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Making Sex Education Smarter

Teenagers need to learn about more than anatomy, as some Jewish educators already know

Marjorie Ingall
May 28, 2015
(Photo illustration: Tablet Magazine; original photos: Shutterstock )
(Photo illustration: Tablet Magazine; original photos: Shutterstock )

I went to Jewish day school until 8th grade. Sex education was less likely to appear on the syllabus than Iberian pork cookery. Then I went to a secular high school, where sex ed consisted of one lecture for freshmen, taught by the football coach, involving the canonical image of a condom being rolled on over a banana, along with lots of threats about dying of AIDS. The ’80s, of course, were the Just Say No era, so we got weird mixed messages about how we shouldn’t have sex at all but if we did we should use condoms. (Just like the coach in Mean Girls: “Don’t have sex, because you will get pregnant and die! Don’t have sex in the missionary position! Don’t have sex standing up! Just don’t do it, OK? Promise? OK, now everybody take some rubbers!”) I also recall something about the coach’s toddler once setting the table with sanitary napkins.

Today, what constitutes effective sex education is pretty clear. “Abstinence-only” and “abstinence until marriage” programs don’t work as well as comprehensive ones; the latter provide actual, factual information about pregnancy and AIDS prevention. According to the American Psychological Association, good programs also “promote condom use for those who are sexually active, educate about the importance of early identification and treatment of sexually transmitted diseases, and teach sexual communication skills are the most effective in keeping sexually active adolescents disease-free.” Research shows that talking about condoms, oy a mechaya, does not make kids have sex. “On the contrary,” notes the APA, “evidence suggests that such programs actually increase the number of adolescents who abstain from sex and also delay the onset of first sexual intercourse. Furthermore, these programs decrease the likelihood of unprotected sex and increase condom use among those having sex for the first time.”

But a new study from the Population Council, a health nonprofit that does work in both HIV prevention and girls’ empowerment, indicates that talking about pregnancy- and AIDS-prevention isn’t enough. Pop Council researcher Nicole Haberland evaluated 22 sex-ed programs and found that those that discussed gender and power balance in relationships were five times as effective at preventing sexually transmitted infections and unintended pregnancies as those that didn’t. Programs that looked at the environment kids grow up in, the expectations and stereotypes they lived under, and the ways people behave in relationships were much better at giving kids tools to be responsible for their own sexual health and decision-making.

The Population Council’s study was published in the journal International Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health and funded by the Ford Foundation and the Catherine and John T. MacArthur Foundation. Its findings, in sum: “Studies have shown that when people hold biased beliefs about appropriate roles and behavior for males and females, or when they report unequal power in their intimate relationships, they are more likely to experience poor reproductive health outcomes. For example, women who report low power in their sexual relationships tend to have higher rates of STIs and HIV infection than women who report more equitable relationships.” When sex ed helps kids think about gender and power, it gives them the tools to be better advocates for themselves and others in their relationships.

I wondered whether any of these teachings were making their way into Jewish settings. I was happy to learn that yes, there are Jewish schools today that offer sex education, and with more nuance than a 50-minute banana-meets-condom session. Shira D. Epstein, assistant professor of Jewish Education at The Jewish Theological Seminary, is the author of a curriculum for Jewish Women International called “Strong Girls, Healthy Relationships: A Conversation on Dating, Friendship, and Self-Esteem.” She agrees wholeheartedly with the Pop Council’s findings that talking about gender and power is essential. “All interactions involve status and power dynamics,” she told me in an interview. “Our Jewish values mean that ultimately we want our young people to be in loving partnerships of equals who respect each other. And if we are saying we want them to respect each other, we have to talk about power.”

That means addressing the ol’ double standard, pointed out Deborah Roffman, ‪Baltimore-area sexuality educator and author of Sex and Sensibility and Talk to Me First. I chatted with her as she was heading off to visit her new grandchild, whose parents are both Conservative rabbis at Shearith Israel Congregation in Dallas. Between bouts of bubbe-ing, she was going to co-teach a class at the shul with her son: “What If the Sexual Revolution Had Been Based Around Jewish Values?”

“Not only are gender roles antiquated and not fit for today’s society, but there’s also an embedded power differential,” Roffman told me. “We think of gender as personal, but it’s also political. We keep saying ‘opposite sexes,’ but we have more in common than we differ: Calling the genders ‘opposite’ means that if men are strong, women are weak and disempowered; men are brave, and women need to be protected. This belief system has been in place for centuries, and it promotes an opposite but unequal power structure. That’s what the sexual double standard is about—men can do certain things and be judged in a favorable way, which gives them power and privilege. But when girls and women do the same behavior and are judged in a different way, well, that’s political.”

So, how do we address sexuality and gender and power in a Jewish context? Roffman said, “The verb for having sex in biblical language is ‘to know,’ which implies trust, respect, caring, intimacy. Those are the sexual values we want to teach. I like to say I teach critical thinking skills, and my subject matter is sexuality. With that in mind, not teaching your children how to think about sex leaves them totally vulnerable. They can’t anticipate what might happen in their lives, and they have no tools for the post-modern world. Sex today is something to sell perfume with; it’s not viewed as holy or sacred, which is contrary to how Judaism holds sexuality—in Judaism, it’s special.”

