On Sex and Silence

I sometimes find talking about sex uncomfortable. There’s so much at stake — power, identity, transcendence, and raw humanity. I wasn’t raised gabbing like Barbara Streisand’s Roz Focker, the sex therapist with an uncontainable comfort with sex. So how did I wind up talking about sex professionally? When I came to feel like the only thing more uncomfortable than talking about sex was not talking about it.

In my 20s, I started to see our not-talking-about-sex problem: the mismatch between Americans’ comfort consuming women’s sexuality and our silencing of women’s communication about sex. Sexy billboards freeze-frame a moment without words, but we’re free to look a model up and down, knowing her without knowing her. Real teenagers make grown-up decisions about sex every day, but as eager as we are to second-guess their sexual behavior or clothing, we don’t want to hear why they make the choices they do. And if they speak up about their lived experience, why are we prepared to shame them for acknowledging what everyone already knows that teenagers do? Shame makes it extremely hard to learn the healthy communication that’s needed for respectful, enjoyable sexual encounters, whether at age 16 or 60.

Once I started noticing the silence, I couldn’t leave it alone. I knew I shouldn’t leave it alone. I began “Subjectified: Nine Women Talk About Sex,” a video project that lets women speak for themselves, an oral history of interviews with diverse young women around the U.S. When I started showing “Subjectified” at colleges across the country, I saw that people of all genders wanted urgently to share their own stories. I heard from men who had always wanted to understand their 

sexual partners but had never been able to elicit the kind of honesty that I’d gotten in my one-time conversations about orgasm, painful sex, violence, love, first times, sex drive, body image, and identity. Because when you really talk about sex, you don’t just talk about sex. I started a blog called “Do Tell,” where people share their own personal sexual histories anonymously. Most of the 500 stories come from women, many from young people, and many from survivors of sexual violence or abuse — people who have not had the chance or the safety to be open or honest in person.

It’s especially hard to be a supportive friend when you’ve never talked about those body parts before, or those physical acts, or even the fact that both consensual sex and sexual violence are part of people’s personal histories. We cultivate stigma when we avoid the topic of sex.

Without words, we’re feral children, limited in what we can understand, communicate, or resist. Not being able to talk about women’s experiences reinforces the idea that our first-person perspectives don’t matter, that sexuality flows through us and without us, for someone else’s sake, defining our worth and our identities without our control. (For example, Lilith’s Winter 2003/2004 article on oral sex at bar and bat mitzvah parties). Silence brings with it shame, and the cost of shame is enormous and often invisible.

One entity that is often willing to engage with American youth about sex is religion, frequently in the form of speaking out against premarital sex or expressions of women’s or queer sexuality. In my own Jewish education, I don’t recall any advice about sex. What little influence came from a tacit condoning of the (straight) hookup scene in youth groups, considered — half in jest — as a contribution to Jewish matchmaking. If the social glue of sexuality forged romantic bonds among young Jews, it was the least the chaperones could to do look the other way. But ”no comment” on sexuality is not actually a lack of comment. Persistent reinforcement that a topic is off-limits, that’s plenty of message. I’ve spoken to progressive Jewish educators who feel that sexuality is beyond the scope of a religious education, that it’s something they assume kids are getting at home or at day school. Sexuality, an intrinsic component of development, is not often broached in Jewish education.

“No message” about sex doesn’t arrive in a vacuum. My peers outside the Jewish community were hearing plenty of sin talk and filtering it back to me. I was alarmed when a non-Jewish boyfriend in high school admitted that he prayed for forgiveness for our physical intimacy, implicating me in what he perceived as bad behavior. I resented this projection and preferred my abundance of Jewish guilt to be directed at things that I saw as having real moral import (i.e. not my choices about sexual behavior). Beyond religion, we are all subject to attitudes reflected in pop culture. The persistent negation of young people’s agency and ability to consent — to say yes or no — this thicket of confusing messages fills in the space.

In general, Jewish youth groups and synagogues are not jumping at the opportunity to fill this void in students’ moral education. There are individual communities taking the opportunity to teach young people about sexuality across the observance spectrum, though this is not a standard practice even in a progressive setting. Sexuality educator and researcher Mimi Arbeit started a rare sex-ed program for her young adult peers at Moishe Kavod House in the Boston area, beginning with the sex-positive Our Whole Lives sexuality curriculum developed by Unitarian and United Church of Christ congregations. If this seems groundbreaking, we have perhaps regressed since Reform congregations began offering sex-ed courses to confirmation students in 1965.

While secular sex education focuses obsessively on the negative consequences of sex, we aren’t comfortable enough with young people’s sexuality to send direct messages about what they should want from their sexual expression, even if that’s in the future or on their own. But who can deny that this is an important component of a person’s burgeoning sense of self, of ethics in interpersonal relationships, of growth? Jewish organizations tasked with spiritual education may think they are staying neutral, neither condemning nor affirming a student’s sexuality, but the student still lives in a society that enforces rigid gender roles and heteronormative attitudes through shaming and bullying. These omissions marginalize queer youth, even in liberal Jewish settings. And there is no neutral silence; our texts, which we teach our young people to cherish, are often used to justify cruelties and erasures.

Sexuality is at the cusp of what progressive Judaism hasn’t figured out about its relationship to rules. We stay silent to bide time, not having developed a coherent message. But our young people don’t hear “put that into a modern context” or “read the tradition more deeply,” because we’re not making those suggestions out loud. They hear silence, and it becomes their heritage, too.