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Too much information or not enough: Addressing adolescent female sexuality in Orthodox Jewish girls

Too much information or not enough:  Addressing adolescent female sexuality from high school through pre-marriage

Talli Yehuda Rosenbaum, MSc

Although premarital sexual relationships are proscribed by Jewish law, sexual thoughts, curiosity and drive are a normative part of the human experience and are integral to the development of the self. In Orthodox Jewish society, the emerging sexuality of young people, while recognized as innately normal, is often viewed as a dangerous force potentially conflicting with values that restrict sexual activity. There is much debate regarding the extent to which discussion of sexuality and sexual relationships is relevant in religious high schools and the reluctance to offer such discussion is often based on fears that doing so implies tolerance of sexual activity. Yet, there are compelling reasons for providing youth with sexual education . This paper will highlight those reasons, particularly as they relate to girls and young women, briefly describe sexual development in the adolescent years,  and offer ways in which parents,  educators and counselors can effectively and openly address and  discuss sexuality . Finally, relevant premarital information regarding  the changing nature of love, passion, relationships, intimacy and sexuality throughout the lifecycle is introduced.

Why talk about sex?

There is a wide spectrum in Orthodox Judaism regarding the extent to which sexes are separated but in the “national religious” sector mixed social, political and youth-group activity are common and opportunities to experiment with sexual activity are not unavailable.   In a groundbreaking study of 400  married Orthodox Jewish women, the first ever to investigate the sexual lives of Orthodox women, this author and colleagues questioned respondents about their premarital sexual experience and found that 16% percent of “modern orthodox” women (who were not baalei teshuva,) reported not being virgins at the time of marriage. While there are no current statistics regarding premarital sexual activity in this population, if in fact girls are engaging in sexual activity, education about safety and birth control is critical and may in fact, empower young women in choosing against sexual experimentation. Studies demonstrating lack of efficacy of  abstinence education in the US have indicated that “the more you know, the more you say no” and that properly addressing sexuality, teaching the legitimacy of setting boundaries, and encouraging a value based curriculum may actually empower girls to make autonomous choices about their sexuality both before as well as after marriage. 

Adolescents steeped in religious teachings yet exposed to popular culture receive divergent and confusing messages about sex. If they are not processed and balanced with a values based sexual education, the information they do receive is likely at best to be incorrect, and at worst, harmful.  Sexual education should not be viewed, however, as a necessary evil required in order to contend with today’s cultural realities. Sexual education in the adolescent years is crucial in preparing individuals for a sexual relationship in marriage and includes elements that do not require experiencing sexual activity. This includes self and  body-awareness, positive self and body image, and development of the capacity for intimacy and expressions of love. The development of a sexual sense of self is integral to ability to enjoy sexual relations in marriage.

Prior to actually engaging in sexual behavior with a partner, one is likely to have developed a sexual sense of self based on curiosity about sex, and awareness of experiencing sexual feelings, attraction, and arousal. The development of this sense of sexual self is highly variable in individuals and is dependent to a great extent on familial and cultural messages. Limited exposure to intimate and affectionate behaviors, absent, negative, or guilt-inducing messages regarding sex or masturbation, and limited opportunity to engage with the opposite sex, limits such development. Conversely, over-exposure to often negative media messages about sex, without the permission or opportunity to process or discuss sexual thoughts and feelings, may also negatively affect the healthy development of the sexual self. 

A final and compelling argument in favor of sexual education is that the ability to commence a healthy and satisfying sexual relationship depends on receiving accurate sexual information and preparation.

Yet, according to results of our aforementioned study, 40% of the study subjects stated that they could have been better prepared for wedding night, and 64.5% did not know the “basics of intercourse”.

In a another study investigating the observance of the laws of niddah, Grumet found that the sexual messages received by Modern Orthodox women and men were vastly different. Young men reported receiving the implicit message that sexual desire was healthy and natural but was to be fulfilled only in the context of marriage. The young women, on the other hand, reported that female sexuality was downplayed or not addressed, and that in the name of modesty they were made to perceive sex and their bodies as something irrelevant or even dangerous. As a result, they often experienced a jarring transition from these negative messages to pre-marital classes where suddenly the beauty and sanctity of the sexual relationship were highlighted.

Although sexual education is meant to be part of the premarital curriculum, the degree to which the information provided just prior to the wedding can be properly processed is unknown. The radical shift from sexual (or relative sexual) abstinence to complete sexual intercourse as a source of cognitive dissonance has been addressed by this author in the literature.  Young women, whose self-concept and self-esteem have been socialized and defined by a culture that values chastity and virginity, experience a role identity shift by taking on a new role as a married woman and a new identity as a sexual human being. This radical shift may be tempered somewhat by earlier education and dialogue regarding sex.

