Trigger warning: this post discusses sexual trauma
Zeesy, a 19-year-old newlywed, was referred for intense erotophobia- a fear of sexual activity. It’s been about three months since their wedding, but her aversion to sexual touch seems to be getting worse. Her young husband is worried, and the premarital educator who sent her asks me:
“Do you think something happened to her?”
What she means, of course, is trauma- some sort of past childhood sexual abuse, which is more widespread than most people realize. However, it’s also often mistakenly assumed in cases like Zeesy’s, although she is certainly a victim of a different kind of sexual trauma. Her story describes it:
“Growing up, I knew I would probably get married by 20 - I hoped I would; most girls in my community do. But to me, getting married meant having a nice wedding, and then a husband and children. I never knew anything about relations [by this she means sexuality]. I met my husband through a b’show [this is a Hassidic custom, whereby a young man and woman are introduced about 1-3 times for short meetings before they are engaged. Then they generally don’t see one another very much until the wedding. The relationship is built once they’re married.] I went to kallah classes, and she taught me all the niddah and mikvah rules.
“Then, a couple of weeks before the wedding, she taught me about “intimacy” [by this, she means intercourse]. I freaked out. I cried the whole way home from the lesson, and for hours in my bed, after I got home. I thought I heard wrong, or the teacher must be crazy – making things up. It made no sense. It sounded so wrong and scary and dirty. And how did I not know anything about this before? She told me it has to happen on the night of the wedding, but not to worry- the husband knows what to do, just let him lead. I asked my mother about it, and she smiled and said, ‘it’s hard at first, but everyone gets used to it.’ I couldn’t believe it- everyone does this? And this is how babies are made? I was shocked.
“At my next and final kallah class, I asked if it hurts, and the teacher said ‘yes, but it’s a big mitzvah, and you should encourage your husband, so he won’t be nervous, and eventually it becomes enjoyable. You’ll see.’ I thought I was going to throw up. I was scared and upset, but I was also angry. I honestly had no idea about any of this, until right before my wedding. I had no clue what I was ‘agreeing to’ when I got engaged. I felt deceived- by the adults in my life, who’d taught me about ‘tznius’ [modesty] my whole life, but had hidden this huge piece of terrifying information from me, that completely contradicted it all.
‘How do people get through this?’ I kept wondering. I just wanted to break it off or run away or do anything to stop the speeding train. But I was a ‘good girl.’ I didn’t want to upset my chosson [fiancé] and our families by making waves at the last minute. So I just trusted the adults who said it would be ok. But it wasn’t.
My wedding night was more like a nightmare. I could tell my husband was nervous too. We didn’t know each other well yet, but we’d gotten the same instructions, so the show had to go on. We didn’t communicate much. I think he was trying to be careful but in the end it was awful. It hurt a lot physically, but it was more that I just felt so violated, helpless, and stunned. I was curled up crying afterwards, and he asked if there was anything he could do but I said I didn’t think so. Eventually we both went to sleep. It hasn’t gotten much better since then, except that now I know what to expect, and just close my eyes, squeeze the sheets, and try to get through it fast.
We tried getting help from my kallah teacher and my husband’s Rabbi, and they gave us a lot of ideas, but none of it seems to be making things any better.
I used to be a happy, smiley person, but I’ve become quiet and sad. More than sad- broken- I feel like there’s something very wrong with me that I feel this way. And betrayed, like I was tricked into this situation. And almost hopeless- like how can this ever get better? How do people ever enjoy this? I don’t really blame my husband, or any one person in particular, but the whole experience has changed me.”
Not all Hassidic brides have the same experience as Zeesy, but many do. And many who have similar stories aren’t necessarily Hassidic. Some young people who grow up in very sheltered communities, do manage to figure things out together smoothly, including pleasure. But many, many don’t. I know this because they sometimes come for therapy. And sometimes they don’t, and they suffer for years.
The combination of being deprived of important sexual education, not knowing the new partner very well, and the expectation to consummate the marriage immediately, create the perfect storm of factors to generate this relatively common form of marital sexual trauma.
Like Zeesy said- there’s no one culpable party involved; no one meant her any hard. It’s a societal norm that evolves into a pathology.
The parents who “sheltered” their daughter from sex education genuinely thought they were protecting her innocence.
The educators who taught them a few woefully inadequate crumbs at the last minute also believed they were conveying valuable and timely lessons.
The young husband, who was raised in the same system, and did as he was taught.
But sometimes, even without any malicious intent, the damage and the trauma are devastating.
There is treatment for young couples like Zeesy and her husband, but it’s not an easy road. We not only have to make up for the maleducation, and teach her about sexuality, pleasure and desire, but first address the very real and profound trauma and resulting safety issues within herself and her relationship.
I write about these painful stories not to vilify or shock, but because I pray for change, for communities to know what’s happening and make improvements. I recognize that it's upsetting to hear, especially for members of these communities who feel differently or haven't encountered these problems. But they do exist, in great numbers. In order to solve problems, we first need to identify and acknowledge them. Knowledge is power, both at the macro and micro levels. What we know about, we can address. When young people are taught more about their bodies and sexuality, they are able to have better, healthier, and safer experiences and relationships.
It’s very, very difficult to challenge certain customs in communities that have strong values and hold tradition sacred. Yet, as communal leaders have begun to recognize the traumatic agony of the many stories like Zeesy’s, we’re seeing a slow shift towards a more wholesome model of education and the possibility of more empowered marital health and autonomy for the next generations. I hope and pray that Zeesy’s children won’t have to suffer like she did.
*Zeesy, like all of my published “cases,” is a fictitious composite of the many young women like her whom I’ve seen. Many women who could relate to this story don’t have easy internet access, or have content like this filtered out. Nonetheless, every time I publish a post like this one, I receive emails from people saying: “how did you know our story?” and many of them say they were somewhat comforted to know it wasn’t only them, and felt prompted to get professional help from licensed, specialized therapists (amateur attempts at guidance often makes it worse, as in this case, and becomes part of the trauma). If you relate to this case, and are seeking help, please note that it's best to work with a reputable licensed professional with post-grad training and specialty in treating sexual issues.
To learn more about healthy holy sexuality education, see this: elishevaliss.com/sacrednotsecret
Check out my new course!
Elisheva Liss, LMFT is a psychotherapist in private practice. Her book, Find Your Horizon of Healthy Thinking, is available on Amazon.com. She can be reached for sessions or speaking engagements at firstname.lastname@example.org More of her content can be found at ElishevaLiss.com