"עת לאהוב The Newlywed's Guide To Physical Intimacy" ( Jerusalem 2011) by Jennie Rosenfeld, PhD and David S. Ribner, DSW, is a remarkable book ( link). The Hebrew title, a time for love, (from Ecc. 3:8), may well have been called עת לעשות. It is a book about sex for newly married Orthodox couples that is actually about sex, notwithstanding Steven Bayme's plaint that the book is flawed because it "ignore[s] the actual sexual behaviors of Modern Orthodox Jews" and instead takes a relatively traditional, by the book approach and does not deal with premarital fooling around or whatever (notwithstanding that it does do this, albeit in passing) (link).
I read it, and had my thoughts, but I also asked the authors some questions, and Dr. Rosenfeld was kind enough to reply.
The book begins with an introduction explaining who the audience is - brides, grooms, chassan and kallah teachers, rabbis and "anyone in the Torah-observant community with questions about sexuality," but it is primarily for couples about to get married and for their first year (i.e., as newlyweds). It includes a pep talk about how special and pleasurable sex is, and some religious words about how it is a gift from God (not "G-d"), like other pleasures in life. It notes that is it not an exhaustive resource, and some things should be discussed with a doctor. Nor is it a halachic work, although it is designed with Torah-observant (it doesn't say Orthodox) people in mind. They believe they have accommodated a wide range of viewpoints, but if anyone has religious questions you should feel free to consult a rabbi who knows you, the couple, and is competent in this area of halacha (nice disclaimer!). Finally, they explain why they wrote the book. Both are Torah-observant Jews who are involved with the issue of sexuality in the Orthdox and Haredi communities. Dr. Ribner is a sex therapist who has seen hundreds of couples in more than 30 years, and Dr. Rosenfeld has worked on sex education for only a few years, but both have experience in the kind of questions and problems couples have and in many cases these could have been prevented with adequate information. They write that they have seen people who felt isolated for feeling things which are completely normal, people who suffered from lack of familiarity with their own sexuality, and had difficulty forging a deep sexual connection with their spouse. So they decided to write this book, to address these issues. I would add that without being a sex therapist, but just by having experience in Orthodox communities and reading many different kinds of personal accounts, viewpoints and questions in various online forums, the idea that Religious Jews "have been happily shagging for millennia [...] Jews never had the concept of "original sin." only tells part of the story to say the least.
The first thing which struck me is that the book lacks a rabbinic approbation, or any notice of any kind of rabbinic input, and that is unusual for a book intended for a religious audience. Assuming this was not an accident, I asked why they chose not to pursue, or use, a haskamah (rabbinic approbation). I wondered this because it occurred to me that a certain percentage of the intended audience might be reluctant to use it without one, and since they must have known that, I assumed they did a cost-benefit analysis and concluded that it was better to publish it without one. It did not occur to me that they could not obtain one, because I am sure they could have. Dr. Rosenfeld replied that they hoped that the book "would speak to the gamut of Orthodoxy (from the Haredi to Chassidish to Centrist to Modern to Left-wing, etc.), we didn't want the haskama to alienate any of the potential readers. Seeing a rabbi to the right or to the left of one could cause them to think that the book is only for that particular group. And the book is really designed to speak to everyone. Ideally, couples could take the book to their rabbi to get his advice, or receive the book from their chatan and kallah teacher, with the teacher's halakhic input. That was our thinking. In terms of whether we would have been able to get the haskamot had we decided we wanted them, I really don't know."
I also noticed that while the book is surely modest by current secular norms, it is still quite frank - and it also includes a further reading list; more on that later. In addition, while clearly religious in orientation, it is almost entirely lacking in what they call "hashkafah," not to mention fluff. It is not coldly clinical at all, but there are no stories of rabbis, vertlach and facile analyses of the Mars/ Venus type, and where such generalizations do occur they clearly label them with terms like "may" or "tend to." There are no platitudes or quotations from various famous "Holy Letters." I assumed this resistance to turn the book into a piece of moralistic literature was not an accident either, and Rosenfeld confirmed that the lack of hashkafah comes from the same place as the lack of haskamah, on theone hand. On the other hand, she pointed out that such books already exist, but this one did not. I think it was a wise decision, because such books often feel preachy. Furthermore - more below - there is no laundry list of halachic or customary restrictions in this book, which are commonly disseminated by chassan and kallah teachers, and presumably they are the cause of not a small amount of what they have to deal with in therapeutic situations (this is my inference). Consult your rabbi if you need to, is all they suggest.
The first chapter is called His Body/ Her Body and Arousal. Taking no chances and making sure that everything is completely clear to whomever reads it, it begins with noting that no two bodies are alike and each responds differently to different stimulation. It even goes through some basic descriptive info about what male and female bodies look like! - as well as to explain what erogenous zones are, and what are some of them. While these things may seem obvious, or at least something intelligent people will figure out themselves, they take no chances and do not want readers who need to begin at the beginning to be left behind. Finally, there is a detailed description of the female and male body and the physical act of sexual intercourse itself.
