Despite my worries, I managed to get up early for volunteering and got there on time. It was fine. A couple of people asked if I was OK as I haven’t been for a fortnight, which was nice. I’m always amazed when people notice I’m absent. Someone donated fresh jam donuts for the volunteers and I had one. Possibly my waistband says I shouldn’t have. I still feel that I make mistakes and do stupid things there, although it’s more that what seems logical to me doesn’t always seem logical to other people and vice versa for various (autistic?) reasons. Sometimes it’s probably poor executive function or me not processing spoken instructions properly, but other times it can be me applying rules over-rigidly. Then again, maybe I’m being perfectionist and looking to autism to excuse behaviours that don’t really require excusing (again).

I was pretty exhausted in the afternoon and didn’t do very much other than a few minor chores. I intended to listen a shiur (religious class) that I missed, but it wasn’t up online. I did some other Torah study, but it was just bits and pieces, little audio vorts (short religious ideas) and articles in a religious magazine. I couldn’t face anything heavier. I did a little bit of ironing and thought about trying to force myself to do more chores, but I was worried about being burnt out tomorrow when I have work. I wish I knew why I still get so tired so easily even with the mood aspect of depression being rather easier than in the past. I just read and watched DVDs. I had been eating dinner in front of the Chanukah candles this week, but at dinner today I was drained and couldn’t face eating dinner alone with noise from my parents’ TV and ended up eating in my room, which was also alone and with TV, but at least it was my TV.

Reading this back, I see I actually did quite a lot, but I still feel guilty about not doing “enough” and not having “enough” energy considering I’m not depressed “any more”. There probably are imaginary standards of “normality” and “mentally ill” here that aren’t helpful to me.

***

I saw the next two paragraphs a few days ago on Elisheva Liss’ Jewish mental health blog. The bit I’m about to quote actually isn’t the main point of the post, but is the part that is pertinent to me and set me thinking.

As a woman, I don’t pretend to understand what it’s like for a young man to grow up in a society where extra-vaginal ejaculation is forbidden, especially in such stark contrast to the permissive sexual norms of the broader secular culture. I see the struggle, the emotional and sexual complexity involved…

What I do know, is that from the onset of puberty at anywhere from around ages 9-14, until marriage, which doesn’t happen until at least the ages of 18-22, boys are expected to both not have sex and to try not to ejaculate. I’m fairly certain that the majority are unable to completely refrain from any masturbation, fantasy, or ejaculation during these hormonal and turbulent developmental years. The way they navigate this challenge often impacts their self-concept and adult relationships. Some repress developing libido and disassociate from their sexual selves. Others split, embracing one conscious, religious identity, and another secret sexual life, often involving pornography and sexual experimentation. Still others recognize that the ideal they are presented with might be unrealistic for them, and try to limit sexual behavior, while allowing for and forgiving their human needs.

This isn’t really spoken about in the frum (religious Jewish world). I’m conscious of not wanting to reveal my entire life history online, but also of wanting to talk about this for reasons that are not entirely clear to me. (I’ve tried speaking about it in therapy, but I feel that writing this has made me realise there’s a lot more to say there.) My background is that I was brought up traditional, but not fully Torah observant and gradually became more observant in my teens. At the same time, I went to a co-educational (Modern Orthodox Jewish) school and eventually became interested in girls when I was about sixteen (I was a late developer, which I definitely think was a blessing). I also had sex education, at home and at school, but it was pretty functional. It was not the Haredi minimal or no sex education, but it focused on the biological “How do we make babies?” side of things. It was a long time before anyone ever really spoken to me about the emotional side of things, and probably most of the conversations I have had about dating and sex have been in therapy.

The problem with this is, being (probably) on the autism spectrum, I do not always pick things up easily if they aren’t explicitly spelt out to me, particularly regarding social interactions. No one ever said anything about masturbation, but somehow I intuited that it was wrong, and that sexual fantasy was likely to lead to it. Pornography was a lot harder to access when I was a teenager than it is these days, but there was already a lot of quasi-pornographic imagery in society; I think the infamous Wonderbra “Hello Boys” billboard advert (the one that supposedly caused numerous car crashes from men looking at the model’s cleavage and not at the road) came out shortly before I hit puberty, and there was a lot of similar adverts around and, anyway, you shouldn’t underestimate what sexually-frustrated teenage boys can find arousing (illustrations of Dark Elf warrior women in the Warhammer rule book…).

Being autistic, depressed and socially anxious did not make it easy to find girlfriends, or to work out how to find girlfriends (to this day, my few relationships have been either via dating websites or from the other person making the first move). During my time at school, I hardly spoke to girls, except a bit to my best friend’s girlfriend. In retrospect I wish I had, as looking back I see that there were intelligent, gentle girls in my year and even in my social group, and maybe my life would have gone differently if I’d just tried to talk to them, not necessarily to date, but just to get practise socialising with women, but I was too shy to really speak to them. I had a huge crush on one girl throughout my time in the sixth form (equivalent of high school, broadly), but was rarely able to speak to her and when I did, I think she was bored and embarrassed by me.

