How to Teach Sex Education to Teens Who Know It All

In an age of online forums and social networks, text messages and explicit TV, how can we teach sex education in a relevant way in our schools - especially to teens who know it all? Some insight from the classroom

Doron Halutz
Doron Halutz
Doron Halutz
Doron Halutz

Guidance counselor Orna Rothschild wrote "sexuality and adolescence" on the blackboard and asked 11th-graders at a Rishon Letzion school to freely associate. She wrote their responses on the board, organizing some according to categories: healthy friendship between the sexes, communication, love, violence in relationships, anger management.

"The nurse will come next week to talk about contraceptives," she promised.

"What will she do?" a student asked.

Orna RothschildCredit: Nir Kafri

"She'll show us what to do with condoms," another replied with evident disdain.

Rothschild quieted the class down and handed out a questionnaire entitled "Test yourself: How much do you know about sexuality?" There were four columns - the first containing various statements, and then three possible responses: true, not true, don't know.

"You're not expected to know everything," she reassured the class. "If you knew everything, I wouldn't be here."

"The last question is really dumb," a student remarked. The question was: "Two friends of 15 who masturbate next to each other are considered gay."

"All the questions seem dumb," Rothschild responded. "That's the point."

Noise in the classroom.

"Let me remind you about our 'contract' during these classes," she continued. "We speak respectfully and only about ourselves, not about our friends. Anyone who wants to share a personal story should think first, because words that come out, stay out. We will call the sexual organs by their names. Obviously there will be laughing. Laughing is allowed. But we respect one other. How do you feel when you read these statements?"

A student: "Embarrassed."

Rothschild: "Right, embarrassed."

The guidance counselor drew a graph on the blackboard and called it "Circle of sexual response." The vertical line was a time axis, the horizontal one represented the intensity of desire, from the onset of sexual stimulation to orgasm. "A boy of your age can come in two minutes, in a snap; it takes a girl, a woman, at least 20 minutes." The giggling among the girls increased. Rothschild generally speaks about numbers and percentages and psychological profiles, and uses a lot of biological terms. "Read the next statement, please," she asked.

Student A: "I don't want to read."

Student B volunteered: "Secretions from the girl's vagina and from the boy's penis, together with burning and itching sensations, indicate the possibility of sexual disease." The student then added, "That's true," and continued reading. "Sitting on the toilet seat, kissing, handshaking or drinking from a shared glass can infect you with AIDS."

A buzz rippled through the classroom: "True."

Rothschild: "Not true, only by blood." (Or by semen or vaginal secretions, though she doesn't mention these. )

Just after the bell the critical issue came up: "Size - does it matter?" A male student jumped up: "It matters, it's important for the rubbing upon entry."

Rothschild, in a reassuring tone of voice: "There are small, medium and large sexual organs. A small penis will lengthen to 14-16 centimeters." The class was not impressed. "Everyone knows that size matters," one student insistsed.

Rothschild tried a neurological approach: "The nerves are found only in the top third of the penis, so it's enough for the top third to enter for the man to feel sexual excitement. Have a great day."


'A fig leaf'

Sex education classes such as this are part of the Ministry of Education's life skills program, which for the past two years has been compulsory in elementary and junior high schools, and noncompulsory in senior high schools, affiliated with the state education (in this case Jewish secular ) system. However, in a discussion held by the Knesset Committee on the Rights of the Child three months ago, it emerged that only 60 percent of the junior highs and fewer than half the elementary schools are implementing the program, whose aim, according to an official ministry statement, is to advance pupils' emotional-social development.

Given that the data refer to the entire life skills program, which also deals with violence, frustration and substance abuse - it follows that the amount of exposure to sex education per se is even less than official statistics indicate.

"There are categories that less than 20 percent of the schools deal with, such as pregnancy and contraception," admits Tali Treger, director of the unit on sexuality, relationships and family life in Shefi (an acronym for Advisory Psychological Service ), the Education Ministry department responsible for writing and implementing the program. "And there is even less attention paid to the gay-lesbian issue, which is part of the curriculum for the eighth and ninth grades," she adds.

