A timid ultra-Orthodox bride experiences terrible pain while attempting to fulfill her “wifely duties.” Despite repeated attempts, the situation only worsens and she seeks advice from her premarital kalla teacher, who had perfunctorily explained the basic concepts of sexual intercourse prior to the wedding night.
Depicted in the hit Netflix series, “Unorthodox,” the situation that is central to understanding the breakdown of main character Esty’s marriage and her eventual flight could have been resolved within two months of proper treatment, sex therapist Dr. Bat Sheva Marcus told The Times of Israel in this week’s frank, no-holds-barred podcast about having great sex while in a long-term relationships.
Marcus, the clinical director at New York’s Maze Women’s Sexual Health center, is a practicing Modern Orthodox Jew who is also a licensed social worker and certified sex therapist. The intersection of her identity and vocational education has led her to treat a swath of women, including from the most ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods of New York.
Esty in “Unorthodox” suffers from a condition called vaginismus, said Marcus. It is a relatively newly defined disorder that includes involuntary and extreme contractions of the pelvic floor muscles — basically similar to back muscle spasms, which are aggravated by tension, said Marcus. It is very common and very treatable, she said.
“Not only have I seen this, but I live it,” said Marcus, who said one of her ultra-Orthodox patients suffered from it for 12 years before her marriage fell apart, but found relief within two months. “Treatment takes up to eight weeks, but untreated it can ruin lives through secondary problems.”
Unlike the portrayal in “Unorthodox” of a “free” Esty who is able to enjoy sexual intercourse with a relative stranger she encounters in Berlin, most women do not naturally grow out of the condition. “This was not a case of a woman having the right partner,” she said, calling the “Unorthodox” depiction unfair to the women who suffer from the condition.
Vaginismus is just one of the many issues that bring women from all walks of life through the Maze office doors. According to Marcus, only three women out of 10 are able have an orgasm through intercourse alone. On the other hand, 94% of women are able to achieve an orgasm through the use of a vibrator or other stimuli.
“Sex and intercourse are not synonymous and the sooner people can understand that, the better off we will be,” she said. “I feel like we have a very androcentric view of sex. It’s very male-oriented.”
Popular culture is rife with references to how difficult it is to help a woman to reach orgasm through various means besides penile penetration. But essentially, she said, it boils down to the biological fact that men orgasm one way and women another.
“My job right now is always to take a woman and say to her, ‘You can have a good sex life.’ It’s within the realm, you can have an orgasm,” she said.
To help women figure out how to help themselves and their sex lives, Marcus came up with a point system, which she writes about in her upcoming book, “SEX POINTS: Reclaim Your Sex Life with the Revolutionary Multi-point System.”
“Most women who are having problems in their sex lives — and that’s most women — know that something is the matter but often can’t identify exactly what is going on. They have problems with desire or arousal or they’re having some pain, or they can’t quite orgasm anymore and they don’t know what’s going wrong, so it’s very hard to try to fix it.”
So the book opens with a questionnaire to help pinpoint the problem in the reader’s sex life. She said the system, like her practice, marries the physiological and the psychological to come up with feasible solutions.
Where is my what?!
One of the most major issues Marcus faces in treating her religiously observant patients is their lack of sex education and even basic anatomical awareness. “I had a patient who had five children before realizing where her clitoris was,” she said.
What can make for an additional wrinkle in the cases of her ultra-Orthodox patients is that often Marcus’s suggestions are taken to their rabbis for a kosher seal of approval.
99% of the rabbis I talk to have no problem with the use of a vibrator
“Ninety-nine percent of the rabbis I talk to, and I do talk to many because I end up with patients who want to talk to their rabbis, they have no problem with the use of a vibrator — it’s fascinating — and certainly not with the woman using her own hand while she’s having intercourse. Most of them are fine with the man using their hand, too,” she said.
“Ironically, it’s looking at the vulva, that’s where questions kind of arise, but for the most part, the more educated and comfortable a rabbi is with the subject of sex — and that could be super, super frum and super, super Haredi — the more lenient they are,” she said.
Rabbis may be more on board with a vibrator versus “sexy” clothing, she said, because of the idea of a man “viewing” his wife in a different way. (Marcus and Rabbi Dov Linzer discuss Judaism and sex in their “Joy of Text” podcast.)
Baring souls before bodies
Sometimes women are reluctant to communicate their desires to their spouses out of fear that the men will feel redundant, but Marcus pushes for baring souls as well as bodies.
While preparing her doctoral dissertation, she asked women if they would be willing to introduce vibrators into their marital beds and whether they would feel comfortable speaking about it with their husbands. She said that in a follow-up discussion with the women some two months later, 80% hadn’t found a way to speak about the subject with their spouses.
“Somehow it was harder than they thought it was to bring up the vibrator,” she said. “‘Hi honey, I did the laundry, I took the kids to school and I bought a vibrator.’ How do you even introduce it into conversation? Or, ‘I’m afraid he’s going to feel like he’s unnecessary,'” she said, citing some common concerns she hears.
At the same time, she said she is a very big believer in women “showing their partner what they need to do, and for women to be able to touch themselves, too.”
“In a perfect world, sex is an activity where you’re both having fun, you’re both feeling good, you’re both turned on, and you both have orgasms… that can come in so many ways,” she said.
We have these crazy romanticized views about sex
“I think we’d do a much better job having a good sex life if we’re willing to expand our view of what sex looks like… we have to stop thinking about it so linearly… We have these crazy romanticized views about sex at the same time that we have these crazy pornographic views of sex and very antiquated ideas about sex,” she said.
Today, as many families are in lockdown together, the opportunity to find an intimate moment can be even more daunting than usual.
“Scheduled sex is the most important cornerstone if you want to maintain a long, ongoing monogamous relationship. If you think you’re going to do it without scheduling sex, it ain’t going to happen,” she said, pooh-poohing the views many have internalized from popular culture about spontaneous bodice-ripping sex.
“People who think that’s going to happen are the people with no sex life,” she said. To those who complain that it is not romantic to schedule an appointment for sex, she said, “You know what’s not romantic? Not having any sex in your life.”
Check out last week’s Times of Israel Podcast here:
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