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Sexual Disorders In The Jewish Community

3 Common Sexual Disorders Plaguing the Jewish Community

Important: This article discusses sensitive topics and is geared towards married men and women. Please use your discretion before reading.

Do sexual disorders in the Jewish community exist?

Sexual disorders in the Jewish community have always existed. More recently however, addressing these issues in therapy is becoming more commonplace. I just discussed with Dovid Lichtenstein in his Headlines podcast how the Torah offers such rich discussion on the topic of sexuality. In fact, sexuality has such vibrancy and holds such a spectrum in Halacha that it truly honors the age old adage “Shivim Panim L’Torah.”

Today, however, the frum individuals and couples who come to my office for treatment of sexual and/or marital dysfunction have found thfrumem>frum society has lost its sexual vibrancy. Not to say that it doesn’t exist, because it most certainly does. However, in place of that vibrancy and color my clients find dullness. In place of discussion they find whispered conversation or silence. And, instead of Hanaah, enjoyment of the Mitzvah, they find Chiyuv, obligation.

What causes sexual disorders in the Jewish community?

There is much that can contribute to the development of sexual disorders in the Jewish community: anxiety, depression, trauma, misinformation, unhealthy sexual development due to cultural, religious, familial, and personality factors, and a lack of education, just to name a few.

While I attended sex therapy school at NYU there was a lot of discourse on which sexual disorders are most common in different populations and religious communities. We also explored the possible reasons for these findings. In the Jewish world we found that there is a high prevalence of anxiety. It’s an entirely different discussion as to why that might be the case. However, our tendency towards anxiety heavily affects healthy sexuality especially when compounded with a lack of education.

Sometimes the type of education we receive about sexuality exacerbates this anxiety. For example, if I am told at a young age that I am a bad or dirty person for having curiosity towards my sexuality, it will increase my sense of shame towards this part of my life. So, within the Jewish community there can be particular sexual disorders that surface more frequently due to our tendency towards anxiety as well as other unique characteristics of our community.

I had the privilege to discuss the topic of sexual disorders in the Jewish community with Dr. Bat Sheva Marcus, Clinical Director of Maze Women’s Sexual Health. Out of the nine sexual disorders listed in the DSM 5, we agreed that there are 3 most common sexual issues we treat within the Jewish, and specififrumy the frum community.

3 common sexual disorders in the Jewish communityVaginismus>
  1. Vaginismus
  2. Desire Issues
  3. Combination of Issues

1Vaginismuss:

Vaginismus is one of the most common sexual disorders in the Jewish community that both Bat Sheva and I treat. The numbers are staggering when it cfrum to how many Vaginismuswomen suffer from Vaginismus.

Vaginismusginismus?

Vaginismus is a female sexual disorder in which a woman experiences vaginal pain due to involuntary contractions of the pelvic floor muscles. This pain is often experienced as a burning or stinging sensation. Women with this condition report that any penetration, whether from intercourse, a speculum at a gynecologist visit, or a tampoVaginismusthis pain.

Vaginismus is the number one cause of unconsummated or sexless marriages. It can appear at the onset of marriage or years into a marriage. Women often come to me feeling very frustrated at not being able to have intercourse. They feel angry at themselves and their bodies and their self confidence is diminished. They also frequently blame themselves for their troubled sex life.

Vaginismus’s dangerous impact:

When this sexual disorder goes untreated for months or years, women develop extreme anxiety about having intercourse. The mere thought of sex can cause a fear of the pain they will experience and the subsequent feelings of disappointment, frustration, and inadequacy.

Bat Sheva puts it succinctly:

People hold aVaginismusdifferent places. Vaginismus is about holding anxiety in the vagina instead of the back or any other body part.

As a result of this anxiety, women may engage in avoidant behaviors so they don’t have to deal with their physical and emotional pain. These behaviors can include avoiding physical contact with their husbands, pushing off going to Mikvah, or prolonging the Niddah period by being extra stringent with Taharas Hamishpacha (laws of family purity). Conversely, some women choose a grin and bare it approach. They avoid telling their husbands about their pain and push through it, thinking sex is an obligation they must fulfill at all costs.

With either response, these women may come to resent their husbands for not fully understanding their painful experience. They may also resent their husband’s sexual needs. On a deeper level, they may feel resentment towards themselves and their bodies. In some cases, women begin to neglect themselves as well.

