Culture, Mishegas, Sex & Gender

Not Bringing Sexy Back…Please

Over on Salon, Tracy Clark-Flory declares that sexlessness (or at least articles about it) are officially a trend. Which strikes me as funny, because the article just below that one in the queue is all about the rise of non-monogamy (which together with Dan Savage’s proclamations that people should consider non-monogamy and today’s JTA headline that an Israeli group of Orthodox rabbis (c’mon, you knew this was coming!) is trying to bring back polygamy (a trend that even the Torah implicitly warns against while not forbidding) definitely qualifies as a trend.
So what to get to first? I’m impressed by the ridiculousness of Erica Jong’s complaint. I’m not sure why Clark-Flory concludes that her complaint is that technology has taken over for the actual messiness and intimacy of sex – from what I can tell, her real complaint is that this younger generation prefers monogamy and childrearing to the raunch that she claims her generation championed. Look at the utter condescension:

Punishing the sexual woman is a hoary, antique meme found from “Jane Eyre” to “The Scarlet Letter” to “Sex and the City,” where the lustiest woman ended up with breast cancer. Sex for women is dangerous. Sex for women leads to madness in attics, cancer and death by fire. Better to soul cycle and write cookbooks. Better to give up men and sleep with one’s children. Better to wear one’s baby in a man-distancing sling and breast-feed at all hours so your mate knows your breasts don’t belong to him. Our current orgy of multiple maternity does indeed leave little room for sexuality. With children in your bed, is there any space for sexual passion? The question lingers in the air, unanswered.

Right. Just where does she think those babies come from… what, they were decanted from a tube? The irony is so thick – she seems to be arguing for people to uncouple sex and intimacy even while her subtext is that people are rejecting intimacy. I wonder if she actually remembers any of the people who were engaged in those wonderful open marriages? I’m- thankfully- nowhere near old enough to remember those times, but I have mentors who were, and their stories would make anyone seeking love and intimacy feel faint: men who wanted open marriage… for themselves only; men who wanted someone to raise the children… while they went out seeking younger, newer sexual partners… for whom they eventually left their wives; relationships in which one partner (of various genders) said okay to the other one’s having sex with other people…because they loved them so much that they couldn’t bear to stand up for themselves because their partner might leave them or feared being left impoverished with children) – even though the idea of sharing their partner sexual left them heartbroken day after day; relationships where there’s no rest and no real intimacy, but ongoing competition, forever, because one or both partners aren’t really committed to the relationship, but are settling for what there is… until they can find something better. Anyone who thinks the message of an open marriage to the partner is anything other than, “you’re a commodity, and you’re replaceable” is fooling themselves.
Polygamy makes perfect sense in a world where women are chattel and their purpose is serving their husband. In any world where women matter as anything other than breeding stock, it’s vile. Open marriage and non-monogamous relationships only makes sense in a world where not just women but everyone is commodified (Although lets be honest: it affects women differentially – women are still the primary caregivers, they still bear the brunt of the effects of childbearing and rearing on their careers, they still earn less money for the same work, meaning that when Mr. open marriage ups and leaves for his next partner, the children and women’s level of survival will drop. Ms. Open marriage leaving for her next conquest won’t affect his actual health and life so much, just his heart). That’s vile too.
Human beings are not commodities. As a rabbi, I am disgusted with these “trends.” Admittedly, they are the logical outcome of several other trends in our society – the trends of treating everything as a fee for service exchange and the idea that all we are responsible for is our own individual self, and that our own pleasure in this moment is the only good worth valuing.
Although the Torah permits polygamy, it’s pretty clear that it never has a good outcome. As we assume that nothing else in the Torah is accidental, I must insist that the comparison of the three families of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is also not accidental. God does not approve of open marriage, nor of polygamy. It is, at best, to be suffered. the failures of King David and King Solomon are traceable to the same failings that multiplied their wives.
Our tradition teaches that we are to increase the light: we move towards greater goodness, towards more equality, towards better understanding of God’s desire for us. God models the behavior for us: God and Israel in one marriage together as expressed beautifully in the second chapter of Hosea: Israel runs after other gods, thinking that they will give her pleasure, but ultimately Israel will remember the love of her youth, and return, and on that day (with the verses that an adult Jew says daily as he or she puts on her tefillin in the morning) God and Israel are betrothed with tzedek, mishpat, chesed and rachamim -righteousness(and charitability), justice, gentle-lovingness and mercy; with faithfulness, “and you shall know the Lord.” -And this is followed by a universal covenant with all creation – and to God, the Torah tells us, Israel will no longer say “Ba’ali” -my master, but “Ishi” – my partner.
that “And you shall know the Lord,: uses the language of da’at – knowing another being. Knowledge is the language of intimacy -sexuality is implied when it is used about humans. Intimacy comes from perseverance, steadfastness, faithfulness. Sexuality is a stripping bare of the self. To treat it like just another fun activity is sad. Sex should be pleasurable, but that’s not all it is. It is the recognition of the divine in your other self – the half of adam that was stripped away at creation in order to create within us a longing for conjunction.
In the second chapter of the book of Genesis, when God says that it is not good for the adam to be alone, our midrash tells us that the adam (the word the Hebrew uses is “HaAdam,” with a definite article) was not in fact a man, but a two-sexed creature which God split into male and female. The adam was imperfect, and to become a fit partner for God, needed -unlike animals- to have a sense of longing for another. When we find our partner, we find the other part of ourselves, and then we are fit partners for God, as well.
When we seek sexual pleasure as its own end, with no “knowing God,” we cheat ourselves and our partners. Of course one-to-one partnership isn’t always going to be easy: nothing worthwhile ever is. Having children isn’t always easy, a career isn’t always easy, doing the right thing isn’t always easy: should we abandon children, careers, honesty and integrity?
I’m sure that between “Big Love” (feh), continued patriarchy and homosexism/heteronormativity and our American belief that the individual is more important than another human unit, there won’t be an end to this “trend” any time soon, but Erica Jong is wrong about her daughter’s generation. it seems to me that – at least as she explains it- they understand that sex is not only intimate, but private, and that far from being bloodless, human urges that are given boundaries are holier and more powerful. All human urges are boundaried by ritual – whether it’s religious ritual, or secular ritual, it is part of being human to seek meaning. Getting rid of meaning doesn’t make us free, it makes us amoeba.
XP:Kol Ra’ash Gadol