The second chapter is called Getting Sexual. It begins with guidelines, such as that sex should be a learning experience, enjoyable, people should expect it to be different from what one may have seen or heard, and that men and women tend to have different needs and respond in different ways. Finally, if things are just not working, one should not hesitate to seek professional help. It then discusses the importance of communication, clearly knowing and labeling body parts, as well as the terms relating to sexual activity and response. Their point is that couples who bashfully talk about that thing with the thing - or no talking at all - are not going to end up on the same page, except by luck or chance. In this chapter, as well as in the others, there are gray boxes labeled "We were wondering..." which represent commonly asked questions (and Rosenfeld confirmed that these truly are common). So in this chapter, for example, one is about talking about sex before marriage and another is about discomfort with being naked. Also discussed in this chapter is all aspects of sex, from physical and mental preparations, to foreplay to kissing. To inject a personal note, someone told me that men and women kiss on the mouth and he cited Rashi to Shir Hashirim 1:2 (which is the false meaning, according to you-know-what). The authors, as I indicated, do not bother with such things. Two pages of this thin book (about 100 pages) is devoted to the female orgasm, with a promise, later to be fulfilled, about treating this in detail later. This chapter's "We were wondering..." includes questions about smell, painful intercourse, and experimentation.
The next chapter is called Alternate Intimacies. This leads me to the observation that the book seems to really try to push the envelope, but not be sexy itself. No one can accuse this instructional manual of being erotic! I am reasonably certain that mutual oral stimulation was never written about so pareve. But it is there. Two word summary of the chapter: oral, manual.
The next chapter is about managing time, niddah, pregnancy, babies, etc.
Chapter Five, When Your Sex Life Isn't Working, raises issues from physical to mental barriers, as well as childhood sexual abuse, negative body image, homosexuality and pornography, which they say should not be automatically viewed as addictive.
The next three chapters are called She Asks. He Asks. and They Ask. All of these are very frank discussions of common concerns, going into much greater detail than the small "We were wondering" sections. These discuss much of what you think they will, including less obvious things like frustration with niddah. As Bayme wrote in his review, they don't dismiss it with platitudes about how special niddah is. Nor do they wink, wink. They take it seriously, dignifying the issue, and assume that the couple is committed to niddah observance, and offer suggestions for dealing with it.
The book ends by asking readers to engage them in a dialogue, and requests feedback, leaving an email address.
Afterwards, there is a section called Resources, which include books with titles like Guide to Getting it On. Which led me to wonder, what this book has that Guide to Getting it On, which they really recommend, doesn't? The answer to me was obvious. Many people will read The Newlywed's Guide to Physical Intimacy, but they will not read Guide to Getting it On. Or they would not read it until after reading a book like this, which recommends a book like that, in the following manner: "Though this book uses slang and "street language," no other book can compete with its comprehensiveness, and its wit sets a comfortable tone." Although this section includes a disclaimer that the resources may "have content that is not relevant or appropriate for you" my impression was that they hoped that readers would 'graduate' to such books and learn about that which they were unable or unwilling to write.
Finally - the envelope. Pasted inside the back cover is an envelope with the following note printed on a sticker sealing it shut:
While I am tempted to show one of these illustrations, of course I will not. Suffice it to say they are perfectly correct, adventurous (by conservative standards) and utterly unsexy. I guess I sort of knew the answer, but I asked Rosenfeld about it, and she replied: "That was definitely intentional-- we didn't want them to feel like pornography. Especially for the many frum men who have looked at pornography in their past, we didn't want the pictures to evoke discomfort/ memories of their past experience with pornography. The goal was to be educational, without being arousing/ erotic, and it seems we achieved that goal.."
My impressions. The book seemed to try to push the envelope, for a worthy cause, and in certain respects did that. I don't know if female masturbation is a third rail or not, but the book does not mince words and clearly considers it a normal, even necessary part of sexual discovery (I know!). Although I make this inference myself, I assume that the lack of the same for men is due both to the halachic issue as well as the reality that in practice this is most likely ignored at least some of the time by most men anyway. At the same time, the book does not strive to be fun or light. Practical might be the best word to describe it's tone. It is also encouraging, delivering the message that most likely the reader is normal whatever they are experiencing, that there is much they can do themselves, primarily through education, communication, and practice and, finally, there are people to turn to if things are not working out.
The only real criticism I have is that the book missed an opportunity to deal with a probable cause of much sexual dissatisfaction in some frum communities, namely uniformly stringent approaches taught as normative and obligatory law, and in some cases these restrictions have little relation to contemporary sexual needs which even sheltered people have. Vehamevin yavin. (Another cause, of course, is the negative messages about sex that many receive for nearly their entire life.) However, I suspect that there was little the authors could do about this. To counter, or at least offer an alternative to such approaches on a textual basis, would be to enter the lists as a halachic, or purportedly halachic work, and that could have caused the book to be eschewed or even denounced. One hopes that eventually someone will publish such a work, in English - even to include stringent alongside lenient views, if that is necessary to get people to be aware of the true range of rabbinic views on sex. Word is, someone is thinking of doing just that.