Sex Today

Dating ethics, sexual negotiation and their complications now

As someone who has worked on sex education in the Orthodox world, I was fascinated by Jewish Choices, Jewish Voices: Sex and Intimacy edited by Elliot N. Dorff and Danya Ruttenberg ( Jewish Publication Society, $16.00), on issues many would be surprised to learn Judaism has a say about, including dating ethics, sexual negotiation and ethical issues around birth control and STDs.

Each section begins with open-ended questions raised by a deliberately vague case study, followed by Jewish sources which can shed light on the questions, and by a series of brief contemporary responses to the case study. Unfortunately, most contributors do not relate seriously to the sources (which themselves are far from comprehensive), and there is a lack of diversity amongst the contributors who often echo the same liberal message.

In the section on sex workers — including prostitutes, strip club dancers, phone sex operators, and pornography actors — the contemporary voices most succeed in opening up the issues and presenting multiple perspectives (though not necessarily Jewish perspectives, except inasmuch as the writer is Jewish). A case study describes a 23-year-old woman with no college education who feels herself with limited choices of employment; “She could earn $7.50/hour as a drugstore clerk without benefits… Alternatively, she could take a job as a dancer in a strip club, where she could earn significant money for minimal hours’ work.” In response to this case study, porn star Ron Jeremy speaks of sex work as a type of work like any other. What Jeremy seeks to whitewash into choices and ethics, Rachel Durchslang and Aimee Dinschel deconstruct from a feminist perspective, debunking each of the rosy myths about working in a strip club which were raised by the case study. Feminist scholar and activist Martha Ackelsberg thinks about the larger societal questions: “No one has ‘clean hands’ in a society where some are effectively forced into sex work by the lack of viable alternatives.” And until we are able to fix those societal ills, “‘choices’ about sex work are rightly on the consciences of all of us.”

As the editors claim at the outset, this book is far from exhaustive; masturbation, adultery, sexual abuse, and casual sex are barely mentioned. However, this book tries to do the hard work of integrating tradition and modernity, and thus echoes the important point made by the Talmudic story of Rav Kahana who hides under his teacher’s bed with the hope of learning how to have sex: “This too is Torah and I must learn it.”

Jennie Rosenfeld, Ph.D. is co-author of a sex manual for observant newlywed couples (forthcoming); she co-founded and directed the Tzelem project, which provided sex education and resources to the Orthodox community.