Sexual Development: Biological systems

Healthy sexuality is a positive and life affirming part of being human. The ability to enjoy sexual relations evolves through developmental processes influenced by biological, psychological and cognitive growth. Briefly, biological processes include genetic, endocrine, and other biological systems. Genetic processes of development play a role in determining male or female dominant appearance, gender identity, and sexual orientation.   During puberty, changing hormonal levels play a role in activating the development of secondary sex characteristics. While the capacity to experience sexual arousal and orgasm exists to some degree in childhood, the onset of puberty marks the biological ability to experience sexual function, sexual intercourse, and reproduce.   The ability to perceive pleasure, to feel, touch, taste, smell and move comfortably, are all important components of sexuality. Therefore, intact sensory and motor systems are necessary for normative sexual development. Developmental conditions which affect any of these functions may inhibit or delay sexual development.  

Sexual Development: Psychological and social processes

Autonomy

The process of adolescence includes developing a positive self-image and body image, more completely defining sex roles, and  developing relationships with the opposite sex,  processes which help prepare adolescents towards independence in young adulthood and towards establishing the tools necessary for cultivating and maintaining a sustained intimate relationship.  Psycho-social achievements in adolescents include the establishment of an identity, autonomy, intimacy, achievement and comfort with sexuality.    

The emerging sexual self, the potential to explore thoughts feelings, fantasies and self stimulating behavior, and ultimately engage with members of the opposite sex is facilitated by the concurrent move towards parental independence. In early adolescence, close friendships gain importance and less attention is shown to parents. Formation of close, intimate relationships is established with peers, usually of the same sex, which offer a model for future dyadic relationships, i.e., sharing of confidences and intimacies, the shedding of inhibitions and learning about trust. Middle adolescent teens are often concerned with their appearance, seeking approval from their peers.

The decision to engage in sexual activity at this age appears to be strongly influenced by peer pressure. In a US study, the three most common reasons cited by teens who had  sexual intercourse by age fifteen were  to get it over with,  to hold on to a boyfriend and  “because everyone else is doing it”.   Discussion in the framework of school or youth group should focus on autonomy and independent decision making as an important factor in deciding to engage in sexual activity.   In later adolescence a firmer, more independent identity is established including the ability to delay gratification, think through and express ideas in words, and display more emotional stability.  Traits expected in adulthood, such as stable interests, ability to be self-reliant and make independent decisions characterize readiness for a committed inmate relationship. 

Cognitive processes

On a cognitive level, adolescence is a time where teens develop abstract thinking skills.  Concepts such as faith, trust, beliefs and spirituality enter in to their establishment of themselves as sexual beings and the way they perceive potential conflicts between various sources of information including home, school,  synagogue, youth group, and the media. The ability to sort out these confusing and often conflicting messages in order to establish a healthy approach to sexuality in conformity with one’s conscience, moral code and religious beliefs, often requires strategic interventions. Additional cognitive skills include advanced reasoning and executive function, a set of mental processes that help individuals make connections between past experience and present action.   While the ability to reason adequately in order to consider the consequence of one’s actions (such as pregnancy) continues to develop throughout adolescence, many teens do not possess the cognitive and emotional maturity necessary to engage in sexual intercourse. The executive functioning necessary before engaging in sexual intercourse requires acceptance of one’s sexuality, acknowledgement that one is sexually active, planning and using birth control and employing safe sex practices.  While executive functioning, which includes planning, organizing, strategizing and paying attention to details may function well in other areas, this function may cease to operate in the face of biological drive, or other motivating factors. Additionally, adolescents are influenced by a cognitive processes know as the imaginary audience and the personal fable.   The imaginary audience involves adolescents’ anticipation of other people’s reactions to themselves, while the personal fable refers to adolescents’ belief that they are unique and invincible. The former process may influence a teen’s decision to engage in sexual behavior due to peer pressure or how he/she is perceived by the partner (“if I don’t go all the way, he will leave me”) while the latter may allow teens to engage in risky behaviors, exposing them to disease or pregnancy, because of the personal fable allowing them to believe that they are special, protected or, immune.  This has led some researchers to conclude that despite the biological capability and social acceptance of adolescents to engage in sexual intercourse, many have not reached the level of cognitive development necessary to develop genuine intimacy, understand the complex, interpersonal aspects of a mature sexual relationship, and properly practice birth control.  

Modeling

As mentioned above, the developing sexual self is influenced by many factors, and cultural components play a role in shaping this process. For example, much of how children and teens perceive intimacy depends on the role modeled by their parents at home. It is likely that a child raised in a home in which parents displayed mutual warmth and affection and related to questions about sex in a frank, open and affirmative manner will develop a positive attitude about sex whereas a child raised in a home in which discussion of sex was discouraged or repressed, and physical or emotional intimacy between parents was not apparent, may develop negative attitudes and associate pleasure with guilt or shame. Worthy of any discussion on the development of adolescent sexuality are issues which pervasively affect every aspect of sexual development, i.e., sexual abuse and media.

