A few weeks ago, the Forward published a long account about the trials and tribulations endured by Orthodox college students who wish to remain shomer negiah while attending secular universities where the so-called hook up culture is ubiquitous. Featured prominently in the story was my alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania, where many of the more religious kids maintain a “hands off” approach to mundane social interactions and especially dating. And throughout most of my four years at Penn, I, like many of the subjects profiled in the article, practiced shomer negiah.
My practice was not as absolute as it was for some of the subjects in the article. I never eschewed casual contact like handshakes, which for me didn’t seem to defy the halachic injunction prohibiting touch that is derech chibah, or in an affectionate manner. I wasn’t so indoctrinated that I could actually sexualize a handshake.
Even before college, my teenage libido frequently got the better of me during gymnastics practice, when I sometimes insisted on a male spot on certain skills, telling my female coach, who was more than capable of carrying me through any flip, that I needed a stronger spotter.
What I meant to say was that I needed the high school-aged Stefan, who was often shirtless, to lift me through a somersault. But I rationalized it thusly: crashing into him after a failed attempt at a back layout couldn’t really be considered affectionate touch, right?
I was not the only observant student who was trying to figure out ways around the rules. At the start of my freshman year of college, one of my fellow adherents (and there were many who professed to be shomer, at least in public) told me about a recent interaction with the similarly observant guy she was dating. They were on her bed at a relatively safe distance when he picked up one of her teddy bears and used its paw to gently caress her cheek.
At the time, I thought this was just about the most adorable, romantic story I had ever heard. It also turned me green with envy. I was 17 and fresh out of twelve years of all-girls schools and camp, and I too wanted to be caressed by a stuffed animal. (This whole admission is far more cringe-worthy to write than it is to read, I assure you.)
Though I still think the story is kind of cute, I also find it disturbing. My friend and I were so immature and clueless about sex and navigating the tricky sexual and romantic interactions between men and women. And our respective yeshiva educations had labored to ensure that we wouldn’t know much more before we got married. I suppose this wouldn’t have been too terrible if you managed to stay religious and marry someone as clueless as yourself.
But if you decided to abandon the practice in your early 20s, as I did, you find yourself in a new, more sexually experienced dating pool, feeling like a kid in water wings while everyone else around you can swim with ease. And if your new peer group assumes a degree of sexual experience and your old one has none, it can be quite difficult to find practical advice on the matter.
That’s how I felt during my senior of college when I decided that I was done observing shomer negiah but didn’t know how to signal to my friends, most of whom only knew me as really observant, that they could now hug me or thrown an arm around me in group photos instead of being forced to lean in awkwardly without touching. I briefly considered donning a pair of Hammer pants and singing You Can Touch This, but decided to remain mum on the subject until I graduated.
The years after college involved a move to a different coast where I was free to reinvent myself as someone who wore pants and touched men—no song and dance number needed by way of explanation. But despite my fancy new jeans and tank tops and indiscriminate hugs, I was still rather clueless. It took several years of awkward fumbling to attain a degree of sexual experience and confidence.
This awkward past is part of the reason I find the newly launched website Jewrotica so charming. Though the name suggests some degree of naughtiness and kink, many of the posts on the site seem to be aimed towards a less sexually experienced demographic, which seems to be part of the design of founder Ayo Oppenheimer. (Even the more sexually adventurous writing doesn’t feel especially titillating or extreme in a world where Dan Savage is now considered mainstream.)
Oppenheimer was raised Orthodox and experienced the same sort of culture shock that many of the subjects in the Forward article felt at being introduced to secular college life and dating. At least part of the aim of Jewrotica seems to be educating others who grew up similarly sheltered.
At times, this means having the sort of debates you might hear at a Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance conference. There was one recent post that presented halachic and societal arguments about whether or not women can and should wear pants. Obviously, clothing is a bit part of feminine sexuality, so this information is not entirely out of place.
It sounds, however, like a lot of the reasoning and rationalizing I did a few years before I was ready for any sort of sexual contact. Though ostensibly I majored in English and Communication in college, I actually spent my first two years concentrating on the academic/Talmudic/philosophical reasons I could wear jeans.
To read those particular posts as an adult isn’t illuminating as much as it is nostalgia-inducing. They took me back to a time before I possessed practical knowledge, when Jewish practice was about arguments and proofs, where thinking about doing was about as far I was willing to go.
I’m glad that other young Jewish women will have a better source of information about sexuality than I did back in my college days when I primarily relied on television. And I plan to continue reading Jewrotica, if for no other reason than to reminisce about those awkward years that you never truly overcome.
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