from American Pie. I made a point to have my first kiss before I entered high school because I didn't want to be behind everyone else. So I kissed a girl in camp the summer before freshman year. Then, when I got to high school, I found out I was only one of a handful of people who kissed someone else before.
How did you feel about sex as you continued going to a Yeshiva high school?
I came from an even more Orthodox culture in Flatbush, so I thought it would be different going to a slightly more liberal high school. But at my school, guys and girls totally conflated money with popularity and sexual hierarchies; it was kind of messed-up.
Sex was also a way to rebel against the administration's constant nagging about tzniut (sexual modesty). Also, bringing attention to tzniut brings attention to those things, which were not allowed. It was like telling someone they can't have something, only making him want that previously unknown, unattainable thing even more. That was one of my first ways of realizing how distant I felt from the "Ortho" ways. But you also were conditioned to feel guilty for being interested in those forbidden topics. My high school set people up for that "othered" feeling, either while they were in high school or after.
How does your family feel about you having a sex life before marriage?
Well, they're used to it now. I've been out of high school five years and I'm dating a non-Jewish girl. That's a huge issue for them, though. And mind you, I'm a Jewish studies major, and committed wholeheartedly to my Jewish identity and community at large, but sometimes it's hard for Orthodox people to see outside of their monolithic understanding of Jewishness. The situation with my girlfriend is tough; my parents and I don't talk about her at all. It's an unspoken thing, and it causes me a lot of anxiety.
At what point did your thinking about sex change and evolve?
Once I started having oral sex in 11th grade, I was all in. My secular education in high school, however limited, showed me how wonderful it could be. Like watching any Goddard films outside of school, you just want to have passionate sex like that.
23 Years Old
Grew Up in Manhattan
Currently Lives in Israel
Religious Status: Secular Jew
VICE: Can you tell me about your religious background?
Rebecca: I grew up in a house with mixed views; my dad is Modern Orthodox and my mom is pretty much traditional, but not observant. I went to a Modern Orthodox school and I was very involved in the Jewish community. I went to synagogue and observed shabbat, etc. After high school, I became a lot less observant. Now I live in Israel on a kibbutz (a communal settlement), I work on Shabbat, and I don't go to synagogue.
Do you remember sex-ed in elementary school/high school?
I don't think I had sex ed at all in elementary school or high school. My mom used to tell me to use protection and I used to go to the gyno, so I pretty much knew about sex, but I guess I learned a lot on my own.
Was your mom always liberal in her attitudes towards sex?
She has always been liberal—thankfully. My mom's side of the family is also really secular, so I felt that I always had them to talk about these kinds of things with. Sex was not a taboo subject with them.
How did you reconcile your mom's views with the strictness of your high school and tziniut?
It was hard in elementary school because I was embarrassed about the fact that my mom is not religious and I felt like I wanted to keep the status quo. In high school, I matured and I grew to appreciate the way she was. I felt like she was there for me to talk about certain things, stuff I knew that my girlfriends' moms were more conservative about. She was the cool mom.
Did the students at your school have the same level of understanding about sex? Or was there more of a divide?
In high school, most of my friends started having romantic relationships. All of a sudden lots of people were hooking up. I think they did what was natural. It's not like they were rebellious about it, but we did have fun and smoke and go to parties because I went to a Modern Orthodox school and the students that go there have an open mind. It was not like the single-sex schools.
Do you ever feel guilty about your adult sex life?
As I got older, I released the guilt that school made me feel about sex, but it took a while. When I graduated and had sex for the first time, I kind of felt bad about it because [my partner] was kind of a "bad boy." But I feel like if sex was a more normal thing in high school then I would have felt more comfortable about the whole topic in general. Today, I have a good relationship with my father and mother. I live with my boyfriend and it's all good with them. The fact that they even know I'm in a serious relationship makes them happy.