Well Woman Weekly: Alaya Hertzel on Healthy Sex Ed & Navigating Sex and Religion

Every Friday, we send out a weekly roundup of what’s new on Blood & Milk along with articles you may have missed from the archives. We also include an interview with an inspiring woman and this week we’re excited to feature Alaya Hertzel. To get the newsletter, sign up here.

Alaya Hertzel is an Orthodox Jewish sex, life, and parenting coach who teaches healthy sex education and body safety for kids, as well as sex and relationship advice for adults. Through her work, she destigmatizes sex education and encourages people of all ages to learn about their bodies in a healthy, shame-free zone. She also speaks openly about preventing sexual abuse, overcoming trauma, and calling out myths about the porn industry. Alaya also has a podcast, Ascend, where she’s been discussing abusive relationships. 

Alaya Hertzel

What inspired you to become a life and sex coach?

The life portion was my way of meeting my own needs but the sex portion was for the needs of others. I was a teacher for 10 years and was exhausted from working so hard for so little pay, plus I felt a calling to contribute and make a difference on a larger scale. I’d always wanted to work with adults in the realm of care, empowerment, and support. And with my expertise as an educator, life coaching felt right. About a year and half into my new practice, I went on my Instagram stories and spoke for just one minute about the orgasm gap; how too many women have never experienced one, or rarely experience them, or don’t even know how to. I shared my frustrations on the subject and my passionate encouragement that people stop settling for mediocre, selfish, or chore-like sex.

After just one minute of me talking in my stories, the response was enormous! I had women reaching out two years, eleven years, six months into marriage; three kids, one kid, seven kids later, and not a single orgasm. Pleasure is a birthright and a gift and to watch it be withheld from so many individuals and couples because of shame, miseducation, distorted values, religious suppression, taboos, sexism, lack of knowledge, and so on, was incredibly frustrating and upsetting. 

My career as a sex coach was then born. I want every single person to have access to the education, beliefs, and tools they need to have the incredible sex life they want. 

What obstacles and stigma (if any!) do you face in the religious community as a sex coach?

The hardest part is undoing the layers of shame, mistruths, judgments, inaccuracies, and hush-hush around sex that are so deeply engrained in religious communities. I have so many religious people taking my classes and I’m combating years of religious sexual distortions.

And it’s not any one religion, I see the same unhealthy themes in all of them: the distortions of seeing sexual pleasure as wrong or shameful, the narratives that you’re dirty or promiscuous for liking or wanting sex, the ‘rules’ around sex that are deeply man-made and actually have no religious basis at all.

And most upsettingly, how the sex education many religious individuals are taught centers around how to make babies, how to abstain until marriage, how to keep the religious laws once you are married, but not how to experience pleasure. It’s the absence of a pleasure-based sex education that upsets me the most.

What is the most common struggle you see among women as a sex coach? 

There are two: orgasms, feeling like sex is a chore, and how often those two are interwoven. Too many women are not experiencing enough orgasms. Sometimes that’s a ‘how to’ challenge, sometimes it’s not believing your pleasure matters, sometimes it’s a selfish partner, and the list can go on. When sex isn’t pleasurable, and your pleasure/orgasm is not prioritized, valued, or held sacred, it really does become a chore. 

Other times, women are just exhausted from their day and their orgasm might take longer. Plus, since they then need to get up and clean up, sex can really feel draining to them. A lot of the time, those women are exhausted overall and have way too much on their plates and are catering to the needs of everyone around them, and self care at that point feels like another job. These women need more support and need to learn how to put their own needs on that plate and what to take off in its place. 

Also, on a really deep generational level, sex has been categorized as something men need, and men want, and men claim, and men pursue and the message then became that women don’t need or want or deserve it as much, that they can be just fine without it. And too many women have bought into that and therefore it feels pretty natural to not prioritize our sexual pleasure and desires. I’m working on shifting that! 

Why do you think it’s still taboo to talk about sex and sex education? 

We’ve conflated sacredness and silence. In an effort to preserve the sacredness and privacy of sex and sexuality, we went silent. But what people don’t realize and didn’t realize is that by not talking about it at all, we communicated that it was taboo, shameful, wrong, and bad. Not giving messages about sex is in itself a message about sex. There is an abundance of ways to talk about sex that can honor the sacredness of it all. 

There’s a lot of generational shame and taboo we are still undoing and a lot of fear that if we talk about it or teach about it we’ll be promoting it in unhealthy ways or we’ll be encouraging kids to do it. On a practical level, because most adults were not spoken to about sex they simply don’t know how to start now. 

Do you think sex education is more comprehensive in the religious community than it was 20 years ago? 

Absolutely I do! I think in some ways religious people and leaders have begun to slowly adjust their closed stances and become more open in general. I honestly think social media has played a huge role in that. When I first started speaking about sex on Instagram, it was revolutionary! I had so many religious people create anonymous Instagram accounts just so they could hear me talk. These days, there are quite a few sex educators out there reaching religious communities and it’s become so much more of a norm to openly follow us, learn from us, and take our classes. In a sense, that has also ‘forced’ religious educators and leaders to expand their teachings because people are no longer accepting the sparse education from decades ago. 

I also believe that sharing people’s stories, personal messages, and experiences has really opened people’s eyes to the damage, pain, and consequences of the lack of sex ed until now. Because no one was talking about it 20 years ago, there was almost no way to even know how damaging it was. 

What advice would you give parents who want to educate their children about sex?

Unless you received a healthy sex education, expect the topic to be uncomfortable and overwhelming for you. Be OK with that and do it anyway. 

I recently gave a 2.5 hours masterclass guiding parents and adults on how to educate children from infancy through their teenage years about all things sex and development. My class covers all the different topics that come up over time, how to bring them up and answer their questions, and how to guide your children and keep them safe. And if you’re not going to take my class, find another way to educate yourself so you can educate them.

The days of giving ‘the talk’ or leaving a book on your teen’s bed are over. Now we know it’s not about one single big talk; it’s an ongoing conversation that changes with age and helps raise a sexually healthy, empowered, and positive child. Your child is going to learn about all of this regardless if you teach it to them or if you’re ready for them to know it, so it may as well be from you and it may as well be a healthy education. 

How do you help clients overcome sexual shame?

Just hearing the way that I speak about sex is healing for clients in itself. When you are carrying sexual shame, it can be liberating, exhilarating, and comforting to hear someone be so sex and pleasure-positive! There’s this sense of, “Wow, imagine I could feel the way she does about sex. Imagine I could believe those things for me. Imagine I could relate to sex in that way.” And just hearing it exists also makes it possible. 

More specifically, I work with clients to discover the root of their shame and we work to undo it from there. If it’s trauma-based, it will need trauma work. If it’s religion-based, I give them truer and healthy perspectives. If it’s how sex was spoken about in their homes, I offer them new beliefs or narratives.

I also celebrate their sexual desires, fetishes, fantasies, wishes, and pleasures to the max which can be a very new experience for them! So they go from, “I’m so weird or dirty or scandalous or perverted for liking or wanting this” to hearing me say, “YESSSSS, Mmmmm, that sounds so fun and exciting and sexy and I love that you love that and here’s how you can try that at home!” Sometimes, that’s the exact shift they need to see it that way themselves. 

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