A Sexually confused generation
Date: Friday, May 25th, 2007
Publication: The Jewish Chronicle
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Last week, an Orthodox American youth group, NCSY, launched a website urging Jewish teens to limit their sexual activity. Negiah.org officially promotes abstinence. But the site’s name — meaning “touch” in Hebrew — and its warning that “hugging, kissing and even handshakes” with any non-family member from the opposite sex is forbidden, according to Jewish law, suggests it is tied to something more extreme.
In the past couple of decades, there has been a growing movement in the Orthodox world to persuade singles to avoid any physical contact with the opposite sex. Being shomer negiah — literally, “guarding one’s touch” — is increasingly emphasised as a Jewish ideal and has become an expected standard, even in some modern-Orthodox circles.
It would, of course, be unreasonable to expect rabbis to endorse sexual relationships between singles. But should they, and youth-group leaders, teachers and educators, be promoting a draconian no-touching policy quite so aggressively? The result has been to create a generation of Orthodox singles who associate any human touch, and any expression of sexuality, with guilt and stress. It has driven a wedge between the rabbinical establishment and a large part of the community who cannot conform.
The concept of no physical contact — rooted in prohibitions in Leviticus — began to gain in popularity in the ’60s and ’70s, as a reaction to the loosening of Western sexual mores. It really took off in the early 1990s with the publication of The Magic Touch by Gila Manolson, a cult hit arguing that “reserving physical closeness for the security of a permanent relationship helps safeguard your happiness”.
No surveys exist to show how many people are “shoms”, but large swathes of North-West London, Katamon in Jerusalem and New York’s Upper West Side keep their hands to themselves — officially, at least. In reality, a great majority of those who say they are shomer negiah are not so in private, particularly as they grow older, and when they enter into long-term relationships. A graduate I know of a strictly Orthodox school, after much torment, decided she must kiss her fiancé; a woman from a religious settlement in Israel, who wears long skirts and sleeves below her elbows, once told me she was scared she was pregnant (it emerged that she had not, technically, had sex). A policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell” reigns.
The problem is that negiah was designed for a time when Jews married in their late teens or early 20s, and while it was a challenge, it was certainly not impossible. Today, when the average age of Jewish marriage in this country is around 30; when, according to a 2001 survey by Kolech, a religious women’s forum, a full third of Orthodox women in Israel are still single at 30; and when many Orthodox people are still unmarried a decade after that, asking them to bury their natural sexual desire is both inhuman and unrealistic.
In 2005, the Jewish blogosphere was riveted by a website written by a 34-year-old woman who had “Never Been Kissed”. “Sometimes I think that if I do not have sex I will explode. Sometimes I think that if I do not find out what it feels like to have a man’s hands on me, I will go crazy,” she wrote. “There are people who make jokes about being SN, who say that people like me must be lesbians or frigid. They do not understand how religiously and emotionally complicated it is to be SN all this time… I have had fantasies of killing myself. I have considered hiring a male prostitute and getting it over with.”
When, eight months later, she was finally kissed, she felt no guilt. “Hashem gave me a very precious gift. In my darkest hour he gave me exactly what I needed.”
But in my own experience, this is not how many people feel. Most of my friends in their late 20s and 30s who aimed to be shomer negiah but failed felt tremendous shame, even if all they had done was something as innocent as holding hands. Every minor touch was accompanied by emotional anguish and feelings of isolation as they grappled with their dilemma alone. Sexuality became entangled with complexes.
By setting public standards which the majority of their community cannot uphold, religious leaders are also doing themselves a disservice. They are being consciously ignored by a large number of the older Orthodox singles. And there is resentment against rabbis who, faced with an increasingly frustrated and even angry singles population, simply shrug and say: “Sorry, nothing we can do.”
It is time for Orthodoxy to take a more mature approach to singles’ sexuality. I am not advocating permitting the forbidden, but rather having an honest and compassionate debate about how we can make it easier for our long-term singles to survive their sexual drought. A good start would be significantly to tone down the public pressure to be, and to appear to be, completely shomer negiah.
Miriam Shaviv is the Comment Editor of the JC