Teaching Sex Ed to Young Modern Orthodox Women
In the years I attended Modern Orthodox day schools, I received close to zero sex education. Aside from one class period in the sixth grade dedicated to menstruation and a week during my senior year devoted to learning the laws of Neidah (Jewish ritual purity laws relating to menstruation), I remained in the dark about reproduction and sexual health, as well as about how they related to my identity as a young Jewish woman.
The gaps were finally plugged at Brandeis University when I became involved in an organization that trained me to become a peer sexuality educator. I studied an 800-page manual on topics related to sex and sexuality and received 60 hours of professional training. I attended presentations about topics including sex positivity, birth control options, sex toys, and counseling skills.
As one of only a very few sex educators involved in the Brandeis Jewish community, female peers began approaching me with questions about sexual health. They knew that I had grown up attending Orthodox day schools and trusted that I had a unique ability among sexual educators to understand the cultural and educational context of their questions.
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In response to growing demand, in my junior year I organized my first workshop geared towards observant Jewish women. The response was more than respectable. The following year, the workshop drew 60 girls and lasted three hours! Another observant woman who was my co-counselor and I answered questions and discussed a wide range of topics including anatomy, relationships, sexual pleasure, and creating an intimate relationship while remaining shomer negiah (observing the Jewish laws limiting physical contact between members of the opposite sex). Sitting together, we laughed, we talked, and we discussed fundamental questions. Only in a setting like this, could we say, in response to a question about a certain attitude towards sex, “Well there’s a machloket (a halachic dispute)…” and all start laughing because we all got the joke. After three hours of discussion, my co-counselor and I still had a hat full of anonymous questions and requests for a sequel.
The workshops reaffirmed something for me: Jewish women, particularly college students, want to know about sex! Whether or not they are dating, whether or not they are sexually active, they think about it, they have questions, and they want to talk about it. Our workshop gave them a chance to discuss sex and sexual health in an open, nonjudgmental way, something that was off-limits in their Jewish high schools.
Modern Orthodox high schools often face the challenge of balancing the need to prepare students to succeed in secular colleges and to build strong Orthodox identities. Sexuality is a sensitive topic that can be hard to discuss in a way that reflects Orthodox values while approaching teenage sexuality without judgment. To ignore the issue, however, will not make it go away. Instead, it sends well-educated teenagers to college with an incomplete education. It tells students that their identities as Orthodox Jews and their identities as sexual beings are inherently discordant. It tells them that good Orthodox Jews should not be thinking about or want to become educated about sexuality. By failing to teach sex education in Jewish high schools, we lose the opportunity to discuss sexuality through a Jewish lens and teach young Jewish adults how to make decisions about relationships and sex, informed by a foundation of Jewish values. Schools will do an important service to their students—men and women—if they stop avoiding the issue and acknowledge the sexual self through facts and open discussion.