The ministry came under fire at the Knesset hearing, in part because of the increase in sexual attacks on minors and in the number of gang rapes in the past year. The committee chairman, MK Danny Danon (Likud ), accused the ministry of being responsible for the rape incidents. Others complained that there is not enough of a budget to deal with such phenomena. But Treger is not put off by the criticism: She's the first to admit that there is a problem.

An official, organized sex education curriculum does exist. Treger explains: "It's a spiral-like curriculum, according to age, with the themes repeated over and over, each time in a more profound way as the children get older. In the fourth grade we start to talk about relations between the sexes, gender and stereotypes. That is the prelude to sexual identity, a subject we discuss in ninth grade, though in the past it was not dealt with until the 11th grade."

The problem is that Shefi does not have the authority to ensure that these subjects are in fact taught.

"It's hard because this is not a lesson that gets a grade on the report card," Treger explains. "At the end of every year we survey the guidance counselors to assess the program's implementation. It's true that sex education classes are skipped more easily. In high school it's an elective, on top of which the students are focused on matriculation exams. A letter from the minister will probably soon be sent out reminding schools that there has to be a weekly hour of life skills."

"Sex education today is inadequate," says Dr. Ronny Shtarkshall, from the School of Public Health and Community Medicine at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. "A study I conducted a few years ago found that in the three previous years, about a quarter of the high-school students received no sex education at all and another quarter received less than three hours. A sex education program cannot consist of less than 10 hours in three years. That's not a program, it's a fig leaf."

Tzur Ziv, from Zichron Ya'akov, says he has been in school for 10 years and never had one class in sex education. "They always said, 'Probably next year,'" he relates. "Maybe in the 11th or 12th grade we'll have it, but to start in the 11th grade is more 'for the record' than to learn anything."

Treger and Shtarkshall agree that effective sex education must begin at a young age, "because adolescence is the least appropriate time to start talking about sexuality," as Treger puts it. "This is a stage at which the sexuality of the parents starts to become threatening and even disgusting. Children are revolted by the thought that their parents are sexual beings."

Adolescents project their interest in sexuality "from the home outward," Shtarkshall explains. "They look for intimacy not only by bringing their sexual organs together, but also in talking about sex, in making eye contact, in examining values - they do all this in the company of other young people, searching for their identity. That's why school is the natural place for sex education."

But even after objections by the religiously observant and political conservatives, and budgetary constraints are taken out of the equation, the Shefi staff admit they have to cope with large disparities between the liberal vision they develop in their bland offices in Jerusalem, and the embarrassment that strikes most teachers when they have to talk about sex.

"There are many teachers from the older generation, unsophisticated types, who will sink into the ground in embarrassment if you mention the word bulbul [Hebrew euphemism for penis] next to them," grumbles L., a young homeroom teacher in the sixth grade in a Tel Aviv school. "Maybe instead of sending teachers to do courses on flower arranging, they should be sent to enrichment courses in psychological subjects, and be taught how to talk about sex with students. Maybe that will liberate them, or at least give them more tools."

Rothschild, the counselor from Rishon Letzion, also admits that just before entering the classroom, despite her openness to the subject, she too is sometimes seized by fear and embarrassment.

"It pressures and threatens the teachers to do this," Treger notes. "Even when I talk about sexuality with my own sons, the response is, 'Oh, Mom, you're embarrassing us.' It makes you confront your own sexuality and raises anxieties. It's easier for teachers to give a structured lesson and assign homework. They are most afraid of direct questions, like, 'Do you masturbate?' or 'Do you have sex with your husband?' We work on that with the teachers."


Treger: "By means of preparatory meetings. We ask them how they like their morning coffee, who makes the best coffee. From that, we extrapolate: If we can talk so clearly about our coffee, why not about sexuality? How much coffee, how much milk, how hot, how cold. After you have gone through a process like that, it's less threatening to talk about it in the classroom. We help them understand that the children are not asking questions to embarrass them, but are trying to figure out if it's normal for them to masturbate, or whether the teacher is willing to admit that she, too, is a sexual being. The children are really talking about themselves, but want to ensure that the teacher is being genuine and sincere."

