Pleasure

How Orthodox Women Sell Sex

From online erotica to sex toys and boudoir photography, there is a booming market that’s selling faith-appropriate sexual pleasure to Orthodox Jewish women.

09.25.15 5:00 AM ET

I will suckle your nipples, close my teeth around them slowly, until you call out in disbelief…. I will overwhelm you with touch until you spread your legs in surrender, raise your hips to take me fully…

While the above excerpt from Shosha Pearl’s “I Will Watch You” are certainly steamy, they’re pretty unremarkably by the standard of online available erotica.

After all, whether one wants to get off to long-deceased U.S. presidents or New England Patriots’ tight end Rob Gronkowski, there’s some reading material out there to help you scratch that itch.

But there’s something about Pearl’s writing that separates hers from the erotic pack when one reaches the last line of that paragraph:

I will thrust faster, deeper, unrelenting, until you grow breathless and wild, as I know you will until you call to Hashem over and over again

Even the most avid purveyors of online sexual material may be a bit surprised to find erotica that references Hashem, which, as Pearl defines it in the glossary that comes with her erotica, “literally means ‘the name’; the term often used to name G-d.”

Amongst the erotica buffet, Pearl may be one of, if not the, only writer who provides a Hebrew/Yiddish glossary in the back, defining terms like chavruta (“study partner”), tzitzit (“fringed garments that Jewish law requires men to wear”), and, somewhat ironically, tznius (“modesty, in particular sexual modesty”).

Sprinkling one’s erotica with its fair share of Yiddish and Hebrew takes a fair bit of ingenuity and chutzpah—especially when the person behind the sexy prose is not only an Orthodox Jewish woman but one committed to following halacha, a collection of Jewish religious laws that tackle a range of subjects from whether you can mix meat and dairy (nope) to whether you can perform oral sex on your wife (probably yes).

But Shosha Pearl (not her real name) has been writing specifically frum (a term to describe religiously observant Jews) erotica since 2012—and has never found it in conflict with being an Orthodox Jew.

In fact, Pearl describes her decision to write frum erotica as if Hashem played some divine role in providing inspiration.

“I remember sitting on my balcony on a sunny afternoon when the idea came to me to write Jewish erotic fiction—and not just any Jewish erotica, but frum erotica. As soon as I had that realization, I knew I had to do it,” Pearl writes in an email interview.

However, it wasn’t actually Hashem or even the Torah that provided the impetus, but a less holy text: 50 Shades of Grey.

Pearl says she had “dabbled” in erotica writing for years but was only inspired to begin what she refers to as the “Shosha Project” in 2012 after 50 Shades of Grey changed the way we talk about erotic writing.

“The fact that people were openly reading erotic fiction on trains and buses was intriguing,” Pearl says.

She specifically noticed “the increasing demand for erotic tailored towards specific ethnic or religious groups.” Then, to her surprise, “I learnt that a bunch of my particularly frum female friends, who I’d always thought were fairly conservative, had read 50 Shades and loved it.”

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Sensing a hole in the erotica market, Pearl began crafting stories that worked within the confines of halacha. While there are references to fantasies about adultery, the sex is between married couples with plenty of references to trips to the mikveh, the Jewish ritual bath for purification which is mandated for religious women to cleanse themselves after menstruation.

“My choice to make my stories conform with the restrictions of halacha arose because I wanted anyone, no matter how religious, to be able to read them and feel safe about the fact that they were getting turned on,” Pearl said.

Pearl is hardly the only Orthodox woman making a career out of creating delights to enhance people’s sex lives while making sure it’s all kosher.

From boudoir photo sessions to sex toys, religiously observant Jewish women are finding ways to tailor mainstream erotic pleasures for a more traditional clientele.

Take Maureen Pollack, an Orthodox mother of two in suburban Connecticut who took a break from running the PTA to invent a sex toy, the Water Slyde.

The Water Slyde is pink-hued plastic funneling device that attaches to a bathtub spout to divert water to “where it counts,” as the website states.

It also, as Pollack likes to point out, doubles as a cleaning device when one prepares for the mikveh.

“Part of the rules of the mikveh is that before you go, you actually clean between the folds of the labia. One of the reasons Orthodox women love the Water Slyde is because it hits between the legs,” Pollack explains.

Boasting the tagline “Good. Clean. Fun.” in pink letters, the website for the Water Slyde is so PG that one almost has to have a dirty mind to figure out what exactly its purpose is.

That subtle advertising makes sense, since Pollack says her target customers are not necessarily religious women. Rather, they are women “who are intimidated by sex toys or don’t want to go to a sex shop and see X-rated images on packages.”

In fact, the Water Slyde is so innocuous that you could give it to your mother—which is just what Pollack did. “My mother was my first client,” she proudly says.

The thought of purchasing sex toys for loved ones is a little too haimish (Yiddish for homey or familiar) for most people.