Sexual abuse

A meta-analytic study by Gorey and Leslie concluded that approximately 22% of women report childhood sexual abuse, with about one-third reporting genital penetration and that various studies report similar statistics amongst men.   Young people who have been sexually abused, especially by a trusted adult, suffer damage to almost every aspect of their personal development: physical, emotional, spiritual, and not surprisingly, sexual. On an emotional level, young people in abusive situations must redirect their energy from emotional development to survival. When they are forced to focus on avoiding the violent or sexual advances of an adult who is supposed to protect them, they do not make the same developmental progress as children who receive unconditional love, support, and guidance. On a cognitive level, a teen who was abused as a child, or continues to experience abuse,  may re-experience and reframe abuse that occurred to them earlier, and apply that sense of disorganization and insecurity to intimate and sexual settings.  It is often during adolescence that the real consequences of being sexually abused occur. When a young child is sexually abused, it may be physically pleasurable or hurtful, confusing, and alarming, but they do not have a context for defining the abuse as sexual. When those children turn 12 or 13, they cognitively reassess the abuse as they begin to learn about or experience sexual feelings. Sexual abuse affects the establishment of positive identity formation which requires the attainment of expressions of love, feelings of significance, a sense of a belief in one’s innate, inner goodness, a sense of belonging and of mastery and control. All of these variables are severely compromised by child abuse and neglect, which damages   abused children’s sense of self and their future relationships.

Media

Although children may receive some information about sex from their parents and schools, several studies have demonstrated that children and teens are strongly influenced by messages relayed through television, music, movies and the internet. Advertisements that portray slim, beautiful young models determine societal norms of attractiveness, and affect the developing self and body image of both boys and girls, which may be a contributing factor in the development of eating disorders.  Graphic and violent musical lyrics and music videos often depict women as property, and the effect of pervasive and graphic sexual images through media exposure may desensitize a teenager regarding boundaries surrounding the legitimacy of varied sexual behaviors. When the cultural milieu of the home and the school are in conflict with these media messages, and the ability to communicate with parents or teachers about these conflicts is lacking, teens may experience their exposure negatively, and perceive their sexual responses with guilt and anxiety. Furthermore, cognitive, psychological, and social attributes play important roles in how the media is interpreted.  For example, as a result of viewing television, adolescents associate unprotected sex with spontaneity, naturalness, pleasure, and privacy while safe sex is associated with planning, artificiality, caution, and work.    

Educational and Parental Strategies for Addressing Adolescent Sexuality

Sexual Education

Sexual education guidelines include providing information, opportunities to question, explore and assess attitudes and values, help develop communication and interpersonal skills for relationship development, and teach young people to exercise responsibility, whether they choose to abstain from or engage in sexual behavior.   Sexual education may be values-based and curricula designed specifically for the modern orthodox population of schoolchildren have already been introduced.     Focusing on the young people’s right to information and services can empower young people to demand honest, accurate, culturally relevant information and unrestricted access to health services, thereby encourage adolescents to take responsibility for their choices. Educational content can include discussion of the following common questions: “Once I start can I stop in the middle?” “How do I stop in the middle?”  “What if it doesn’t feel good?”  “What if he feels rejected?”  “Does stopping mean I don’t love him or am not a good girlfriend or wife?” These discussions provide an eye opening opportunity for young women to learn autonomy and legitimacy for setting boundaries based on their own curiosity and desires and prevents feelings of objectification.  Common myths may be explored such as , “I cant get pregnant the first time”, “I cant get pregnant if he doesn’t penetrate me,”  “I cant get pregnant once I start the pill from day 1”, “If I don’t do it with him, it means I don’t love him”, and “only intercourse is ‘real sex’ “ The framework of sexual education allows discussion surrounding the question of  “How do I know if I am  ready to have sex?   Students should discuss the following: Do both my partner and I feel ready to have sex now? Have my partner and I talked about what having sex means to our relationship? Do I know my reasons for deciding to have sex now? Will I feel good about myself if I have sex now? Am I sure no one is pressuring me to have sex? Can I say “No” to sex without feeling guilty? Can my partner and I openly discuss the prevention of STI and pregnancy? Do my partner and I know enough about how to prevent STI and pregnancy? Are we responsible enough to use birth control every time we have sex? Are we ready to handle the possible consequences of being sexually active? If the relationship breaks up, will I regret having had sex with this person? Finally, once all this has been explored, students may be ready to engage seriously in paying attention to compelling reasons to wait to have sex. They may conclude as illustrated in the following  student essay:

 “Doing it”  might take away the element of fantasy.  I need to be mature enough to consider the risks and arrange birth control, and to talk about what I like and need. I need to be sure in the relationship that I feel safe (and he will stop when I want him to). I need to be sure that is what I want and that is what is good for me.

