Who would you consult about a sexual problem or question? Books, friends, a doctor, or your rabbi? Though religious traditions can get a bad rap for their views on sexual relations, their followers often turn to spiritual leaders for guidance and advice, whether they consult “sexperimenter” Ed Young or a Muslim cleric who weighs in on the ethics of perfume, masturbation and surrogacy.
But the faithful don’t just ask about what’s “permissible.” Take a closer look at religious sex advice and you might be surprised by some of the counsel on offer — and its popularity.
As of mid-February, Amazon’s top-selling guide to sex is Christian psychologist Kevin Leman’s Sheet Music: Uncovering the Secrets of Sexual Intimacy in Marriage, ahead of even The Modern Kama Sutra. It’s so popular that two editions show up on the sex self-help list, even though he explicitly discourages sex outside of and before marriage.
Mixing humor and pragmatism, Leman dispenses advice that implicitly underscores the Christian relational ethos of self-giving love: “Good lovers learn to know their lover better than they know themselves. You’ve got to stop viewing sex through your perception alone and start viewing it through your spouse’s eyes.”
Though Jews and Christians include a book of erotic poetry in their sacred canon — the Song of Solomon or Song of Songs — it wasn’t until three years ago that conservative Orthodox Jews got their first sex guide. Co-written by longtime sex educator Jennie Rosenfeld and sex therapist David Ribner, encloses its illustrations in a sealed envelope attached to the book’s back flap. The book demonstrates a keen concern for women’s comfort, pleasure and safety within marriage.
Both traditions generally define sex as intended for and rightly limited to the marital relationship between a man and a woman, and these sources follow suit. Here is a selection of their advice:
What sex is
“A gift from God and a commandment from God.” (Sheet Music)
“Being sexual with each other is a unique form of communication.” (Newlywed’s Guide)
“When a wife is learning to respond sexually to her husband so that the two of them can enjoy a deeper and richer sexual experience, she is working toward greater intimacy, not less — just like a husband who is trying to learn ejaculatory control or who is on a long business trip may occasionally use self-stimulation to strengthen his marriage rather than weaken it.” (Sheet Music)
“It is important that each bride, through her exploration of her vulvar area, either alone or with her husband, gets to know the kind of caress most enjoyable to her so she can teach it to her husband.” (Newlywed’s Guide)
On the first time together
“At times you’re going to feel awkward and clumsy . . . but if you keep in mind that your job is to love this human being, you’ll do fine.” (Sheet Music)
“Spend as much time as you need just getting comfortable with each other. . . . No matter how much you know theoretically about how men and women are built, your husband or wife is different from any other person on the planet, so fitting together sexually may take you some time to figure out. This is done most easily with patience, gentleness, and understanding.” (Newlywed’s Guide)
Trying new positions
“Provided they lock the door first, I think it’s a good idea for couples who have been married long enough to have teenagers to still do some experimenting every now and then — but I’m also wary that our culture tries to replace intimacy with technique.” (Sheet Music; Leman also praises the sitting position for its handiness “in the outdoors on a rock.”)
“If your wife is suggesting something that you don’t feel comfortable with, you don’t have to do it. The best option is to have an open conversation where you can make clear how you feel about trying a new position. It may be helpful to find out why your wife is interested in another position — perhaps your usual sexual position is causing her pain or isn’t allowing her to have an orgasm.” (Newlywed’s Guide)
The purpose of sexual intimacy
“The goal of sexuality is to express oneness and intimacy with your mate. It’s a loving response toward someone to whom you are committed for life.” (Sheet Music)
“Generally speaking, mutual satisfaction is the goal of each sexual encounter, with each of you defining your own personal pleasure. It is of particular importance that neither of you assume that the kind of sexual enjoyment you want is exactly what your partner wants. The ability of each of you to be sensitive to and understanding of the other stands at the heart of true sexual union, physically and emotionally.” (Newlywed’s Guide)
On realistic expectations
“Nobody’s sex life is such that every experience is a ten.” (Sheet Music)
“The presence or absence of orgasm does not always define great sex. Sex can be deep, meaningful, and connecting without an orgasm, and at times sex can be a not particularly satisfying or even a negative experience even with an orgasm.” (Newlywed’s Guide)
Dealing with guilt, shame or flashbacks from previous partners
“Whenever any memories intrude on your current sex life, try to make your present sex life that much more satisfying. You get rid of the old by focusing on the new. This is a conscious choice: I’m not going to dwell on that memory; instead I’m going to daydream about how to make my spouse cry out with pleasure.” (Sheet Music)
“Marriage is a new beginning for both of you; it is a chance to build a positive and healthy sexual relationship that will last a lifetime. Take what you have learned from your past and use it to help you move forward into a more positive place. . . . While guilt can sometimes seem all-consuming and overwhelming, it’s critical that you not lose sight of your spouse amidst these powerful emotions. . . . As with any transition, changing your mentality in this realm won’t necessarily happen overnight, so be patient with yourselves and with each other.” (Newlywed’s Guide)
What and how to share
“Going into specifics [of past experiences] causes far more problems than it solves. Generally speaking, don’t share past sexual secrets. All this does is raise insecurity; suddenly the conversation switches from ‘I want to know everything about you’ to something much, much uglier: ‘What do you mean you did it three times in one night?’ ‘I thought the hot tub idea was ours!’… It is a gift to your spouse to let some memories die in the past and remain only with you.” (Sheet Music)
“You should work toward feeling sufficiently comfortable to express and hear any sexual request that either of you finds of interest.” (Newlywed’s Guide; this statement is followed immediately by an explicit statement on the right to say no to anything.)
Handling different comfort levels
“[Breaking your own ‘rules for sex’] is something you have to initiate. Your spouse can’t rewrite your rulebook; you have to do that. You must be the one who discovers it, evaluates it, and then makes a plan to change it.” (Sheet Music)
“To avoid causing feelings of rejection, try to ensure that after saying no, you offer an alternative sexual activity or time to be together. . . . Adding some words of affection will also go a long way toward enhancing your feelings of intimacy.” (Newlywed’s Guide)