A local teenager mentioned the new hit TV show “Genius” at my Shabbat table and I was impressed that there was a popular TV series exploring Albert Einstein. I had barely settled in to watch the show when I was caught off-guard. Within minutes, the episode went from showing a brilliant scientific mind to a lurid sex scene between Einstein and his secretary/mistress. I envisioned the nice teenage kid in the neighborhood who recommended the show watching it with friends. What else had their eyes seen when watching “normal” TV? Would their brains ever “forget” what they had seen or was that image forever imprinted on their emotional and physical self? How do media images that they regularly see color their expectations and their picture of “normal” sexual pleasure or boundaries?
I watched TV as a kid. I remember the debates of whether we could watch “Dirty Dancing” because it was too explicit — and that pales in comparison to the movies of today. But times have changed; millennials and our children are born into a new reality. The dramatic broadening of what is deemed acceptable — along with the almost unlimited accessibility to whatever they want to see — demands a new kind of sexual education and a rethinking of how this affects marital partnership.
I’ve worked in the educational system in America and Israel long enough to know that students do not get a solid sexual education in elementary and high schools. In many places there is still no forum in which topics of body image, sexual boundaries, pleasure and intimacy are addressed. Most schools still skip over the stories of Dinah and Shechem, Tamar and Yehudah and any mention of Tamar and Amnon because they are “too uncomfortable” to explain. This represents a lost opportunity to help to inform students’ intimate lives and shape their values . Even more, it is a lost opportunity to share with them a rich Jewish tradition about these matters.
Young adults need to know what Judaism has to say about sexuality and relationships — including the diverse range of opinions. They need to explore, from a Jewish perspective, the line between consent and abuse. They need to be equipped to grapple with the world of “show and tell-all” and the “hookup culture” and how they are in direct conflict with any sense of personal kedushah or sanctified relationship. They need tools with which to deal with shame and guilt and then build healthy relationships that incorporate God and pleasure.
To me, the ideal would be a consistent and gradual education about sexuality. But, at the very least, there are two practical things that we must do.
As parents we (try to) teach our kids how to wash their hands, say please and thank you, study for a test, choose friends wisely, drive a car safely, balance a budget…. Most of us stay practically silent on educating them about sex. But we need to be explicit and forthcoming about sex. At every age of development, we need to make sure they have accurate, age appropriate information that is imbued with OUR values — not those of television or of their peers. We need to start the conversation and not wait until our children ask us questions because sometimes they just don’t ask — no matter how comfortable they feel with you. And it’s not about “the talk;” it’s about many talks and discussion that happen in your house. It’s about using the scene in “Genius” (or billboards, or signs in the mall, or difficult passages of Tanakh) as a springboard for discussion.
Research shows that whether they seem like they are listening or not, children say that the most meaningful messages and modeling come from their parents. Yes, that opens us up to our children asking challenging questions, but it’s essential that they have a healthy perspective on pleasure, tzniut, mikveh and other things we hold dear. Figure out what you want them to know, or get some guidance on how to do so, and start the conversation! Some good books on that can guide you at different stages are listed here and there are great classes which you can bring to your community.
Secondly, don’t forget that older teens and “adult” children also need guidance. It’s important to give guidance and open discussion about both the physical and emotional sides of an intimate relationship. If they choose to be sexual before marriage, educate so they can be emotionally and physically safe. Teach them not just the “don’ts” but also about the positive place of sexuality in our tradition and halacha. For a young woman or man about to get married, make sure that the madrich/a is also including these topics because a few lessons about how to keep the laws of Taharat Hamishpacha is NOT enough to create a healthy relationship. The program that I direct, the Advanced Kallah course for The Eden Center is working hard to make sure that premarital instruction is relevant and holistic. As parents, it’s our responsibility to make sure that both partners in a young couple have the right teachers who will teach openly about sex. Don’t shy away from your responsibility to ensure that your child is getting a healthy and well rounded view of sexuality in your home and outside.
I don’t know if my parents made the right decision in letting me watch Dirty Dancing but I appreciate that there was enough conversation about it, that I remember it as a thoughtful decision trying to impart their values. And while we cannot control all the images that are imprinted on our children’s minds, I hope that “Genius” will be a platform for discussion, so that our kids distinguish between the genius of Einstein and his shortcomings.