Last spring I walked into a sixth-grade classroom where the girls welcomed me with squeals of delight, excited to show me the dance routine they had created to the rap song “Take It Off.” The lyrics include:
“Now we’re looking like pimps in my gold Trans-Am
Got a water bottle full of whiskey in my handbag…
There’s a place downtown where the freaks all come around
It’s a hole in the wall, it’s a dirty free for all
And they turn me on when they take it off…”
The girls told me they had performed their dance routine as they peeled off layers of clothing until they were down to their bathing suits. Their original performance was for the talent show at a Jewish coed sleep-away camp.
Since I’m a former Planned Parenthood educator and the founder of JLove and Values, a group dedicated to educating Jewish youth and professionals on adolescent sexuality, I was able to turn this event into an opportunity to discuss healthy life choices and responsible decision-making based on Jewish values and moral reasoning.
I asked the girls to create a list of everything they do from the moment they get up to the moment they go sleep and then place those on a continuum, categorizing the list into private and public behaviors. The girls quickly started to engage in conversations about how “context” was important depending on the behavior. However, they collectively agreed taking off one’s clothes was a private event. “Well,” I said, “I wonder where this performance would fall on our continuum?”
An engaging and meaningful conversation followed about what they felt it meant to be made in God’s image and how to follow traditions of modesty when they live in a culture that promotes sexiness.
The whole incident was a reminder of just how important sex education is, not only in low-income communities with high rates of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs), but also in our relatively privileged and sheltered Jewish community.
Contrary to stereotype, Jewish teens do become pregnant in high school, they are susceptible to contracting STIs and they are sexually abused. Statistics, however, are difficult to come by as many cases are “hushed up” or “taken care of” while a student is studying in Israel or abroad. I’ve heard countless stories in workshops from girls who ended up in abusive relationships in Israel because they were under the naïve misconception that “Jewish men are safe.”
In my experience, most Jewish day school students have not received any authentic sexuality education. They might have had a cursory class on puberty or the prevention of STIs — if they were lucky. But this approach to sexuality education does not work. A survey commissioned by the Metropolitan Life Foundation involving more than 45,000 students in 2,000 schools found no obvious difference between the behaviors of students with no health education and those who had received it for one year. Only after three years of continuous health programs and information did such education influence behavior patterns.
Young people today are bombarded with messages about sexuality: retail stores have background music playing with overtly sexual lyrics, pop-up advertisements with suggestive images commonly appear on our websites, and reality TV portrays high-risk sexual behavior and unhealthy relationships.
In the Jewish community are we giving our adolescents enough information and time to talk about the changes they are experiencing? As our children grow and attend camp, overnight youth group events or study abroad programs, where the social environments often lead to intense bonding and romantic exploration, have we prepared them with the information they need to protect themselves from sexual assault, date rape or unintended pregnancy? Have we made it clear that we are created in God’s image and that our bodies are a gift we must honor?
While parents are and should be the primary educators who provide their children with information and values about sexuality, they often don’t know how to begin such conversations, or assume that discussing sexuality is a one-time conversation about reproduction.
The school nurse at a local Jewish day school called me recently to come in and do a “special workshop” on sexuality because there was “a situation in the high school” and one of the girls was afraid she might be pregnant. While I agreed to go, this incident reflects another tendency in our community: to educate when it’s already too late.
We have a unique opportunity to educate from a Jewish values perspective. Day schools in particular provides an ideal spiritual framework for presenting not only sexual ethics within a Jewish framework, but also the reproductive content that teens need in order to learn about sexuality. It is a poor excuse when our schools claim not to have the time for special topics like sexuality education. Sexuality education is one of the most fundamental areas of knowledge that young people need to know; it forms a basis for their entire lives.
Mara Yacobi, the founder of Jlove and Values, was profiled in The Jewish Week’s 2011 “36 Under 36” feature.