Sex Educators Are Appallingly Behind in the Age of Porn

Puberty, sex and gender content for teenagers rarely makes it to the TV screen in Israel

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A man and a woman are standing fully nude in front of the camera, with their faces out of the frame. Front and center we see their genitals, hairy and pretty close to each other. Suddenly, a fully clothed woman appears between them, armed with a smile and the energy of a TV host on a children’s channel. She begins to explain about the hair that grows on one’s body during puberty. In another scene she explains about how the penis and testicles grow during the teenage years. That explanation is also illustrated with a nude human model.

The series “Puberty” was aired in 2015 on public television – not in Israel, it goes without saying – but in Norway. In general, the Scandinavian countries have a long history of open sexual education, the kind that isn’t afraid to tell it like it is, without censorship.

In Israel, by contrast, you can count on one hand the number of TV programs for children and youth dealing explicitly with sexual education. And those few times where that did happen – without too many visuals, it should be noted, it generated a public storm and efforts to block their broadcast. One prominent example occurred in 1996, when the Educational Television show “Klafim Petuchim” produced a segment on gay teenagers. There were no overly graphic descriptions, but the very dealing with homosexuality set then-Education Minister Zevulun Hammer on edge. A day before the planned broadcast, he ordered the program canceled. It was only aired a year later, following a petition to the High Court of Justice.

That successful broadcast did not exactly lead to a flood of programs with sexual content for young people. An exception was a series called “The Adolescents” that aired on the Children’s Channel in 2015. That show was not visually explicit at all; it consisted of teenagers talking to the camera about various topics like pornography, masturbation and gender.

“The series didn’t deal with intercourse itself, but with sexual maturation,” says children’s media researcher Dr. Yuval Gozansky. But for many people, even that was too much. “The storm began a few days after the promo, which mentioned different names for the penis,” he said. One mother, Limor Bar On, petitioned the courts against the series. “It’s inconceivable that on the Children’s Channel, the most protected space on television, children will be exposed to a discussion about pornography,” she told Yedioth Ahronoth. At first a court said the program could only be broadcast after 10 P.M., and with a warning that it was meant for children 14 and over. Later, when the case reached the High Court of Justice, it was decided the program could air at 8:30 P.M.

Dr. Yuval Gozansky.Credit: Avishag Shaar-Yashuv

It’s all on the phone

Playing with when to broadcast a program aimed at teenagers seems pretty ridiculous in an era in which almost every child has access to the internet, and isn’t likely to get their sexual information from children’s television. According to data from the Public Security Ministry, as of 2019, 84 percent of teenagers have a smartphone, and half of those first got one at age 10 to 12. A survey conducted by the Education Ministry in 2014 showed that most Israeli children started surfing the internet in fourth grade.

It’s hard to know the degree to which they are exposed to pornography and at what age. But according to a study by Dr. Avigail Mor in 2012, 92 percent of teenage boys reported exposure to pornography; among girls the rates were lower.

Those eight-year-old statistics don’t surprise Dr. Neta Arnon-Shoshani, a gender and sexuality researcher at the Kibbutzim College of Education, Technology and the Arts. “Kids today are exposed to pornography before they have any sexual drive,” she says. That may be worrisome, but it’s the reality for a generation born into the smartphone era. “We have to recognize that we cannot separate them from their phones,” she says.

Not if, but how

It’s not just pornography, says Shlomit Habaron, codirector of an initiative called Reliable Information About Sex. Today’s consumer culture and the multiple screens that are part of it, she says, means that “sexual messages can be found everywhere,” in advertisements, TV shows and social media. Professionals refer to all these as “the pornographic space,” to which children are exposed from a very young age.

The main problem is the gap between the sexual images and the ability of young children to understand them. “The more images out there that convey adult sexuality, the more our children are pushed into behaviors that are sexual or are an imitation of sexuality,” says Habaron. This is problematic because “sexuality is complex, but children are exposed to a very specific representation of what it’s supposed to look like. Someone has to tell them that this is imaginary, not reality.”

From the Norwegian series “Puberty.” Credit: Screenshot

The question regarding sex and pornography is not only if we should talk about them to children, but how. Dina Shalev, director of the nonprofit association Lada’at – Choose Well, which promotes education toward healthy sexuality, explains that an open discussion about pornography is an opportunity to challenge teens’ common perceptions of sex and gender. “We won’t ask, ‘Who watches porno?’ but from discussions with them it’s clear that most of them are exposed to it. From a certain age it’s passed around on the class WhatsApp group, so that even those who don’t want to see it, do,” she says.

What does one do with that starting point? “We won’t say, ‘it’s forbidden’ or ‘that’s bad,’” says Shalev. “We’ll ask them what happens in pornography compared to reality – with a chart on the board and everything. How do the genitalia look? How does the balance of power between the men and women look? We’ll establish the fact that reality doesn’t look like that.”

The next step, she says, is to critically examine what they consume, and have them ask themselves what it does to them. “We have to talk to them in a non-judgmental way, without dictating to them. Just to give them a moment to think about it,” she says.

Meanwhile, it seems that when it comes to Israel, that’s a theoretical proposal. If teenagers really want to learn about adolescence and sex, perhaps they should look up the programs from Norwegian public television – all available on the internet, of course.

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