LET’S TALK ABOUT SEX – BY CHANA BE’ERI

I have chosen to publish this article as I feel strongly that these conversations must be held, and that the only way to remove the stigma surrounding a subject is to discuss it. I hope readers find it to be thought-provoking and feel inspired to start their own conversations on the complex topics touched upon here. I welcome all feedback, questions, and comments!

From September 2020, Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) becomes a compulsory part of the UK curriculum in secondary schools, covering topics including nurturing healthy relationships, safe sex, and online relationships[1]. Parents are able to opt their children out of the Sex Education element of the curriculum.[2] While the Chief Rabbi has welcomed the new policy,[3] the Charedi community has vehemently objected to it, particularly the requirement to teach about LGBT+ issues.[4] There have been reports of Charedi schools pressuring parents to withdraw their children from the Sex Education component[5] and concerns expressed that teaching children about these topics will sexualise them.[6]

Nobody likes to talk about sex, a fact that is especially true of British Jewry. The traditional, conservative values of Orthodox Judaism combine with the quintessentially British attitude of avoiding discussing anything personal, and we are left with a community who would rather hide under the bedcovers than teach schoolchildren, with their inquisitive personalities and underdeveloped sense of boundaries, about what grown-ups sometimes do there. But even with a pillow held tightly over our ears, we cannot ignore the fact that today’s world exposes us to sexuality from a young age. It’s time to stop brushing matters under the carpet: we need to respond to this challenge head-on and initiate a frank, open conversation about how we wish to educate our children (and ourselves). The new RSE policy awards us an opportunity to do just this.

The 20th Century saw a rise in women’s freedoms, including freedom of dress and behaviour. As baring female flesh became more accepted, it was accompanied by the sexualisation of women’s bodies. Scarcely dressed women in suggestive poses became the norm when advertising anything from clothes to cars to food products. Orthodox Judaism reacted defensively, placing a huge emphasis on the concept of tzniut. Often translated as ‘modesty’, tzniut has become almost divorced from its associations with dignified, humble behaviour, and is now synonymous with policing women’s dress. We have developed an obsession with women’s hemlines, with schools, shuls and community organisations expected to define exactly how many inches of skin it is permissible to show. All of this sends the message that women should not be free to make their own choices about their bodies. Ironically, we have succeeded in reinforcing the view that women’s bodies are sexual objects that must be controlled.

Nobody likes to talk about sex, a fact that is especially true of British Jewry.

Even more disturbing is the lesson that girls are taught from a young age: that women are responsible for controlling male sexual desire. Every girl who has attended a Jewish school (or even Bnei Akiva Machane) has been told at some stage that their outfit will make their male teachers/leaders uncomfortable and cause their male peers to disrespect them. They must cover up, or else they will lead men to sin. This promotes rape culture and perpetuates the false message that women are non-sexual beings[7] and that men are animals with no self-control.

The closest we currently come to discussing boundaries is in conversations about shmirat negiah. From the age of Bar/Bat Mitzvah, when teenage hormones are running high, we instruct our youth to avoid all physical contact with the other gender. With no explanation given as to why we expect this often unrealistic standard of behaviour, which is so at odds with societal norms, it is hardly a surprise that many young people struggle to understand this mitzvah or take it seriously. In the minds of most Modern Orthodox teenagers, you either are ‘shomer negiah’ or you are not; there is no in-between. When we reduce shmirat negiah to this black and white concept, we can no longer hold nuanced conversations about boundaries, personal space and consent. While many educators fear that if they are willing to discuss halachically non-permissible behaviours it may seem like they condone them, shmirat negiah cannot be the only boundary we provide children with. We need a platform through which a child who makes the decision to not be shomer negiah can discuss those choices without judgement. If we do not provide children with the tools to be aware of their own sexual experience, they risk becoming dissociated from it and making spontaneous, dangerous decisions.[8]

Clearly, outright rejection of society’s attitude towards sexuality results in unhealthy messages being transmitted. And yet, embracing these values comes with its own dangers, not to mention the contradictions that we encounter with halacha. So, how can we promote a healthy, sex-positive outlook that conforms with a halachic worldview?