New approach

"Experts have warned consistently that the education system is closing its eyes and disregarding the subject," Haaretz wrote in 1973 about the absence of a sex education program in the schools. That year the education minister, Yigal Allon, decided to take a radical new approach.

"Allon's view was that in our rational age, it was time to remove the cloak of mystery from sex, and that because our schools prepare the students for life, it was their duty to address this subject as well," the paper reported. "On the other hand, the minister thought our school system was not ready to move from inaction to the extreme of being obliged from above to introduce sex education into the entire system. Accordingly, it was agreed that schools were ready to introduce education for family life, 'including sexual issues' - but not to impose this immediately in a compulsory fashion, and only in schools that were ready for it."

According to Dr. Gabriel Cavaglion, from the department of criminology and school of social work at Ashkelon Academic College, who has researched the subject, sex education during the country's early years was not a priority until the massive immigration of large families from Muslim countries.

"Professionals in the field presented sex education then as a means to serve the state by getting those who were 'backward' to internalize civilized reproductive behavior and acquire 'correct habits,'" explains Cavaglion, adding that over the years, sex education was not discussed "in terms of being a positive factor, [or as] a subject related to personal growth and experience, self-expression or pleasure."

The sex education unit of the Education Ministry, established in 1973, drew the ire of MKs and religious activists. MK Shlomo Lorincz, from the ultra-Orthodox Agudat Yisrael party, said the idea to introduce sex education in the school system was "the most concrete proof of our deterioration and loss of our original image," according to a report in Haaretz in May 1973. Lorincz urged emulation of the values of the religious education system - meaning, "abstention and moral self-restraint, which even today enjoys maximum success."

The Education Ministry responded with a dual strategy: First, it stressed the conservative nature of the new program; secondly it justified the need for it with "scientific findings."

"In his response [to Lorincz], the education minister said that the proposals are not aimed at heightening permissiveness, but at helping youth to cope with that problem and to encourage them to establish a healthy family life," Haaretz reported. Accordingly, the term "family life curriculum" was added to the name of the ministry's new unit, to blur the face that it dealt with sex education. As a byproduct, it stressed the goal of promoting heterosexual relations for reproductive purposes.

In the 1990s, a new unit was created within Shefi to deal with sexual abuse. "Over time, the Education Ministry dealt increasingly with ugly expressions of sexuality," Cavaglion notes. "If in the past it was the boy who could do himself harm by masturbating, or whose parents were repressing his sexuality, or the girl who acted recklessly and got into trouble before she was 18 - in the 1990s the need arose to address sexual assault in the wake of events like the incident in Kibbutz Shomrat [a gang rape that shocked the country], for which the ministry found itself unprepared.

"It's no longer cases of naughty boys, but of gang rape and hooliganism, with the age of those involved constantly getting lower. A discourse of victimhood develops, but there is less talk about the fact that the true dangers lurk in the home. Most sexual assaults are perpetrated by fathers or uncles or someone the victim knows - and that is something the Education Ministry is reluctant to talk about. The narratives are mainly about a strange man in the park, but the statistics show the opposite. It becomes a discourse of panic," Cavaglion says.

In the past year the panic seemed to be rearing its head again, even if not everyone believes the country is experiencing a particularly brutal wave of sexual violence. Indeed, some maintain there is simply increased awareness of it, which generates more reporting of incidents.

"I find a large disparity between my acquaintance with young people and what I read," Treger says. "Are we blind, or are events made more extreme in the media?"

Doesn't it show that sex education in Israel has failed?

Treger: "I don't know if it's a failure or not enough success. I believe that if we had consistent sex education over years, there would be less sexual assault. Education for sexuality is supposed to begin at an early age, in the home. Children are born sexual, and the messages they get along the way influence their development."

L., the teacher, is less forgiving: "Children are aware of what is happening around them. If no one talks to them about it, the message they get is that this is how it is and it's all right. Instead of us educating the children and dictating norms to them, they are dictating to us."

