I don’t have the same problem Rabbi Waxman does with the Orthodox Union’s recent effort to promote abstinence among its young people. The OU’s site does seem to include accurate information, at least to my medically untrained eye, particularly by including a link to the Food and Drug Administration’s web site that in turn includes how to safely use a condom. The OU deserves to be praised for including that.
Don’t get me wrong, though. I found much of the OU site very disturbing. While their emphasis on negiah, refraining from touching between boys and girls, is nothing new, it is part of a larger objectification of women and actually can serve to sexualize all contact (even normal social contact) between the sexes, which is why the Orthodox separate men and women to such an extent. What is even worse is their framing of teen sexuality in the context of sin and karet, the punishment of being cut off for the sin of having sex during a woman’s period, which seems irresponsible when we think about the rising number of teen suicides. Their story of Sarah seems like a girl who could have just as easily hurt herself as found comfort in the concept of teshuvah (forgiveness). I was also troubled by their cumulative message in their carefully crafted section on condoms that ultimately undermines the importance of condoms in protecting against STDs and AIDS.
We do need to talk about responsible sexual behavior for our young people. Between TV, advertising and the movies, our young people are being raised in such a sexualized society that promoting abstinence provides a balance to the incredible pressures our kids are under. Perhaps we parents are not doing our job to the extent that we should. It important, and possible, to teach our children to wait. There are prerequisites for sexual intimacy such as maturity, commitment, and the ability to cope with consequences of one’s actions, in addition to love, trust, honesty, mutual kindness, and respect.
We need to talk to our kids, know where they are going, when they will be back, who they will be with, and which parents will be home when they have a party or are over each other’s homes. We need to provide adequate parental supervision to support safe behaviors, like not letting them be alone in potentially compromising situations in addition to helping them set boundaries for intimate behavior. We also need to make time to listen to our kids and be willing to ask them straight questions about their friends and personal activities. (This goes for smoking and drugs as well.) That means we will sometimes be labeled old fashioned or the bad guys, but it also means our kids will be safer.
With all that said, though, a chaste kiss and hand holding is certainly different than heavy petting. There is also a difference between telling our teens that they must wait and guiding adults in how to determine when a relationship is serious enough to warrant thinking about more intimate relations. Rabbi Elliot Dorff, in the Conservative Movement’s Rabbinic Letter on Intimate Relations, writes not about abstinence but about waiting. Perhaps that is a much better model for our young people, for it educates them to be better able to make wise choices not just about a particular intimate act but about what the prerequisites are for a healthy relationship throughout their lives.
Read the Full Debate: Should We Teach Abstinence to Teens?