Author’s Note: This article contains a discussion about female sexuality. People who are sensitive towards such topics are forewarned. To read a response to this article, please see https://thebeaconmag.com/2012/04/letters-to-the-editor/female-sexuality-a-wifes-letter-to-the-editor/. [This link was incorrect before but has since been updated.]
I consider myself a pretty open-minded person. My friends and acquaintances know this about me and will sometimes confide in me, ask for advice about situations in their life, or just simply want to talk to me. During my time at Stern College for Women, I cannot tell you how many of my peers – friends and strangers alike – have spoken to me overwhelmingly about one topic, one recurring issue. As I sit here writing this article, looking back at my formative years in the halls of Stanton, I feel it is time for someone to have a frank, open conversation with all Jewish, Orthodox ladies about female masturbation.
I have found, through my conversations with others, that the topic of female masturbation usually produces one of two extreme responses. Some women shudder in disgust and attempt to drown out further conversation. For some of you ladies, the word masturbation conjures up feelings of insecurity and secretiveness; masturbation, for you, is against religion, and is something that is not to be done, spoken about, or thought of. This disgusting secret, this shameful and wicked act, is part of your body’s weakness and leaves you in a total state of anxiety and personal disgrace. The rest of you encourage others to explore themselves and their personal sexuality. For you, masturbation is part of the natural process of life, something in which you engage regularly and happily.
Now, before I go on, I would like to make one thing clear. I am not advocating in any way for a woman to become sexually loose and throw her morals down the drain in search of her personal sexual identity. If you think I am telling women to stop practicing shomer negiah or to stop setting physical boundaries with their significant others, think again. If anything, I encourage that to continue. This article is in no way addressing any kind of relationship a woman has with others. Rather, I am going to attempt to address a unique aspect of the relationship a woman has with herself. Am I writing this article to be scandalous? To make others uncomfortable? To encourage the defamation of Jewish law? No. My purpose is to have an open, mature discussion on a topic that is rarely discussed within the female, Jewish, Orthodox circle.
Why do Orthodox Jewish women feel so negatively toward masturbation? My simple answer to this complex question is this: Issur Hashchatat Zera Levatala – the prohibition found in the Gemara* that forbids a man from wasting his semen in vain. This prohibition is so bad, so sinful, that the Gemara compares it to idolatry or even infanticide and states that a man who engages in this act deserves death. Because this prohibition of male masturbation exists, it has become the norm, the assumption, that women also take upon themselves this prohibition and do not engage in masturbation themselves. As a result, when a woman does masturbate, she feels like she has done something completely inappropriate.
I have spoken to many women who seem to mentally and emotionally link masturbation with a lack of tzniut. However, tzniut includes more than its purely physical manifestation. It is also a mentality, an outlook on how to view oneself in a personal and societal context. Those who argue that female masturbation is not tzniut reason that masturbation endangers the “outer and inner” moral code that creates the overall concept of tzniut. If a woman is tzniut in public, according to this reasoning, so too she should be tzniut in private. While I can understand and slightly appreciate this kind of logic, I cannot help but point out how flawed it is. What is un-tzniut about masturbation? In regards to the physical aspect of masturbation, no one sees you. You are in complete privacy. Concerning the psychological relationship between masturbation and tzniut, masturbation is viewed as something completely sexual. The idea of “going down there” is so against what your typical Orthodox Jewish woman was taught growing up. A woman’s sexual desire is something to be ashamed about. To give into this “temptation” is to go against those personal morals that fall under the category of tzniut to which a woman is expected to adhere.
A friend once explained to me that though she was in her early twenties, she had only begun to think about masturbating a year ago. And when she does, she cannot stand herself afterward. Her actions shame her; they make her feel like she has done something wrong. She feels used and afraid that she has somehow jeopardized her morals. My friend’s self loathing upset me. The common attitude that has been accepted by so many of us without question upset me. I explained to my friend that these feelings of wrongness were not accurately placed, and I told her that she should be feeling wronged by our community, a community that hushes up this kind of important discussion and frames something that is seemingly natural as unnatural.
