The night began and ended with a l’chaim for WashU Hillel juniors and seniors as they raised their glasses to being their “full sexual selves.”
After ordering a round of drinks and chips at a local restaurant, the students leading WashU Hillel’s second event of the Sex Positivity Series introduced the topic — breaking sexual norms.
Seniors Molly Shuman, 22, Jonah Klein-Barton, 22, and Rachel Boxer, 21, organized the three-part event to encourage students to discuss sex-related topics through a Jewish lens.
Shuman defined sex positivity as a willingness to discuss sex and sexuality and to maintain a positive and healthy view of both.
“It’s such a normal part of the human experience,” Shuman said. “Why can’t we talk about it?”
The series was held on Thursday nights throughout April, recognized as Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month. At the first event, students discussed their religious backgrounds and sexual education experiences, while at the second they analyzed Jewish texts about queerness, kink and premarital sex.
Margaret Butler, Springboard Social Justice Fellow at WashU Hillel, served as the staff advisor for the Sex Positivity Series and attended each session.
“Hillel’s role is to give guidance to our student leaders who really see sex positivity as an issue that needs to be brought up more within the Jewish community,” she said.
The second event, held on April 19, began with the 11 students in attendance sharing sex myths they were told as children.
The tales were wild.
One student was told that only Jewish men could be circumcised while another was led to believe that sex in a hot tub could not lead to pregnancy.
After another round of drinks and some discussion questions from the Hillel seniors, four Jewish texts, all discussing sexual norms, circled the table.
One of the texts, Nedarim 20b from the Babylonian Talmud, generated passionate conversation through its teaching that “a man may do whatever he pleases with his wife with regards to intercourse.”
“There’s an understanding that the Nedarim 20b quote is referring to pleasure for the sake of both parties, so that sex is had frequently, thus making children,” Klein-Barton said. “A reason that the quote specifically refers to a man doing as he wishes mirrors the fact that it is only a positive commandment for men to father children.”
Klein-Barton also explained that other biblical texts place restrictions on men, such as the forbiddance of raping women, illustrating a sex-positive interpretation of the topic.
Shuman also interpreted the text through a sex-positive lens.
“While a man, to some people, may think he can do what he wants with his wife, if he were to approach sex through sex positivity, he would only do what his partner consents of and is comfortable with,” Shuman said.
After the students split into smaller groups, they talked about waiting to have sex after marriage. Some said that this motivates couples to marry young.
“Why are we putting so much pressure on sex that we’re getting married for it?” Hannah Greenhouse, 21, asked her peers.
When Greenhouse was in high school, many of her classmates were beginning to start their families. Though she was surrounded by young families while growing up, Greenhouse said that talking about sex was taboo.
For her, the Sex Positivity Series was an opportunity to have an open discussion about a once forbidden topic.
In honor of Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month, the third session capped off the series with a discussion of consent, sexual assault and Jewish values surrounding sexual assault prevention and awareness.
Reflecting on the series, Shuman said that it helped students deepen their understanding of sex positivity, including her own.
“It means educating yourself, knowing what works for you and what sex and sexuality looks like for other people,” Shuman said. “It means wanting to understand and support your own body, your own experiences and others.”
— Kayla Steinberg