Whenever I hear the term "kallah teacher", I cringe.
Maybe it's the result of my own experience meeting with the kallah teacher of my community before I got married 22 years ago. The sexless, humorlous rebbetzin taught us all the religious laws involved in going to the mikveh before having sex. There was nothing in the entire experience that actually suggested that sex was going to be a wonderful, enjoyable experience for women. It was more like, this is what halakha tells you to do to get clean (excuse me, "pure", as rabbis like to insist, as if there is actually a difference). There was nothing in the classes that taught us about intimacy, sexuality or our own sensuality.
Maybe it's the way in which kallah teachers tend to morph halakha and OCD. Preparing a woman for marital intimacy by teacher her to obsessively count, internally check and scrub, pluck and rub your skin until its raw before dunking naked in front of the strange woman who declared your body "kasher". (Very romantic.)
Maybe it's the whole notion that all you have to do in order to be happy in marriage and life is to follow the rules. Don't think, don't feel, don't experience. Just go through the handbook and everything will fall into place. Maybe that's the big lie here, passed down from generation to generation of women, like a recipe for gefilte fish. Just do what you're supposed to do, like everyone else, and everyone will be happy. That's how it works, right?
Maybe it's the fact that we're still doing "kallah" teachers rather than courses for men and women together. I mean, sure, my now-husband had a class for grooms in the living room with the rabbi while the brides sat in the kitchen with the rebbetzin (symbolic?). But then men are pretty much learning a watered down, kind of passive version of what the women are learning. It's kind of like, "Hey guys, your wife is going to be doing all this internal-cleaning-purity stuff that you don't really want to know the details about. Just humor her and buy her flowers and everything will be fine. She'll let you know if she needs you to show her undies to the rabbi." It's preparing women for a gendered life starting in the bedroom and continuing everywhere else.
It's possible that kallah classes have gotten better since I got married-- after all, there are all sorts of programs out there that supposedly train women to be a different kind of kallah teacher. And then there are women who are "trained" to look at the stained undies instead of men. Whoo-hoo.....Can't wait to ask a WOMAN these questions instead of a man.....Um, no.
Pardon me if I'm skeptical about all of this. First of all, just because a kallah teacher is sweeter, younger, nicer or more "trained" than my stubby rebbetzin was, the fundamentals of what she is teaching have not changed. It's all still a very bad version of sex-ed. Second of all, many of the "newer" kallah teachers are themselves products of a very Orthodox approach to marriage, relationships, and sex, living the life of "OCD as sexuality", so how can they possibly be teaching anything that different? I know for sure of one popular kallah teacher "yoetzet" who has never had an orgasm herself, so how can she possibly be preparing young women for a healthy sexual life? All of this talk of niddah counselors as models of women's empowerment doesn't work for me. If you're still teaching and practicing the same stuff, I don't care how glossy your brochure is or how pretty your earrings are or how much talmud you can quote. You're part of the problem and not part of the solution.
Let's face it. Orthodox women are socialized into really unhealthy sexuality, and it's possible that the practice of using kallah teachers makes it worse not better. According to one recent study, Orthodox women are nearly four times as likely as women from the general public to be unhappy in their intimate lives. From 7% in the general population to 25% among Orthodox women -- that's how many women admitted that they are not happy. Many women in the study talked about the mikveh experience as being traumatic. Others talked about being socialized into so-called "modesty" and then being expected to suddenly be able to be sexually free in the bedroom. It doesn't work like that.
Orthodox women are socialized into constant, excessive pressure to cover and comport our bodies. We learn from the time we are in preschool that we have to cover, cover, cover because men of all ages and sizes are looking at us. Religious educators take every opportunity to discuss how and why we should cover our bodies. Women's bodies are analyzed to death at every religious educational encounter. The boys we know are taught that touching our bodies is considered a terrible thing that can lead to the worst sins in the world. There is no such thing as affection or hugging that is not sexual, we are taught. Boys can't possibly hold our hands without thinking of sex, or listen to us talk without thinking of sex. Our bodies are a thing to be feared and covered and talked about. Our bodies are owned by the collective -- by the male-dominated collective -- not by ourselves.
And then, whoosh, one day suddenly you're suppoosed to get married young and fast and suddenly everything is supposed to change just like that. All that obsessive cover is magically transformed into the secret kallah classes, where you learn that you're going to be getting naked in front of your new husband and having sex. You go from one extreme to the other without anything in between. You weren't supposed to touch, but now you're going to have sex. Plus, there are lots of rules about it. You learn that times for sex are completely regimented around your period, that you have two weeks to prepare for that prescheduled and inflexible night, and once again that there is no such thing as affection which is not sexual -- a man is not even supposed to pass the salt to his wife when he can't have sex with her because you never know where passing the salt can lead to. Meanwhile, you learn that the most important prerequisite to a sexual encounter is your own body's extreme cleanliness, to be determined by the mikveh lady. Of course the man has no prerequisites for sex. How does it feel to spend a week scrubbing and checking and getting naked for a strange lady, when all your husband has to do is show up?
So no matter how much a kallah teacher tries to finesse this story, it's still the same. This is the Orthodox version of sex-ed. No matter how it's packaged, it's still awful. The whole thing is warped and twisted, and many Orthodox women are still suffering in privacy and silence.
I've been talking to Orthodox women about their sex lives for a few years now. So many women I've spoken to are tragically unsatisfied. Many have no idea how to have an orgasm, or how to even feel their own sexual needs. One woman spent 15 years being completely unfulfilled going through the motions like a machine. Another admitted to me that she was not even attracted to her husband. Another woman told me she was just 'resigned' to the fact that she will never have an orgasm -- she thought her body just doesn't know how.
As I think about real solutions to this problem -- not another program for kallah teachers or yoatzot niddah, not another hotline teaching women how to check themselves, but rather a real solution to completely reform the way Orthodox women are socialized into sexuality and intimacy -- I would really like to hear from women out there.
What kind of experiences have you or women you know had in developing sexuality?
What would you like to see being done differently?
What kinds of alternatives are there to the classic "kallah teacher" model?