Whether you call it the birds and the bees or the facts of life, the sexual act has essentially remained the same throughout history. The ways of teaching it, however, have not. 

“There were those who used mystical concepts to explain what married couples should do,” explained Prof. Evyatar Marienberg, a fellow at the Frankel Institute for Advanced Judaic Studies. “There were those who used medical concepts. There were those who wrote for the elite, and there were those who wrote for everybody. So there were different strategies at different times.”

Marienberg, who is an assistant professor of Jewish history and culture at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, presented a lecture on “Traditional Jewish Sexual Guidance Through History” on Thursday, January 23. And while he acknowledged that nobody knows what actually went on in people’s bedrooms, his research shed light on what rabbinical authorities advised to married couples during different time periods.

Marienberg’s unusual research is related to his own personal history. “I grew up Orthodox, although I’m not anymore,” he said. “I was always thinking about the really screwed-up way that I got my information in traditional schools as a young teenager. There was no formal education.” 

Like many of his peers, he looked to traditional sources to get information. “I was interested in how that worked,” he reflected.

His research revealed that in different eras, Jews used various systems to help guide married couples. “Sometimes they did it better,” he said about the sexual guidance. “And sometimes, they did it worse.”