Last year, the New York Times Magazine published an article about Dr. Bat Sheva Marcus and called her "The Orthodox Sex Guru." I work at the magazine as a photo editor, and when I saw the magical words "Orthodox Sex Guru" on our upcoming schedule, I practically fell out of my chair begging to work on the photos for that story. There is nothing more exactly in my wheelhouse than sex and religion. Well, maybe cats, too, but a story about sex, religion, AND cats would just be weird.
I was raised in a modern Orthodox Jewish family in a very modern Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in the Bronx. Turns out that Bat Sheva lives just a few blocks away from where I grew up. As a teenager, I rebelled hard against religion. It felt oppressive and insular to me, and I hated it. Now I can't believe there was this amazing woman leading a feminist-sexual-religious revolution just blocks away from me! I wish I had known her when I was young. Things might have been very different for me. But that's another story.
As soon as I met Bat Sheva at our photo shoot in her office, I adored her. She's the kind of warm person who makes you feel instantly comfortable and asks you lots of personal questions and you totally want to answer them — which is part of what makes her so great at her job. Even the shyest woman would have no problem confiding in her. Being around Bat Sheva and her lovely family helps me resent religion just a little bit less than I used to. That's huge. We are all lucky to have her.
Amy Kellner: Hi, Bat Sheva. Thank you for inviting me to your lovely home and making me delicious latkes for Hanukkah. So tell me, what exactly does an "Orthodox sex guru" do?
Bat Sheva Marcus: Well, I run a center for female sexual dysfunction. It's one of the biggest in the country. We address issues of female sexual problems, like if they don't have desire, if they have problems with orgasm, if they don't get aroused, if they have pain — and usually for most women it's some combo of those. Then they'll come to see us and we'll fix it. We are the sex fixers. Maybe 20 to 25 percent [of the women we see are] Jewish, and maybe 10 to 15 percent is the Haredi, ultra-Orthodox group. They're a pretty tight-knit group, so once they know that somebody can help they tend to send their friends.
Our youngest patients are about 17 or 18. One of my favorite patients recently was 84. I gave her her first vibrator. It was really sweet. She was a bird-watcher. She was so cute. A lovely Westchester lady who was in a marriage for a long time and was feeling really sad because she and her husband used to have a good sex life, and now they weren't. She was having a hard time orgasming, so we did some medical stuff, and I introduced her to vibrators, and it changed her life.
AK: Do you encounter a lot of women who don't know about vibrators?
BSM: Yes, but the thing is that even if she knew about it, to give yourself permission to actually use one is another thing. I see a lot of women who feel like vibrators are kinky or weird, or my favorite is that it's "unnatural." I always tell them, well, eyeglasses are unnatural, so are you just going to walk into walls? My dissertation was on vibrator use, so I'm a huge vibrator person.
AK: What are some of the saddest cases you've had?
BSM: I had somebody who was married for 23 years, had two children, and had never had intercourse.
AK: Uh …hhow is that even possible?
BSM: They used artificial insemination because she couldn't get a penis in her vagina. Four months after coming to see me, she was fine.
I see this kind of thing a lot, and to me, it's the most tragic because it's not a complicated thing to treat. If we can get one message out to women, it's that if your vagina hurts, you can get help. Don't live with that. Don't feel like you're crazy or something is wrong with you.
But actually, this couple had still managed to maintain a sex life. They weren't having intercourse, but they were doing lots of other things. Intercourse is only one kind of sex. That's a myth that drives me crazy — that somehow intercourse is the end-all, be-all. Intercourse is just one way of having sex! When people use the word foreplay, I say, stop, stop, there's no such thing as foreplay — it's sex. Stop thinking that sex is a penis in a vagina and everything else is just foreplay. It's a very androcentric way of thinking.
AK: Let's talk about sex education. I went to Yeshiva and never had sex ed. But I was a little rebel, so I went and had sex when I was 16 anyway. It was the '90s, so there was basically no Internet, and all my friends were virgins, so I had absolutely no useful information about what I was doing. Do you think with the relatively easy access to information now that young women have better sexual knowledge than our generations did?
BSM: On the one hand, yes. But it's a little bit mind-boggling to me that people still tend to see only what they want to see. That statistic that only 30 percent of women can have an orgasm through intercourse — I feel like that's in some women's magazine every month, yet I still have women sitting across the table from me, young, old, whatever, who still feel like that's the way they're supposed to have an orgasm because that's what they see in the movies.
We're in this weird place in society where you're saturated with information about sex and yet there are so few places where you can actually get your questions answered in a calm, realistic, normal, human-person way.
AK: You have three grown children. Did you teach them about sex?
BSM: Growing up in this house obviously put them in a different space. My sons used to joke around that they were always embarrassed to bring friends home for Shabbat dinner because invariably I start doing sex education at the table, which is totally true. I remember once, they were talking about their sex-ed class, and they said it was really good, and I was like, "Oh, really, did they talk about the clitoris?" And they were like, no. I said, "Did they talk about female orgasm?" They said no. Sex-ed classes are all about how not to get pregnant. How not to get STDs. They're not about pleasure and what feels good.
AK: I've always found the laws of Niddah [the separation of menstruating women] and the mikveh sort of troubling. Like, how do you reconcile being a feminist with the thinking that a woman with her period is "impure"?
