Shomer Negiah in Today’s World

So let’s talk about the interesting stuff. Sex.

Ostensibly there is nothing of the sort at Yeshiva University. As the exemplar of American Modern Orthodoxy, YU has something of a pristine reputation, at least as far as I’m aware. Many parents send their children to YU with the hopes of preventing them from the big, bad college world of drinking, drugs, and, of course, sex. And YU is definitely more sheltered than most places; if someone’s looking for a good time (and by that I mean the kind that involves one of the three aforementioned options, not a night out bowling) it’s easy enough to find.

Peel back the layers of guys who don’t talk to girls until it’s set up by a shadchan and girls whose idea of inappropriate behavior is wearing a red shirt (it’s eye-catching and seductive, for those of you who never attended Bais Yaakov and therefore don’t understand what could possibly be wrong with a red shirt) and dig a bit among the more modern students, and there you’ll find the more worldly ones among us.These somewhat scandalous students will touch their boyfriends or girlfriends, either openly or in stolen moments in dark corners when no one is around to see. Perhaps scandalous isn’t the right word, relative what the world comes to expect from the average college student, but in our world, this is what passes for scandal.

The more right-wing students avoid situations in which this becomes a problem by not taking part in anything co-ed. Dating is limited to shadchan-appointed dates, and the dating/engagement period often lasts about half a year. The more left-wing, or completely non-religious students disregard halacha and treat dating much like the rest of the world does. Then there’s the awkward in-between people. The ones who want to have more socially acceptable relationships– dating for months, meeting guys/girls on their own– without having to sacrifice their beliefs that relationships should be carried out according to halacha– no first kiss, no hugs at the end of a date, not even hand-holding in a movie theater. Strict separation.

In fact, in a completely unscientific survey of my counterparts at YU, the not-touching only lasts so long. My friends have a range of theories, that shomer negiah lasts anywhere from 2 months to 6 months in a relationship, but the general idea is that for this in-between, shomer negiah is something close to an impossibility. People don’t talk about it, but it’s an unspoken understanding. That isn’t to say there is rampant sex taking place every night at YU; in fact, for the most part, further results from my unscientific survey show that “breaking” shomer negiah can mean something as innocuous as holding hands to as close to sex as possible without actual sex (use your imaginations). Sure, there are students having sex, but it’s more common at YU (again, unscientically proven) to be breaking shomer negiah without fully having sex.

I’ve had conversations about this with enough people to know that the reactions from Modern Orthodox readers will fall into two categories: 1. The people who have experienced this firsthand and will eagerly expound on their own theories of shomer negiah, or 2. Those who have never experienced it, will deny that breaking shomer negiah is common, will insist that keeping shomer negiah is completely possible, and will probably be incensed that I dare write this post at all.

Those who fall into this second category are of this opinion either because they have themselves never been in a long enough or serious enough relationship to have felt the extreme desire to break shomer negiah, or they belong to that impressive group of people who are able to withstand the pull of physical intimacy. (An aside: I generally hate euphemisms like “physical intimacy” but it does lend a certain air of credibility to my postulations.)

There is certainly a sharply reduced amount of sex happening at YU than other colleges, although it is not non-existent. But there’s other stuff going on. And it’s not talked about, which in my (journalistically-biased) opinion is never a good thing.

After posting all of the above on my blog at New Voices, I’ve been receiving the same question from numerous readers and friends: Why do we need to talk about it? Some say talking about the topic will only validate the breaking of a mitzvah, while others suggest that it’s lashon hara to talk about it in a public forum. Yet I remain firm in my belief that this, like most things, should not be covered up with polite words and pleasant conversation.

Why should we talk about it? Well, for one thing, if we are of the opinion that breaking shomer negiah is a bad thing, there’s only one way to fix it, and the first step is to speak about it. The system is flawed. Shomer negiah was instituted during a time when the concept of dating was nonexistent. Engagements lasted weeks and the pressures of relationships were completely different. Marriages themselves were different, with dissimilar expectations, so the relationships leading up to them are not comparable to the way they are today. Yet we expect the people in relationships to follow the same code as the ones who did back then without falling into any problems. Either the way in which we date has to change or the expectations of those dating have to be altered. The way it is right now is unrealistic and nearly impossible.


Another purpose to openly discussing the issue of shomer neigah is that currently there is no guidance for people who fall into the situation of dating and realizing that shomer negiah isn’t plausible once in a committed relationship. This leads to two problems: one, the people in the relationship are left feeling guilty about what’s happening, and possibly even feeling alone in their problem, if they don’t discuss it with peers. Two, the people in the relationship are given two extremes of dating paradigms: from their upbringing, and their Jewish role models, they are told that dating is done without touching, and that one waits until marriage before brushing fingers, let alone having sex; from modern culture, in which we are all more or less fully immersed, they see people having sex with practical strangers, a world where virginity is not a virtue but a burden. So then how are they to make practical, healthy decisions about the touching that is inevitably going to happen?


I realize this argument is sort of the frum version of the condom conundrum: that is, should public schools provide condoms, because on the one hand it sends the message that having sex is okay, but on the other hand, it’s likely that the students are having sex anyway, so they may as well be safe about it. So yes, discussing shomer negiah in an open and honest forum may validate the touching—but it’s happening anyway. So we need to talk about it, if only to discuss how it can be prevented from happening.