I’m Modern Orthodox and Single — And I’d Like To Have Sex

It feels like it would be a total smack in the face to my family and upbringing. On the other hand, I feel failed by that very community.

Hello and welcome back to Hey Alma’s advice column on all things Jewish life — check out what our Instagram audience had to say about this week’s issue, read on for advice from our resident deputy managing editor/bossy Capricorn Jew, and submit your own dilemmas anonymously here.

Dear Hey Alma,

I’m a Modern Orthodox woman in my early 30s. I went to yeshiva day schools and seminary, where the ideas of purity and modesty were instilled in me. Which means I’m still a virgin waiting for marriage, and it’s a pretty pathetic feeling. But based on the lacking quality in all the guys I go on dates with from all the Jewish approved apps and networks, I’m probably not going to get married. I really just wanna start hooking up (with Jewish or non-Jewish men) and not die a virgin. But it feels like a total smack in the face to my family and upbringing. On the other hand, I feel failed by that very community. Do I owe Jewish family norms anything when it seems like I’m never going to have my own?

Hi friend,

Thank you for trusting us with such a personal question. Right away, I want to say: You are not alone in feeling this way. I’m not just saying that in the cliche “all humans experience the same emotions, no story is a new story” kind of way — I’m saying it quite factually! I interviewed and casually chatted with multiple sources and friends from the Modern Orthodox world while I was thinking how to best advise you on this question, and every single one told me they’ve had this exact same conversation with unmarried Modern Orthodox women many, many times. Your conflicted feelings are understandable. Your impatience is justified. And your questions are very, very common. It may not be spoken about openly, but this issue is simmering beneath the surface in many Modern Orthodox communities.

I also want to say some things upfront about my own positionality. I grew up in a Conservative/Reform Jewish home. I’m a lesbian. I married my wife when I was 34, and I’d had a lot of sex before then. I’m sex positive and body positive, and I’m lucky to be surrounded by community members (both Jewish and not Jewish) who are the same. I think purity culture can be very damaging and I believe our bodies, and our choices about what to do with them, belong only to ourselves. All that said, I understand that different people connect with religion, community, God and themselves in ways that are different than the way I do. I hear in your question not just frustration about wanting to have sex and feeling let down by your community, but a real reckoning with your own value system and what you actually want and owe yourself.

And finally: I love scrolling through our Instagram comments when we post our bi-weekly advice questions, because our community is so generous and wise and there is always so much amazing insight offered freely and kindly. For this question, I noticed a lot of our readers suggested that you just “go for it” when it comes to sex, or to even explore different sects of Judaism that might grant you more freedom when it comes to sex. I will say lovingly: I do not think the answer to this question is as easy as that, and I’m not sure you’ll really find the resolution or comfort you’re seeking if you simply follow that advice. I’m not even sure it’s possible to do. So while I understand where those comments are coming from and I think if they resonate with you that’s wonderful, I want to dig a little deeper into what I perceive you to be asking in this question.

So let’s dig in.

You are not alone

I know I said this already, but it’s important enough to emphasize again, with it’s whole subject heading and everything. When you’re part of a homogenous community, and the people around you all seem to be practicing religion in the exact same way, it can feel so lonely when you think you’re going off the beaten path… but you are not alone. Many women in our generation are dealing with this. One Modern Orthodox rabbi I spoke to said she’s had this conversation literally countless times with different women. What you’re feeling is normal.

What you owe yourself

This is a question about sex, but it’s also a question about values, building a life you love and what you owe yourself. Figuring out what you really want in this world is incredibly hard work. Deciding how much you want to honor the values your family and community have instilled in you versus how much those values might actually be harming you or simply not be right for you takes years of internal searching. It is quite literally The Work everyone is talking about when they say, “You can’t just go to therapy, you have to make sure you’re actually engaging in The Work!” (Wait, is this something everyone says or just the middle age queers I surround myself with? Hm, much to think about it.)

Anyway, what I’m trying to say is, as much as this is a question about wanting to have sex, the more important layer is really about how you want to live your life. So while I am going to offer some practical steps about what can happen next, I also want to encourage you to really turn inward and start unpacking some of the threads knotted up here. It’ll be more than you bargained for — internal work always is — but it will change your life in a way that makes the challenge worth it, I promise.

Practical Things To Do

OK, so you’re probably like, “thanks Vanessa, loved the monologue about the importance of knowing thyself and the never-ending work it entails, I’d like to get to the part of my question about if I should have a casual hookup or not.” Fair! Here are some hot (practical) tips about where you go from here.

Talk to people you trust IRL

Presumably, if you wrote in to Hey Alma about this question, you may not have people in your life you feel safe discussing this with. I get it. And also — you must find them. I recommend starting to search for a really solid therapist (ideally one who has a background or familiarity with Modern Orthodox Judaism or similar religious communities). I’ve heard from some Modern Orthodox friends that no matter how helpful therapy is, it can be challenging to explain to a therapist why they actually want to maintain the value system they grew up with. In my opinion, this is great work to do in therapy — with the right therapist, you’ll be able to push yourself to figure out where your values lie, not just the values you were raised to believe in. Maybe they are the same; maybe they diverge greatly. But a skilled therapist will help you find your own boundaries, and once your internal compass is set to be attuned to you, it will be much easier to make all sorts of decisions.