Those reading this article who consider themselves “learned” and do not like the premise of my argument are probably thinking of ways to dispute my claims. Let me stop you here and now. The most you can possibly argue is that female masturbation can lead to impure thoughts** and is not in the spirit of the law (something I am still trying to define myself after hearing this term being applied to this topic). There is no explicit prohibition for women found anywhere in any written Jewish law text that forbids masturbation. If you are going to use the impure thoughts claim, then I urge you to get off of the Internet you are so enjoying right now because one wrong click can lead to your doom. And as for the spirit of the law? Well, how about those board games you enjoy playing on Shabbos with your friends? Or catching up on the sport pages in the newspaper? Smoking come close? Maybe gambling, even for fun? All of the aforementioned examples are not outright prohibitions, but many Orthodox Jews readily engage in them without a second thought. Why do we find this acceptable?
A well known teacher at Stern whom I respect tremendously once stressed the importance of a woman getting to know her own body, but insinuated that Jewish women should refrain from acts of self pleasure because they are not in the spirit of the laws of Judaism. I will have to respectfully disagree. There is a decent amount of discussion in the poskim concerning women and the prohibition of Hashchatat Zera Levatala. However, a majority of the discussion is centered on whether or not a woman is allowed to destroy a man’s zera, not hers.*** Some poskim even argue that a woman’s zera does not even exist. The silence of the poskim on the matter of female masturbation is deafening. There is not a single mention in the Shulchan Aruch or other major commentaries concerning this issue. I would like to point out the well known idea in Judaism of “not adding on to the Torah.” If there is no direct prohibition of female masturbation, and a woman pleasuring herself hurts no one, then why add on this chumrah, this fence? Who is it trying to protect? Certainly not the woman herself. I think the answer is the leaders of the Jewish community who do not have the guts to even begin to approach the topic of female sexuality within Judaism.
Many women do not realize the importance of getting to know their own bodies. Dr. Bat Sheva Marcus, clinical director of The Medical Center for Female Sexuality, once spoke at Stern about female sexuality before a packed audience. The fact that someone had the audacity to bring in a speaker like this was completely revolutionary, and every person sitting in that room was hanging on to each word Dr. Marcus uttered. At one point in her presentation, Dr. Marcus pointedly asked the audience if anyone engages in masturbation. Of course no one was brave enough to raise her hand publicly. She went on to emphasize certain points about why masturbation, for women, is so important. As a woman, you need to know your body – what feels right, and what feels wrong. When a woman does eventually become sexually active, how will she be able to tell her partner what she wants? How will her partner be able to make her feel good in the bedroom? This is the essence of the mitzvah of Onah – a woman desiring and her partner fulfilling that desire.**** Without knowing what her body wants, a woman is many times bound to be left sexually unsatisfied. Dr. Marcus then went on to highlight the association between masturbation and stress. Masturbating allows a woman to relieve her everyday physical, emotional, and psychological stresses. And in terms of physical health, if something is not physically right “down there,” how will a woman even know? Dr. Marcus at one point even stated that while she knows that we, her audience, were all Jews, most of us religious, we needed to take religion out of the equitation when it came to masturbation. There is nothing in Judaism that should stop a woman from getting to know her body.
While I do not expect those reading this who feel ashamed about masturbation to suddenly flip to the side of life with the greener grass, I ask of you one thing. I want you to think about what I have laid before you with an open mind. I want you to think of yourself as a woman, a woman in a very specific societal and religious context, and come up with your own conclusions. Do not allow others to impose prohibitions on you that do not exist. I am certainly not telling you to shout from the rooftops each time you masturbate. That would just be immature and totally unnecessary, and I would not hesitate to call you a fool to your face. I am telling you, however, to feel empowered: to not walk around with a devil on your back, a black cloud of doom hanging over you for something that you think is wrong but in reality is not. I ask you to get to know yourself as a woman and help discover some of that hidden personal femininity. But above all, encourage yourself to begin to approach the relationship you have with yourself differently. Respect yourself as a woman, as a Jew, and know that there is nothing wrong with self exploration.
*Gemara Niddah Yud Gimmel
**Igros Moshe, Even Ha’ezer 1, sec. 69
***Igros Moshe, Even Ha’Ezer 4:70 / Responsa Chasam Sofer 2:172
****Shemot 21: 7-11 / Igros Moshe, Even Ha’ezer 3:28