Standing up for good sex

Urologist/psychiatrist/stand-up comedian Dr. Tzahi Ben-Zion treats the country's sexual problems by going straight to its funny bone.

Tzahi Ben Zion 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Tzahi Ben Zion 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The following story about sexologist/stand-up comedian Dr. Tzahi Ben-Zion contains no four-letter words - unless you count 'help,' which is what it seeks to offer. It's an honest representation of the struggles Israelis have in dealing with sexual problems, and his efforts to alleviate those problems via humor. Parental guidance is suggested Armed with a collection of sexual aids and toys that might make a porn star jealous, he's blazing a trail across the Promised Land with a message any good Labor Zionist would appreciate: 'An orgasm for every worker' - if they'll just heed some of the tips he mixes in with the gags 'Women who have orgasm twice a week have 30 percent fewer wrinkles' 'Judaism is full of descriptions about how one should have sex... Judaism is very much in favor of sex' Tzahi Ben-Zion is faking an orgasm. In front of about 150 people in an Or Yehuda auditorium, he groans, moans, grabs himself and shakes his considerable girth, simulating what's going on in someone's bedroom. Now he's morphed into a man smelling his armpits to see if he needs to shower before sex, now a middle-aged couple dealing with the husband's sudden impotence, leaving the audience roaring and wondering if he hasn't been hiding under their beds the past few months. But laughs aren't what's at the center of what Dr. Ben-Zion, a certified urologist, psychiatrist and deputy director of the Soroka Medical Center in Beersheba is aiming for in his traveling stand-up act Ochel, Shtiya, Gever, Isha (a play on the Ang Lee film Eat, Drink, Man, Woman). Armed with a collection of sexual aids and toys that might make a porn star jealous, he's blazing a trail across the Promised Land with a message any good Labor Zionist would appreciate: "An orgasm for every worker" - if they'll just heed some of the tips he mixes in with the gags. That advice is the focus of the act, which started as informal volunteer discussions and lectures by Ben-Zion, 45, to students at Ben-Gurion University. When Clalit Health Services decided to aim its focus on young people 18-34, with a separate Internet channel on sex, it filmed several of the lectures and adopted them for its Web site. The site bits proved immensely popular, ending up on the Internet, YouTube and e-mails. "I think I'm the only doctor who is also a virus," he jokes. It was at BGU that he'd noticed his lectures on sex featuring slides weren't exactly keeping the students in their seats. "When I started seasoning it with humor, people began staying in class," says Ben-Zion, in the dressing room waiting to go on, looking more like a bar mitzva boy in a blue dress shirt and black pants than the typical comic. Since launching the act in November 2007, Ben-Zion's been sharing the back of the weekend entertainment supplement ads with Rita, Paul McCartney or more well-known comics like Shalom Assayag, a situation he acknowledges with typical modesty as "kind of strange," though being recognized by a policewoman who stopped him was a kick. In fact, Ben-Zion, who has no real comic training but "attended after-school acting class almost from when I can remember," says that "I never saw myself as a comic." But citing his family's strong Jewish background - he's an active member of his Masorti congregation in Omer - he refers to "something known in Judaism as hoyzek, using a little bit of cleverness [to make a point about a religious matter or something someone is studying]. I think if you look at great rabbis who were outstanding darshanim, they also add a little humor... I'm trying to be more of a darshan than a comic... The main thing is to make a point, to say something." He compares himself to Ephraim Kishon, who criticized society via his stories, and Jerry Seinfeld, who he believes did the same. And while his act may feature enough impressions and rude sounds to rival Robin Williams, he insists they're "to make people laugh, but also to make an important point... to wrap things in a kind of sweet exterior, like a candy, so it will be easier for people to swallow the message." NOT EVERYONE thinks there's much funny about sexual problems. Indeed, one American sexologist was so appalled by the idea of a doctor doing stand-up she filed a protest with the Israel Medical Association's ethics committee accusing him of demeaning the profession. But his audience on a recent night, mostly middle-aged couples but with a good number of young, fashionably dressed ones and some singles, doesn't see it that way, aware this is occasionally low humor but with a higher calling. "I came mostly to laugh," says Dalia Sa'adon, 55, of Ramle, who's with husband Yehoshua, 58, to whom she's been married for 32 years. "If I happen to learn something, that would be great... I definitely think that laughter can help - it breaks the ice. I even thought how it would impact upon us after the show." But Hertz Halabali, a single guy from Or Akiva, takes a more pragmatic approach. "I came to find out what I know and what I don't know, and what I shouldn't miss," he says. After entering to the Rocky theme song and taking a seat on a high bar stool mid-stage, a black medical-looking bag on an adjoining table, Ben-Zion acknowledges that "there are those out there wondering: What can this fat guy tell me about sex that I don't already know?" But for many Israelis, says Ben-Zion, things are so bad they don't even know how to ask, "don't even know there's such a thing as a sexologist." They can't bring themselves to