Recently, Kveller received the following note from a reader:
I often read Kveller, and was wondering if your website could shed some light on an issue I’ve been struggling with. I am an Orthodox woman in my mid-20s, and I have a lot of sexual curiosity. I am a virgin and plan to stay that way until I marry, but at the same time, I would like to explore my sexuality and not feel guilty about it, and am wondering if this is possible within a Torah framework. I would venture to say that there are many other women in the same position as I am. Does exploring one’s sexuality taint it? Is it against halacha [Jewish law] to discover what excites one sexually? Is female masturbation permitted? I would really appreciate some grounded knowledge through a Modern Orthodox lens, and believe that others would benefit from it as well, instead of having to guess and/or feel guilty. Thank you.
We turned to our own Tamar Fox to handle this tough but important question:
Be the Christopher Columbus of your sexuality! Which is to say, find something that was already there, get really excited about it, and use it to make you feel good. (Do not, however, enslave anyone, or give anyone smallpox in the process.)
It’s totally natural to be interested in exploring your sexuality when you’re in your 20s, and it is possible to do it in a way that’s safe, smart, and fun. The question of whether it’s within a Torah framework is a bit stickier—that’s a term that means different things to different people. A lot depends on what you’re comfortable with, since I assume you’re not likely to go off and ask your rabbi these questions.
Generally speaking, I think that a Torah framework for intimacy and sexuality means that you’re working within certain limits. The limits of marriage, and taharat hamishpacha, the laws pertaining to menstruation and the mikveh. Let’s be honest: These are some pretty strict limits, that exclude a lot of sexual practice. But they also include a lot of sexual practice. It’s definitely still very possible to have an exciting sex life before and during marriage while adhering to these guidelines.
So, where to begin?
My suggestion is to start with erotica; that is, stories and blogs that describe sex. The internet has no end of great venues for erotica that spans every genre imaginable (and some that I would prefer never to imagine). You can also find books of erotica at the library and at your local bookstore. Browse around and see what turns you on. A nice advantage of erotica is that because it’s written, you won’t be confronted with tons of pornographic images, which is better both for your hard drive and for your self-image. (Stay tuned, more on porn in a bit.) If you’re not comfortable jumping right into erotica, you can start with romance novels, which also have lots of steamy scenes in them.
Erotica will almost certainly lead to masturbation—that’s the point of it. And that’s OK! Lucky for us, Rabbinic sources did not concern themselves with female masturbation, so it’s generally not thought to be prohibited. This is especially good because when you do get married it will be a great advantage to already know what you respond to, both psychologically and physically. Everyone’s body is different, and it’s good for you to know what turns you on, what that looks like, and ultimately, what brings you to climax. You can share this with your spouse when you’re engaged or have just gotten married, and it will give you direction when you’re beginning to explore each other’s bodies.
OK, now it’s time to talk about porn.
Lots of people recommend porn (both pictures and videos, readily available online) as a good way to explore your sexuality before you’re sexually active. I’m not going to say don’t do that, but I will say proceed with caution. Though porn can be a great turn on, and can certainly expose you to lots of things that you might later decide to incorporate into your sex life, it’s also got some pretty significant problems, such as:
– Watching a lot of porn can actually desensitize you to sex, and can be addictive.
– Porn often features comically unrealistic women’s bodies, which can lead to body image problems, and a great sense of unwarranted shame about your body.
– The porn industry is probably not one you want to be contributing to—it is notorious for cycling through women with alarming speed, and has had problems with regulation and disease.
– Porn sites are rife with viruses.
So yeah, I think maybe stay away from porn to begin with, and see how the erotica goes.
A couple of other ways to be sexual before being married:
– Purchase lingerie or other clothing that really makes you feel sexy. Wear it when you’re alone, and think about when you’ll be wearing it for your future spouse.
– Get used to paying attention to your body and how it responds. Exercise and meditation are great ways to safely and halachically get in touch with your body and mind. When it’s time to really get physical with a partner, your knowledge of your own body will be greatly enhanced, and can make sex a lot better and more fun.
Sex and intimacy can take many forms, and now you have an amazing opportunity to get to know yourself and what feels good to you before you begin a sexual relationship with someone else. Exploring your sexuality isn’t going to taint your sex life later on—it’s healthy, and even good for you. Think of this as an investment toward an exciting and pleasurable sex life. Good luck, and have fun!