Enter the Internet

In the 1960s, there were Israelis who accused liberal foreign volunteers on the kibbutzim of having permissive norms and of introducing the young generation there to the sexual revolution. In the 1980s and '90s, television, films and commercials - laden with blunt sexual content and sexist messages - were perceived as corrupting the young generation. Nowadays, it's the World Wide Web: The Education Ministry views the information revolution, which offers adolescents "licentious sexual information, without boundaries" via the Internet and cellular phones, as the enemy of our time. At the forefront of the debate is the subject of pornography.

"In the past you had to make an effort find it," Treger says, "but these days everything is accessible. Insensitivity to the subject develops, and youngsters seek sex therapy after having masturbated so much to pornographic images that they no longer know how to have sexual relations. They don't perform like the characters in the movies they watch and so think that something is wrong with them."

There is no dispute that young people are now more exposed to pornographic information than ever before.

"A study we did found that among students in ninth through twelfth grade, 90 percent of the boys and 68 percent of the girls had viewed pornography," Dr. Shtarkshall says. "The myth is that the boys show it to the girls, but our survey found that many of them watch it alone."

The question is whether this development is really so terrible. "There are no studies showing that pornography is harmful," he continues. "Let's see someone study it, though. Because on the one hand, it's taboo because it's a sensitive issue; on the other hand, every amateur asserts that 'porn is bad.' I am not ashamed to tell you that I don't know. Violent pornography may be harmful, and I think that the subject should be dealt with as part of sex education. The problem is that some of the people we studied reported that watching pornography disgusted and stimulated them at the same time. Teenagers ask me: 'I am turned on by things that disgust me, so does that make me disgusting or a pervert or a sex offender?' They need tools to deal with pornography, because it is flooding their living space. But who in the education system will let you deal with it?"

Similarly, Dr. Yossi Harel-Fisch, director of the International Research Program on Adolescent Well Being and Health at the school of education at Bar-Ilan University, and an adviser to the World Health Organization, is not certain that exposure to pornography is necessarily harmful to young people.

"The question is what happens when you see it from the point of view of a 13 year-old and it mixes with disrespect for others and mischievous acts. I am not sure that present-day curricula are coping with this type of blunt information, in a period when sexual touching and harassment are becoming part of the repertoire of bullying," says Harel-Fisch. "There is a tendency to demonize young people, to claim that they have become rapists, violent. If we do not forge a sense of responsibility and give them the ability to cope with this kind of content - that is precisely what happens."

"It is absolute nonsense to point a finger at pornography and claim that it's what makes boys rape girls of 12," says Prof. Azy Barak from the faculty of education at the University of Haifa. "We found, in cases of young people and adults who were convicted of sexual violence, that they were not exposed to pornographic information on the Internet more than anyone else. On the contrary, for some of them pornography was a catharsis, instead of acting against girls. You see abuse and beatings and hazardous driving on television - does that make you go out and do the same thing? What's important is not the stimulus, but your resilience to it: the education and values and preventive information you received from your parents and from school, which will make it possible for you to distinguish between what is proper and what is improper."

L., the teacher, has addressed the pornographic viewing habits of her students in the sixth grade. "Last year, one parent complained that a boy in the class was watching pornography and inducing other children to do it," she relates. "When I brought up the subject in class, they turned very red, but it was clear they knew what I was talking about."

It's not just pornography. "A girl who communicates with someone on Facebook and is dazzled when he tells her how pretty she is - that's a problem, too," Orna Rothschild says. "They are at an age when they are blinded easily and fall in love quickly, because they are looking for a feeling of belonging. There are many dangers on the Web and our job is to point them out. Nothing can replace interpersonal conversation and dialogue."

The Internet and cellular phones can be good tools for sex education, Prof. Barak says. They are readily accessible, personal and allow for direct communication between anonymous young people and certified experts: "The problem of the adults who work in this field [in the school system] is that they don't talk about sex the way they talk about the Bible or about engineering, because of embarrassment or personal inhibitions. But on the Internet, those problems disappear."

For instance, a year ago, a sex information service was launched via SMS in North Carolina, called the Birds and Bees Text Line. Young people are invited to send questions via a text message to a number advertised in the social networks. A team of volunteers texts them back a reply within 24 hours. In Israel, Open Door, an association that provides advice to young people, considered the possibility of starting a similar service, but backed off because of the complex logistics involved. The organization thus makes do with a website, which contains a great deal of information and is well organized, but suffers from a cluttered design and out-of-date graphics.