talk to a doctor about erectile dysfunction or premature ejaculation; they worry: "Do we have to show him?" And they don't know the terminology, taught in ulpan that the word for their sexual organ is "friend," or other euphemisms. "When I first started seeing Russian immigrants," relates Ben-Zion about work in his clinic for sexual and couple therapy, "they would tell me: 'My friend has a problem.' So I'd say: 'So bring in your friend.'" The clinic is "the place I try things out... What makes my patients laugh is what makes the audience laugh," he says before the show. His own medical training - "half an expert on the pipes and half an expert on the control center" - gives him a unique observation point, he insists. Outlining what's wrong with our sex lives in the first part of the act, he traces sexual research from Freud to Kinsey to Masters and Johnson, with Freud discovering that "people with better sex lives are happier and less tense," while the others are "sicker, more anxious and more depressed." "Having a good sexual relationship is something that contributes to your health. A bad one is something that causes illness, that makes you feel worse," Ben-Zion says. "Women who have orgasm twice a week have 30 percent fewer wrinkles." When the women in the audience sit up in attention, he quickly adds: "It doesn't work right away, girls - it takes some time," to loud feminine laughter. INSTEAD OF focusing on forging good relationships - sexual and otherwise - we're too busy annoying each other, says Ben-Zion. "People like to get in digs at each other," he observes, transforming into a woman he met in his clinic who developed a low, deep cough to express any frustration with her mate. "It was so low that only certain trained dogs in Switzerland could hear it, but he's developed sensitivity to it - she controls him with it and it drives him crazy." Bathrooms have become battlegrounds, boosting divorce rates, says Ben-Zion, rattling off a litany of offenses that has the audience rolling with laughter, couples casting knowing glances at each other. "She gets mad that he doesn't leave the toilet seat up when he goes... He gets mad that she leaves hair in the sink... She gets mad that when he cuts his nails, he leaves a collection of them behind, because men don't like to throw things out - maybe he might need it one day." US research, he says, shows couples married longer than 10 years only spend 10 minutes a day saying anything nice about each other. "If they did the survey in Israel, they'd find minus 10 minutes," he declares, the audience erupting in agreement. Our Jewish background also makes us feel guilty and embarrassed about sex, but Ben-Zion dismisses this, along with the whole myth of the "hole in the sheet" supposedly used by haredim having sex. "There are many important laws related to sex," he notes. "Judaism is full of descriptions about how one should have sex... Judaism is very much in favor of sex." Older people don't always accept or want to deal with sexual issues they're having, says Ben-Zion, citing Kinsey's research which found we stay sexual beings far into old age. Younger people have problems even imagining sex among the elderly. "Grandma's having oral sex with grandpa? Grandmas are supposed to make pudding or do macramé, or mend socks," he notes. And while some people worry about having sex after a heart attack or stroke, fearing "he shouldn't say, 'I'd die for you,' and then it happens," Ben-Zion relates that the chances of dying while on the toilet are 100 times greater than while having sex. Impotence, premature ejaculation and pornography also get the Ben-Zion treatment. Children as young as six or seven, and even Bnei Akiva members, are downloading porn, and he worries that young people viewing such films "think they are documentaries." Leaping off the stool, he assumes the roles of German porn actors and actresses screaming their enjoyment. "People don't understand that what they're watching is a fake," he says, explaining that porn actors undergo operations to enhance their onscreen looks and performance, with young Israelis then concerned they don't measure up. He's concerned by the large number of Israeli women undergoing vaginoplasties, which are "becoming more common than rhinoplasty" despite the dangers, just to look good in a bathing suit. He also takes time to debunk popular myths about homosexuality, which Kinsey found "is not a disease, not something you did wrong as a parent... It's hard for people to understand that it's nothing that's messed up in the homosexuals' heads, but simply a phenomenon we need to accept." BUT WHAT'S really undermining our sex lives is the basic difference between men and women's sexual time clocks and their failure to recognize and discuss their different needs, Ben-Zion observes. Men think about sex every 54 seconds, "ready to have sex whenever we can... in the pool, in the desert, at sea. Women also think about sex, but once every 24 hours. And if you miss it, guys... And many women don't understand how, at their grandson's bar mitzva, as the boy's going up to the Torah, at that moment her husband starts to come on to her." The core of the problem is very simple, Ben-Zion insists. "People just don't talk to each other... We're always prepared to tell people where to scratch our backs - yes, yes, left, right, like that; no, not like that - but not when it comes to sex." Instead, both sides have sex under pressure, women faking orgasms with all kind of heavy breathing ("You know, one of the greatest disappointments for a sex therapist is to discover that it wasn't an orgasm, it was asthma") and men fighting premature ejaculation by reciting: "Golda Meir, Ora Namir, Yitzhak Shamir..." "Women don't know how to say