LAST WEEK’S JC reported that the Orthodox schools establishment had responded positively to the call to place relationships teaching on the curriculum. Judith Nemeth, executive director of the National Association of Orthox Jewish Schools was quoted as saying that compulsory relationships education was “good news for all”.
But how far will this go within Strictly Orthodox circles? Entrenched attitudes and beliefs — among parents as well as teachers — cannot be merely swept aside. And there is no area in which attitudes are more entrenched than that of sex education.
In Deborah Feldman’s memoir of her life as a Satmar Chasid, Unorthodox, one scene is not for the squeamish. A friend tells Deborah how her new husband managed to rupture her colon in a painful attempt to consummate the marriage. As an example of what happens without adequate sex education, it couldn’t be bleaker.
Even if that’s an extreme case, it’s not an exaggeration to suggest that some Strictly Orthodox Jews are being brought up without full understanding of the complexities of sexuality and modern relationships or, at best, an understanding only within narrow religious parameters.
Ofsted, whose findings the JC has also reported over a long period, has marked down Strictly Orthodox schools for failing to teach about same-sex relationships (and that may only be the tip of the iceberg: British Humanist Association analysis shows that SRE — sex and relationships education — is mentioned in less than one per cent of reports).
At present, state schools must educate on the biological aspects of sex, but not the social and emotional side, while there is no requirement on non-maintained schools. “Jewish Orthodox schools do not suffer from these issues,” wrote David Hersh of Tiferes High School last month in a submission to Parliament. And, while welcoming general relationships teaching, more specifically, Judith Nemeth has also said that “99 per cent of pupils in our Orthodox Jewish schools will not have sexual relationships with the opposite sex before marriage… Our youth generally do not have access to smartphones or unfiltered internet. Therefore there is no need for them to be ‘prepared’ for what they may confront”.
Probably, yes, fewer frum teens are sexting. But are none questioning their sexuality, wondering what certain feelings mean, or passing around an illicit phone to view pornography? Or, in saying “we do not suffer from these issues,” do they mean: We do not talk about them? We do not talk about the possibility pupils are having consensual sex or — worse — non-consensual sex. We aren’t interested in discussing same-sex relationships because we don’t accept them. We want to brush under the carpet the ability for impressionable teenagers to learn the difference between consent and rape.
The submissions stress that faith schools are high-performing. But that hardly makes it acceptable that pupils are growing up ill-equipped for a central aspect of adult life. Quite simply, if schools are not teaching more than the biological facts, they are delivering an education unworthy of 21st-century Britain.
Yes, parental choice is important but, in a community with such opposition to sex education in the classroom, do we really think it will be taught objectively and without judgment behind closed doors?
Some of these youths will never have to answer these questions, but no community is immune to hormonal teenagers, nor darker problems such as abuse. If nothing else, those who want an adult life outside the Strictly Orthodox community deserve to be prepared for that world.
There is a way to teach SRE that still promotes the view undoubtedly held in this community that sex is about children and marriage, while still equipping children for the intricacies of adult relationships.
Compulsory SRE is supported by scores of education and children’s affairs experts. Of course, even the best curriculum in the world won’t stamp out things like revenge porn or grooming. Knowing what consent means doesn’t necessarily give a girl the power to extricate herself, but it might afford the power to know she’s in the right or who to talk to. Hearing from teachers that gay relationships are normal won’t make it easier for a Strictly Orthodox youth to come out to his family, but it might make him feel less alone.
In every aspect of Jewish life, we prioritise knowledge as our best tool for understanding the world. Why not this? What is so taboo about presenting the facts?
There is a tendency in the wider community to treat this as something “the frum do differently”. We shouldn’t. Strictly Orthodox young people deserve to be protected and informed no less than anyone else’s children.
Are no frum teens questioning their sexuality?