Berkeley polls Jews on sexuality and Halacha

When it comes to the "do's" and "don't's" of sex, Jewish law has a lot to say.

cheating couple 88 (photo credit: )
cheating couple 88
(photo credit: )
A study being conducted by Mark Guterman, a doctoral student in psychology, and Orit Avishai, who is working on her PhD in sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, is attempting to close that gap. The research, which began in early January, examines how Jews worldwide from across the denominations observe nidda, the period of marital separation in the days during and following a woman's menstruation, and negia (prohibitions on premarital touching), and how these practices relate to sexual satisfaction. An on-line survey (, circulated through blogs and message boards, poses some 50 questions intended to gather quantitative and qualitative data on the practices of singles and married couples. Participants are asked to respond to statements that include: I am satisfied with my spouse as a sexual partner; After sex I feel relaxed, fulfilled; I have good communication with my spouse about sex. Respondents are also asked about their religious affiliations and beliefs, including whether: God intended sex to be only for procreation; within marriage, participation in sexual activities solely for pleasure is a sin; within marriage, participation in sexual activities other than penile vaginal intercourse, such as oral sex, would not be approved of by God; and within marriage, sexuality is a gift of God and as such should be enjoyed. Guterman and Avishai have received 2,000 responses so far, and they hope to have many more come June, when they will stop collecting data and begin to analyze it. Guterman, who grew up as a modern Orthodox Jew, first took interest in the laws of family purity and nidda during premarital classes at his local synagogue, where he was surprised to learn that once married, not "everything" is allowed. "There is an expectation in the religious world that once you get married you can do whatever you want," said Guterman. "Then you find out it's not that way, and it's an eye-opening experience." Initial research done by Guterman in his home community in Staten Island, New York, in the summer of 2005 revealed that many modern Orthodox Jews who claim to abide by the nidda laws were violating certain prohibitions, especially what Guterman calls the more "lenient" ones that include tapping each other on the shoulder, sharing a couch cushion, eating directly from leftovers of a spouse or holding hands. "The extent to which people were engaging in behaviors forbidden by Jewish law was interesting," Guterman said. "I expected some, but not so much." He was surprised to find that the older one gets, the more likely he or she was to transgress. The study, published in the peer-reviewed psychology journal Method and Theory in the Study of Religion (November 2006), led to a series of refresher courses for modern Orthodox couples. Though most Orthodox Jews receive some premarital counseling, sex and sexuality remain largely untouched, according to psychiatrist Dr. Michelle Friedman, a professor of clinical psychiatry at Mt. Sinai Hospital in Manhattan. "The religious community is very wary of this discussion," said Friedman, who together with colleagues conducted an earlier study on the sexual lives of religious women that has yet to be published due to the sensitivity of the issue. "The frum world is very concerned about the notion of what is modest." For many observant Jews the transition from being a "chaste good girl" to a sexual being is tough, said Friedman, whose clientele is largely religious. Part of the problem is that educators, physicians and rabbis are not sure how to address the subject and instead opt for silence. "A lot of physicians and OBGYNs are in the dark about religious women's sexual lives and don't ask what their sex life is like," she said. "These women feel particularly ignored. I ask all my patients about their sex lives, and people are grateful to be asked." In part, the current study responds to a shift in rhetoric among the modern Orthodox. There has been a noticeable move away from talking about menstruation as impurity. "The claim nowadays among the modern Orthodox community is that the laws of nidda lead to an eternally renewing honeymoon," said Guterman. "It is no longer about menstrual defilement, it's all about putting a positive spin." But whether the laws of nidda lead to greater sexual satisfaction remains to be seen. "Any outcome of this is a good thing," said Guterman. "Acknowledge the issue and work with it."