Orthodox Jewish sex therapist Dr. Bat Sheva Marcus founded one of the largest women’s sexual health clinics in the country, Maze Women’s Sexual Health in New York. From taboos to vibrators, Marcus talked with Nerdette hosts Greta Johnsen and Tricia Bobeda about how she helps women embrace their sexuality. Marcus also discussed her approach to solving specific challenges for women in the Orthodox Jewish community.
Greta Johnsen: What kinds of women come to your clinic? What do they get out of it that they can’t get at a gynecologist?
Bat Sheva Marcus: All kinds of women come to the clinic. I would say we have 18-year-olds to 85-year-olds. I really am waiting for the day I see a 90-year-old, but that has not yet happened.
What makes us different, and I think this is a huge difference, is that traditionally people have always assumed that if there's problems with women — like if they have low desire or problems with orgasm — that it's always in their head. And we work in that really cool intersection between the psychological and the medical, because we've learned over the years that the same way men can have blood flow problems or hormonal problems, so can women, and that has a huge impact. What's really frustrating is that often women are told “well, you aren’t trying hard enough” when there's something physically wrong.
What we do is a combination. Every woman sees a medical practitioner and a therapist, and we work on both levels. It’s truly transformative, and it’s exciting, and it’s cutting edge, and it’s amazing, so come on down!
Tricia Bobeda: What would you say is the most common question that you hear day in, day out?
Marcus: I think you're all going to recognize the most common question: “Am I normal?”
Everybody thinks they aren’t normal sexually. It’s really astonishing for me. I think we grow up with a lot of shame, and even though we’re in a society that's saturated with sexual images, nobody's really talking about it. So everybody thinks everybody else is functioning differently than them and so everybody thinks they’re not normal.
I could have two intakes with two women on the same day and one of them will say, “This is going to be the weirdest thing you’ve ever heard, Bat Sheva, but I never slept with anybody else but my current partner.” And then two hours later, I’ll have, “This is going to be the weirdest thing you’ve ever heard, Bat Sheva, but I slept with 50 guys when I was in college.”
Everybody feels that something is not right about themselves, their anatomy, the way they look, the way they behave. So “am I normal?” is the most common question.
Bobeda: What are some of the taboos of sex that you just wish were more approachable?
Marcus: Pretty much everything, especially the ways women have orgasms. I think it’s amazing in our society how we’ve managed to — I have no idea where this came from — but this idea that we now grade women’s orgasms.
If you have an orgasm from the penis in the vagina — which is three out of 10 women, just for everyone to hear, and I'm always amazed how many women do not know that statistic, even though it’s in every women’s magazine every other month. Three out of 10 women can have an orgasm from the penis in the vagina alone, and yet that is considered the gold standard of orgasms.
Which to me is like… are you kidding me? An orgasm is an orgasm. Who cares how that orgasm is induced? And that’s a perfect example of where women are ashamed, and so what has to happen is you need to reeducate them, to say there’s really nothing more admirable than an orgasm that came from a penis in a vagina than did from a vibrator. In fact, the one from the vibrator may be stronger.
So honestly, almost everything I’d say to you is just to loosen up. If the way you have sex is enjoyable to you and works with a partner if you so choose to have a partner, then go for it. Who else’s business is it?
Johnsen: Part of what you also do is sex therapy for the Orthodox Jewish community. What specific challenges does that community face and how are you helping women and their husbands overcome those challenges within a religious framework?
Marcus: I kind of ended up in this through a little bit of a back door. I’m Orthodox, but I’m really more on the modern spectrum of Orthodoxy. But some patients found me, and it’s a smallish community, so I think they feel like if there's a place to go where they can really be understood and not judged, then they’re more comfortable.
So, there are a lot more challenges in this community… certainly as you get more into — I’m going to use the term right wing — the more right wing, more fundamentalist communities, there’s no sex education. None. And in some of these communities, not only is there no sex education, but because there’s no contact with popular culture, information is just not available.
Before they [girls] get married they’re taught by a bridal teacher, a kallah teacher. Usually the bridal teacher is talking to them about the Jewish laws surrounding sex and sexuality, which are extremely complicated. They talk a little bit about the sex act itself, except that these bridal teachers don’t have much more experience than the brides do, so they either give them misinformation or not good information. So that is an enormous challenge.
Johnsen: When you have an exhausting, horrible day, what is the thing you come back to that reminds you of why you’re doing this work and what makes it important?
Marcus: I think I have more better days then horrible days. I do have some horrible days where I just have a group of patients who are difficult.
Just yesterday, I spoke to a young woman who has been married for two years and hasn’t been able to have intercourse. It’s been a four-month process with her, and we’ve been holding her hand every step of the way.
And on Friday, I called her up and she was like, “Oh my God, we did it! We did it three times in the last two days!” and there were literally tears in my eyes. If I had been there, I would have hugged her.
I feel unbelievably privileged. When I’m having a really bad day, all I need to do is stop and think about two days ago, or last week, and there’s always some almost magical story. I know it sounds crazy, and I feel like it must sound almost unbelievable, but you’re going into the recesses of people's lives in a place where they don’t usually trust people to go, and helping them make change.
It’s amazing. So I guess on a bad day, I think about the good days.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Hear the entire conversation by clicking play above.