I did manage to build female platonic friendships at university, but that backfired when I asked one out. I was twenty, and it was the first time I had ever done that. She wasn’t interested and it ended badly.

I didn’t actually go on a date until I was twenty-seven. I’m now thirty-seven and still a virgin and unmarried. I don’t have any particular animus about the Jewish “no sex before marriage” rule, as I know that, emotionally, I couldn’t cope with casual sex anyway. I’m sure some people can, and chafe at the rule, but I know I can’t. I have just slowly begun another relationship, but there are reasons, that I won’t go into here, that mean that it will be years before we can get married, should we decide to do so, so I’m stuck with celibacy for now.

I can’t really put into words the huge amount of frustration, fascination, confusion, envy, guilt and even anger I feel around sex and celibacy. There is also fear, but I wrote about that on Hevria a number of years ago. (That’s aside from the worry that I have so much anxiety around sex that I’ll never be able to have a genuine healthy sexual relationship, even if I get married.) As a frum Jew, I’m not supposed to talk about it; as someone somewhat internet-savvy, I’m worried about being branded a misogynist “Incel” just for raising the topic. I’ve spoken about it in therapy quite a lot, and in more detail than I will go into here, but somehow I feel that I’ve never got to the bottom of it. I’ve barely spoken about it with my current therapist, even though I’ve been seeing her for over seven months. I don’t have the words. I’m not sure if that’s because of my upbringing or my issues.

From adolescence onwards, I’ve had a huge amount of guilt and shame around my sexual thoughts and feelings. For many years I tried to repress them and mostly failed. I’m not sure if it is really feasible to repress sexual thoughts and feelings long-term; it’s certainly not possible if one is at all engaged in hyper-sexualised Western society. Sometimes I can see why Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews try to avoid Western society entirely, but I know that’s not my path.

One of the reasons I didn’t go to yeshiva (rabbinical seminary) between school and university as many people expected to was because of feelings of guilt around sex and the belief (which I now realise was completely mistaken) that I was the only frum or would-be frum teenage boy struggling with it. Admittedly there were half a dozen other reasons I didn’t go to yeshiva, but that decision had massive repercussions for the rest of my life, down to today, including why I feel so unmarriable in the frum community. I already had low self-esteem and a tendency to over-intellectualise things, and that and the added sexual guilt probably triggered an emotional downward spiral that fed in to my depression. It may not be coincidental (although it has only occurred to me writing this) that my first episode of depression followed about six months after the start of my first “real” crush (by which I mean the first one where I actively thought and fantasised about her all the time when she wasn’t around, rather than simply feeling vaguely anxious and attracted when I saw her).

Sometimes I feel that it’s eating away my insides. I feel that, at thirty-seven, I should not be desperate to have sex, and certainly I know it’s a bad idea to get married just to have sex. I wonder if I will ever be “ready,” emotionally. I can’t shake the feeling that middle aged sex (which is all that’s left for me) is dull and perfunctory and that if I was going to ever enjoy sex, it would have happened before now. I know this isn’t true, but it’s another lie the media perpetuates, and I can’t shake free of it.

Another thing I’ve never really got to the bottom of is whether I really want sex, or just (“just”?) intimacy. To be honest, I probably want both, and that’s probably healthy; I don’t think secular society, which says you can have healthy sex without intimacy, is particularly well-adjusted in that way. But if I absolutely had to choose, I think I would choose emotional intimacy over sex. I think that’s my absolute desire in many areas: marriage, yes, but also I want a few close friends (rather than many distant ones) and my conception of Heaven is an intimate closeness with God and perhaps with loved ones. But a successful, intimate marriage is the one I want most of all. Although I don’t feel myself particularly successful at achieving intimacy in those other areas either. I think I’m a very lonely person, and have been since my teens. Again, I can blame autism, depression and social anxiety, but I’m not sure how helpful that is.

I’m not sure what I want in writing this. I think a lot of it is about recognition. That I think I’m carrying some kind of burden by following Jewish law in this area, and especially doing it while more open to the sexualised Western culture than some parts of the community. I think it’s the best – or least worst – option for me right now, for a host of halakhic (Jewish legal), emotional and moral reasons, but it’s still a burden and one I hope I will put down one day, but fear that I will be carrying it for a long time. And somehow I want that acknowledged, which it isn’t, not by hyper-sexualised Western society or by the frum world, where most people are married by twenty-five. In some ways I don’t mind that many non-religious would not understand why I’m doing this, but I feel that I would like people in the frum community to understand the strain of long-term celibacy for “older singles,” beyond issues like loneliness, not fitting into the community etc. (not that those are particularly well-appreciated).