21 thoughts on “Not Bringing Sexy Back…Please

  1. Monogamy or non-monogamy is not the issue. Both Erica Jong and Kol Ra’ash Gadol claim to be concerned with what is better for women, as at least part of their argument. From my perspective, what is better for women (and men) is respect, and that is not tied to any particular structure, or lack there of, for controlling sexuality.
    Every individual should be empowered to decide what is best for herself, and not be accused of self-delusional acquiescence to a system that really just serves men/society/procreation/etc. at the expense of the values that we *know* are more important to her well-being (stability/love/sexual freedom). Sorry, but you both sound condescending.

  2. I am an Orthodox Jew who generally reads this blog to understand the side that I disagree with. No only is this the first post I have read here that I agree with, I think you hit the nail on the head. You definitely get to the core of what a healthy relationship means, and why so many have severely flawed relationship paradigms.

  3. This is so muddled as to be illegible. I’m trying not to be too insulting.
    Ok. There are a lot of different types of relationships, all of which you are welcome to hate. But even if you hate em, you can’t equate ’em. That makes sense, right? I don’t like broccoli or fish, but I don’t think that the are the same thing, though they have things in common (both foods, etc). You with me so far?
    Monogamy – One person is married to one other person. Neither have sexual realtionships outside of the marriage.
    Polygamy – One man is married to several wives. King solomon had this. And so did Abraham. In the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints (not to be confused with the mainstream Mormon Church of Latter Day Saints) it is believed that men with more wives and children will get a more rewarding afterlife, while the wives will have to rely on their husbands to let them into heaven at all.
    Open Relationships – Two people are in a relationship that does not preclude them from dating and having sex with other people. This can take on a LOT of forms. Usually the two individuals in such a relationship negotiate terms such as who else they can pursue, under what conditions, and what they can and can’t do.
    Polyandry – not mentioned in the article but still worth noting. It means that one woman had multiple husbands, and it happens very rarely.
    And as a final note– Being able to have more than one romance doesn’t make you someone who sees people as commodities any more than being “taken” and therefore unable to pursue anyone else makes you someone who sees yourself as a commodity.

  4. “Open marriage and non-monogamous relationships only makes sense in a world where not just women but everyone is commodified”
    Have you read a ketuba lately? Not sure I want to argue your point. It’s more that you don’t go far enough. All marriage relationships make sense in a world where everyone is commodified. Where the relationship has monetary value. Where obligations are enshrined in legal codes, not just in our hearts.
    Marriage is about the commodification of relationships, parenting and children. It’s about property relations and inheritances. The layer of romantic love is just modern dressing on top. Let’s not reverse the actual order of things. Or rather, if we are talking about Jewish practice as it has evolved, lets not reverse the actual – and natural – order of things.
    Not that I support any of that. I support making relationships be as separate from commodification as possible. In a just society where women are no longer dependent on men because they enjoy true equality, including when it comes to parenting, then and only then will marriage be non-commodified. And less common.

