Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Sex, Fear, and Ignorance

By now you must have heard the stories and allegations swirling around in our community, stories of molestation and abuse and a task force that's going to deal with it and the shame of being associated with said taskforce -- not to mention the dent in future shiduch prospects for your grandchildren and perhaps great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren until the end of time as a result of being associated with said taskforce. And you must've wondered: Why? Why the pig-headed refusal to deal with serious issues? Why the solemn silence and studied ignorance of those who think themselves leaders, and why the venomous derision and frenetic denials by those who think themselves pious followers?

Buried at the end of the most recent story on the subject in The Jewish Week is a quote by the latest man of the moment, Dr. Benzion Twerski, which provides a big part of the answer to all the above questions -- a bigger part, perhaps, than even he meant it. Here is the quote: "I think people simply don’t know, there are rabbis who don’t know. There’s a lot of education that needs to go on." Indeed.

On a most fundamental level, there's a lot of education that needs to go on in the Hasidic community. Education in general, of course, but in keeping with the subject, sex-education in particular. The ignorance about sex and sexuality amongst young people (and older people, too) in the community is astonishing. And the fact that many of these people marry and have children before being cured of their ignorance -- some are never even cured at all -- is profoundly sad. This sad lack of knowledge contributes to a twisted and non-realistic view of sex and a perverse fear of dealing with anything related to the subject. It isn't that I think the Hasidic view on sex itself is perverse; although that is true, too. But the lack of education, ANY kind of education, on the subject matter leads to total confusion and contributes to the sad state of affairs as we see it.

Children learn at a young age, both explicitly and by implicit signals they pick up from the adults around them, that any discussion or mention or anything else to do with genitals or other sensitive areas of the human body is evil and obscene. Not for us, is the message. Do not touch or look or think or speak of it. Do not mention it or ask questions about it or wonder what it is for. This may work well up to a certain age, but once the hormones kick in, equal measures of guilt and curiosity take over -- ENORMOUS equal measures of guilt and curiosity. Combine the guilt, silence, complete and utter lack of knowledge, a healthy dollop of self-doubt and embarrassment -- and for those a bit more educated, no healthy outlet at all (you quickly learn that masturbation is the most horrible sin you can ever hope to commit) and you can see how a very warped view of things is developed, internalized, and becomes part of who you are. As any half-wit, or at least any educated half-wit, can see, this provides a veritable paradise for molesters and all kinds of other miscreants and shady characters who always know how to make full use of vulnerability and weakness.

Unfortunately, this confusion about sexuality often survives well into adulthood. There is an intensely memorable and hard-hitting scene in the new movie Leaving the Fold by Eric Scott, a movie about Haredi Jews leaving the Haredi lifestyle: "Izzy" looks long and hard straight into the camera with a tormented expression on his face, and after an uncomfortably long silence and a few long and awkward pauses in between manages to say (I'm paraphrasing from memory): 'Wedding night... is rape. People are raped. It's terrible. Forced to do something you've always considered terrible and shameful with a complete stranger. Not only the girl is raped... the man, too. They are both raped.'

And there are many who feel the same way. Many never come to terms with a healthy view of sexuality. Parents, in their desperation to keep their children holy and pure and forestall any kind of emotional pain and upheaval, don't know how to deal with all these stories or even worse, imagine they *do* know how to deal with it: by denial, rejection, and vociferous condemnation of anyone who tries to do something about it publicly. It all comes back to fear and ignorance and lack of education, and we are seeing the fruits of that policy.

Regrettable, the extremely conservative official view of sex in the Hasidic world (and in the general, the Jewish Orthodox world) isn't any help. Sex or anything remotely sexual under most circumstances is considered a supremely evil force -- evil enough to cause your soul long-lasting injury and irreparable damage. Evil enough to cause not only spiritual distress but physical suffering as well. It is to be eschewed and rejected and hidden solely in the bedrooms of heterosexual married couples when the wife is not a niddah. Not that I'm here to decry the sexual mores of Orthodoxy -- or you know what, maybe I am. Lighten up! Guess what: people... fuck. They fuck and have sex and make love; sometimes even doing all these at the same time! (But sometimes, not.) As long as you don't hurt anyone it isn't dirty or evil or immoral -- it is divinely spiritual. Or maybe it's just some good fun, like biting into a freshly baked fruit tart straight out of the oven, with hot filling running all over the place and sumptuous crumbs lingering in your mouth and providing that famed afterglow. Delicious.

Why should hot apple pie only be shared by two people of opposite sex who are married to each other, and only for approximately two weeks out of every month? What great harm is prevented by this arbitrary rule? (Provided you use protection for your hand so you don't get burned, of course. Remember, not harming anyone includes yourself.) It makes little sense to me. Then again, many other things make little sense to me. Like the fact that to have an intelligent discussion about, say, piloerection and whether as a fear-response in humans it's truly a vestigial behavioral expression of an otherwise useless protein coded for in the genome, or whether that claim can only truly be tested for vestigial morphological features and in this case represents a just-so story with little scientific basis -- or really to have an interesting discussion or argument about much anything else, I have to go far far away from where I am and from the people I know. And I have to hide that fact. And worry about the shiduch prospects of my grandchildren and great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren until the end of time. But more about that in a later post. Maybe.