At 24 years old, my life doesn’t revolve around the fact that I’ve never done the deed. Refraining from sex until my wedding night is mostly a given as a Jewish Modern Orthodox woman. I’ve never had to dispense any explanation to potential suitors because most of the men I date are privy to my cultural background and the religious laws I observe. I always knew I’d remain abstinent until marriage, so taking an adult sex-ed class as a virgin never crossed my mind. A trip to Morocco, though, made me realize that taking such a workshop would benefit me in ways I never imagined.
Last year, I sat poolside in Casablanca playing Never Have I Ever with a group of Jewish men and women who aren’t Orthodox like me. When it was my turn to recite something I’d never done in hopes that someone else did, I played my V-card. “Never have I ever had sex,” I said nonchalantly. Cue radio silence and gaping stares. Someone made an audible sound like they’d just witnessed a car crash. I, in turn, responded with a look that said, “What? Is there something on my face?” Up until then, I equated expressing sexuality with shame. Never had I ever been chastened for not partaking in hookup culture.
Before I started high school, my mother — not one to lay down any rules — told me that my reputation and my name meant everything and that I was to guard it with my life. A recent grocery run proved that to be true in ways I never wanted to acknowledge. I was in the produce aisle when I overheard a conversation between two women, one of whom had a son in my class throughout high school.
“My son only wants to date a girl who’s never had a boyfriend and has never been kissed,” she said.
My eyes were rolling so far back in my head, I thought I might be having a seizure. Her son was the same boy who’d been making out with my friend all throughout our senior year. The fact that he felt he could do whatever he pleased sexually while women are made to feel like used goods if they so much as kiss their boyfriends completely deflated me. My community has modernized exponentially, but this moment reminded me there's still a double standard between men and women when it comes to sex.
The yeshiva (Orthodox high school) I attended, did not offer students a sexual education or health course of any kind — unless learning about anatomy of the body and Jewish laws of sex count. We did have an all-girls class during middle school and high school that discussed topics like body image, substance abuse, and bullying. Our very last class before we ventured off into the real world was about marital sex. For months, my classmates and I whispered about the long-awaited dialogue with eyes wide in anticipation. It turned out the class was a total bust. I don’t remember much from the anti-climactic 45-minute conversation that ensued, except our palpable disappointment.
“That’s it? That’s what we’ve been waiting all year for?” one classmate retorted as the clock struck a quarter past and we ran to some other class that we’d never put to use. Even though I didn’t expect our teacher to speak in depth about marital sex, there were so many other subjects she could have covered that would have served us well: emotional intimacy, consent, and even the workings of our own bodies. So, it was back to the drawing board — and by that, I mean the issues of Cosmopolitan that my best friend and I devoured cover to cover.
When my best friend got married last year, she took a marriage class required by our community where her teacher talked about the spiritual Jewish laws pertaining to sex, how to keep a peaceful home, and what to expect (or rather, what not to expect) your first time. I wondered if there was a different kind of class that would allow me to learn more about sex ed. I didn’t feel safe speaking about sexuality in yeshiva, and I didn’t feel safe speaking about my virginity with a group of young adults on vacation. So, I sought a place where people spoke openly about these encounters, without judgment.
I met storyteller and entrepreneur Jared Matthew Weiss at his workshop called The Art of Introducing Yourself. He spoke about another company he founded called Touchpoint, a monthly town hall where people from all walks of life gather to explore ideas about sexuality, partnership, and identity. Their mission is to make it easier to love and be loved. I decided to attend.
In late December, I arrived at a building in Midtown Manhattan. It had a spiritual ambiance, thanks to its tufted floor pillows and plant-based drinks, and was filled with over a hundred people. I took a seat in the back, feeling like I had no business being there with my virgin status.
Weiss, barefoot in a black jumpsuit, quickly abated my fear of being outed as a fraud by explaining that sex is only part of the equation. His whole ethos centers around the idea that “self-expression is the key to freedom.” I was intrigued to learn more about how he sees sexual intimacy as emotional connection. I've had successful relationships in the past; I know there's more to partnership than just sex. When people ask me how I plan on marrying someone without knowing what they’d be like in bed, I tell them that it’s something I’ve never worried about. For me, chemistry and communication are far more crucial.
The very first thing you should feel with the person you’re sexually engaged with, says Weiss, is complete and utter safety to fully express yourself. If you can’t communicate what you want and what you need (he presents The Maslow Hierarchy of Needs for ultimate pleasure) then you can’t set intentions or boundaries or even give your partner compassionate feedback. The most important part of cultivating a healthy sex life is talking about a healthy sex life. So, if a healthy discussion about sex is just as important as the deed itself, why don’t more people do it? “Because we don’t have the language,” Weiss said. Communicating about our desires can be hard, though it's a skill you can cultivate with practice.
In the second portion of the workshop, Weiss introduced a card game in which two audience members were chosen to sit at the front of the class and answer questions relating to their sex lives. Most of the prompts had as much to do with physical intimacy as it did emotional. When a card titled “bad sex” was picked, I almost tuned out, assuming it wouldn’t resonate with me. As it turned out, I had more in common with its implications than I thought.
Bad sex, apparently, has a lot more to do with communication than sex itself. To drive the point home, a woman in her early 20s delved into a story about her ex-boyfriend who began to withdraw from sex once their relationship became rocky and lacked emotion. I thought back to my first real relationship in high school where I completely withdrew from kosher physical intimacy, and for a long time questioned why this happened. Looking back, it’s clear that the turning point must have been when I became increasingly afraid of what the Big Man Upstairs thought about our physical actions. I constantly questioned aloud (much to my ex’s chagrin) if what we were doing was "wrong." My anxious thoughts pranced around my mind like demonizing ballerinas. I thought my worth was directly correlated to the act of indulging in sexual pleasures of any kind. I still feel that way sometimes, but I know now that kissing your high school boyfriend does not award you a place in hell.
It was then the audience’s turn to discuss the cards with fellow seatmates, who were veritable strangers. Pairing up with two women in their 30s, I felt safe to tell them about a traumatizing experience that I could only share with my closest friends and poetry journals. Maybe it was because they were older and had more wisdom to bestow on me. Or maybe it was because I knew, without a doubt, that they weren’t judging me.
Before entering the class, I thought I’d be the only virgin, but participants made me see the nuances of sexual experience. Some classmates had never had sex while sober; others hadn't been intimate since their transitions. The experience helped me reflect on the variety of human sexual experience, and how I can stay true to myself.
I left the workshop more determined to date and befriend people that won’t gasp at my sexual naiveté or sexual knowledge. I felt liberated knowing that sex won’t be as frightening when it’s with someone that I feel comfortable to fully express myself with. I also realized how important it is for all schools to educate their students about healthy relationships, regardless of whether it's in the context of sex. Now, I feel more comfortable talking to my friends about sexuality; it doesn't seem as taboo anymore.
More than anything, the workshop taught me that I can be a sexual being and adhere to my religious beliefs. I don't need to feel the nagging sensation of shame anymore. And when I do have sex on my wedding night, I'll be more equipped to form a deeper connection with my future husband having talked about it first — way before we enter the bedroom.