It’s Torah, and we need to learn

Unlike many religions, Judaism values the physical world that God created. Everything physical can be used to serve God in a positive way and sexual desire is no exception. An Aggada in Masechet Yoma describes the capture of the yetzer hara (i.e. sexual desire) by the Sages at the time of Zechariah:

‘They imprisoned it (the yetzer hara) for three days. They searched for a fresh egg throughout all of Eretz Yisrael and could not find one. They said: What should we do? If we kill it, the world will be destroyed…They gouged out its eyes and set it free.’[9]

In this Aggada, without sexual desire, nature cannot function. Sexuality is powerful, and therefore dangerous. It is also something beautiful, and essential for the survival of the world. Whilst the rabbis recognised the need to set boundaries, trying to suppress sexual desire in its entirety is foolish.

That is the message that we need to teach young people. Sexuality is a part of the human experience. Trying to suppress it and label it as something evil cannot work; it will lead only to feelings of guilt, shame, or anger. Rather, we must teach young people how to embrace their sexuality and to control it, to know when and how to act on it, and to understand how it fits in with a halachic worldview. Children are already taught countless lessons about sex from the world around them – the only perspective they do not learn is a Jewish one!

Unlike many religions, Judaism values the physical world that God created. Everything physical can be used to serve God in a positive way

Our discomfort with talking about sex leads to censorship of the Torah itself. Jewish schools not only fail to engage students in halachic conversations about sexuality and relationships, but also avoid teaching stories in the Tanach that deal with these subjects because they are not ‘age-appropriate’. Stories such as Tamar’s seduction, Dina’s rape and David’s infidelity are skipped over or altered to make them child friendly (though nobody seems to hold the same concerns when it comes to tales of violence, war, and torture). These stories are not intended to be scandalous or inappropriate. They are included in the Tanach because they hold important messages for posterity – just like the rest of Torah! The Gemara relates the following story:

‘Rav Kahana entered and lay beneath Rav’s bed. He heard Rav chatting and laughing with his wife, and seeing to his needs (i.e., having relations with her). Rav Kahana said to Rav: The mouth of Abba (Rav) is like one who has never eaten a cooked dish. Rav said to him: Kahana, you are here? Leave, as this is an undesirable mode of behaviour. Rav Kahana said to him: It is Torah, and I must learn.’[10]

This concluding message is so important: the Torah teaches us how to live every aspect of our lives, and that includes sexual conduct. Teaching about sex from a Jewish perspective is teaching Torah. In doing so, we teach our children to be holy, to live as better Jews. However, while Rav Kahana’s curiosity to learn about sex was completely natural, the way he went about it was inappropriate and overstepped Rav’s personal boundaries. If we do not teach students about sex, they will find a way to learn for themselves, and that way will not necessarily be the right way.

Facing reality

In the age of the smartphone, young people can access everything online with near-complete anonymity. A 2016 study by Middlesex University examined the prevalence of watching pornography among British secondary school-aged children and concluded that 65% of 15-16 year olds have viewed pornography, most of them seeing it for the first time before the age of 14. Children are often initially exposed to pornography by accident, as a result of curiosity, or when a friend shows it to them. Most children react with curiosity, shock, and confusion the first time they view pornographic content, but the negative emotions tend to fade with repeated exposure and pornography becomes normalised. The study also found that many young people thought pornography was realistic and wanted to try things they had seen online for themselves. Sexting is a normal part of teenage culture and a significant minority of young people have taken nude selfies and shared images online.[11]

These concerning statistics are not specific to Jewish schools, but it is likely that they are reflective of the reality within the Jewish community[12] (apart from in Charedi communities where smartphone and internet usage are highly restricted). By denying children access to Jewish values-based sex education we are not protecting them from the world; rather, we are ensuring that the only type of sex they see is violent, objectifying, and exploitative. Impressionable young people are growing up believing that this is normal, healthy sexual behaviour.

