The Tightrope of Desire: A Qualitative Study of Sexual Conflict in Single Heterosexual Orthodox Jewish Men

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How do adults experience and manage their sexual desires, when these desires are laden with shame, guilt or religious transgression? This study looked at a group of 15 heterosexual, single adult men in the Orthodox Jewish community whose religious laws explicitly prohibit them from both masturbating and from expressing all forms of premarital physical intimacy. When these religious laws are internalized, the person can encounter a unique set of conflicts that can significantly impact his relationships, religiosity, and emotional well-being. Interviews focused on the different ways that men navigated these conflicts over the course of development. Findings point to 3 distinct conflict/defense positions that represent advancing developmental stages on the road to “sexual ownership”: (1) sexual disembodiment, during which the person’s desires are felt as irrational and senseless outside forces, split off from their otherwise purpose-driven self; (2) sexual internalization, where desire is felt as an anxiety-laden but tolerable part of the self, and the person manages his intrapsychic conflicts using a variety of mature defense; and (3) sexual integration, where the person accepts their sexual desire as an important part of the self that can be linked to other motives, needs, and conflicts. The factors that facilitate and obstruct the sexual ownership process are discussed. The generalizability of this process to other populations is considered, and clinical recommendations are provided for therapists who encounter sexual ownership problems in their patients.

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