The New Sexual Education Of The Ultra-Religious

Photographed by Winnie Au.
It’s hard to imagine a thirtysomething rabbi from a Jewish settlement in the West Bank evangelizing the merits of sex toys as marital aids. But Rabbi Natan Alexander is on a mission to bring couples closer together with the sex toys he sells at Better2gether. We covered Alexander’s rather unorthodox endeavor early last year, and caught up with him more recently to hear how things are progressing. For years, the Israeli rabbi has been involved in education. “At some stage of being a community leader, I began to notice that it was not only school students that struggle with relationships and sexuality, but also adults,” he says. Issues ranged from communication breakdowns to medical problems that affected a couples’ physical and emotional dynamic. “It’s also a well-known phenomenon that religious — although [it’s] not limited to religious — people don't talk openly about their sexuality very often, even with their spouse,” Alexander says. “How can you expect someone to please you if they don’t know what you’re thinking and what you’re feeling?” He consulted top sex and relationship therapists, and with the blessing of his wife, approached a business partner with the idea of starting a sex toy company that appealed to an ultra-Orthodox Jewish audience. They launched Better2gether, a site where couples can feel comfortable sitting together to use its free advice service, read articles on sex and relationships, or purchase couples’ products — all of which are presented free of nudity, suggestive imagery, and foul language. The Jewish religious community covers a vast scope of people, and each subcommunity addresses sexuality in different ways. For example, Alexander explains, the Hasidic world and the Haredi world have very specific rules about education. “Most of their education on sexuality lasts only a few months — if you’re lucky. Sometimes just a few days, and sometimes just the day before the wedding,” he says. “It’s very dry, mainly about the rituals of niddah (a menstruating woman), family purity, and very limited in how to actually do anything.”

When it comes to intimacy, masturbation is still a touchy topic. If it’s discussed in religious Jewish schools, it’s usually fraught with negativity.

Some Hasidic sects confront it more directly, but only after marriage. “[A couple] have their first night together, and from then on, they have a person they can call and get more education from,” he says. “[Hasidics] don’t want students to think of anything that may be sexual before, so they only teach them after they’ve had the first night.” In general, Alexander thinks there’s not enough openness about sexuality within the religious Orthodox community, especially once you’re married. He points out that many couples struggle with communication in general, not specifically about sexuality. “You know, it’s very easy to talk about who’s picking up the kids and what happened at work, but communication is a really difficult place, unfortunately, for couples,” he says. “If people are having difficulties, that’s when the real problems start because people are too embarrassed to ask the question.” In response, he teaches what he calls “couple empowerment." A fundamental part of it is learning how to communicate, so couples can broaden their communication about intimacy. When it comes to intimacy, masturbation is still a touchy topic. If it’s discussed in religious Jewish schools, it’s usually fraught with negativity. “I have not come across many teachers that are willing to discuss those things, especially with boys,” says Alexander. “You know, one that’s willing to hear a boy say, ‘I’m really struggling with this,’ and help him through it.” It’s generally not okay for a practicing Orthodox male to masturbate because, according to the book of Genesis, spilling one’s seed without the goal of procreating is viewed as a sin. No one in the ultra-religious Jewish community talks about female masturbation, period. Still, Alexander notes that female masturbation is more acceptable by comparison. “There really is nothing wrong with it,” he says. “In fact, many people who know what they’re talking about will tell you that a woman needs to understand her body, in order for her to teach her spouse what needs to happen in order to please her.” Since teachers, and people in general, don’t talk about this, Alexander is trying to encourage intimacy. Better2gether appeals to its audience through modesty. Again, no naked imagery or naughty language. Alexander is also quick to point out that his site doesn’t appeal exclusively to a Jewish or even a religious demographic. “I know people in Tel Aviv and all around…who are committed people — committed spouses that are not religious, but don’t want to go on a site and see naked people all over the place.” He receives a lot of positive feedback from clients who appreciate the more respectful, modest approach to these topics. Items are sold under user-friendly categories like “inner,” “outer,” “romantic,” and “rings.” And if a client orders a product with crude imagery, Better2gether strips it from the packaging before sending it out. The B Swish line is a top seller.

No one in the ultra-religious Jewish community talks about female masturbation, period.

Alexander says that the greatest thing a couple can give each other is pleasure that’s physical, emotional, and spiritual. Unfortunately, many of the marital aids on the market are not actually viewed as such. “The whole world, you know, the religious world has closed their eyes to it,” he says. Why? “Because people decided to make money off it, and the way people made money off these things is to convince people that they can gain pleasure by themselves without their spouse, without their partner.” Better2gether hopes to show couples that using marital aids together can be fulfilling on a number of levels, both physical and emotional. “It can be so embracing, so pleasurable, to be able to give your spouse real deep pleasure,” he says. “Sex can get boring for some people, and instead of saying, ‘We’ll go look at pornography or go look for someone else to satiate those needs,’ needs should be able to be met with true open communication and marital aids.” He’s not out to change anybody’s feelings. “I just want people who are looking for marital aids and going on other [pornographic] websites and seeing things that are bad for their marriage to have an option to go on our website, and maintain the modesty and the purity of their own relationships.” Alexander wants to provide a resource for people who’ve steered clear of such marital aids because they’re scared of them. “I’m trying to just offer what people want, but in a beautiful, loving way.”

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