In most Orthodox communities, the first time a person receives formal sex education is during chatan/kalla classes when they are about to get married (the theory being that this is the first time it is relevant and to do so earlier might encourage sexual behaviour).[13] These can be limited, as the content of these classes is up to the discretion of the teacher and discussing the subject with anyone other than the teacher is stigmatised. In reality, sexual development is a process that starts before puberty and continues throughout a person’s life (not to mention the fact that many Orthodox Jews engage in various degrees of sexual behaviour before marriage)[14] and successful sex education needs to reflect this. Attempting to ‘protect’ young people by withholding knowledge can cause extensive harm in the long-term.

Through dialogue and education, we can face up to the issues that are currently brushed under the carpet and become stronger as a result.

The taboo around talking about sex has a negative impact on observant Jews both before and after marriage. A survey of Orthodox women who observe taharat hamishpacha found that, though the majority had studied with kalla teachers before marriage, most felt that these classes had not helped to prepare them for married sexual life. The authors of the survey noted that the extreme privacy within the Orthodox community can contribute to feelings of shame surrounding sexuality, finding that many respondents struggled with the transition from viewing sex as something immoral and forbidden to being expected to enjoy it as part of a fulfilled marital life. Respondents reported significantly less physical and emotional satisfaction and a higher rate of sexual dysfunction than married women in the general population but struggled to discuss these issues or to feel comfortable seeking advice. Women were less likely to seek rabbinic guidance on matters of sexuality than on questions relating to Shabbat or kashrut.[15] The lack of education about sexuality in the observant Jewish community could very well be to blame for these attitudes.

A strong argument in favour of comprehensive sex education stems from the fact that when a person is ill-informed, they are more likely to make irresponsible decisions and less likely to seek help when they have a problem.[16] Numerous studies have concluded that abstinence-only sex education does not do anything to reduce incidents of premarital sex or prevent teenage pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections.[17] Conversely, comprehensive sex education is shown to increase the number of adolescents who abstain from sex and delay the onset of first sexual intercourse,[18] particularly when it includes a focus on gender and power balance in relationships. When students do eventually have sex, they are more likely to do so safely and as a result of a thought-through decision. Evidence also suggests that sex education can help prevent sexual assault later in life.[19]

The silence around sex leads to a great deal of stigma. While this causes difficulties for LGBT+ people, as well as those facing challenges such as sexual dysfunction and relationship difficulties, there is a particular problem with regards to discussing sexual abuse.[20] Victims of sexual abuse are not given the support and encouragement from the community that they need and often face judgement and even blame.[21] Sexual abuse within marriages is hardly discussed, yet its prevalence among Orthodox Jews is comparable to the general population.[22] If we are to empower victims and tackle this head-on, we need to create a culture of openness and acceptance around sexuality.

Taking responsibility

Though schools are now obligated to deliver RSE that will hopefully be holistic and Jewish values-based, it is not enough to simply rely on schools to deliver these lessons. Jewish education is more than mere knowledge: it is a system of values and a way of life that we hope to inspire children towards. This places responsibility not only on teachers, but on parents, madrichim and community leaders. We need to rethink our relationship with sexuality, seeing it not as a specific act that occurs within a marriage, but as a character trait that every person possesses, affecting our relationships with ourselves and with others. We should feel comfortable studying Jewish texts that relate to sex and teach halachot of sexuality and taharat hamishpacha as naturally as we would other topics.

To conclude, it is time for an overhaul of our attitude towards sex. Sex is a part of life and a part of Judaism. We need to engage fully and honestly with our fundamental religious texts as well as to accept the reality of the world we live in and ensure the messages we send children promote respect, equality, and a healthy attitude to sexuality. This can be achieved at least in part by the introduction of Jewish values-based sex education in schools, teaching values of modesty, halacha and boundaries while encouraging responsible decision-making and removing stigma and shame from the conversation. But we need to go deeper than that; our whole community looks to benefit from a more open, honest attitude towards sex. Through dialogue and education, we can face up to the issues that are currently brushed under the carpet and become stronger as a result.


[1] This article was written and was intended to be published last year, and does not explore how UK Jewish schools have responded to this legislation since it came into force.

