As a parent, clinical psychologist, rabbi, and member of the Jewish community, there is much disturbing about the emerging details of a recent case alleging digital sexual exploitation of students by a teacher, and many concerned community members have considered what steps may be taken to prevent a similar occurrence in the future. Of course, there are many aspects of the story that could be potential points of intervention, and some elements may not have been preventable by changes in policy. But one troubling sentence from a recent article was especially distressing for me (emphasis added):
While the line of questioning [which included highly sexualized questions from the rabbi about [the student’s] desires and personal habits] frequently made [the student] uncomfortable, he took it as typical of a yeshiva teacher assigned to counsel a young man.
The distressing aspect of this sentence was that based on my experience, I understood it to be absolutely true — it would not be unusual for young teachers in a yeshiva to be speaking with students privately in a detailed manner regarding personal issues of sexuality and pornography. I also know that this type of “counseling” does not occur in all, or even most, schools or yeshivas — and surely there are instances that these discussions do not lead to exploitation — but the sentiment that this dynamic would be regarded as normal is consistent with my experience. And while I know that some may disagree with the following assertion, it bears stating directly: this practice, namely teachers or mentors discussing sensitive and private issues of a specific student’s sexuality or sexual expression, should not be normalized within our institutions. The opportunity for exploitation is too great, and as we have seen in too many instances, the harm far outweighs any potential benefits that some claim may exist. Of course, topics of sexuality and sexual expression are important and necessary to address for children, adolescents, and emerging adults, and we need to have appropriate venues, as well as appropriate boundaries, for these discussions with the youth in our communities; nevertheless, the discussions described in the article should not be part of the healthy and necessary conversations that we have with our younger community members.
I am reminded of a recent experience that took place prior to the reporting of the recent story. I was asked to address the madrichim of an all-boys learning camp, some of whom had approached a camp leader with the desire to talk to the campers about topics that could include personal use of pornography. I was told that the madrichim — ranging in age between roughly 19-21 years old — wanted some practical tips for how to speak with their campers about these topics.
My talk was probably not what some of the madrichim expecting. The basic points of my address were a) the madrichim should not be bringing up these topics with the campers; b) if the campers bring it up, do not shame them; and c) if the campers bring it up, be clear that this is not a topic you are comfortable addressing with them. Other points of discussion included not disparaging parents who give their kids the electronic devices; not using shame as leverage; and perhaps most importantly, the necessity to establish and honor healthy boundaries, especially considering the power differential between madrichim and campers. When subsequently discussing this topic with friends and colleagues, some asked why I took such a strong stance. My reply, in essence, was that the reality of having something go terribly wrong when young, untrained mentors talk with younger vulnerable students about potentially embarrassing topics in sexuality without any oversight is not hard to predict.
In recent years, I have authored and reviewed articles published in academic journals on the topic of childhood sexual abuse, and as such I have been asked periodically whether I have recommendations for prevention. Of course, preventing sexual abuse requires different strategies for different settings, and, as research shows, sexual abuse by teachers and counselors is not the most common form. Nevertheless, it is an important topic to consider, and in my experience, several practical changes can make a tremendous differences:
- Schools and camps should establish clear policies stating explicitly that discussing sexuality topics specific to a particular student or camper is not allowed. Teachers or madrichim may not ask students or campers whether they watch pornography or any other details related to sexual expression.
- General topics regarding sexuality and sexual expression may (and perhaps should) be addressed in a context that is consistent with the values of the institution, reviewed by the upper-level administration of the school or camp, and consent is given by the parent body.
- Teachers should receive specific training regarding how to respond to students who bring up these topics spontaneously. This training should focus on 1) specifically not discussing the particular details of the student’s challenges; 2) communicating with the student in a way that does not shame him; 3) if the teacher is qualified to do so, providing general strategies for managing these challenges (e.g., restricting access to digital devices, getting filters for the phone and/or home computers); and 4) encouraging the student to speak with his parents or a trained and trusted professional.
- Both the students and parent body should be informed of these policies, and should receive guidance regarding what to do if anyone in the school or camp violates these policies.
- Explicitly telling the students and parent body that students will not get in trouble for reporting suspected violations, even if the students had engaged in some type of compromising behavior.
The implication of these guidelines is that the responsibility to provide education and guidance surrounding these issues falls on other adults, not young mentors. To state it directly, the people providing guidance should be a) parents/guardians; b) trained and trusted long-term spiritual guides (with the consent of parents); and c) trained and trusted mental health professionals, should their involvement be relevant in a particular circumstance (with the consent of parents). Additionally, community institutions should be clear with their students and community members regarding where the students can turn if violations of these boundaries occur.
As a community, we do ourselves no favors by making topics of sexuality and sexual expression taboo, and in the right context these discussions are among the most vital we can have with our children. But when we do not establish appropriate boundaries for addressing these sensitive topics, our youth are made vulnerable to exploitation that can have disastrous results. It is our duty as parents and educators to learn from our communal mistakes and make changes that reduce the likelihood of these types of situations happening again.