How to properly treat VaginiVaginismus

Treatment for Vaginismus is based on the reason it’s present in the first place. These reasons vary from pre-existing anxieties which cause the whole body to be tense, an overly active and tense pelvic floor, past trauma, or anxiety about intercourse. I usually recommend a medical consult with a gynecologist, in addition to a pelvic floor specialist. In this way we can rule out medical issues prior to therapy. Bat Sheva adds that since there is a huge corrVaginismustween anxiety and Vaginismus, the best treatment involves addressing both the psychological aVaginismusogical aspects of Vaginismus.

2Desire Issues:

Desire issues are the second category of common sexual disorders that we treat in the Jewish community. Desire issues are often about attraction or low levels of libido. These issues affect both men and women. According to Bat Sheva, desire issues “can run a wide gamut between ‘I kind of prefer to not have sex’ to ‘I love my partner and it’s destroying my marriage but I can’t imagine having sex.’” The most severe lack of desire is aversion.

We both find that when clients report having low desire they are usually experiencing a different issue or a combination of other issues. These issues could include, the sex itself is not pleasurable, there are physiological or hormonal imbalances, the client is taking a medication that affects desire, or there is a relationship issue. Oftentimes, lifestyle and life transitions play a role in affecting desire. Menopause, exhaustion from a new baby, or a busy work schedule can heavily affect desire.

How to properly treat desire issues?

Treatment for desire issues ranges broadly. Becoming aware of lifestyle, transitions, and physiological changes to the body is a great place to start. Psychoeducation is also a big part of treatment. With psychoeducation clients learn that they need to carve time out to make sex happen.

As Bat Sheva likes to put it, “sex is like Shabbat dinner, you need to plan it.”  She further elaborates, “one of the biggest myths in the orthodox community even more than in general society, is that once you get into the groove of having a sex life that’s all you need to learn.”

We both agree that this idea is simply not true. Life happens, we grow and we change. Whether it is from having young or adolescent children, a death in the family, a hectic life pace, or medical issues, change is part of life.

Bat Sheva shares the following relevant analogy with her clients:

If we were handed a dress when we got married and told we need to wear it for the rest of our lives no matter what, we would find this notion absurd. However, when it comes to our sex lives, we make the mistake of thinking that the way we start having sex is how we will have sex for the rest of our lives. This is equally as absurd.

As we adjust to the natural transitions of life, our sex lives need to stay agile and flexible. This means that our sex lives look very different while raising children, for example, when compared to our first year of marriage.

3Combination of Issues:

A combination of issues make up the third category of the common sexual disorders in the Jewish community that Bat Sheva and I treat. Naturally, treatment for these issues is tailored to the specific issue.

Some of these other issues include:

  • Shame regarding intimacy
  • Interest and/or arousal issues
  • Orgasm problems
  • Generalized pain problems
  • Issues in the relationship dynamic such as communication gaps

What can we do about sexual disorders in the Jewish community?

Esther Perel, a world famous sex therapist, author, and educator, has been known to say:

When sex is an issue it takes up the majority of a marriage’s resources and energy. When sex is not an issue, it comprises a minority of the marriage. As such, treatment of sexual disorders directly translates to the vitality and energy of a marriage.

Treatment for sexual disorders doesn’t have to start when a sexual issue becomes too much to bear. Bat Sheva and I believe that any person or couple can make improvements so that there are fewer incidences of sexufrumisorders within the frum / Jewish community. These improvements can be boiled down to education both at home and before marriage.

Sex education: The number one way to reduce sexual disorders in the Jewish community

Most of us agree that children deserve to be educated in many areas of life so they can become healthy adults and contributors to society. These areas of education include academics, finances, socialization, and self-care. Sex education is just as important. There is no question that we need more sex education. It is a parent’s responsibility to provide this for their children so their children can develop a healthy sense of sexuality. If parents are unsure how to go about educating their children in this area, they could consult with a mental health expert or sex educator.

Once our children are grown, Chosson and Kallah classes serve the next mostfrumcial role in preparing our frum couples for marriage. Thalachosation particularly covers the halachos and practicalities of sex. Because Chosson and Kallah teachers are often on the front lines with sex education, they need to be trained to speak reliably and comfortably about sex. It is incredibly important that they are adequately knowledgeable in the area of sexuality and are not just speaking from personal experiences and anecdotes.