I was surprised that Jewish day schools teach sexuality education at all, but Roffman said, “Many Jewish day schools recognize that our children live in the world as it as, and they have to be knowledgeable and they deserve information. A Modern Orthodox school has all kinds of kids in the building, and you’re responsible for the welfare and safety of all the children.” Roffman likes to have the kids read newspapers and discuss sexuality in the stories they see. “Once you understand that sex, gender, and reproduction are intricately tied to all aspects of life, and you’ve read articles about gay marriage and Supreme Court decisions, you can talk about them and promote critical thinking. Discussion becomes part of the landscape of the school; it taps into the mission of the school.”

You can use Jewish texts, too, to talk about sexual values. Mara Yacobi, a social worker who runs programs for teenagers about relationships, sexuality, and Jewish values, is also a product of a Jewish day school. “I was absent the one day they had a sex education class!” she told me with a laugh. “Then I went to private school, and I hoped they’d talk about this stuff, but there was no information whatsoever. I took anatomy and it was pretty much, ‘these are the ovaries.’ ” But good sex ed, Yacobi says, needs to include conversations about consent, about unhealthy and healthy relationships, about mutuality and respect. “To just focus on unintended pregnancy and infections is not the way to go about it,” she said.

In her teaching, Yacobi likes to quote Pirke Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers. “There’s a saying, ‘Where there are no human beings, try to be one,’ ” she said. “I ask the kids, ‘What do you think that means? How hard is it to be one, to go against what other people are doing?’ ” She also brings in the famous three questions from Rabbi Hillel: “If I’m not for myself who will be for me? And if am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” Teaching about sex is part of teaching kids to advocate for themselves. Communication and negotiating skills are essential, whether it’s about sex or getting along with bunkmates at camp. “You need to speak up, and you need an action plan,” she said. “And we need these skills throughout life, not just when we’re teenagers.”

Yacobi also points out that in the mainstream world, a hero is a rescuer, but in Judaism, a hero is also someone who is in control of his or her impulses. “Just as we learn to control our urges when we have to go to the bathroom, just as we don’t immediately scream at someone when we’re angry, we have to consider our impulses about sex,” she said. “We don’t have to act on every impulse.” And because the body is the vessel for the soul, body and soul can’t be fully separated. “Relationships are fragile and involve other people’s bodies and souls,” she said. “When you’re hooking up—I use that term because there are different definitions of what sex is—is it non-exploitive? Are you using the other person? The kids go, ‘Ohhhh, I never thought of it like that.’ ”

And today’s sex educators are aware that not every kid is interested in sex with the opposite gender, or feels at home in the body he or she was born with. Yacobi favors the term “sweetheart,” because it’s gender-neutral; Epstein warns that educators need to avoid assumptions about gender “and the conflicted, complicated feelings kids may have about how they identify.” She said, “We feel we’ve done our duty if we say ‘boys have this, and girls have that,’ but we don’t know what goes through every kid’s mind when they receive that information.”

So, what’s our role in all this as parents? I do think the values we convey at home are more important than anything our kids will ever learn in school. We should strive to create an environment that accepts differences, points out stereotypes about gender and sexuality, and lets kids feel they can speak openly and ask questions. As Roffman said, “Parents think sexual education is about sitting down and having a ‘this goes in there’ conversation. It’s not. It’s about an approach to parenting.” I told Roffman that by the time my mom gave me The Talk, I’d already done The Deed. (I suspect this is true for a lot of parents.) But throughout my childhood, she’d conveyed to me that I was smart, strong, and able to protect myself. By the time I chose to have sex, there was no question that I’d be emotionally ready and that I’d use protection. Even though The Talk came too late, my mom had already done the work of raising someone who’d make good decisions. “Your mom gave you a gift,” Roffman responded. “Your mom gave you agency.”

Finally, an element of sex ed I think is often missing is that of pleasure. Sex feels good. My high-school coach sort of conveyed that it feels good for boys, because they have a biological imperative to put their bananas in girls (or something), but Judaism is pretty clear that it should be delightful for girls, too. Jewish law is clear that a husband is obligated to satisfy his wife sexually. Yet “desire is missing from sex education in general,” Epstein said. “It’s just about the act; it’s purely clinical. Is that what we want to teach about what sexuality is?” And girls, especially, need to recognize the mixed messages that come with desire. “High-school girls often don’t recognize mistreatment, because they grow up in a world that tells them they’re a slut or a prude,” Roffman said. “It’s a no-win situation.”

The Pop Council offers a free, downloadable guide to a Unified Approach to Sexuality, Gender, HIV, and Human Rights Education. It was designed for educators but is useful for parents, too. More vital than any curriculum, though, is conveying to our kids that we love them, that they are deserving of love, and that we want them to protect themselves. Let’s not be Coach Carr in Mean Girls, lecturing: “At your age, you’re going to have a lot of urges. You’re going to want to take off your clothes and touch each other. But if you do touch each other, you will get chlamydia and die.”


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Marjorie Ingall is a columnist for Tablet Magazine, and author of Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children.

Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.