By Hadassah Penn
If you ever want to scare away your prospective sources, just tell them you’re writing about female masturbation, and from a Jewish feminist perspective, no less. Fuel like that can burn a bridge real quick.
It’s indicative of just how strong certain communal boundaries can be: that the same strong-minded, political Jewish women who can extemporize at length about gender, culture, and most bodily and sexual functions- – from a secular or Jewish perspective! — with ease and intelligence suddenly become hesitant when discussing masturbation. “Honestly, I wish I was comfortable enough to speak about this stuff,” one such woman told me, “but I’m not.”
Full disclosure: I didn’t know that female masturbation was permitted by Jewish law until way too recently. I’d always assumed it was on legal par with male masturbation, which is soundly prohibited. I figured that the lack of linguistic specificity for women was just another expression of the common assumption that female sexual drive and pleasure, when experienced, is less deeply felt than the male equivalent. My abysmal yeshiva-based sex education — or lack of — had, perhaps intentionally, done nothing to rectify that supposition. Nobody wants good little girls to think about sex, let alone in a manner that teaches self-sufficiency.
For the good of Jewish women, it’s time to teach not about abstinence, but about pleasure.
After all, a woman has always had two options: virgin or whore. The catch is that she doesn’t get to choose for herself, and she loses either way. Under this oppressive, male-perpetuated doctrine and in the name of religion, Jewish women have been sexually under-educated for generations. In my community, young boys learn the practicalities and intricacies of sex through their Talmudic study. Girls, if they are lucky enough to receive a strong Jewish education at all, are forced to stitch together their sexual education from a collection of euphemisms, secular media, and, in my particular case, ArtScroll translations of classic Hebrew texts. It is this unfortunate balance that meant my younger brother understood the concept and laws of taharat hamishpacha (family purity) before I — a real, live, menstruating human — ever did.
To be clear, I’m not saying that men should be less educated. I think it’s important for men to have a working knowledge of female health, (and vice versa!) for the sake of building empathy and eradicating stigmas. But there’s something deeply wrong with the fact that young boys are taught to appreciate sex as a natural, (if abstract and future-based) function, while young girls are taught to repress any natural sexuality to the point that their only notion of the same is through a male lens. The concept of tzniut instructs girls to dress and behave with modesty so as not to arouse the men around them, and so girls are taught to view themselves as mere objects of desirability, with no sexual drive or autonomy of their own. The only sexual power girls are allotted is that of seduction — a hollow, pyrrhic consolation used all too often to blame girls for the violence performed against them.
Societal expectations for Jewish women include modest sex appeal, subservience, and self-sacrifice. Masturbation, with its intent of pure and total self-pleasure, is a subversion of every conflicting feminine “should,” an act of control that is no less political for its historically private nature.
In a society that is riddled with gaps and misinformation when it comes to female pleasure (for example, only recently confirming that vaginal orgasms are more or less a myth), it is a woman’s right — if she wishes — to find out for herself what she likes.
And if the ultimate Jewish goal is marriage, as some would argue, then masturbation serves its purpose there as well: Jewish law puts female pleasure first (Niddah 31b), but that’s a useless gesture until women feel confident asking for what they want — a confidence that is developed through trust, naturally, but also experience and the comfort to explore on their own.
When I asked fellow Jewish women about masturbation, some didn’t want to discuss it — but others did. “I do it, but it’s so private I can really barely talk about it.” said one young Orthodox woman. “I’ve never told anyone else that.”
“It came from a place of wanting to know what was happening in my body,” said another, “and once I started learning about it on my own, it became less stigmatized and tabooed. This is something your body needs to be sexually healthy.” Indeed, in addition to the aforementioned emotional empowerment, the health benefits of masturbation are real. They include stress relief, reprieve from insomnia, and alleviation of cramps and headaches.
Ultimately, the case for masturbation is simple: “It feels good, and I know my own body better than anyone else does. I do it because I enjoy it and that’s the end of it.”
The Orthodox Jewish community owes us — its women — the space to explore our sexuality on our own terms. Separate from tzniut, separate from the pressures of a married future. My body is my own, first and foremost. I am proud to know it intimately.