I also think it would be great for you to find a really supportive rabbi. Not all Modern Orthodox rabbis will be open to talking about sex before marriage, but some will be! There is some homework involved here, but much like the important internal work you must do, I think this is worth it. Some of the friends I chatted with suggested Yeshivat Maharat, Mayyim Hayyim, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance and Hadar as institutions that may be able to point you to a supportive rabbi who understands both your current needs and also where you’re coming from.

Make single friends outside your bubble

Along with finding mentors and experts who can help you untangle how you feel, I think making some friends who are also single women in their 30s — who are having sex or not — will be life-changing. Many of us tend to befriend people who are in the same communities as we are, and it can feel like an echo-chamber or like there is only one acceptable way to do things in this life. When we step outside those communities, it normalizes the world outside what we know.

Also — single friends will be able to complain about dating with you! Honestly, dating can be hard, whether you’re Modern Orthodox or secular or anywhere in between. It’s rough out there. It’s nice to have pals to kvetch with about it all. And on the flip side… sometimes you do find a partner to be serious with or to marry much later than you planned, and that’s something you’ll see happen if you have single friends, too. Some people decide to stay single forever, it’s true, but for many of us, we’re Extremely Single until one day when… we are not. I’m not saying you have to spend your life waiting for a partner worthy of your time to come along, or that you can’t have sex until that happens; I’m just saying, even though you sound sure you’re not going to get married ever… it could happen. My source is literally myself, a girl who insisted up until age 33 that she would never get married and who is now very happily married. Life is long and surprising.

Think about what you’re really looking for

The binary between “virgin” and “not a virgin” is really not as sharp as teen movies make it out to be. I understand that you may feel pathetic for not having had a specific kind of intercourse yet, but sexual pleasure comes in so many different packages. I wonder what you’re looking for when you say you want to start hooking up. Is it a casualness that is challenging to find when you’re dating as if you’re looking for a husband? Is it intimacy you hope to engage in? Is it a mind-blowing orgasm with someone you think is hot? Is it a playmate with whom to pass a lazy Sunday afternoon? Depending on what you’re looking for, there will be different routes to take to achieve it.

Ways to be sexually satisfied

Our choices exist on a spectrum. You don’t have to either be a person who believes in abstinence until marriage or a person who hooks up with random guys you find on Tinder. Our choices are also not static. Whatever you decide to do, you can change your mind. If you do have sex with some casual partners and decide you don’t want to continue doing that, you can stop. If you keep waiting for a while and eventually decide you do want to have sex, you can start. You are in charge of your choices — once you’ve done the work of figuring out your own value system (not your family’s or your community’s) and what you actually desire sexually, you’ll be able to satisfy your sexual needs.

To begin, if you’ve not explored masturbation, I’d strongly recommend you start there. Having sex with someone else for the first time can be great or it can be awful — another person is not always going to know exactly how your body likes to be touched. If what you’re searching for is orgasms, the quickest route to making that happen might be masturbating. When it comes to halakhah (Jewish law), masturbation for people with vulvas is a grey zone. You may decide that the halakhic value of a sexual action doesn’t matter to you at all, but if it’s something you continue to think about and care about, this is a step that will take less intense parsing of your value system. If you’ve never made yourself orgasm, I strongly recommend checking out OMGYES. This is not sponsored! I just think they’re a great resource.

If you find you do want sexual experiences with a partner, I’m hopeful that you can chat honestly about this decision with him (or her or them — your question indicates that you consider yourself straight, but as a queer woman who only realized I’m a lesbian in my 20s after many sexual experiences, I’d be remiss if I didn’t suggest this as a possibility!). One of the rabbis I spoke to pointed out that while this may not be a tricky decision for all women, it can be very vulnerable, and because of your specific background you will likely have some big emotions attached to making your choice. Making sure you can discuss your sexual past and your hopes for your sexual future with the person or people you decide to have sex with will both reduce the pressure you put on yourself during the experience and hopefully make it more enjoyable for both of you. One of the comments from a Hey Alma community member that I loved put it like this: “A high school teacher once told me that ideally, sex should be halakhic, safe and consensual — and just because one isn’t true, doesn’t mean the others should drop out as well. Jewish values extend beyond the halakhic system!” Safety and consent are the absolute bare minimums when it comes to sex. Please make sure you’re always prioritizing those things.

And finally, speaking of halakhah, if it’s important to you to continue to follow the laws of Jewish life that you grew up with while engaging in sex, there are ways to do that. One friend put it bluntly: “She should have sex and enjoy it but only after going to the mikveh before.” I think when you start diving into this conversation with other supportive women in the Modern Orthodox world, you will find more of this practical advice and camaraderie.

Thank you again for trusting Hey Alma with this sensitive question. I want to conclude by sincerely wishing you mazel tov. It may seem odd that I want to congratulate you at this moment, but I do. By even beginning to wonder about all this, you’re setting yourself up to get really clear on what you want out of your one wild and precious life. Whatever you decide to do next, you’ll know it’s on your own terms, and in line with the most important value system of all: your own.

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