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Do Feminists Put Too Much Emphasis On Sex — at Religious Women’s Expense?

Sexual empowerment has long been a big part of the women’s movement, or at least a big part of how that movement has played out in popular culture. From Heley Gurley Brown’s Cosmopolitan, to HBO’s “Sex and the City,” to Miley Cyrus’s free love naked shtick, the message has been “Feel less shame — and seek more pleasure.”

In her new book, “The Sex Myth,” Rachel Hills questions whether this push for sexual freedom has, in fact, been a good thing. She argues that the heavy emphasis on sexual pleasure has led to a new set of conventions, which, like the pre-feminist ones, are holding back women. Whereas before, women were made to feel bad for having sex, today women are made to feel bad for not having enough sex.

Hills’s “sex myth” can be boiled down to “the idea that to be sexually liberated — to be confident, free, and above all, true to ourselves, [means] being sexual in one very particular way,” as she writes in her introduction. In other words, Hills is reminding us that we don’t all need to be a total Samantha to be a liberated woman. What we need now are other lenses, besides sex, through which women can view their progress as liberated human beings.

This change of perspective would help mend a long-running rift among secular and religious women — whether they identify with Judaism or with any other faith.

Writing in The New Republic, Rafia Zakaria looks at how the conflation of freedom and sexual freedom has prevented Western feminists from finding common ground with Muslim women.

“I had heard it all so often… the interdiction of the hapless women who were imprisoned by Islam, as an offhand way to highlight the relative fortune of the more successful Western feminist, the one that had moved from questions of basic equality to concerns with sexual pleasure,” Zakaria writes.

Zakaria goes on to explain that all too often the Muslim feminists whom Western feminists see as worthy of support are those who also see “the celebration and centrality of sexual pleasure as the essence of feminism.”

What she’s getting at is an important point for all of us interested in advancing the rights of women: It’s time to take away sexual pleasure as the key agenda of the feminist project. Doing so would help us on an individual level, since whether we were having too much or too little sex would no longer matter. It would also help us on a communal level, allowing us to forge ties with women whose ideas about sexuality and modesty are different from our own.

This shift in attitude would definitely help build a few bridges among Jewish women from across the religious spectrum.

When sex is the feminist lodestar, it becomes all too easy to dismiss anyone who holds a different attitude toward it. Non-Orthodox women often view Orthodox women as trapped in an old-fashioned, patriarchal system in which their bodies are subject to oppressive laws written by a bunch of men thousands of years ago. Orthodox women often view non-Orthodox women as the captives of a popular, secular culture that teaches them to obsess over their looks, often at a great cost.

Once free of these stigmas — in terms of both defending ourselves against them and allowing them to cloud our judgment of others — we’d likely find ways to work together and support one another more.

Here are a few ideas for areas of potential collaboration. Non-Orthodox women could help Orthodox women achieve the right to be religious leaders, a fight that just gained a bit of extra urgency when the Rabbinical Council of America, an organization of Orthodox rabbis, issued a ban on women rabbis October 30. (I’ve often come across the attitude of “If they want to be rabbis, why don’t they just join a denomination that would accept them?” But this rests on the assumption that the rest of Orthodoxy, including its emphasis on sexual modesty, should be dispensable to them.)

Other avenues of interdenominational or secular/religious collaboration might include helping out Orthodox agunot, women who can’t remarry because a husband refuses to grant a divorce, and supporting Women of the Wall in their fight to pray at the Kotel. (No, not all religious Jews see this as appropriate, and that’s fair. But there are plenty more of us who could take up this battle.)

Also, more observant Jewish women could join their less or nonreligious sisters in the battles for reproductive rights, fair pay and better family leave policies — things that would benefit us all.

For the past 50 years feminists have worked hard to emancipate women from their traditional roles. The goal was to resist the pressure to be modest and subservient and show that there are other ways to be female. This was important work, and a fight hard fought. But what we are seeing today is the fact that flipping old orthodoxies has created new orthodoxies in their place.

Women’s liberation is ultimately not about women doing one particular thing or acting one particular way, but about expanding the array of choices and the ability of women to opt for whatever suits them best. This is what we should be fighting for. All together.

Elissa Strauss is a contributing editor to the Forward.

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