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Sex Manual for Orthodox Newlyweds Is Too Modest

The Newlywed’s Guide to Physical Intimacy, a new book published in Jerusalem and authored by Jennie Rosenfeld and David Ribner, leaves me feeling conflicted.

As someone whose patient base includes a not-insignificant number of ultra-Orthodox Jews (I don’t particularly like that title for the right wing of the Orthodox community, but it’s a shorthand I can live with so let’s just go with it), I am thrilled that someone created a clear, concise and accurate book on sex for this population.

Mind you, sex for this population is not fundamentally different from sex with any other population. Slightly more limited, perhaps, but the fundamental principals remain the same for most of us.

The legitimate assumption of the authors is that this population needed a guide to sex that was more geared to their sensibilities, since in many cases these individuals are both suspicious of and resistant to what they see as mainstream sexual mores. A book geared to educating this population was needed and is welcome.

The book uses a certain level of cultural sensitivity to allow this population access to issues in sexuality, both practical and to some degree emotional. It answers many common questions both directly and accurately and is fairly comprehensive on many issues. On that level I really like it and am glad to have it as an additional tool.

But here’s where I get stuck. The book, in subtle ways, reinforces some of the same messages that I find so problematic in the Orthodox community in the first place: that sex resides in the shadowy nether land where certain thing are healthy, appropriate and good but in reality are a bit suspicious and inappropriate for open, practical conversation and discussion and maybe better kept hush-hush.

I’ll give you two examples. One is the title. I admit that it’s a bugaboo of mine to call sex something besides sex. In this case they call sex “physical intimacy.” Give me a break. I can think of 20 ways I can be physically intimate in my marriage without having sex! Sex and intimacy are not the same thing. And if we think sex is a perfectly natural, normal part of our existence, why then can’t we just call a spade a spade, a penis a penis and why isn’t this book called “A Guide to Marital Sex?”

The second problem is the placement of diagrams, which are modestly placed in a sealed envelope in the back of the book. Sensitive? I suppose so.

But still not-so-subtly suggesting that maybe it’s not so okay to look at the pictures (The pictures, by the way, reminded me a bit of instant mashed potatoes, vaguely practical and useful as a substitute for the real thing but not particularly appealing). “Oh yes,” the authors seem to be saying. “Sex is a wonderful thing to be celebrated and enjoyed, just do it under wraps please.”

I know I am doing a bit of a disservice to the authors, who I am sure struggled mightily to find that place between buying into social norms in order to make a product (in this case a book) palatable to a specific population that has its very real hang ups, and the need to change some of the norms.

This is a question many of us in the field of sexuality face: how much do you buy into social norms to gain access to the individual and when do you decide that recreating social norms is just perpetuating the problems. In the end these were the tough decisions these authors had to make and perhaps they were correct in their judgment.

I have to admit though, to wishing there was a bit more fun and eroticism in their book.

Bat Sheva Marcus is the clinical director at The Medical Center for Female Sexuality in New York. She has a Ph.D. in Human Sexuality and dual Master’s Degrees in social work and public health.

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