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Beyond the birds and the bees: Sex and teens

Our emphasis needs to shift from the one-time big talk to a continuous conversation.

“Society has a double standard when it comes to sexuality. We have a puritanical taboo against talking about sexuality directly, yet we are fine with the sexual images that pervade television and glossy magazines.

“But then when it comes to our kids having some kind of sexual identity, we freak out. That needs to stop.”

  Rey Junco, “What’s the big deal about sexting?”
  CNN (Link at the end of this column)


Under these circumstances, what are we parents to do? The “big talk” on the birds and the bees no longer applies. Contemporary culture exposes our children to a wide range of sexual imagery from an early age.

Gone are the days when teenage boys hid copies of Playboy or Hustler under their mattresses. Anyone with a smartphone has access to an endless array of explicit sexual images. And given the pervasiveness of digital social media, parents need to be prepared to handle the subject sooner rather than later.

Our emphasis needs to shift from the one-time big talk to a continuous conversation.

Joanne Zack-Pakes is one of Israel’s leading experts in adolescent sexuality, working in the field since 1981. She is professional director of the Open Door Counseling Centers, an arm of the Israel Family Planning Association and part of a wider global network of family planning organizations. The centers offer counseling to adolescents and parents around the country; they train and monitor phone and Internet counseling as well as more traditional faceto- face sessions. Zack-Pakes points out that many teens prefer to get advice by Internet or phone because this allows for greater anonymity.

The definition of adolescence has changed in recent years; it starts earlier and ends later. This is based on many factors, both sociological and physiological.

Zack-Pakes remarks with some regret that this is part of a global trend resulting in “the loss of childhood.”

We may be surprised to learn that the age in which sexual experimentation begins here is the same as in many other modern countries: 15-16. Less is known about teen sexuality in the religious community. Young kids from the age of 14 are asking questions about sexual behavior that would probably shock us.

But asking is better than not asking, because so many teens are misinformed about basic sexual information. For example, many teens believe that only sexual intercourse puts them at risk for sexually transmitted diseases. As parents, we need to be certain that our children are getting the correct information about the risks of various sexual practices.

Of course, many of today’s sexual trends are directly related to portrayals in the mass media – television, movies, music, as well as pornography. It is also important for parents to be familiar with current social trends such as sexting, the act of sending sexually explicit messages and photos through cellphones. Sexting can transform into a form of cyber-bullying and sexual harassment, with disastrous results.

It’s imperative we make sure that our impulsive teens understand the implications of using social media in this way. Once an image or text is sent, they no longer have any control over where it goes and who sees it.

Lastly, we turn to the topic of sex education.

In the secular school system, sex education is included in the curriculum of life-skills programming. However, the actual content is left to the individual school’s discretion, so the reality is vague.

In any event, Zack-Pakes is emphatic about the fact that technical information about sexuality is not enough. We need to dialogue with our kids about healthy sexual attitudes and behaviors.

As uncomfortable as this sometimes makes us feel, this job is ours as parents – not the schools’.

Besides, there is plenty of technical information available on the Internet.

It’s more essential for us as parents to be more concerned with emotional and moral values. Clearly, this topic begins at home, at an early age, in the context of the family and the wider community.

Authentic sex education involves the messages adults give about the body, self-esteem, physical touching, demonstration of affection and a myriad of other behaviors and attitudes reflected in our daily life.

Communication between parent and child about sexuality has to start before puberty, before the topic of sex is ever explicitly discussed. As Zack-Pakes argues, “We are ‘giving off’ messages about sexuality all the time, without saying a word.”

For example, what message does a mother give to her teenage daughter when she obsesses over her own body or weight? When a parent dresses in a sexually provocative manner, how does this affect a son or daughter? When a husband and wife do not show warmth or affection towards one another in front of the children, how is this perceived or interpreted?

So what's a parent to do? Many parents feel understandably helpless against the barrage of sexual imagery, information and misinformation in the general culture. This situation is accentuated by the widening gap between physiological development, mass media information and the emotional/cognitive maturity of teens.

With this in mind, Zack-Pakes emphasizes the importance of educating parents about the small and everyday ways we can approach the topic with our teens. We can look for random opportunities to raise sexually loaded issues, and encourage our children to express their feelings.

For instance, if we don’t like the way our girls dress when they go out, we can ask whether they realize their clothing may attract unwanted attention and open up a discussion about how to handle such situations. This may also lead our girls into a conversation about uncomfortable situations they have dealt with in the past. If there is a story in the news about a rape or sexual molestation, we can use this as an opportunity to start a conversation on the topic, encouraging them to share their viewpoints.

We can initiate discussions about magazine ads or billboards that are sexually provocative. If we are watching a movie with our kids and there is a sexual scene, we can use the occasion to inquire about their attitudes or questions.

If the lights are low in the television room, this may make it easier to share.

Similarly, Zack-Pakes also mentions the car as a safe place for a difficult conversation about sexual matters, because parent and child are not quite face-to-face.

At home, what is the etiquette of body modesty? How is it handled? How do siblings handle bathroom routines and modesty between one another? Use your imagination, be creative, but most importantly don’t be afraid to raise the topic.

For those who are looking for a specifically Orthodox take on teens and sex, there is finally a book on this topic. "Talking About Intimacy and Sexuality: A Guide for Orthodox Jewish Parents" by Dr. Yocheved Debow aims to do just this. It has been well-received, as have her dayschool curricula, co-designed with Dr. Anna Woloski-Wruble and used both in Israel and the US.

Many thanks to Joanne Zack-Pakes for her input. You can reach her at zackpak@gmail.com.

Online resources

There are great resources on the Web for dealing with this topic; why not read some articles together with your teens?

What’s the big deal about sexting? by Rey Junco, CNN.

Why I stopped watching porn - a popular Ted Talk by Israeli gender scholar Ran Gavrieli about the negative effects of pornography.

News flash for parents: Your kids watch porn (requires Haaretz premium membership)


Tracey Shipley CAAP, is a teen counselor and addiction specialist. She can be reached at 054-810-8918, jerusalemteencounseling@gmail.com; http://jerusalemteenteencounseling.net.

Judith Posner, PhD, is a social scientist, writer and researcher.