BSM: OK, so, Jewish law expects a woman to refrain from any contact from the time she gets her period until her period ends and she has seven non-period days. It comes out to about half a month. Some say it has to do with fertility. There also used to be a lot of blood taboos in society, so I'm sure that played into it. Purity is a big thing in religion in general, and not just for women. Like, in Biblical times, when a man had a seminal emission, he couldn't go in to take sacrifices into the temple. He had to go to the mikveh too. Or if a man attends to a dead body, like before a funeral, then again he has to go purify himself. Judaism in general talks about regulating things — what foods you eat, when you have sex. I'm not sure that's always a bad thing. I feel like a society where everything is allowed all the time might not necessarily be the best thing either.
I remember when I was getting married thinking to myself I was going to hate the whole mikveh thing, and I'm not saying that I didn't sometimes hate it, but honestly, from a feminist perspective, I actually really liked the fact that I had 12 days a month that were my space, my bed, no thinking about anybody else. Who gets married and feels like they're ever going to have that again? Was it all good? No, believe me, there was the time that we headed off to Cancun and I started bleeding and I wanted to kill myself. There we are in Cancun with two separate beds. That sucked. But when we had little kids and we were exhausted, the fact that there were two weeks off was nice, and then we really looked forward to the time when we could have sex. That worked really well for me. For some people it doesn't. Systems are just systems. How you can use them and how they affect people is very individual.
AK: You're the president of JOFA. Tell me what that is.
BSM: I always joke that it's the world's largest oxymoron organization. It's the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance. About 20 years ago, a group of women decided that it was time to face issues of women's scholarship and leadership roles and that it would be better for the Orthodox society as a whole if we addressed these issues. We usually have about a thousand people at our conferences, so it's not an insignificant group. We have an online library of hundreds of articles if people are looking for information. I've been doing a lot of programming on sex for couples. We've trained female teachers in a broad range of Jewish family law and how to talk about sex in a way that's comfortable and will get the information across. We do petitions when the Orthodox institutions say something that really pisses us off. Like, about two months ago, the Rabbinical Council of America came out with a statement saying that it is against Jewish law for women to take leadership roles in the Orthodox community. For women to be rabbis, basically. They had already made two such statements in the past, but I guess they felt they needed to say it again because they were being ignored. So we started a petition, and we had 1,000 signatures in 24 hours, we had 2,000 signatures in 48 hours, then 3,000, and all of a sudden there were hundreds of articles saying, "Yes! Women should be rabbis!" So that's kind of what we do.
AK: Has the situation for women who want to be rabbis improved?
BSM: Oh, yes. There is now an Orthodox women's rabbinical school. There are women teaching Talmud in so many of the schools now. There have been women who are working as quasi-rabbis for years. They just don't have the official title, which is so irritating, but that's changing.
When I was in high school, there were no women learning Talmud. My father taught me, because he was like, why should my fifth-grade boys be studying Talmud but not my daughter? There were probably ten of us in all of New York City, ten girls who were studying Talmud at the time. Now women studying Talmud isn't even a question anymore, and that's a seismic change. Knowledge is where the power in the Orthodox community comes from, so as soon as you have women who are learning, they're going to be like, "Please don't quote that text to me, because that's not what that text means, and here are six other texts to prove you wrong." The world is changing. My daughter studies Talmud so well, nobody's going to pull anything over on her.
AK: So you actually can be Orthodox and feminist, but what about being Orthodox and gay?
BSM: That's a really complicated issue, but I think it's shifting. Rabbi Steven Greenberg and Miryam Kabakov run an organization for the Orthodox LGBT community called Eshel, named after the tree that Abraham planted to give weary travelers shade. There's actually a pretty big Orthodox gay community in Manhattan. In fact, my brother is gay, and he's not really religious, but they were having a gay Orthodox Shabbaton [a Shabbat celebration] and he wanted to be supportive, so he rode his bike down, and they were snooty to him because he wasn't Orthodox. I was laughing, like: OK, how far has the gay community come that now they can be snooty to you because you're not Orthodox enough?
AK: Honestly, it's hard for me understand why somebody would want to keep being Orthodox if they're gay.
BSM: Because you love other things about it. You have to read Greenberg's book, Wrestling with God and Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition. He's helped hundreds of people. It's funny, my son has a good friend who became religious, and his parents were not happy about it. And then he came out as gay, and his parents were like, are you kidding me? Why would you become Orthodox and THEN become gay? But he's super-knowledgeable, loves studying, loves Shabbat, loves the holidays, loves the lifestyle. So he should give all that up because one piece of his life doesn't fit in? That doesn't make sense. I know it's hard for you to believe that anybody loves this life, Amy!
AK: Ha, well, for me, religion just seemed like rules that prevented me from doing anything I wanted to do.
BSM: But religion doesn't have to be that. It has so many lovely parts to it, and I don't want to have to pick between one and the other. I want to have both of them — Orthodoxy and feminism. Sexuality and Judaism.
AK: That would be nice. What is the most important advice you'd give to the women who read Lenny?
BSM: I think the biggest thing that stops women from enjoying their sex life is shame. And not just religious women. Women are more embarrassed about things than they're willing to admit. They're embarrassed about watching porn, about what their fantasies are, about experimenting with things they might think are silly, about the way they look. And the more you can let go of any of those expectations and just say "Sex is fun," the better your sex life will be. If you're into, like, bubbles or Martians or whatever, that's fine! It just is, and that's fine. Have fun!
Amy Kellner is a photo editor at The New York Times Magazine. She used to work at a feminist sex shop and her favorite thing was sending happy women home with their first vibrator.