The Seesaw is a new kind of advice column in which a broad range of columnists will address the real life issues faced by interfaith couples and families. Read the discussion and vote below for what you think is the best response to this particular quandary. You can email your own questions, which will remain anonymous, to: email@example.com
Can’t a Nice Jewish Girl Also Be a Sex-Positive Feminist?
I am a college student halfway through my junior year. My parents, and especially my grandparents, are upset because I still haven’t had a Jewish boyfriend. I try to explain to them that we don’t really do the boyfriend thing in college that much anymore, and instead just have fun and explore different options.
No, the guys I have been hooking up with on and off are not Jewish, but they are also not the dudes I am planning on marrying, I promise. You would think the fact that I regularly attend Hillel and take lots of Jewish studies classes would matter more to them than who I have fun with on Saturday night, but it doesn’t. As a sex-positive feminist, I really want to tell them that this isn’t their business and that they should be way more interested in my Jewish life than that of the people I choose to sleep with. What do you think?—Co-ed Not Bride
You Might Be More Conflicted Than You Think
JAMES PONET: Your parents’ and grandparents’ critique of your life bothers you, I think, because you are yourself conflicted, and legitimately so, by the tensions and tears you experience in your life on campus.
While sex and marriage were definitively decoupled in the U.S. with the arrival of birth control pills in the 1960’s, college students may still have felt, if only for awhile, that sex and love were conjoined. But today’s generation of college students seems to be traumatized by sexual violence, perplexed by questions of gender and identity, and persuaded by psycho-biological theories that love does not actually exist. Sex for your generation is alluring and dangerous; it is not so much about tenderness and kindness as it is about conquest, release, raw experience, escape. But then, in truth, maybe it’s always been that way.
In any event, I accept that you distinguish completely between your “Jewish life” which involves Hillel and Jewish Studies, and your sex life, a psycho-social dichotomy about which many have written, none more famously than Philip Roth in his 1969 novel, “Portnoy’s Complaint.” David Biale studies the history of Jews and their conflicting sexual desires in his 1992 book, “Eros and the Jews” and sets for himself the task of finding an “erotic tradition” that a modern Jew might find attractive.
I am glad that you are exploring your sexuality and hope you will be able to do so without undergoing trauma. Sex is an utterly amoral force which indeed powers our species’ continuity. Like a hand that can be used to caress or to punch, sex can be used to express care, appreciation, passionate attachment, love. It can also be used to humiliate, dominate and violate. The choice is ours. Go and study.
James Ponet is the Howard M. Holtzmann Jewish Chaplain at Yale where he also is a visiting lecturer at the Law School. Fortunately he has been married over 40 years to Elana Ponet with whom he has 4 children and 5 grandchildren.
It’s None of Their Business!
SARAH SELTZER: So, you’ve embraced hook-up culture, and though your self-esteem seems healthy and intact (sorry, slut-shamers) your family is running you down about your proclivity towards sexual partners who haven’t necessarily been circumcised; this, even though like a good girl, you’re going to Hillel.
There are two reasons they’re doing this: number one, the belief that marriage followed by procreation is communal property because we have to further the Jewish people, and number two, the idea that women’s romantic life is up for particular judgment. Both of these rationales, quite frankly, are B.S.
There comes a time in every Jewish child’s life when a significant phrase needs to be learned, and used, upon gathering with one’s relatives: “none of your business.”
American Jews! Boundaries are not always our thing, culturally. But when you reach an impasse like the one you’re at, you need to set them. My guess is, your clan is not going to evolve on this if you keep answering them in an earnest way. So I’d say that for the time being, let your conversational tactics mimic your sex life: do not get engaged. There’s really no reason for you to talk to them about this when you have friends, Cosmopolitan, and the feminist blogosphere.
Now, as to why you’re sleeping with non-Jews while (it seems) saving Jews for marriage, it might be worth, for exploration’s sake only, asking yourself whether this is a way of acting out against your parents. Whatever the answer is, whether Freudian or just preferential, you have time to figure it out. In fact, at your age it’s pretty normal to work out identity issues by experimenting and having fun, as long as it’s consensual and safe for all parties involved. There is more important work for you to do right now than ensuring the existence of future Jewish babies — and that work is laying the foundations for the future you. Knowing how to set boundaries is an important first step.
You and I May Want Society to Be One Way, But It’s Another
RUTH NEMZOFF: I sense that you are less interested in talking with your parents and grandparents about your Jewish life and more interested in discussing and seeking approval for the new sexual mores. You may also want them to be unequivocally equal in their treatment of your brother and of you. And, you want no pressure to settle down with a mate at this time in your life.
Depending on your relationship with them, this might be possible. Although conversations about sex between the generations is pretty much taboo in our society, you might actually learn something from them (and vice versa). After all, your generation did not invent sex and they’ve been having it for years. Though do know that it is hard for anyone to treat males and females identically in regards to sex when the society as a whole does not. Much has been written about the positive labels affixed to sexually active men, such as super-stud versus the derogatory labels give to women, such as whore. You and I may want society to be one way, but it is another. Again, your parents’ concern is probably that you will be hurt.
As for pressuring you to find a mate, your parents and grandparents may have been inspired by “Princeton Mom” Susan Patton, who encouraged college women to find a mate while they are in contact with a large pool of eligible men, rather than waiting until later when the opportunities may be fewer. Your parents may be asking you to think about the fullness of your life and not just the present.
I suggest engaging them in a discussion of their concerns about Jewish continuity first before you plunge into than explaining your sexual life. Listen to them with open ears and then evaluate whether or not there is a grain of truth in their concerns. If you find they have some wisdom, think about how to address the issues for yourself and before you begin the next conversation with them.
Dr. Ruth Nemzoff, author of “Don’t Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding Relationships with Your Adult Children” and “Don’t Roll Your Eyes: Making In-Laws into Family” is a resident scholar at The Brandeis Women’s Studies Research Center. She is on the Board of Interfaithfamily.