How to deal with different views on sex? If you're the New York Times, just pick one


Granted, ultra-Orthodox Jews are restrictive sexually. Granted, they often don't talk to outsiders, especially on sensitive topics. But is that reason enough to devote over 3,150 words to a single viewpoint?

The answer, unfortunately, is "Yes" at the New York Times, which ran a long, rambling feature on a woman who has carved out a niche in counseling other Orthodox women on sexuality.

"The Orthodox Sex Guru," the headline calls Bat Sheva Marcus, a term that neither she nor anyone else uses in the article itself. Thesis of the story is Marcus' efforts to help Hasidic or Haredi wives, said to be deeply troubled and frustrated, unable to enjoy sexual pleasures because of the rigid teachings of their rabbis. So tightly wound are their communities, the women don’t even recognize an orgasm, she says.

The "villains" of the story are the Haredim -- especially calling out the Satmar and Pupa sects -- who live in insular communities in Brooklyn and elsewhere. Well, not exactly villains. Just hidebound, strict on Jewish law, ignorant of modern findings on sexuality.

It's a mushy premise, and the story admits it high up:

How widespread sexual aversion is among ultra-Orthodox women is impossible to say, and the question is made especially difficult because there is a host of movements and sects with varying statutes and customs. But there is an erotic ideal that all these cultures share. After a young woman marries — often, like the Satmar wife Marcus told me about, to a man she has met and spoken with only once before the wedding — she’s supposed to feel that sex is a blessing, a union full of Shekinah, of God’s light, not just a painful or repellent reproductive chore. Quietly, rabbis refer struggling wives to Marcus’s care. Her task is to instill desire in them.

Nearly all of the story centers on Marcus; the only other quoted sources are a patient and a Haredi rabbi who began referring women to her. Both are quoted without names -- a reflection, the Times says, of the shame and stigma among the Haredim about even discussing sex.

Women especially, according to this story, feel crippled on the road to sexual bliss:

 Below her brown bangs, Marcus’s eyes fill with tears sometimes when she talks about how Orthodox Judaism — and above all the most restrictive branches of Haredi Orthodoxy — can quash female eros by imbuing a physical shame and a nearly apocalyptic sexual terror, by teaching that if the laws of tzniut, of modesty, are broken, calamity will come. One Haredi rabbi I met likened eros to “nuclear energy”: Sex could bring disaster to the world, but, he said, “the careful regulation” of it can connect a couple to God and beckon “transcendent experience.”

How does Marcus deal? She tries to loosen up her clients on a range of practices: from nighties to romance novels to suggesting the women "learn about their own bodies," alone, by hand. But the story pays the most attention, for some reason, to vibrators -- in two paragraphs totaling about 275 words.

And she leads seminars for teachers on Jewish sexuality, including what is allowed and what is not forbidden. In those sessions, she teases out teachings by rabbis and the Talmud that bless sex between husband and wife as pleasurable and even holy.

Marcus admits that her goals go beyond therapy to systematic change among the Haredi:

“I tell them our values are the same,” Marcus said about winning over her Haredi patients, “but in a way, I’m being disingenuous.” In addition to working one on one with women, she holds seminars for kallah teachers. She is on a kind of crusade, a fledgling effort to carry new ideas about eros into Orthodoxy, to educate the educators, to persuade them to give brides an abundance of detail about the anatomy of pleasure, about orgasm.

Leaving aside the wisdom of using "crusade" in a story about Jews -- who don’t generally look kindly on the Crusades -- that paragraph appears only in the last fifth of the story. By then, we've gotten 2,500 approving words on Marcus' experiences and opinions.

Back to my "granteds" at the start of this piece. Yes, "getting multiple perspectives would be hard," as noted by the reader who tipped us to the Times story. But not impossible.

The writer could have called Jewish schools like Brandeis University, which has a Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Program. Or Yeshiva University, which teaches an "overview of human sexuality" at its Stern College for Women. Even the umbrella Orthodox Union recommends a book called Talking About Intimacy and Sexuality.

A Talmudic scholar would have been a good source when the story brings up a concept called biah shelo k’darka, “sex in the non-normal manner.” Marcus argues that passages like this imply that all pleasurable acts between a married couple -- oral, anal, etc. -- can be sacred. The Times should have checked.

Why not at least try to get reaction from Satmar leaders, since the sect is mentioned five times? The Times could have also asked Marcus' own rabbi, who is Orthodox, though not Haredi. The story doesn't even name her synagogue.

Unless an editor cut the story savagely, I can only guess that the writer made little effort to get other perspectives. Perhaps that's because the writer, Daniel Bergner, is himself the author of a book on "female desire."

This feature is valuable in introducing us to a little-known pioneer on sex therapy for women in little-known Jewish communities. But when it has Marcus wading into religious teachings, it needs others to wade in, too. Otherwise, the story broadens our knowledge, yet narrows our understanding.

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