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The Problems With Religiously Sanctioned Sex Positivity

I read with interest Debra Nussbaum Cohen’s post about the struggles of Sara Diament, author of a book on sexuality education for young girls — a book targeted towards Orthodox Jews. I’ve had religion and sex on the brain this week.

“Religious sex” was the name of a now-departed fetish boutique on St. Marks place, whose windows my friends and I used to ogle in middle school. But religious sex —that is, figuring out how to have and enjoy sex within the confines of proper worship — is also a growing trend among the seriously devout. This week, A New York Times article about a Christian porn-addiction recovery group made waves, while The Guardian offered its own piece about online sex shops for observant Muslim and Christian couples. Interestingly enough, the porn-recovery group, which treated essentially treated female interest in sex as sinful, had only a handful of members. Meanwhile the online stores, ranging from tame to tantalizing, were absolutely mobbed with visitors.

All this reminded me of the long-ago media frenzy around the “Kosher Sex” empire created by Rabbi (and rent-a-talking-head) Shmuley Boteach.

The news reports about Boteach’s halachically-approved sex guides hitting the bestseller lists and his readings attracting dozens of eager listeners pointed to the same conclusion as did the Guardian article: There is a ravenous hunger among religious folks to be told that it’s okay to enjoy more earthly than celestial pleasures.

Boteach’s views are more sex-positive than those of many other religious figures: “[Sex for procreation only] that’s Catholicism. In Judaism, the purpose of sex is to sew two strangers together as one flesh,” he’s said. Still, by my estimation, many of his ideas came right out of the sexist, tired Mars–Venus playbook: Men are not naturally monogamous, women crave intimacy. Oh, and masturbation, condoms, and sex before marriage are bad.

Essentially, he endorses the kinds of ideas feminists are fighting against. Plus, he fully supports all of the, from my secular viewpoint, wildly primitive and outdated laws that determine women to be unclean when they’re menstruating, re-appropriating them as a special time for “emotional intimacy.”

And therein lies the rub. Religiously sanctioned sex positivity, emphasizing a give and take between couples or boosting women’s understanding of how their bodies work, as Diament does, is definitely a good thing. Even the idea of teaching such basics often faces resistance from religious authorities. But keeping sex ed within the spiritual realm also creates a path whereby people who don’t have real expertise in psychotherapy, or the principles of sexuality that go beyond popular myths, can be given tremendous power to direct others’ sex lives.

In the new ministry described by the Times, one participant said he was abused as a child, and probably needs more professional help than she’s getting at her anti-porn workshop. But when your counselor claims to derive wisdom from a higher power, he or she is probably not going to admit that some topics are beyond his or her purview — particularly when there’s a market to tap into right here in the temporal realm.

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