The bottom line on sexual disorders in the frum / Jewish community:

There is a lot of confusion regarding the interplay of frumkeit (religiosity), sexuality, and dysfunction. frumcommon sexual problems within the frum community oftentimes come from a distortion of how frumkeit and sexuality work together.

Luckily we are living in a time when therapy is more available and less stigmatized. We can feel a bit more free to address sexual issues, and hopefully even prevent some of them.

As Bat Sheva pointed out, we’re coming to a point where sexual problems are not just issues in our heads. Exploring the issues both medically and psychologically is really important.

Across the board, my clients are liberated and comforted to learn that there is a richness and vastness for healthy sexuality in the Torah. This realization often helps them approach their relationship to frumkeit and sexuality in more balanced and healthy manner.

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This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. So informative ! Ty for breaking barriers and talking about women intimacy issues with such sensitivity and refinement that will do the community well to read ! Go ok clarity and your board of professionals

    1. Thank you for your feedback! I am so glad you enjoyed this piece and appreciate your support of furthering education on the sensitive topic of sexuality with the frum community.

  2. I came away from this article quite frustrated. It was well-written, but had almost nothing to say about the problems faced by Orthodox couples specifically. It was more of a piece about sexual disorders in general.

    Couples in the Orthodox community face challenges specific to this community. This needs to be said out loud and in a clear voice. The reasons for this relate to the education given to Orthodox youth both in their schools and at home. Specifically, the education of girls and young women in the Orthodox community surrounding sexuality is focused on “modesty” rules. That is, girls are taught that their religious worth is measured in the degree to which they cover up their bodies and act in a sexually non-alluring manner. This leads to a desexualization of girls and young women throughout the first two-decades of their lives–the most formative for sexual development and identity. Even when preparing for their wedding, young brides-to-be spend most of their time studying with Kallah teachers about the negative–mostly surrounding how one becomes a niddah, and what one cannot do when in this situation. When it comes to sexual activity itself, again there is quite a lot the brides-to-be are taught about restrictions. Is it any wonder that there are sexual problems once the lights in the wedding hall are turned off and all the guests have gone home?

    I am not a sexual health professional. I cannot speak of statistics, because there have been no large-scale studies done on this issue (yet). I speak from personal experience and a place of great pain. My own marriage was destroyed because of this pathological sexual culture. My six children are living in a broken home because of the distorted education their mother received growing up. There needs to be an awakening about this incredibly painful malady which is breaking down good frum families. It is a scourge which has been kept silent for too long. I am just waiting for the floodgates to open. For me and my family, it is too late.

    1. Hi, first of all thank you so much for your feedback. Your response reflects deep pain and it is clear that your personal experience has given you tremendous insight and sensitivity to sexual issues that wreak havoc on marriages, specifically marriages in the Orthodox Jewish community. You are completely right that this article does not encompass the myriad of issues pertaining to the Orthodox community. I find that religious people both in my personal and professional life have such unique experiences – some positive and some negative – when it comes to their sexual development and education. I’ve heard accounts of beautiful and sacred kallah classes experiences as well as painful and traumatizing stories of people’s educational experiences.

      The sexual disorders discussed in the article are the most common ones I and Bat Sheva treat in our respective practices, but they in no way run the full gamut of all the sexual issues out there. Much like any disorder that is treated in the therapy room, each challenge is so unique to the person and/or couple who experiences them. It is therefore, impossible to list in one article every way a sexual issue can manifest in a marriage particularly because we all have such different personalities, religious experiences and perspectives, and ways of processing our issues.

      I couldn’t agree with you more that a lot of damage happens with the lack of education or the warped education that both men and women receive (or don’t receive) in childhood and in chosson and kallah classes. And I also find that some women have a difficult time with the seeming dichotomy of the Jewish values of modesty and sexuality; this I believe also comes down to how we were educated and how we plan to educate the next generation. I am in the middle of writing an article on just the topic – how to speak to our children about sexuality. Thank you again for sharing your story and insight and I welcome any future article ideas on frum sexuality that you think can prevent the pain you’ve experienced and bring further clarity and awareness on this topic.

  3. Thank you for the very kind reply, which I just saw now.

    As I am not a professional in the field, I must of course defer to your own experience in working with frum couples. I have no doubt that my own negative experience colors my view here. My sense, however, is that this is a problem of far greater proportions than we as a community are willing to deal with. I will explain.