Actually, I’m not sure how much is recognition from society and how much is recognition by myself. That I really want to hear (ideally from God, but at least from someone frum who knows me well and who I respect) that I’m a good person, that I’ve done well in staying a virgin all these years, despite my failure to be 100% Torah observant in other areas of sexuality.

***

Today’s donuts: jam (very fresh) at volunteering.

14 thoughts on “Celibacy

  1. I consider sex a natural human function and one of the ways in which to be intimate. Not the only way, that’s for sure. It sounds like for you, it’s tied up with lots of religious and personal pressures which is a shame because it definitely confuses and complicates matters. It makes it difficult to decide on your path or feel content with the inevitable choices that you have to make. I’m sorry that it has to be like that for you. 😦 Middle aged sex is great by the way. (or can be)

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  2. I agree with Margaret that sex (and sexuality) is part of being human. Trying to repress that doesn’t seem to work out very well; the Catholic Church seems to be a testament to that. We have hormones that make us horny, and meeting that with a starvation diet can’t be comfortable. Perhaps if there were more single frum Jewish men, there would be a mass uprising and the no masturbation rule would be given the boot.

    I’ve known people in their 50s and 60s with great sex lives. I would say that sex and intimacy are two distinct things that sometimes happen to overlap. Masturbation can help with the sex needs, but doesn’t do anything for intimacy. Once the initial awkwardness has worn off, you get to know what the other person likes and what they don’t, and the sex and the intimacy start to overlap more.

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    1. Re: masturbation, Jewish law doesn’t really work that way that we can just get rid of rules. The closest thing was earlier this year, when a prominent Israeli rabbi issued an open letter that said to young people (more or less): “It’s normal to want sex, it’s normal to masturbate. Judaism says you shouldn’t, but if you do it anyway, you shouldn’t feel like God hates you and that you’re a total religious failure, because it’s very hard to go without sex completely.” I find that attitude somewhat comforting, it doesn’t really change my situation.

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  3. Have often wondered why sexual transgressions often seem to be considered worse sins than any other. Do the scriptures really support this? Onan’s sin can be interpreted in a number of ways, and I have never read it as an injunction against masturbation. Is there any other scripture that addresses this issue? I’m not aware of any. I grew up in a pretty strict Christian household where any sex outside of marriage was taboo. And in the church I grew up in, courting couples could only meet up with a chaperone present! And as for what was then known as self-abuse (horrible term) – well you could not even mention it – it was a case of everyone probably did it, but you just did not talk about it.

    We have now gone to the opposite extreme with regards to morality – and it saddens me to see sex cheapened and celebrated as little more than a leisure past time or sport, all the mystery removed. At its best sex is a physical expression of love towards someone you are committed to – it’s more about the other than the self. In recent years we have seen a backlash against our permissive age in church movements like “true love waits”, the wearing of chastity rings etc. I see this as largely positive and corrective – as long as there is always room for the fact that as human beings we won’t always live up to ideals. We also need to appreciate that people tend to marry much later now than they used to – and many remain single. Is it reasonable to expect lifelong abstinence? Our religious masters tend to be the ones to cast the first stone. Maybe we listen too much to them and need to go back to scripture and rediscover God’s mercy and compassion which is there too. There are many biblical examples of godly men and women who did not live up to these ideals of chastity – Abraham, King David, Rahab, for example – and quite a few in the NT as well of course.

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    1. Regarding Onan’s sin, that’s only tangentially seen as the source for prohibition of masturbation. In halakhic terms it’s probably an asmakhta, a text used creatively to support a law that is really derived from oral tradition outside of the written text of Tanakh. Onan’s sin could be considered coitus interruptus, but is more about not wanting to fulfil the command of levirate marriage.

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    2. Oh, I forgot to say that in Judaism, in terms of the strict letter of the law, many sexual sins are not so serious. From a purely legal perspective, non-marital sex between two single people is not as serious as many other things e.g. working on Shabbat or eating on Yom Kippur. Sociologically, however, it has always been judged more seriously for reasons that are probably more to do with enforcing social standards. In recent years, the Orthodox world has become paranoid about sex as a reaction to the secular world’s sexualisation, and in some ultra-Orthodox communities for a teenage boy to simply say hello to his sister’s best-friend in the street would be to court criticism and social sanction.

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  4. I love your poem on Hevria! It is so well written. The images of the libido wrapped up like a wedding present and the Artscroll clones – good stuff!

    I keep typing then deleting responses to this, because my responses were a combination of bad advice, insensitivity, unwanted opinions, or things that will absolutely cause my husband to divorce me if I shared on the internet.

    I do think the frum world has to do a better job of acknowledging the needs of older singles in the frum community.

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