Learning about sexuality

Learning about sexuality

Dr. Logan Levkoff to speak for JNF-USA in Livingston

Dr. Logan Levkoff
Dr. Logan Levkoff

Sexuality is at the base of everything, Logan Levkoff says.

When she speaks at Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston for the Jewish National Fund-USA, “I will link sexuality and intimacy and connection and storytelling,” Dr. Levkoff said. (See box.)

Sexuality informs everything we do, say, feel, believe, and are. “That’s true for everyone in the world, regardless of what their values are. We learn things from our elders, and from our children, and they all have the power to benefit us in the end, as people, as potential partners, and as partners.”

Dr. Levkoff, who earned her doctorate in human sexuality, marriage, and family life education from NYU — her undergraduate degree, in English, was from the University of Pennsylvania — is a sexuality educator, the co-director of the Modern Sexuality Training Institute, and an expert who’s worked on projects for Dove, Merck, and Pfizer. She’s written two books about parenting, and she’s a frequent guest on TV shows exploring sexuality.

She’s also chair of the JFN-USA’s Caravan for Democracy leadership mission to Israel, and a proud and public Jew.

She plans on putting those two parts of her identity together that night — but, she makes clear, those two parts of her identity always inform each other.

“Being a Jewish woman is central to who I am,” she said.

When it comes to sexuality, “we, particularly as women, don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the message we get growing up about what it means to be a girl or a woman, and whether those messages are helpful or harmful to us,” she said. “What does it mean to be a partner? What is it we really want from the world? What do we want from our sexuality? Because this isn’t only about sex. It’s about who we are in the world.

“Often we wind up assuming those messages are true without even thinking about them, or about what we want.”

If we do examine those messages, which surround us all our lives, “there is a great deal to be learned, no matter how old or young. The goal is that we find out who we authentically are, and that we value it.”

All of it is about sexuality, at its core, because “sexuality is not just about what we do and how we do it,” she continued. “We are always sexual beings. It’s not just about our bodies; it’s about how we express ourselves, in and out of relationships. It’s about our identities.”

She means sexuality, not gender, Dr. Levkoff continued. “Gender is about our bodies. The way we express gender is based on social norms.

“Sexuality is far bigger than that. It has to do with self-perception, with the way we are with other people, with how we get pleasure. We get components of sexuality from the people in our lives, because they help us to shape the world we live in, how we see ourselves, and how we might want to change ourselves.”

Given how much she talks about sexuality, and how vague it can seem at times, can you define it briefly and precisely, Dr. Levkoff? “The answer is no,” Dr. Levkoff said. “We have a tendency to think that sexuality has to do with who we are attracted to and what we might or might not do in the bedroom or anywhere else. That is a very limited definition.”

It’s good that it’s so difficult to define sexuality, because a definition would limit it. “We come into the world as sexual beings,” she said. “We are born with an assigned sex based on biology — chromosomes, hormones, et cetera — but we come into this world with bodies, even if we don’t have a conscious sense of who we are. And we are also impacted by the world around us, and what other people place on us. We also have a sense of pleasure as it relates to our bodies, which is why so many babies explore themselves.

“But it’s not only about sexual pleasure. It is about who we are, not what we do.

“Our sexuality includes all the ways that our bodies are, but also how we explain ourselves to the world, the way we communicate our body image and our self-confidence. It’s about the way we connect intimately with people, whether it’s platonically, romantically, or sexually. It’s about our interactions with other people.

“A broader definition is more useful,” she continued. It can narrow your life to think about sexuality narrowly, instead of opening yourself to other ideas. “We are always told that there will be a magical time — like a switch being turned on — and you will have a magical relationship.” Cinderella comes to mind here, or any other fairy-tale princess, ignited with innocent almost-adulthood and ready for the happy-ever-after. “But men aren’t given that message. That sets us up for disaster.” Also, she added, “because we are told that there will be one moment, and one person in it, that also puts a lot of pressure on that other person.”

What sexuality can give you, she said, “is confidence and the ability to communicate. You have a voice; you are allowed to use it.”

That idea, that girls are born with voices and they should feel free to use them, both in childhood and beyond, isn’t always passed on, Dr. Levkoff said; in fact, generally it is not. “The message that we get, as girls and women, doesn’t include empowerment or pleasure. It doesn’t encourage us to think about what might be fulfilling for us emotionally or sexually. When we don’t know how to use that voice, we inadvertently pass that message on through the generations.”

Sometimes, though, that message can be handed on; at times it can skip a generation. “Sometimes it’s easier for grandparents and grandchildren to talk to each other,” Dr. Levkoff said.

It’s an inherently Jewish message, she added. “Judaism teaches us the importance of constantly learning, of personal growth, and of relationships. Not just romantic relationships, either.

“We are taught to challenge and teach and dive deeper. The world of sexuality and relationships requires that” — the challenging and teaching and willingness to take deep dives — “all the time. Nothing is ever just sitting on the surface.

“And I am a firm believer in the idea that tikkun olam,” the work to repair the world, “doesn’t only mean healing the world for other people. It’s about starting with yourself. Being empowered yourself is a huge step to moving on outside.”

Getting back to sexuality, “I never want people to be afraid of the subject,” Dr. Levkoff said. “I don’t ever want them to think that can’t ask questions or shouldn’t have concerns. There is no question — particularly in this world that is changing and expanding — that is a bad question. No matter how young or how old you are, there is no reason not to ask the question, and not to get an answer.”

Okay. We should get answers. But from where? “Sexuality education should be ongoing,” Dr. Levkoff said. “It shouldn’t stop at puberty, or in high school. We are constantly evolving and learning. As adults, we don’t always have answers. Our world looks different today than it did when we were growing up. There are many resources, but it starts with knowing that you have the right to ask questions.”

She touched on the idea of storytelling. It is important to tell our stories, she said. It’s important “to share our questions, to share our experiences, to validate other people’s concerns and questions. Then we know that we are not alone. We are all seeking the same kinds of answers. It is an ongoing journey, not a one-and-done. We have questions throughout our lives.”

Remember, Dr. Levkoff said, “when we feel fulfilled on a holistic level, we engage with the world in a much more positive way.”

Who: Dr. Logan Levkoff

What: Will talk about sexuality

Where: At Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston

When: On Tuesday, November 29; dinner is at 6:30, and the program will follow

Why: For JNF-USA of Central New Jersey

For more information or reservations: email the Central New Jersey JNF-USA executive director, Celine Leeds, at cleeds@jnf.org, call her at
(973) 593-0095, ext. 820, or go to jnf.org/cnjpowerofwomen

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