    The Orthodox Jewish community imposes extremely strict sexual norms on all members of the group – from a very young age. In many, many ways, Orthodox society enforces rules which are far more strict than other religious groups. Separation of the sexes in all manner of public events, for instance. “Women only” theater performances, film showings, lectures, etc. are de rigueur in the frum community. I was quite curious to see if this existed anywhere *outside* of the Orthodox Jewish community, and I had trouble finding anything at all like this in the non-Orthodox Jewish world. That is to say – religious groups such as strict Catholics or Evangelicals, who certainly maintain a strict sexual moral code simply never considered any problem in listening to a female lecturer or watching a play with female actors. Or listening to female singers. The fact that Orthodox Jewish society has come up with these ideas *must* come from somewhere. And the fact that young people are brought up thinking that this is “normal” *must* have some affect.

    Or consider the ban on photos of females (even small girls) in many Orthodox publications. Please show me any other religious group that has such policies. I have not been able to find any. I happen to know a thing or two about this. Muslims, Catholics, Evangelicals, Mormons–even the most radical–have nothing of the sort in their societies. Where does this come from in the Orthodox world, and what does it do to us? How does this affect girls growing up in our communities when they see that the female body (and even face!) is so dangerous, that it must never be shown in print? Even in Modern Orthodox communities, where females are represented in print, members of the community are still exposed to publications from the more “right-wing” elements which hold to a no-female policy. Our girls are not stupid. This attitude sinks in. And at a very young age. And what it says to a girl is: “your body is dangerous/impure/sinful”.

    I will limit what I have to say about the rules of modesty in dress. Suffice it to say that the atmosphere in girls’ educational settings is one of extreme anxiety about the length and cut of this or that article of clothing. To no small degree, this is what defines a frum girl as “good” or “bad”. Much has been said about the skewed priorities of “tnizus” culture. My point is different. The focus on modesty, as it is practiced in frum society, has a powerfully deleterious effect on how girls view their own developing sexuality. Just to give an example from the experiences of my ex-wife. She went to a seminary in Jerusalem which had its own indoor swimming pool (those in the know will figure out which school I speak of). There were always only females using this pool, and the lifeguard was always female. And yet… there was a strict rule about the type of one-piece bathing suits that girls were allowed to wear. They had to be “tzanua”. Far more “modest” than most one-piece bathing-suits out there on the market. It was hard to find a bathing-suit that passed muster. What goes on in the mind of a seminary girl who is forced to shop around for a bathing suit which is permissible for her school’s standards. Yes, of course it annoys her—but deeper than that—how does it affect her psyche? What does it tell her about her body and sexuality?

    I think it is clear that the effect of this all this (and more!) is to desexualize the girls and young women in our community. Which, as I see it, seems to be one of the main points of it all. It is an extremely successful approach if we want our teenage girls and young adult women to refrain from any kind of “inappropriate” interaction with the opposite sex. Extremely successful. I have to hand it to frum society – the young people (as a whole) do not fall into the kinds of sexual and relationship trouble that youth in other cultures often fall into. Kudos on this count. The problem, I maintain, is what happens *after* marriage. Here, I sense, we are dealing with a problem of epic proportions which nobody seems to be dealing with or even admitting to. It is not discussed. And why should it be? People in our community tend not to discuss sexual matters with friends and family (is this surprising?). The vast majority of people just suffer in silence.

    Here I am going to go out on a limb, and risk causing some offense in this forum. But I feel that it needs to be said, and I hope that my words will be taken with sympathy and serious consideration. As far as I can tell, the sexual health professionals who cater to the Orthodox Jewish community tend to be members of the community themselves. I could be wrong, but I think that I am correct here. These are the only people who really get to see what is going on out there, as these are the only people who hear the stories. My question is (and here is where I risk offending): to what extent are frum sexual therapists capable of bucking the society and saying: “this is pathological”. To what extent are they free to say: “this is not OK”. My sense is that even the sexual health professionals are circumscribed by their own membership in the frum society that does not allow them to say certain things. They cannot, for example, be so bold as to say that “tznius” culture must be completely revamped. There are limits. And these limits, I fear, are a large part of the problem.

    What am I arguing for? I think that frum sexual health professionals need to be on the front lines of this battle. They need to say in clear and no uncertain terms: “this is not OK”. They need to scream from the rooftops. If this cannot be done out in the open (and I can understand why), then perhaps it must be done pseudonymously or anonymously. In online forums (like this one). Where there are no frum editorial boards controlling the content. The truth must be told. So many precious lives and families depend on this…

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