As I’ve been reflecting on sex, dating and relationships this Elul, I want to conclude the process with a reflection on community. Dare I call it “sexual community”? Or, to be wordier, a community of people exploring sexuality, romance and love in their own lives and with each other.
This Elul, I invite you—members of the Jewish community in Boston—to think with me about how we can intentionally collaborate in building a community that supports the values, skills, conversations and connections that can facilitate positive sexual experiences and fulfilling relationships for all of us. (Including the right to not want sexuality, romance and/or love in your life!)
When I first started doing Jewish sexuality work, I talked about touch. Abby Friedman started it—she experienced a need for these conversations in a community called Jews in the Woods. I attended one of her workshops and then, in subsequent gatherings, facilitated workshops myself. One such conversation about touch and consent in the Jews in the Woods community persisted for four hours into the night—with debate, challenge, exploration and eventually a shift in how we treated ourselves and others in our community.
Touch is one of the basic elements of how we move through our physical bodies in a social space: hugging, cuddling, holding hands, leaning against each other, putting our arms over each other’s shoulders in a havdallah circle, wiping an eyelash from someone’s cheek, touching someone’s wrist as you make a point, etc. When you want to touch someone, how do you know if that person will positively respond to your touch? Consent is about checking in to see what the other person wants, asking for what we want, and respecting what other people want and don’t want. And consent also means doing this dance without taking it too personally—without interpreting every negative response as a rejection.
Just ask: Can I have a hug? Do you want a hug? Can we hug it out? Handshake or hug?
Just ask: Love your earrings—can I touch them? Your tag is sticking out—can I fix it?
Just ask: Can we do the arms-around-the-shoulder thing as we sing? Actually, that’s too much for me; how about holding hands instead?
Just ask: Can I put my head in your lap and just listen to this conversation? Totally; can I play with your hair?
What do you think? What else could we do in our community to transform our values, skills, conversations and connections to support the practice of consent for all sorts of touch?
The benefits of a community that values and practices consent are strong. The people involved in sharing touch can use the practice of consent to figure out what touch is going to feel good to everyone involved. People who want touch can ask for it. People who don’t want touch can be confident that their boundaries will be respected. People observing others’ touch don’t need to fear pressure to participate—if they get asked, they get to make their own decision about whether or not to join. As the community becomes more communicative, it’s also that much less intimidating and that much more inviting.
At the same time, a consensual community provides a foundation for sexual wellness—consent for kissing, consent for sex. Two people flirting together who already ask about a hug will be that much more likely to ask about a goodnight kiss and then that much more likely to ask before removing clothes, to communicate about what touch they do and don’t want as they are dating each other, and to ask about whether and when to have sex. To say “yes” and “no” and “maybe” and “I don’t know,” as needed.
I can’t write an apology on behalf of the whole community. I can’t claim that I speak for everyone, but I’d like to. I’d like to conclude this Elul by saying together that we’re sorry for accepting touch in our communities that might not have been consensual. We’re sorry for modeling hugging and cuddling without communication. We’re sorry for any time people in our communities felt pressure to accept touch they did not want. We’re sorry for standing by as our friends looked uncomfortable. We’re sorry for not just asking. Next time, let’s try to just ask. Let’s remind each other to just ask. Let’s take these small steps together to build a community of people committed to physical connections that reflect our emotional needs and boundaries.