[2] Relationships Education, Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) and Health Education, Department for Education, (2019).

[3] Rocker, S., ‘Chief Rabbi says ‘no contradiction’ between new sex education policy and Torah values’, The Jewish Chronicle, 26/01/2019.

[4] Rocker, S., ‘UK Charedi rabbis issue statement to make clear their schools cannot talk about same-sex relations in class’, The Jewish Chronicle, 13/2/2019.

[5] ‘Orthodox schools deny pressing parents to withdraw pupils from sex ed classes’, The Jewish News, 03/12/2019.

[6] Frot, M., ‘Jewish headteacher: If we taught about sex, pupils would be removed from school’, The Jewish News, 15/07/2019.

[7] Not only is this false, there is a specific command for a husband to provide sexual pleasure for his wife (See Mishnah Ketubot, 5:6).

[8] Rosenbaum, T. and Kahn, S., ‘Raising Sexually Healthy Children Part 2’, Intimate Judaism, (Podcast),(2018). www.intimatejudaism.com/raising-sexually-healthy-children-part-2-episode-3

[9] BT Yoma, 69a. Translations are Author’s own, adapted from William Davidson Talmud, Koren Publishers.

[10] BT Brachot, 62a.

[11] Martellozo, E. et al, “…I wasn’t sure it was normal to watch it…”, Children’s Commissioner Report, (2016), p8.

[12] Perton, B., ‘Speak Up About Sexting’, The New York Jewish Week, 14/06/2011. This article is referenced here as it explores the prevalence of sexting in Orthodox Jewish schools in the United States and is likely reflective of the situation in the UK; however, I wish to condemn the victim-blaming tone of the article. Rather than attacking the recipients of sexual harassment, the author should question why perpetrators feel their behaviour is acceptable and why victims do not feel encouraged to speak out, and seek to rectify these issues.

[13] Yanklowitz, S., ‘Sex Education in Orthodox High Schools’, The Jewish Journal, 13/03/2012.

[14] Orthodox Jews who engage in premarital sexual behaviour often face internal struggles that are linked to problematic sexual behaviour. See Rosmarin, DH. and Pirutinsky, S., ‘Problematic Sexual Behavior and Religion Among Adult Jewish Males: An Initial Study’, American Journal of Men’s Health, (2019), 13(1).

[15] Friedman, M. et al, ‘Observant Married Jewish Women and Sexual Life: An Empirical Study’, Conversations, (2009).

[16] Linzer, D., ‘The Sex Ed Episode – High School Edition’, The Joy of Text (Podcast), (2017), 2(10).

library.yctorah.org/2017/11/the-sex-ed-episode-high-school-edition-joy-of-text-210-2

[17] Stranger-Hall, KF. and Hall, DW., ‘Abstinence-Only Education and Teen Pregnancy Rates: Why We Need Comprehensive Sex Education in the US’, PLoS One, (2011), 6(10).

[18] Ingall, M, ‘Making Sex Education Smarter—the Jewish Way’, Tablet Magazine, 28/05/2015.

[19] Santelli, JS. et al, ‘Does sex education before college protect students from sexual assault in college?’, PLoS One, ed. Goodman, ML., (2018), 13(11).

[20] Linzer, D., ‘Male Masturbation & How to Stop Shul Sexual Abuse Before It Starts’, The Joy of Text (Podcast), (2016), 1(9). library.yctorah.org/audio/male-masturbation-how-to-stop-shul-sexual-abuse-before-it-starts-joy-of-text-19

[21] Rocker, S., ‘Victims of child sex abuse face ostracism, inquiry told’, The Jewish Chronicle, 12/05/2020.

[22] Friedman, M. et al, (2009).

2 thoughts on “LET’S TALK ABOUT SEX – BY CHANA BE’ERI

  1. This is very well written and convincing.
    One thing I’m struggling to get my head around is tzniut. How can we treat sex as something normal to talk about and maintain the strong Jewish value of tzniut. The rabbis always used euphemisms to talk about it and they stressed the importance of tsniut in marital relations in pirke avot.

    Like

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