Doreen Seidler-Feller, PhD, is a clinical psychologist who has decided to focus her practice, in part, on the underserved population of Orthodox Jews. (photo from Doreen Seidler-Feller)
While sex is vital to our existence, it remains a topic many people are not comfortable discussing. Yet it is critical that we at least feel comfortable talking about it in private with our partners. It is even more fulfilling if we are able to enjoy the act of it with them, too.
Unfortunately, some newlywed Jewish Orthodox couples find themselves unable to consummate their marriages in an enjoyable way, due to a lack of sexual education and some misguided sexual advice from their peers. Enter sex therapist Doreen Seidler-Feller, PhD, a Los Angeles-based clinical psychologist who has decided to focus her practice, in part, on the underserved population of Orthodox Jews.
“I’m the last resort for everyone in this area,” Seidler-Feller told the Independent. “Nobody likes to come and face the situation in which they need to talk about something as intimate as their sexuality and their relations with their partners.”
Since people often only go to Seidler-Feller after they have exhausted all the options they can think of to solve the difficulties by themselves, she sees more complicated cases.
“It’s rare that I see a man alone,” she said. “It’s more likely that I’d see a man together with his wife, presenting as a couple, or that I’d see women alone. The reason for this is that, frequently, the problem is identified as theirs [the woman’s]. If it is an issue of painful intercourse or the involuntary contracture of the vaginal musculature that denies entry to the man … any sort of pain condition inside the vaginal vault or inability to tolerate intercourse … it makes sense that she would present alone.”
As treatment progresses, Seidler-Feller brings her patient’s partner into the process, as there is always some bridging required to bring the couple back into harmony and aid in their sexual choreography. Sometimes, the partner, too, may have a problem undiscovered until that point. In that case, his individual problem becomes addressable.
“The issue that causes the greatest anxiety is the inability to consummate marriage – a pain condition and an inability to tolerate insertion are conditions most likely to bring them into treatment,” she said. “These conditions not only deny the couple the opportunity for the mitzvah pru u’rvu [being fruitful and multiplying]. They deny them the opportunity for pleasure, the sensations of adulthood, and related normalcy.”
According to Seidler-Feller, the next most likely causes for seeking treatment are if the man has erection or ejaculation control difficulties, while the least likely cause is a woman being unable to achieve orgasm.
The majority of Orthodox couples and individuals Seidler-Feller sees are between the ages of 21 and 35.
“People, usually women, also sometimes want to come to me to talk about something in their past that they haven’t been able to talk to anyone about, that may be relevant to their sexual dysfunction,” said Seidler-Feller. “In that case, my being a stranger to her – not necessarily part of her community – is a plus, not a minus. That is because usually it enables the patient to maintain a certain kind of anonymity. At the same time, it enables her to raise the question of to what extent an experience of either subtle or outright sexual abuse might be relevant to her sexual difficulty.”
Since the work is so intimate, Seidler-Feller works strictly in person – not over the phone or electronically – partially to challenge the taboo around frank sexual discussion in the Orthodox world. Also, because of the inhibition that exists around both the language and activity involved in human sexuality, one-on-one discussions are most useful.
In a world where oblique language supplies the vocabulary, Seidler-Feller is not a fan of maintaining the status quo. One of her objectives is to train couples to be completely open with each other, to say what they mean and mean what they say.
“They can deal with the rest of the world in euphemism and indirection, that’s fine,” she said, “but I don’t want them, with one another, to talk in euphemistic and inhibited language, as it may lead to difficulties and misunderstandings.”
On the other hand, Seidler-Feller does not advocate the use of clinical or vulgar language. Her intention is simply to help a couple speak clearly to each other, so they can effectively express their desires.
“Once the dysfunction is behind them, they are left with a world of possibilities about how to enact their sexual relationship,” said Seidler-Feller. “Some find, at that stage, that they want to have a more ample, open and variable sexual relationship. For that to be realized, they need to be strong internally and know what they feel and want. This way, they can refer to their experience clearly and can effectively achieve their wishes.”
Seidler-Feller’s treatment is short-term behavior-oriented psychotherapy and involves focused discussion, not actual activity of any sort in a session. Her patients are given a series of exercises designed for them, specifically based on what their diagnostic assessment reveals and what are their halachic (Jewish law), cultural and value considerations. The exercises, which the couple completes in the privacy of their home, are the subject of each session. Usually, the person who has the dysfunction begins by doing self-directed exercises. Later, the couple performs partner exercises together.
“Over the course of the week, I expect my patients to do the exercises three or four times, and journal,” said Seidler-Feller. “Then, they bring back their journals or good memories, as the case may be, and we talk about what they did over the course of the week. And, I put in my two cents about how to enlarge it or differently shape it.”
In this broad way, Seidler-Feller approaches numerous issues wherein primary medical causes have been ruled out or are limited in their effects.
Seidler-Feller would like to see a standardized curriculum in Orthodox day schools.
“I’d like to see Orthodox day schools become more courageous, to face the fact that we live in a modern world where people of all kinds get their sexual information and values from all sorts of places,” she said. “It’s still true that most get information from their peers, which is variable, and, even when the information is good, is never enough.
“A sexual ethic involving a modern Jewish approach to sexual values must be developed to have a chance of captivating the imagination of both young Orthodox men and women, as well as the non-Orthodox. Otherwise, we condemn our young to the values either of the street or the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch [Code of Jewish Law].”
Seidler-Feller sees talking about problems surrounding sex, and giving young people especially a way to think about sex as something that is spiritually and emotionally enriching, is critical. She also thinks it will reduce a lot of personal anguish and marital tension.
“I’d like to see public forums in the Orthodox world, where people like me are invited into synagogues, panels or programs, offering the opportunity to talk about responsible human sexuality in the Jewish context, Orthodox context, in a straightforward, unapologetic way,” said Seidler-Feller. “This could help rabbis in the institutions that have failed us, to the extent that they consider all public discussion on sexuality as somehow immodest and prohibited. My dream is that when they come to the chuppah [marriage canopy] and to the world of marriage beyond, couples are truly prepared.”
Rebeca Kuropatwa is a Winnipeg freelance writer.