Taking the "Rihanna" approach to Jewish Orthodox sexuality
I was a little surprised to see how much frank talk about sex was featured in The Sisterhood this week. As a teenager, I am used to people around me talking about sex a lot--in real life, in movies, in songs, in basically every medium except in Jewish blogs. But that is no longer!
It was interesting for me to read about how many women have been affected by the lack of frank discussion of sex and sexuality in Judaism, and how many women go through their lives without really talking about sex or their sexual needs. On one hand, I find that foreign, because people around me talk about sex all the time. On the other hand, when I thought about it, so much of the portrayal of sex in the media is skewed--there is a lot of woman-bashing, perpetration of sexual stereotypes, and very little emphasis on what women actually want. Sounds kind of similar to the complaints Jewish women have about their own lack of sexual literacy.
So I thought that I'd share this music video by Rihanna, an internationally known pop artist, as an example of some of the contradictions in the portrayal of sex in the media today and what they mean for the way women see their sexuality.
On one hand, the video is clearly very sexual, to the point that it is somewhat uncomfortable to watch. Rihanna wears very little clothing, and the entire video could be seen as demeaning to Rihanna in the way that she uses her body to get people to watch her video and listen to her music. However, if you listen to the lyrics, the discussion gets somewhat more complicated when she says things like "Boy, I want, want, want whatchu want, want, want," "Relax, let me do it how I wanna" and "Babe, if I don't feel it I ain't faking, no, no." She declares that she has sexual needs just like any man and makes it clear that she expects to be satisfied. The picture she paints is nowhere near perfect, clearly--Rude Boy doesn't teach any kind of actual safe sex education. However, it still paints the picture of a strong woman who will not settle for a man who will not please her.
Personally, I think that it is important that songs like this exist. Its not my favorite song, to say the least, but I find it somewhat empowering to know that a woman can write a song about her sexual demands just like so many men write songs about what they want from women. And while it is easy to write Rude Boy off as an overly sexual pop video (which I believe it is, to an extent), it also serves as a counterpoint to too many overly sexual pop videos that portray women as having no sexual needs. Girls today, used to hearing songs like Right Round and Gimme Head (this is not a joke), have gotten used to only thinking about sex in terms of men's needs. Is Rude Boy perfect? No. But is it a step in the right direction? I believe that it is.
So what does this really have to do with Judaism? At least in the Orthodox world, many women feel that there is the same lack of honest acknowledgement of women's sexual needs as there is in the media. And because it takes time to cultivate that kind of change in perspective, just like it does in the media, I think we could use a Rihanna of the Jewish world--someone who knows her audience, but also knows that if you go about it the right way, you can slowly change people's idea about sexuality. It's a very different audience, I'll admit, but the same principle should be followed: talk to people about things in a way that they are used to, one that will make them likely to listen.
So how do we move towards that? A 2009 study conducted by Dr. Michelle Friedman, Director of Pastoral Counseling at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, and a larger team of researchers on sexual behavior among religious couples, women expressed how much they wished that they had been taught about their bodies, men's bodies, and Jewish views on a woman's right to pleasure, among many other things, before marriage. I think the fact that this study and the discussions going on in The Sisterhood article above exist is a step in the right direction: getting Orthodox women to openly acknowledge the gaps in their sexual education. Now hopefully, the next step will be to fill those gaps. I'm not sure exactly how--perhaps by religious leaders involving women in discussions on their sexual lives, or through Rabbi-approved books on sexuality, or through some other means of reaching out to women. But whichever way works, I think that it's important, for Jewish and non-Jewish women alike, that these gaps begin to be filled.
Dina Lamdany is a Washington D.C. high school student and aspiring feminist who blogs at from the rib.