Holiness and Sex Ed

“His main premise is that young people will tune out educators if their real concerns are left in the shadows.” In the end, that perhaps was the most important line of all in the recent New York Times Magazine article, “Teaching Good Sex,” by Laurie Abraham.

The article described a course given by a beloved teacher in the Friends’ Central school in Philadelphia. What was unique about his curriculum (and for those of us in the field of sexuality it is a bit horrifying that it is unique, but really it is), is that his curriculum is not solely focused on safety — how not to get pregnant and what is a bad idea sex-wise — but also on how to incorporate sexual pleasure into one’s life. He also makes a point to answer the various complicated and messy questions the students have as honestly as possible.

So I’m a fan.

I would guess, though, that educators from institutions that consider themselves value-based (Jewish day school teachers for instance) may have had a knee-jerk, negative reaction to the article. Many probably feel that classes that focus on the joy and the pleasure, as well as the concerns and dangers, of sex might “send the wrong message.” The fear is that if you focus on pleasure and give out too much specific information, you are tacitly suggesting that teenagers run out and have indiscriminate sex.

That thinking is dead wrong.

Study after study indicates that the more information kids are given the later they become sexually active. I know that feels counter-intuitive. But maybe it’s not. Kids know about sex from the world they live in. They don’t live in a vacuum. If their only way of getting information is to try something, that’s how they’ll do it. If they feel that they have enough information, they will feel less of a pull to experiment.

In my work with women having sexual issues, I have come to respect how little messages of sexual pleasure are actually communicated to the average person. Sure, the 18-year-old supermodel on the billboard with the breathy parted lips looks like she may be ready to jump into bed with the guy from the hot TV show you saw last week. But really? Has anyone encouraged the average Joe and Joanne to feel good, focus on pleasure and enjoy sex? If you’re honest with yourself, did anyone, ever, talk to you about how much pleasure you can provide for yourself and your partner? It’s a message we just don’t get, and it can have serious ramifications for couples throughout their life. So if you’re trying to get kids to understand that sexual activity is a healthy and important part of their life, if you really and truly want them to have good sex lives throughout the 80+ years of their life and not just during college, you need to help them understand the joy, passion and closeness it can provide in the context of an ongoing relationship.

I know it’s tempting to keep repeating “don’t do it. It’s dangerous, it’s scary territory.” In doing so, you seem to be hoping that your kids will take the sex-negative message until they’re walking to the chuppah and then forget those messages. But my experience tells me that it just doesn’t work that way. Those messages of “it’s scary, overwhelming and dangerous” lurk in the mind forever.

Ironically, when presented inexpertly to kids, the concept of “holiness,” often a focus of religion-based sex curriculums, can work in much the same way. It produces guilt, unrealistic expectations and an overwhelming sense of “unholiness,” which in fact is counter-productive. Teaching kids about the sacredness of sex in the right context can be a powerful and important message, but it will probably be most productive if they are had in environments where practical issues and pleasure have already been addressed.

The bottom line is that kids will only really listen to you when they feel that you are answering the questions they have. So if you want to communicate to them that you feel that sex should be something that only happens in a safe way, in a meaningful and mutually agreed upon way, or in the context of a specific relationship, that’s great.

But they will only hear you say it if you are also answering their more basic, fundamental questions, and when they believe that you represent a view of sexuality that they can live with… happily ever after.

Bat Sheva Marcus is the clinical director at The Medical Center for Female Sexuality in New York. She has a Ph.D. in Human Sexuality and dual Master’s Degrees in social work and public health.

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