What Eilat Gang Rape Case Says About Israeli Society

'We bombard young men with aggressive, stereotypical imagery that weakens men, not women,' explains Israeli sex educator

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demonstration against sexual violence in Jerusalem, August 21, 2020.
A demonstration against sexual violence in Jerusalem, August 21, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Besides losing that last shred of faith in the human race, what is left to do after something like the gang rape in Eilat? At a loss for words, I turned to an expert.

Shlomit Habaron, co-director of the Reliable Information About Sex (Meida Amin Al Min) initiative, how did we arrive at a situation where men are standing in line to rape a 16-year-old girl?

“As a society, we haven’t succeeded in explaining to youths and adults what sexuality is. Instead, we’ve bombarded them and ourselves with aggressive, stereotypical imagery that weakens men. Not women, men. [Women, too, of course, but that’s another story, which we’ll get to in a minute.] A man who’s masculinity is fragile and brittle and inflexible and not stable enough is a man who will find it hard to withstand group pressure, he’s someone who will have to prove, mainly to himself but also to the rest of the guys, that he is what we as a society say about men: that he’s a ‘man’s man,’ that he ‘gets lots of girls,’ because that’s what it means to be a ‘strong man.’

“We must change the way we talk about masculinity and allow for a wider spectrum of normal and rational masculinity,” says Habaron. “No, not all guys want to ‘get lots of girls.’ Far from it. Not all guys think about sex every 15 seconds as we’ve been taught to think, and women are not from Venus and men are not from Mars. We are all from planet Earth and we are not that different from one another as the culture we live in is trying to tell us.”

"With the school year about to open, this is an opportune time to point out the importance of gender education and the need to fully integrate it in the curriculum. But until the government deigns to give the issue priority and allocate appropriate resources, parents and those involved in the school system can take the initiative. If the push to provide the children with curricula about gender and healthy sexuality comes not just from one pesky mother but from many parents and from many educators, perhaps something will actually happen."

Habaron also believes that “the government, the education minister and the ministry administration need to decide where they want to invest. Ultimately, it’s the school counselor out in the field who has to implement policy in near-impossible conditions. The government and the education minister need to want to prevent the next gang rape by allocating funds for sex and gender education in schools.”

That being said, she also feels that “the most important thing is to teach parents that sex education needs to be done at home. It’s the parents’ responsibility and they shouldn’t just throw it on the school system. The teacher in the classroom cannot provide a better response than you can in your own home with your own child. Parents need to think about certain things – what are their values? What is their worldview? What sort of values do they want their kids to be brought up on? – and follow through with it. Too awkward? Well, talking about the coronavirus, red alert sirens and grandma’s death aren’t exactly fun either, but we don’t just absolve ourselves and say, ‘It’s the school’s responsibility.’"

“It’s okay to feel embarrassed. It’s okay to make mistakes. But unlike previous generations, we don’t have the privilege of not talking with our children about sex education, preventing sexual violence, about gender and sexuality, about the nexus between technology and pornography,” Habaron says. “Sexual education really boils down to two things – giving reliable information about sex, and fostering the capacity for critical thinking.”

A demonstration against sexual violence in Tel Aviv, August 23, 2020.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

And in more detail?

“Basically, sex education should start around age 3, because like any other type of education, it evolves and deepens with age. We wouldn’t tell a 5-year-old, ‘If you drink, you don’t drive,’ because it’s not relevant for his age, just like we wouldn’t tell a 16-year-old not to cross the street without a parent. As parents we understand that there is a way of talking with a 3-year-old and a way of talking with a 10th-grader. In sex education, it’s the same thing.

“We can teach very young children the names of the sex organs, we can teach them that touching the sexual organ is a positive, natural and pleasant thing, and gradually as they reach preschool age, we can teach them it is something private and something you do privately. We can teach ourselves to ask permission before we give young children a hug. That we don’t make a gift or food contingent upon receiving a kiss or hug.

“At elementary school age, we can teach them how children really come into the world and we can teach the basic rules of sexual protection and health: We don’t touch each other’s private parts and we don’t undress during a game. By becoming familiar with the topic of reproduction and with the basic rules, kids learn that there are things that are appropriate for childhood and things that are appropriate for adulthood. That there is such a thing as people being naked together, but that it’s for a different age and a different emotional state and not for children.

“We can teach children in elementary school that there is such a thing as sexual assault. We’ll explain that people don’t always know the rules of protection that we taught them and that there can sometimes be a situation in which someone, young or old, near or far, loved or hated, asks us for things that have to do with our private parts. For instance – to watch a movie that shows people’s private parts, or to show them our private parts, and that such things are completely unacceptable and that it’s okay to run from there, to call for help, and that you must always – always – no matter what you were or weren’t able to do, tell your parents.

“We can teach young children critical thinking about gender roles – what are boys supposed to do and what are girls supposed to do? We can show them on television and YouTube and computer games how the world directs boys and girls to different things.”

A protester holding a sign reading "you're not alone" at a demonstration against sexual violence in Tel Aviv, August 23, 2020.Credit: Meged Gozny

What about adolescence, the most volatile age?

“In adolescence, we’ll learn that we don’t touch another boy or girl unless three basic rules are met: First, there is mutual enthusiastic desire; second, there is equality – no age gap, no gap in mental ability, no gap in status (for example, he’s super popular, she’s not so popular), no one is drunk or stoned, not when she’s asleep; and third, age-appropriate sexual activity. For example: There may be mutual desire and equality between two seventh-graders, but is it appropriate to have full sexual relations at this age? First of all, it’s not legal yet, and moreover, for most adolescents this is too young to be having full sexual relations. By the same token – are there adults who wish to have group sex? It seems so. Is this something that ought to be done in adolescence? Apparently not. Because adolescents aren’t mature enough in terms of their ability to plan ahead, to understand the situation and to withstand peer pressure, among other things. Adolescents need to remember that their brains haven’t finished developing. This doesn’t mean they are dumb, but it means that it’s a good idea to take sexuality step by step, to enjoy what the time gives you and to slowly get to know yourself without pressure.”

Although it sounds like a message that many teenagers would reject – just because they’re teenagers – hopefully some of it still sinks in.

Habaron is emphatic: “Parents, this is your responsibility. No one else is responsible for raising your children. Sit down with them and talk with them from a young age, in an age-appropriate way. You know how to be your children’s parents and you can do this. You’re nervous about it – that’s okay. But don’t be intimidating, don’t tell scary stories, and certainly don’t just repeat the common myths. Go study the subject a little first. Fathers, don’t think this doesn’t concern you. It’s not your wife’s responsibility. It’s a joint responsibility, yours and hers.”

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