Noise and anxiety

An old joke tells about a teacher who came into class and declared, "Today we will talk about sex education." To which the students replied, "What would you like to know?" The information revolution was expected to make this situation even worse, because what could teachers tell pupils who already watch pornography in the sixth grade, receive sex counseling from authorized individuals online - and, above all, are convinced they know everything about sex?

"Our impression is that at this age they know and they act, but it turns out that only a small percentage have sexual relations, which are very childish," says Aliza, a high-school teacher in Rishon Letzion. "I see it in the classroom. When they asked questions at the end of last year, it was obvious that the subject wasn't yet relevant for them. Still, there is a big difference between girls and boys: The girls are more mature and less giggly."

Youngsters know a lot, "but their knowledge is unorganized and sometimes confused," Shtarkshall says. "There is a flood of information, but it's not organized and not systematic. It can create noise, but it's confusing and generates anxiety."

Surprisingly, youngsters agree to this. "Not only did they tell us things we did not know in the class, they also corrected things," says Linoy, a girl in the seventh grade in Rishon Letzion. Tzur, the high-school student from Zichron Yaakov, says, "We are already learning on our own, but are we learning properly, morally, with the right standards? That's something else."

Where do you get your information?

Tzur: "From life, from older friends. There are also some kids whose parents talk to them about it, there are conversations among the guys. Young people talk about it a lot."

The changing views and subjects discussed in sex education programs reflect developments related to other, broader social issues. "The education system is in many ways a mirror of the society," Shtarkshall says. "It expresses the society's central values and tries to preserve them - not just in regard to the sexual issue."

Much can be gleaned from such programs about the existing social order and the significance attributed to "the place of the child in the society, inter-generational relations, the role of relationships and parenthood, the role and status of the sexes, the way femininity and masculinity are experienced and more," Cavaglion notes.

Treger says that, "the approach is that a person with a healthy mind will have proper sexual functioning."

Sex education classes might give the impression that "proper sexual functioning" refers only to heterosexual relations. Indeed, gay-lesbian sexual identity is not said to be a deviation from the norm. But the unconscious practices of teachers and counselors in the classroom might imply that it is. When Rothschild holds a discussion in her class about sexual responses, for example, the interaction described is between males and females. Gays are not discussed in the context of sexual interaction or desire, but in the context of discussions on tolerance for the other and pluralism. The focus on heterosexual relations excludes other forms of relationships from the sphere of discussion. Thus, a boy who feels attracted to other boys will certainly find little of use in these classes, and will only receive reinforcement of his feelings of being different, abnormal and rejected.

As fate would have it, the ninth statement on the worksheet of the 11th-grade Rishon Letzion students was read out by a boy with dyed blong hair, who chose to use the masculine form of address: "It is your [a man's] right to refuse to have sexual relations with a male partner, and if you do, it is your right to demand safe sex." Rothschild was quick to correct him: "We will take this in the feminine," she added, "even if it also true for boys." During a break in her office, she explained, "It's important for us, the adults, to reinforce the girls at this age who say 'It's not appropriate for me.' The decision to have sexual relations is only because they feel closeness, not because the boy wants it. If he is not willing to wait, then it's not appropriate. I want them to talk about boys and about girls, for both voices to be heard, because usually it's only the male voice that's heard."

What does a gay student think when the whole class dialogue is about males vis-a-vis females?

Rothschild: "On AIDS Day we talk about gays and lesbians."

Treger agrees that the biased approach that heterosexuality is the norm is a problem. "We want to change that," she says. "Books and movies also always talk about a prince and a princess. People in the GLBT community say a major baby boom is now under way and that within a few years there will be many children from the community in the school system. Together with other professionals, we are creating a unit in the curriculum that is intended to change the approach kindergarten teachers have as to what constitutes parenthood. We are trying to show that there are also other types of families. We want literature teachers to use texts that are connected to all different types of relationships. But there is internal opposition. We still have a lot of work to do." W



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