In the last few weeks I have had conversations, both in person and online, with non-Orthodox friends trying to understand what sexual life is like for a single ba’al teshuva. Some knew the sexual restrictions of Orthodoxy; for those who did not, I explained them. What got to me was the idea, expressed by every one of them, that rules were fine, up to a point. But the idea that anyone would remain celibate for a significant length of time while trying to get married simply shocks them. And they are correct – it is shocking and totally different than today’s societal norms. But that was not always the case.
Society has become more liberal sexually in part because we have better medicine than we did 75 years ago. First came penicillin to treat various communicable diseases, then many reliable forms of contraception, and a slew of other medicines like antibiotics. Abortion is also readily available. These medical and scientific advances allow men and women (for the most part) to safely act on their sexuality, something women 75 years ago certainly could only dream of.
Society has also changed because the transmission of information has become much easier, and anyone can sit in the privacy of their own home and get extremely detailed sexual advice, information and, of course, porn. This is reflected in the current acceptance of porn and may best be understood by what an Orthodox rabbi who deals with teenagers on the edge told me recently. "When you hear sexual activity is down among these kids, don’t believe it", he said. "They’re being asked the wrong questions. Are the having intercourse? Not as much as they were a few years ago. What are they doing? Lots of anal sex, sex toys and oral sex." [This is a paraphrase. The actual quote is too detailed and too long to post.] And these behaviors carry over into "regular" society. [I’m not writing to condemn this, just to note current reality.]
Religion has little hold over people’s lives today. This also dramatically impacts sexuality, because most of the basis for restricting one’s sexuality is religious in nature. The fewer people bound by any type of monotheistic religious law, the fewer automatically bound to restrict sexuality.
Of course, the reasons for today’s liberal sexuality are more complex and detailed than I have the space to mention or the background to deal with. But the point is, what is sexually normal today was decidedly abnormal not so long ago. I think if not for AIDS and some remaining puritanism, casual sex would be much more casual and frequent, and other forms of sexuality once frowned on would be even more popular than they are now.
I’m not at all sure today’s sexuality is a bad thing. Despite what can appear to be strong conservative arguments for restraint, there are equally valid opposing arguments, and only time will tell who is correct.
All this cuts to the heart of my friends’ arguments. As one put it, "Why didn’t you just hook up with someone? Okay, so not every day, but once or twice a month?" In today’s world, hooking up (i.e., casual sex) is very normal – so normal that many people don’t remember how lucky (or cursed, depending on your worldview) we are. For some BTs, hooking up, especially with other BTs, is an option. We all know it goes on. But, like the kids described above by my rabbi correspondent, penetration may be dispensed with and other avenues of satisfaction highlighted in its place.
Still, I know dozens of BTs who did not take this route. What they did instead is suffer, because they believed their commitment to halakha and to God demanded that. This often led to other problems (at least from the perspective of Orthodoxy), from nocturnal emmissions to, as halakha puts it, "willful spilling of seed." And, in case you missed it, there is a strong strain of thought in Orthodoxy that equates that with murder – a prettty tough Catch-22 to be in. You’re born with a sex drive that you cannot use without "destroying" your soul. (This is exactly the dilemma gays face, with one major difference. – we can get married and have a "kosher" outlet. Gays only can do that if they are able to direct their desires in that way, something that rarely is possible.)
There was a time when Judaism recognized concubinage and other relationships that circumvented these problems. Rabbis removed these from Jewish life. The reasons why are beyond the scope of this post. But in modern times, their removal has certainly damaged many lives and caused much defection from Judaism.
So what about me?
For the most part, I suffered then and have continued to do so now, even as the Orthodoxy I adopted has become less and less relevant to my life. Why? Largely because I still strongly equate sex with commitment.
The idea of "hooking up," while it appeals to me, is still so foreign that I just don’t find myself thinking about it when moments of opportunity arise (although I certainly do think about this at other times). My first reaction is always, "Would I ever marry this girl?" rather than, "Let’s take a walk – I live around the corner."
I’m sure this will change over time, and there are many objective reasons why this will be good. Still, I prefer a stable, long-term relationship over multiple casual encounters. (But not because haredism says so. Haredism’s version of a stable, long-term relationship often lacks romance and passion. It can be more of a business arrangement – with some interesting perks – rather than love.)
I prefer a stable relationship because I find it more meaningful and more romantic than hooking up. It is an ideal I strive for. As strange as this may seem, in this world suffused with erotica, for me romance still wins out, at this point almost, if not every, time.