Sex and relationship education is about consent

Echoing the rumbling ‘Chinuch crisis’, scores of parents, clergymen, activists and a sprinkling of MPs from up and down the country have formed an interfaith coalition to protest the introduction of the Department for Education’s new guidelines on how schools should be delivering their sex and relationship curriculum.

Much has been written about the new guidelines, how they might be interpreted by OFSTED and how they should be applied in a Chasidic school environment. It is important to differentiate the approach of the Chasidim from that of the broader Chareidi community. This is because the Chasidic community has a different attitude from the rest of the Chareidi community to both sex and relationships, and also operate a different shidduch system. These differences mean that the Chasidic community, which is most vocal in its refusal to implement the SRE (sex and relationship education) curriculum, is most in need of it.

It speaks volumes that the new Values Foundation’s Jewish representatives are non-Chasidic Chareidim, and prominent non-Chasidic Chareidi Rabonim from both the Ashkenazi and Sefardi communities have opposed the guidelines in the media. These people and their followers do not actually live with the same degree of isolation and with the same strict shidduch arrangements and therefore their public castigation of the changes is in conflict with the way many of the people they purport to represent actually live.

When we teach children about sex we are not telling them to have sex. Rather, we are demystifying and contextualising sex. We are taking it out of the bathrooms and into the classroom. We must do this, because these issues are already present in our schools – whether consensual or non-consensual, whether it is a chat between children or rough frottage of a student by a melamed.

SRE at its heart is not about revealing the mechanics of sex –  although it may include that by necessity – it is about facilitating consent. It is about creating a reality where children understand that they can withhold consent and also that in the absence of consent, they have been abused. This empowers children, forces adults to behave responsibly, and changes environments where adults are able to take advantage of children so easily. It also teaches children how to consent when they become adults.

Statistics on abuse vary, but at least one in twenty children in the UK have been abused. There is no evidence that children in the Chareidi community or indeed in the Chasidic community are less likely than others to be subjected to this conduct. 1 in 20 also reflects my own experience of meeting survivors in a personal capacity and also in my role as an ISVA for Migdal Emunah. All children, whether they are Chasidic or not, Charedi or not, deserve to understand consent.

For the other 19 out of 20 children who have never encountered any unwanted touching throughout their childhood – ignoring for now the inevitable few who will voluntarily engage in sexual relationships between themselves and also need to understand consent – early marriage through the shidduch system brings the same issue to the fore.

For Chasidic children, early marriage begins to loom whilst they are still in Key Stage 5 – years 12 and 13 – or seminary and yeshiva. Girls in particular might ‘start shidduchim’ at 17, and many boys will too. Key Stage 4 – years 10 and 11 – is the last stage of schooling that is regulated in any meaningful way. It is the last chance for these young adults to be taught, in a structured and responsible way, what exactly they are committing to when they say “yes” to the boy or girl sat across the table from them.

Teaching SRE at this stage ensures that children are given the chance to understand informed consent, not just in how it relates to their impending marriages but also to the sex they will be expected to have with a stranger on their wedding night. It will empower young adults to embark on their sexual relationships with respect for themselves and their partners, and an understanding of how having sex with someone else is likely to impact both themselves and their partner, emotionally as well as physically. Explaining contraception at this stage will also, at the very least, give young adults in the Chasidic community the knowledge they need before they embark on marriage. This is not something that can be delivered in private – that contributes to the feelings of shame and leaves only one named person (the premarital tutor) as someone the young person can turn to if there are problems later, giving the named person too much control and therefore potential for inaccurate and potentially dangerous counsel.

It is vital that young adults receive this education. This is not something that can be left until days before a wedding. It is often too late to back out at that stage, and the emotional pressure to go ahead will negate any possibility of any meaningful informed choice.

The inclusion of LGBT aspects of the curriculum is essential. It will be a starting point for LGBT identifying or questioning young adults – who I assure you are present in the Chasidic community in the same proportions as they are in other communities – to understand themselves before committing to marriage and – inevitably – having children.

If we explain that some people are gay, we’re not going to turn them gay, no more than teaching them about history will turn them into Joan of Arc. What we’re doing is preventing loveless relationships between partners who will never be compatible. It is disturbing to see United Synagogue Rabbis swept up in the panic, in contrast to the measured approach of Chief Rabbi Mirvis, who sees ‘no contradiction between preparing our children for life in modern Britain and ensuring that they are totally immersed in Torah values

To those who insist that children must not know about sex and relationships, I must ask, why? Why do you not want your ten year old to know that only they can decide who touches their body? Why don’t you want your teenager to know what they are agreeing to when you sit them down with a stranger for half an hour in your dining room?

This isn’t a clarion call for action. It is a response to the question: ‘why do Chasidim need SRE when they are just fine as they are?’

The answer is simple. Because SRE is about consent. Having experienced teenage Chasidic marriage I can tell you – we’re not fine as we are.

About the Author
Yehudis Fletcher is a political and social activist. She co-founder of and an ISVA at Migdal Emunah. She is studying social policy at Salford University.
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