Sexual abuse treatment

In cases of sexual abuse, several strategies should be employed in order to heal the trauma and facilitate the establishment of healthy relationships.   Children and young people often feel responsible for the abuse and guilt feelings often continue in adulthood. Psychological treatment for sex abuse often involves establishing the young person’s safety, both in their home situation and with the therapist, processing traumatic material, and fostering social reconnection.

Parental strategies

There are several strategies parents can employ to assist adolescents in the development of healthy sexuality. Promoting a healthy body image can be facilitated by modeling healthy eating habits and exercise, and refraining from negative comments about the teen’s appearance or weight. Another strategy is to encourage physical activity. For both boys and girls, physical activity provides an outlet and release of energy when their physically developing libido is not in sync with their cognitive, or social ability to express themselves sexually, or they are prohibited to do.  Furthermore, physical activity facilitates a positive body image which is positive for sexual intimacy in the future.

 When teens ask questions about sex, parents should provide open and honest answers at a level appropriate to the child’s age. If adults do not provide accurate information, teens are forced to rely on their peers or other potentially inaccurate sources. Parents should also be patient with their teen’s need for personal space and time spent getting dressed and “primping”.  Teens often spend large amounts of time grooming themselves and obsessing over skincare products. Often, this behavior merely reflects teens’ attempts to maintain some sense of control over their rapidly changing bodies.

Relevant Premarital Information: Sexuality throughout the lifecycle

The developmental process described above in regard to adolescence, continue to affect sexuality throughout the life cycle. Issues of body image are a dynamic part of life, particularly for women as they enter and exit the reproductive years. Affirmation strategies, physical exercise, learning to love oneself and one’s changing body, accepting permission to experience pleasure, are relevant in all stages of life. Treatment for past sexual abuse may become relevant only in adulthood for many people for whom this issue rears its head only when commencing an intimate relationship, having a child, or even later in life. 

Beyond adolescence, into young adulthood, the reproductive years, midlife and old age, sexual expression, sexual needs, and sexual function change, as well as the nature of intimate relationships. Sternberg’s triangular model of love, suggests that intimate relationships are characterized by passion, intimacy and commitment that are significant at different stages of life. Passion, present at the initiation of a relationship and characterized by feeling “in love”, is characterized by powerful physical attraction, high fantasy, distortion, and projection. Intimacy refers to companionship and is associated with perceiving one’s partner as one’s best friend, sharing deepest thoughts, feelings,  affection,  and shared beliefs, goals, values and long-term maintenance while commitment refers to enduring, selfless, compassionate “in sickness and in health” love. The biological and evolutionary components of these stages have been the subject of a great deal of research as well. 

The nature of sexual relationships changes with the lifecycle as well.  For example, the postpartum period, due to a combination of biological and hormonal components, parent fatigue, and energy directed toward the newborn, is generally reported to be a period of low sexual desire, particularly in women. Middle age, for men and women, also is characterized by physical, existential and relationship changes which may affect sexuality as well as one’s motivations for engaging in sexual activity. In later life, various reasons for participating in sexual activity may include expression of passion, affection, emotion, admiration, loyalty, affirmation of body’s functioning, self assertion, protection from anxiety, defiance of stereotypes of aging, pleasures of touch, sense of romance, affirmation of life, or search for growth and experience.

Several strategies are available for couples experiencing sexual problems. One strategy is to reframe existing models of sexual function, based on those proposed by Masters and Johnson’s and Helen Singer Kaplan, who described sexual function in a linear based fashion, starting with desire, arousal, orgasm and plateau. Newer models of sexual function, particularly female sexual function, more recently proposed by Rosemary Basson, suggest that women are often motivated to engage in sexual activities in order to achieve emotional intimacy, rather than because of spontaneous desire. Once they become sexually aroused, desire then kicks in resulting in a satisfying sexual experience. This reframing helps to alleviate anxiety in women who feel that their lack of spontaneous sexual desire is pathological and dysfunctional and normalizes their experience.

In conclusion it is apparent that sexuality is a fluid, developing and dynamic process which includes sexual expression and a sexual sense of self. When viewed in this manner, it highlights the complexity and dissonance involved in the expectation that despite little preparation or discussion of sexuality, no sexual experience, and limited sense of sexual self, women are nonetheless expected to experience full sexual activity in a very short period of time after the wedding. It is time to empower the next generation of religious women by respecting them enough to offer honest and accurate sources of information and adequate preparation for a satisfying marital life.

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