they just want to cuddle," he declares. "She doesn't tell him what she wants, he doesn't tell her what he wants; he touches her like he wants to be touched, she touches him like she wants to be touched. We don't talk; we don't know how to make each other feel good." When it comes to foreplay, which "for many women is core-play," men just don't get it, says Ben-Zion, relying on what they think are tried-and-true methods, twisting their wives' nipples "like AM and FM radio dials," whispering sweet nothings in their ears, believing that will get the woman sufficiently stimulated and calm for sex. If not, they just start the riotous ritual, as performed by Ben-Zion, all over again. "And what calms women down? Shopping. Many men don't understand that when women go on a shopping spree, sex is better," he argues. "If there are dishes in the sink, laundry to be hung, children not sleeping under the care of a leading anesthesiologist," then women aren't relaxed enough for sex, he observes, noting that when Estee Lauder wanted to name a new perfume which reminds women of sex, it called it "White Linen." "They didn't teach us that sex doesn't start in the bed, it starts the night before, a week before - sometimes a year before when he forgot her birthday," he says to the men in the audience. "It's not that she's doing it on purpose. If you want good sex, start washing the dishes. Start shaving and combing your hair." AFTER ESSENTIALLY holding up a fun-house mirror to the audience to show how ridiculous and harmful their sexual behavior is, Ben-Zion offers his prescription for better sex. Couples simply don't make time for each other, he says. People don't understand that they have to invest time in their relationship with their spouse. People discover it eventually, but usually way too late. While Israelis find time to cook gourmet meals, they want their sex "spontaneous," which he compares to mashed potatoes or other boring food. "So you go one day with mashed potatoes, a month mashed potatoes, [voice getting sadder] a year mashed potatoes, a decade mashed potatoes - 50 years mashed potatoes!" "There is one piece of advice that I would like to be sure you take from my show here tonight: Start putting time aside for love," he pleads. "You don't have to have sex, but if you do, do what the other person wants... If he wants oral sex, give him oral sex. If she wants you to take out the garbage, take out the garbage. If her foreplay is that you first straighten up your desk, straighten up the desk... setting a time for making love sets a time to turn your husband or wife into a lover." His other major request is simply for those who have problems to seek treatment. Toward the end of the evening, he turns to his black "tool bag," extracting an impressive array of devices - from lipstick-sized vibrators to a series of aids for those with erectile dysfunction, the curious audience now tittering like teenagers. Ben-Zion, a gifted child who graduated high school at 16 and studied math at the Technion, wows them by outlining a long list of conditions and medications that can ruin one's sex life. "Just about anything can be done to return the physiological side of sex," he notes, "but we can't bring back love. That's something you need to work on at home." For homework, he demonstrates how to manipulate the G-spot on a rubberized model of a vagina "with the clitoris outlined in blue; at home it's not outlined in blue." Doing the homework properly, he says, "will have women start speaking languages they never spoke before." He also advises regular exercise and avoiding white flour, sugar and rice which are "sex's enemy." He encourages singles to work at finding a mate instead of waiting - he whinnies - for a "white knight on a horse." But for those of us who've already found one and want to keep him or her, Tzahi Ben-Zion's message is life-affirming. "You don't get another ride on the carousel - every day that passes with a fight, tension and anger is a day wasted. Every day in which we make love is another one in which we've gained something." Does he practice what he preaches? Every day, he insists in closing. Married to his high school sweetheart and despite the distractions of four children, "I check every day to see if I did something to make me deserving of her love. Every day I try to do something new so she'll laugh and continue to love me." Now putting all joking aside, he sends his audience home by suggesting they see the show as their "first hour of therapy... Maybe this fat guy knows some stuff I don't know... You can go home and continue exactly the way you were before you came, but then we accomplished nothing. Or you could choose a new path... And then maybe it was worth the price you paid for admission." Did they get the point in Or Yehuda? Contacted by phone a few days later, single guy Hertz thinks they did. After all, even he admits Ben-Zion's show helped "enrich my knowledge," and quickly adds: "I noticed the way the couples in the audience were looking at each other... they're picking up the message. I got the definite feeling that they would be talking about it afterward at home." After signing copies of his book Sex: Not What You Thought in the lobby afterward, Ben-Zion packs up for the long trip home. Another performance looms in just a few days, but his energy appears boundless, spurred by what he sees as the rewards his stand-up career offers. "Sometimes people send me flowers. There are those who tell me that I changed their lives," he observes. "People call me, send me letters, that I made them feel better, that they decided to go to couples therapy... When people understand what I'm trying to say and not see just the jokes, but also the serious side, them I'm very satisfied."