Often, we hear women talking about the positive impact of using the mikveh. They may talk about it being a meaningful religious or life-stage experience, or they may talk about the positive way in which it has affected their relationships.
But what about the women who don’t feel that way? What about women who feel as though mikveh is yet another hurdle in their religious life or in their sex life? Sometimes, I worry that we don’t give them enough space for them to share their concerns or their pain, and in doing so, we shut down an avenue for help and support.
I’m a medical sex therapist. I see dozens of women each week who are struggling with their sex lives. The struggles don’t differ much between the women in the Jewish community and other communities. But I am constantly struck by the role that the mikveh (and the laws surrounding its use) plays in the observant Jewish woman’s personal struggle, how it both effects and is affected by the quality of the sexual relationship.
The reality is that religion can, and does, often act as a smoke screen. That’s not what it is intended for, but for good and for bad sometimes it just works that way. So the teenage girl who feels inadequate in a bathing suit can decide she is “no longer going mixed swimming,” and the obsessive compulsive can spend 30 minutes retying the tefillin knots. In the same way, mikveh can be used as “cover,” an “escape,” or a “weapon” in the world of sexual problems.
In what ways do I see the mikveh used by women who are having problems with her sex life? Women who may love their partners maybe thrilled at the idea of taking a 2-week-a-month vacation from sex and the pain, discomfort, and disappointment it entails. Women who are angry at their partner may intentionally or unintentionally put off going to the mikveh. Time and again, I hear stories of women who actively look for stains and who put off “clean” checks so that they can extend the “off time.”
And what about the women for whom the mikveh exacerbates their problem? The women who struggle with painful sex and know that the pain will be worse each time they have a 2 week break. Or the women who finally feel comfortable with their partner and who feel as though they are starting all over every month?
Women get trapped in this cycle because they don’t see another way out. Maybe they have tried to talk to their ob/gyn about their pain, their low desire, or their inability to have an orgasm and maybe they haven’t gotten good answers. Maybe they’ve talked to their partners about their desires and needs and they still aren’t getting met. The mikveh and the off-time gives them a short term refuge. But the truth is that there is guilt that goes with it and the underlying knowledge that they are not really solving their problems, merely putting them off for a time.
So here’s some advice: don’t use the mikveh as your smoke screen. Trust that there are answers to the sexual problems you’re facing. It is true that sometimes finding a solution is difficult. As a society we’re far behind the curve in making it easy to talk about sexual problems, and we have a long way to go in accepting that there are sexual problems that need solutions beyond talk therapy. But there are solutions. I promise you. Keep looking until you find them and then the mikveh can return to its rightful role.
Bat Sheva Marcus is the clinical director at The Medical Center for Female Sexuality in New York. She has a Ph.D. in Human Sexuality and dual Master’s Degrees in social work and public health.
Read more of Bat Sheva’s writing on the Better Sex Blog.