10 Minutes of Torah -  Jewish Ethics
 December 2, 2005
Week 106, Day 5
1 Kislev 5766 

The truth about birds and bees

The following editorial is from the November 24, 2005 issue of New Jersey Jewish News and is reprinted with permission.

Rutgers' Susan Wilson, who founded the by-teens-for-teens Web site "Sex Etc.," once had this to say about the sex-ed debate:

"Sexual policy is being determined for young people whose hormones are on the rise by those whose hormones are falling."

When I was in high school, my sexual policy was basically "yes." And time and time again, it was vetoed -- in fact, my proposals rarely got out of committee.

This makes me look at the current statistics on teenage sexual activity with stupefaction. The National Center for Health Statistics says that almost half of American teenagers ages 15 to 19 have had sexual intercourse. Even more surprising to researchers was the finding that slightly more than half of the teenagers in this age group have engaged in oral sex.

This is the reality Rabbi Eric Yoffie was addressing when he delivered his state-of-the-movement address at last weekend's biennial of the Union for Reform Judaism. Yoffie devoted nearly a quarter of his speech to the concept of "hooking up," which he defined, for those without teenagers or access to the WB network, as "a casual, no-strings-attached sexual encounter."

Yoffie was against the practice, which may come as a surprise to those who like to caricaturize Reform as liberalism with a Long Island accent. It may even have surprised Yoffie, who scolded the hundreds of rabbis and lay leaders in attendance. "The problem for our synagogues may be that we are not very good at saying 'no' in Reform Judaism," Yoffie said. "We are the most creative and forward-looking movement in Jewish life, but in the realm of personal behavior, we are reluctant to ever use the word 'forbidden.'"

Yoffie wasn't urging Reform teens to "just say no" to sexual activity. But he was willing to draw a line in a way that will rankle religious conservatives but hearten realists who actually remember what it was like to be 17.

Yoffie previewed a new sex-ed curriculum for bar and bat mitzva-age students in Reform religious schools. The course will not tell kids that "sex before marriage is forbidden"; Yoffie knows that's hypocritical when adults are delaying marriage until their late 20s and beyond.

But it will say, "in the clearest possible way, that high school students should not be having sexual relations." Clear, but not so clear -- abstinence-only advocates may think they've found a new recruit, but Yoffie seems to have adopted a Clintonian definition of "sexual relations."

"We are not naive," he continued. "We do not promote abstinence from all forms of physical contact. We talk about the kinds of sexual expression that teens who care about each other might consider."

Yoffie is opening the door here for what some have called "outercourse," or what the Happy Days generation might call heavy petting.

At last. The frustrating thing about the sex-ed debate is that it has become a parody of the abortion debate, pitting one set of absolutes -- total abstinence -- against another: comprehensive, non-judgmental education about birth control, STDs, and the pleasure principle. But unlike abortion, there is a middle ground. Outercourse imagines a healthy sexual -- or, perhaps, quasi-sexual -- relationship in which teens can find ways to bring pleasure to one another without risking disease, pregnancy, or their self-esteem.

Of course, it doesn't work if you define outercourse too broadly. Oral sex has to be a no-no, because it carries risk of STDs, sexual coercion, and dominance. Yoffie addresses this. "But we do take on the issues of oral sex and hooking up," he said. "We tell both boys and girls that sex is not about controlling or servicing the other. And we tell girls in particular that their worth is not defined by what they do for boys."

Yoffie is proposing an ethic that recognizes the reality of being a teen, guiding them toward loving relationships that stop well short of the risks and full responsibilities of adult sexuality. And it could even work.

At this point, traditionalists know where to place Yoffie. Libertine. Relativist. Heretic. Indeed, Yoffie is a rabbi, not a public health official. What makes his approach "Jewish" exactly?

The most powerful part of his talk is when he finds a Jewish language for expressing the possibilities for transforming the "hook-up" into a relationship. He urges schools to teach that it is "impossible to make love only with your body without dragging in your heart and soul. Judaism teaches that we cannot divide human beings into component parts. Since we are creatures of God and holiness is attained through loving relationships, sex for its own sake leads to exploitation and hurt."

And he doesn't leave it just to schools. Parents also need to set firm limits. They need to know how to listen. And they have to stop sending mixed messages, like staging "sexualized" b'nei mitzva parties and ignoring what's happening within their own walls.

Conservative British columnist Melanie Phillips once railed against an "outercourse" curriculum, declaring "[s]uccessful American schemes show it is possible to challenge all premature sexual activity through programs aimed at sexual abstinence." Sure, you can "challenge" it. But are you really going to succeed? If there is a "successful" abstinence-only program, I'd like to see it -- and the study I cited above even suggests that teens who delay intercourse are likely to experiment with oral sex and other exchanges of bodily fluid.

No, Yoffie's position is not "just say no." It's more like "just say less, and better." In an age when many think ideological purity is more important than effectiveness, Yoffie offers a religious sexual ethic with which teens may just be able to live -- and love.


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