However, Pollack says that with many of her clients “one of them, after they get it, will get others for their sisters and mothers.”

Even with her family’s approval, Pollack said she explicitly consulted with her rabbi before proceeding with the Water Slyde.

“I wanted to make sure I wasn’t making something that went against halacha,” she explains. “He said it was fine as long as it didn’t substitute for a man, like a dildo or something in the shape of a penis.”

However, Pollack said she always tells clients to consult their own rabbis if they’re concerned. With many sexual issues, the halachic interpretation can vary rabbi to rabbi.

“There’s always a range of answers,” says Dr. Jennie Rosenfeld, who is the first woman to serve as the spiritual leader of an Orthodox community in Israel and is the co-author of The Newlywed Guide to Physical Intimacy.

With many topics, halacha doesn’t address it in a straightforward or black-and-white fashion.

“In terms of manufacturing and selling sex toys, halacha doesn’t really deal with it,” Rosenfeld says. “In terms of the use, it would depend on the context. I could see how for a married couple that wants to enhance its sex life, there could be room to use pretty much anything it wants. The one place where you could make a distinction or say there’s something problematic would be with an unmarried person using a sex toy in the context of masturbation.”

But even with this area, rabbis differ on whether it’s a man or woman using said sex toy. A guiding reference is the biblical story of Onan and his practice of coitus interruptus, or: wasting or spilling his seed by pulling out of his wife and refusing to impregnate her.

“The whole area of female masturbation is a gray area that halacha doesn’t really speak to,” says Rosenfeld. “With men there’s the issue of the wasting of the seed. Because there’s no seed involved in female masturbation, it’s a much more lenient category.”

Still, the spilling-the-seed concern can have a major impact on a woman’s sexuality, especially when she marries.

“A lot of men, depending on where they’re educated, receive a lot of discussion on the severity of wasting the seed, and it doesn’t go away with getting married,” says Rosenfeld.

Specifically, the refusal to ejaculate outside a woman’s body can impact how a couple proceeds with IVF or whether they feel comfortable performing non-procreative sexual acts, like oral or anal sex (even though Rosenfeld said there are authoritative sources which would permit them for a married couple).

The spilling-the-seed concern has been one of the main sources of criticism leveled at Rebecca Sigala, an Orthodox, Israel-based photographer who offers boudoir shoots for religious and secular women.

Sigala lives in the largely religious community of Efrat, which she describes as more modern Orthodox. After working with her husband on wedding photography, she decided to branch out into boudoir shots two years ago, with the first clients coming from her neighborhood. However, that was also where the backlash started.

“In my community, there are a lot of supporters, but I remember walking the streets on Shabbat when people would look at me and whisper ‘That’s her.’ It’s definitely controversial,” she says.

“In the beginning, I got phone calls saying, how could I post these photos online? There was concern about not spilling the seed. Men would, apparently, be masturbating to them, spilling their seed, and the sin would be on me,” Sigala recalls. “I would see men write, ‘Why would religious women like to dress up like porn stars?’”

Others told her she was “just like Miley Cyrus, perpetuating this sexualizing culture, this rape culture,” she says.

The sexual double standard of blaming the woman taking the photos rather than the men’s behavior in response is pretty galling and a harsh reminder of the day-to-day onuses on women in some religious Jewish communities.

The responsibility not to tempt or incite men’s sexual interest can lead to constraints on their dress and sexual expression.

Ironically, though, Sigala says women in her community have been harsher toward her work than men. “I think women tend to be their own worst critics and critical of other women,” she says.

The comments haven’t deterred Sigala, though, because she sees a higher purpose to her boudoir shots.

“I was apprehensive about publicizing my work at first. I was worried about this idea of men needing to guard their eyes,” she says. “But seeing what women were gaining from it, how empowered they were, I realized my market was women. I wasn’t putting the photos out there for men to ogle. It was for women.”

Sigala believes that boudoir photography is as much, if not more, for her clients’ enjoyment than sharing sexy images with a significant other. “I would say 80 percent of my clients would say ‘This is really for me,’” Sigala says.

Many of the women actually use the boudoir shots to cope with emotionally and physically challenging times in their lives.

“A lot of women have gone through a divorce. Some are going through chemotherapy,” explains Sigala.

“One woman, who was religious, had to have a mastectomy, and she wanted to have documentation of her body before she went through it. She wrote recently that the pictures gave her the courage to go through it.”

Pollack says she hasn’t faced significant backlash but she still worries about the Water Slyde’s impact on her family life (outside the bedroom).

Like any Jewish mother, though, Pollack’s main worry is about her children. “My number one concern is what will happen when my kids grow up,” she says—though she already has the best retort ready for them.

“I’m going to tell my son that if anyone makes fun of him, say ‘Hey, your mom is my mom’s biggest customer,’” she says, with a laugh.