Sin? Or Sickness? Treating Hasidic Masturbators, Adulterers and Gay Men with Psych Meds

At Narratively, Batya Ungar-Sargon provides a look into the phenomenon of Hasidic Jews being treated with heavy psych meds to steer them away from sexual behavior considered by the religion to be taboo. Men called askanim, refer members of their community who engage in anything considered sexually deviant to a handful of specialized psychiatrists, who treat their subjects’ theological transgressions as mental illness. Transgressions include but are not limited to: masturbation, same-sex attraction, and responding to the kind of sexual ennui that might result from marrying at 20 by engaging in affairs.

Joseph is one of many Hasidic Jews in the United States and Israel who are taken by community operatives like askanim to see psychiatrists for what are essentially religious, rather than psychiatric, difficulties. I spoke to twenty individuals in the New York area who had all been sent to the same five or six psychiatrists (and all knew others who had been through the same thing, often cycling between them), where they say they were prescribed anti-psychotics, hormones, or anti-depressants for masturbating, questioning the tenets of the community’s faith principles, experimenting with or even fantasizing about same-sex partners, or displaying “too high” a sex drive. The “symptoms” that psychiatrists take as evidence of disorders can vary, according to their patients. One woman told me that, when she confessed to an askan and later to a psychiatrist that the strictures of her life made her feel stuck, she was prescribed anti-depressants. When that didn’t solve anything, her askan took her to a second psychiatrist, who told her that she was getting a sexual high from her job, where she interacted with men, and diagnosed her with bipolar disorder. She was prescribed Abilify, an anti-psychotic medication. Another young woman, who had kissed a girl at school, was compelled by the principal to see the same psychiatrist. She was prescribed anti-psychotic medications, “to make you feel better and to decrease your temptations,” the doctor told her. “You’re not going to want to misbehave as much.”

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