  5. Victor: I don’t know. Not sure it matters. Men are not Women, but they can still be equal and independent.

  6. “they can still be equal”
    Equal to what? The answer, seemingly, is: to men. We’re not in 70s-90s feminism, where “equality” meant emulating men, and doing things that men do.
    The rhetorical imbalance alone is staggering. Did you, JG, as a man, ever mention that you should be equal to a woman? Did you ever hear your father say that when you grow up, you will be able to do the things that women can do? We raise men on some sort of pedestal of societal perfection that women should aspire to achieve if they want to be “equal”, and then, in the name of achieving “equality”, tell them to be like men.
    The language of “equality” isn’t particularly well suited for modern feminism, which aims to assert a female identity which isn’t focused on false equality, but independent authenticity.
    This probably isn’t the place to discuss it. Just some stuff I’ve been thinking about.

  7. @Victor: There have always been two strains of feminism: Difference feminism and liberal feminism. They’ve taken different forms in different eras, but basically, difference feminism is women are different (better, nicer or whatever) and so (fill in the blank as to whether that means men should change, or nothing should change) and liberal feminism is also a spectrum of women and men are or could be more or less the same (anything from: we aspire to make all possibilities open to everyone, to: differences within gender are more pronounced than differences across gender. Claiming that feminism “today” is anything in particular is probably not correct – there are a lot of feminisms out there.

  8. Victor- building on KRG’s response, many feminists (myself included) would argue that equality includes men feeling free to do “feminine” activities if they want to. For instance, It is likely that my husband will be the primary caregiver when we have children, since I work in a lab and he can work from home. He also does the cooking because he gets home before I do. I clean and do laundry, so chores are split about 50:50. I’m learning how to sew, and he wants me to teach him because it’s useful to know how to hem your own pants. We have different interests, not because I’m a woman and he’s a man, but just because we have different interests. Sure, some of our interests are gendered, but we have far more in common than not. After all, that’s why we’re married–we have common interests and values. Important decisions for the household are discussed and, generally, whoever cares more gets the decisive vote (we rarely disagree on matters that both of us find significant). Therefore, we are equals in our relationship, even if we are different in our bodies and our genders. And that’s what this feminist means by equality.

  9. Shoshie, I fully agree with your vision of feminism.
    I don’t mean to pry, but do you mind sharing your age, or “age bracket”? The reason I ask… the things you mention as desiring equality in – caring for children, cooking, cleaning, laundry – well, I’m not married yet, but I fully expect to do these things in an equal or even exclusive role. Frankly, I don’t even see them as gender-specific, short of breastfeeding or being there for your daughter’s first period or bra fitting or something. Does anyone these days?

  10. I think this is pretty funny.
    1. Just how are additional spouses going to fit into the economic model of those of us in dual-income families struggling to raise a few kids? I mean, a moment’s reflection on the economic realities shows that polygamy can be supported by and permitted of only the powerful. And, so it is used by the powerful. And yeah, a powerful person might marry their nanny so they don’t have to pay them. But let nobody pretend that’s good for nannies.
    2. @Shoshie: “For instance, It is likely that my husband will be the primary caregiver when we have children, since I work in a lab and he can work from home.” Any definition of ‘primary caregiver’ that includes an additional isn’t going to be a traditional one. A person who works and is responsible for seeing to their child’s care (perhaps because they work from home) is more of a caregiving project-manager than a primary caregiver. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. The point is that traditional feminine roles aren’t shifting, they’re disappearing.

  11. btw, in 2. above, I meant to say “Any definition of ‘primary caregiver’ that includes an additional *job* isn’t going to be a traditional one.” I left out ‘job’. Baaa.

  12. Victor- I’m 25. And you’d be surprised how many people are surprised when I say that my husband is the one they should contact for, say, organizing meals to bring to sick members of our community. And sometimes still insist on calling me first. And I’ve gotten a number of amused expressions, when I say that I’ll go off to the lab and my husband will stay at home with the kids. And, even though equal partnership at home is given a lot of lip service these days, women still tend to be the primary homemakers. Even among young couples, particularly ones with children, women tend to do a disproportionate amount of the housework.

