Updated: Apr 9, 2021
There are, essentially, only two ways for kids to hear about sex: their parents, and Someplace Else. While that “someplace else” may be any one of a number of sources, what those sources tend to share is a lack of parental input. Whether it’s the school bus, sleepaway camp, a dirty joke, a teacher, or a predator- chances are, if it doesn’t come from parents, it will be inaccurate, incomplete, unhealthy, or a combination thereof.
My client, “Sara”, was molested as a child by her brother. She never complained or reported it, not because she liked it, but because it didn’t have a name to her. She didn’t know that all the other brothers out there weren’t “annoying” their sisters that way. She is begging for more proactive education for children. She believes if she and/or her siblings had known what was going on, had understood that it had a name, a treatment, a solution, a response, it could have saved her years of suffering.
Another client, “Rachel”, is afflicted by obsessional fear that she gay, although she has a lovely marriage and is most definitely attracted to, and pleasurably intimate with, her husband. The root of her fear is that her first sexual experiences as a girl were with a young female relative, consensual, but completely without comprehension of what it was or meant. She was aware of vague feelings, of physical sensation, pleasure, discomfort, guilt, secrecy, shame. Their experimentation went on for years, but without any information or education. She believes if anyone had spoken to her at any point about her own sexual development, she too, could have been spared much distress.
We therapists in the Orthodox communities walk a tightrope on the issue of sex ed. On the one hand, there is the predominant culture, the zeitgeist of openness and freedom, information and internet, and the modern, unprecedented, widespread normalization of premarital sexual activity, followed by formalized secular sex-ed and safe sex movements, and rapidly evolving redefinitions of what sex, gender, identity, and orientation are.
On the other hand, there is the more insular cultural pressure to shelter, protect, "preserve innocence," and by extension, ignorance. Present in conservative American values as well, it takes on even more significance in deeply religious communities; ones that discourage or repress sexual talk, experimentation and masturbation, and (often mistakenly,) presume abstinence until marriage. We value privacy, modesty, the right for children to be kids.
A large number of my clients are women who were over-educated about privacy and modesty- to the point of repression. They experienced the sudden shift to sexual activity on the wedding night as trauma. Still others were not traumatized, but still had difficulty adjusting and learning to feel real pleasure.
The next generation is slowly acknowledging this problem. With the epidemic use of internet pornography, publicizing of egregious sex crimes against minors, heated open global dialogue about sexual norms, and popularization of sex therapy, even more right wing communities are becoming more open to education. Parents are realizing this, but still grappling with the why, the how, and the when.
Sex education should not be one sudden, monumental, revelatory conversation at the onset of puberty, or relegated to hasty premarital education, as is often assumed. Facilitating safe psychosexual development, and preparing children for healthy intimacy is an ongoing part of parenting in general, just like any other important value, and can be achieved in a way that is reverent and modest, but clear and open.
For example, if I want my son to believe in G-d, I don’t wait until the month before his bar mitzvah to sit down and have a “big talk” about the meaning of life. I infuse G-d consciousness into the fabric of our existence and conversation. Similarly, if I want my child to see herself as a worthy individual, I don’t just sit her down one day before junior high and tell her she has value, but I make it my business to punctuate our interactions with opportunities to point out her potential and achievements.
Likewise, if I want my children to develop into emotionally healthy, relationship-ready young adults, that preparation is ongoing. Just like there’s math that’s appropriate for five year olds, and the curricula build on that, and become more detailed and advanced as they mature, there is sexual information that’s age appropriate for each stage of development, depending on a child’s maturity and curiosity. We don’t want to flood them with too much too early, but we also don’t want to get in the habit of constantly withholding and procrastinating, saying: “you’ll find out when you’re older”.
Some parents may feel they’re “playing it safe” by avoiding the issue. In reality, it is almost impossible to “not communicate”. By omitting this topic, they’re communicating that it’s taboo, inappropriate, or at the very least, uncomfortable. Some of my more cloistered clients were horrified when they learned about physical intimacy because they assumed this was not “Jewish” behavior. This isn’t always a conscious choice, of course, but the repercussions come anyway. The more accurate information kids have about their bodies, about boundaries, about privacy vs. shame, about pleasure and the future, the less confusion, and the more healthy their development.
The question of whether to use anatomically correct language or euphemism (such as “birds and bees” mentioned facetiously in the title of this post) is subjective. Some feel that euphemism conveys a message of shame, while culturally and religiously, others believe that it shows reverence and sensitivity. I prefer direct, clear terminology, but believe some euphemistic language can work, as long as the children have a clear, working vocabulary. Contrary to what many parents believe, healthy children can be sexual creatures, who touch themselves, fantasize, desire, and feel pleasure. Acknowledging, validating and containing this can be a huge load off their shoulders, and offer values and boundaries around these behaviors.
There are many books to assist the perplexed parent, but two great Jewish books which I recommend often are: Talking to Your Children about Intimacy by Sara Diament. It’s a short, easy read, that gives guidelines and suggestions for parents who seek to educate, but may struggle with what, when, and how to share, as well as their own discomfort. A longer version of a similar message is: Talking about Intimacy and Sexuality by Yocheved Debow- another excellent resource for preparing for these dialogues.
By overcoming our reluctance and discomfort, and confronting these topics with confidence, honesty, receptiveness, and love, we equip our children with one of the greatest gifts for their future happiness.