Sex educator Sara Diament has written a book, “Talking to Your Children About Intimacy: A Guide for Orthodox Jewish Parents,” meant to encourage parents to speak frankly with their children about sex, starting with helping preschoolers describe their body parts accurately up through the more complex task of talking with teenagers.
Diament, based in New Jersey, teaches health education to girls in Orthodox day schools and yeshivas, and also teaches pregnant public high school students. She found that the parents of girls she was teaching in Jewish schools felt comfortable talking with their daughters about puberty but “were anxious about the next level of conversation. They couldn’t even get the words out,” she said.
At first she sent them to Barnes & Noble, which has a wide selection of relevant books, but then realized they were inappropriate for Orthodox readers, who probably aren’t going to want to tell their 13 year olds about birth control and HIV-AIDS. Those books also lack discussion of the spiritual and religious dimensions that are ideally intrinsic to sexual relationships between religious Jews.
There was also a distinct need for information: “Alot of girls have extraordinary gaps in knowledge,” Diament said. “It’s not infrequent that we’ll be talking about the biology of sexuality, girls don’t always have a good sense of their genitalia on the basic level. Or a girl asked something when she was a little girl, got an incomplete answer and that was the last time she and her parents talked about it. For a lot of modern Orthodox girls movies and magazines are their primary source of information, and they really don’t they have the knowledge they need.”
While all of the Jewish publishers she approached recognized the need for her book, Diament had to publish the book herself because none of them would. “They didn’t feel they needed to stick their neck out for something some people might feel is ‘inappropriate’ They all recognized the need but have their private concerns, which I understand, but I feel is unfortunate,” Diament told The Sisterhood.
The most noticeable thing about her book devoted to healthy sex education is that Diament doesn’t actually use the term “sex.” Instead, it is peppered with euphemisms like “marital relations,” “physical intimacy” and “procreation.” Just about the only place where the term “sexual intercourse” is used is in a translated direct quote from the Ramban.
An early draft of the book used straightforward language. But then, seeking the rabbinic approbation needed to sell books in the frum community, the rabbis she consulted told her to “tone down” the language, Diament said.
Her rabbinic advisors on the book, Rabbis Hershel Schachter and Mordechai Willig told her to use the modest language because “society is so overtly sexual that we have to make sure that we have to keep sure we keep our sexuality within a modest framework. You have to put that extra fence around it,” she explained.
After chapters addressing issues of puberty, preparing to date and other developmental stages, Diament encourages parents to discuss abuse and how to help children protect themselves. “This is a discussion that you must have with your child, in the same way that you teach them to cross a street safely, not to touch fire etc,” she writes. “It is also not a topic that can be mentioned once – it must be revisited and reviewed as your child gets older and encounters new situations. It might not be one of the conversations that you look forward to having with your child, but it will be one of the most important.”
Debra Nussbaum Cohen is an award-winning journalist who covers philanthropy, religion, gender and other contemporary issues. Her work has been published in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and New York magazine, among many other publications. She authored the book “Celebrating Your New Jewish Daughter: Creating Jewish Ways to Welcome Baby Girls into the Covenant.”
Rabbis Nix Frank Language in Sex-Ed Book