  13. To clarify, polygamy does not mean multiple wives, it means multiple spouses. Polygyny is the antonym of polyandry. The Torah sanctions polygyny, and not polyandry. (The early Mormons practiced both. Look it up.)
    I disagree that polygamy is any more objectifying of women or men than monogamy. There are certain stereotypes about polygamy in Western circles that assume that all women in polygynous societies are abused and servile, but such a condition can and does exist in monogamy as well. While I don’t endorse polygamy of any kind (polygyny especially encourages runaway populations, which most societies no longer require, because there are fewer natural factors contributing to infant mortality), I don’t think it should be illegal.
    Let us remember also that polygyny doesn’t entail patriarchy, just as monogamy does not prevent it. One could concieve of a matriarchal society where women share a chosen man-slave (although I think such a thing exists today only in the minds of erotic fiction writers).

  14. Shmuel, I think a story about observant Jewish feminists sharing a man slave is just what this site needs. As long as he is freed on jubilee, etc.

  15. “Let us remember also that polygyny doesn’t entail patriarchy, just as monogamy does not prevent it. One could concieve of a matriarchal society where women share a chosen man-slave (although I think such a thing exists today only in the minds of erotic fiction writers).”
    Some feminists, me for one, would consider that patriarchy nonetheless. Patriarchy is a descriptive term less related to biological sex and more related to the use of power (strength, prestige, money, religion, whatever) to structure social roles that force certain pre-selected individuals into subservient roles. Anybody who has studied polygamy would know that such individuals were very often boys or young men, who were exiled, murdered, enslaved, or castrated so that they would not compete for women.
    As for your claim that monogamy does not prevent patriarchy – it doesn’t absolutely, of course. But I don’t know how anyone could deny that it has been preventative. Conversely, is it any shock that arguments in favor of polygamists generally come from chauvinists like these nut jobs. I don’t care how they case their arguments in terms of compassion. It’s transparent.

  16. I know this article isn’t really directed at me, but as a young Jewish lesbian (23, active Reform/Reconstructionist), I feel completely left out of the discussion Partly because queer people have long practiced nonmonagamy in various forms and partly because this entire blog references “Mr.” and “Mrs.”
    Mostly, though, when children aren’t an assumed outcome of partnership, and are, in fact, expensive and difficult to have (insemination and adoption are both rather expensive), I feel that changes the marriage dynamic a whole bunch. As in, a legally binding contract forever and ever matters less if one does not have children. Plus, the societal judgement is different when no one thought you would stay together forever anyway (because no one seems to assume that about gay couples, especially when we don’t have State-approved pieces of paper).
    Although I’m personally monogamous, I do have two good friends, “married” lesbians who practice occasional open marriage, and it seems to work quite well for them. Really. It seems to work just fine for them and neither worries that the other is about to leave.
    Anyway, just my two cents.

  17. @Sarah, although the original articles were definitely heterocentric (and I didn’t exactly fix that in my post), I’m not sure that it’s any better to be non-monogamous even if you’re lesbian (or gay). Even if (and that’s no longer a given) there are no children or plans for them (and that can be the case in hetero marriages, too) It seems ugly to me to enter a partnership of love and intimacy and then share it around, even if people don’t leave – IMO it’s failing to do the hard work of loving another person deeply and intimately to say, “Oh, I think I’ll keep shopping around for pleasure with other people” – think about it this way: whenever the partner is out (or even when they’re with you) they may be looking around to see who they want to sleep with next. Like the partner is eating at home and they just want to go out for a meal someplace else now and then. As if sexual intimacy is nothing more than another kind of amusement. I don’t know whether that’s part of patriarchy, but IMO, it’s not any prettier. Jewishly speaking, sexuality is supposed to be a gift of union. Just because it’s two women or two men (IMO) doesn’t mean that it should be turned from holiness to hamburger.

  18. @KRG – I’m translating this to ‘please don’t share the love.’ Which is a fine cultural choice. As long as it is a choice, and not a socially coercive standard that oppresses people ill suited to meet it.
    (I’m mono for some years now, lest this be interpreted as enthusiasm for sharing.)

  19. @KRG: I see what you’re saying, and I personally feel the same way in my own relationships, but I have a hard time believing that Jewish traditions of monogamy and “gift of union” are much more than tribal techniques for assuring bloodlines and property arrangements. So although we probably agree about what seems most pleasant and comforting in sexual relationships, I’m not sure Jewish law is as concerned with those motivations, but perhaps I’m too cynical…and this is entirely possible!

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