// literary & arts //
Sex-Education Revisited and Revolutionized
A Podcast Review
Many parents agonize over this question, fearing the day it will enter their child’s consciousness. When it inevitably does arise, most are unprepared. Awkward glances are shared, words are stuttered, hesitancies are palpable. Your kid just asked where babies come from. How do you respond?
According to well-known sex therapist Dr. Bat Sheva Marcus, it depends on the age of the child. To a child between the ages of three and five, she says, you should explain that every woman has a uterus and she may choose to hold a baby there for nine months. As the child gets older, introduce more terminology and complexity incrementally. By age nine, the child should have an elementary understanding of intercourse.
Marcus, president of JOFA—Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance—outlines these steps on “The Joy of Text,” a monthly podcast featuring lively conversation about “Judaism, sexuality, and the intersection of the two.” Alongside Rabbi Dov Linzer, Dean of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School (YCT) and moderator Maharat Ramie Smith, “The Joy of Text”—the title is a pun on British writer Alex Comfort’s illustrated sex manual The Joy of Sex—facilitates discussions around topics that are, in traditional Jewish communities, taboo. Most episodes, they host guests who are experts from the Jewish world on some sex-relevant topic. Produced by Jewish Public Media by David Zvi Kalman, the podcast has, for almost a year now, grappled with issues such as sex education, masturbation, sexual fantasies, premarital sex, body issues, and their collective interplay with Halacha (Jewish law).
This podcast is an anomaly in many ways. Three prominent members of the Orthodox community discuss these issues in great detail, while many institutions—Jewish and non-Jewish alike—continue to shy away from them. This discussion of sex from both a health and halachic perspective poses a difficult balance. When discussing a topic such as premarital sex, Linzer will admit that it is halachically problematic, but that there are different levels of nuance. It is not all or nothing: “The question is how to accurately represent the halacha while at the same time have people try to see things in proper proportions.”
Feedback to the podcast has been overwhelmingly positive. Many have expressed gratitude to Linzer, Marcus, and Smith; people feel as if they finally have a place where they can talk about sex and find meaning in it. Listeners have shared accounts of abuse at a younger age that they never shared before because their communities forbade speaking about sex. The podcast is a blessing: a much needed platform to discuss these issues.
This success could be attributed to the podcast format which allows for these conversations to occur in an unprecedented manner. As opposed to having to publicly raise your hand in a class, listeners can send in questions (anonymously) for each episode. And many do. Smith comments: “People are dying to talk about sex. We know because people ask about it.” The podcast fills a conversational void—never before has this important information been made easily accessible to all. Perhaps the participatory nature and the ability for anonymity allows for the podcast to flourish and reach listeners who may not have otherwise had access to such information. Kalman articulates, “[the podcast] is a good way to broach many subjects in a way that is both discreet, because people mostly listen to podcasts on their headphones, and that is open to everybody.”
I attended a live recording this fall in Teaneck, New Jersey—a community known for its large Orthodox Jewish population—where Linzer and Marcus discussed infidelity, answering both Smith’s and the audience’s questions (of which there were many), Linzer quoting one Talmudic passage after another, Marcus citing statistics, relating stories, and weighing in from a health perspective. In general, that’s how the podcast goes:Marcus speaks frankly and unapologetically, utilizing information from her many years of experience as a sex therapist, repeatedly emphasizing the need for proper discourse and education around sex. Linzer speaks the halacha of the people, maintaining sensitivity in his answers and communicating where discomfort and anxiety may arise.
Nuanced approaches to the topic of sex and sexuality within a halachic framework, as “The Joy of Text” strives for in each episode, are much needed. Just because a community does not discuss these issues, does not mean these issues do not occur within the community. Linzer notes, “There is a lot of suffering out there, a lot of people who struggle in their marriage, a lot unhappiness… As a community we’re afraid to talk about these issues, and the problems don’t get addressed and shame gets associated with these types of issues.”
Though the privacy of listening to the podcast makes uncomfortable conversations more palatable, there is another––ostensibly more public––forum in which these conversations are occurring in the Jewish world: Facebook. Facebook, similarly, is a public site that can be accessed in private. Perhaps this, similar to the podcast, allows for traditionally taboo conversations to occur. On an active Facebook group titled “God Save Us From Your Opinion: A Place For Serious Discussion of Judaism,” I posed the following question: “For those who attended Jewish Day School, what was your sex education like? Do you feel it was adequate and expansive?” This post garnered many comments, most of which espousing the same idea: sex education did not consist of much.
The podcast—as well as the responses I received on Facebook—articulates the need for these conversations. However, the causal argument—that if I educate my child about sex, then my child will start having sex—is still alive and well for many parents. In virtually every episode so far, Marcus, Linzer, and Smith have tried to debunk that myth. Linzer points out the contradiction that we are comfortable teaching our children Talmudic passages that deal with sex, sometimes in great detail, but we don’t worry about this spreading beyond the classroom. Marcus, for her part, elaborates on the availability of this information, without a parent’s interference, and the misinformation a child can receive. With this misinformation, a lot of bad can occur, a lot of room for shame, fear, and mistakes. Marcus suggests the following: if you want your child to have a similar value-set as yours when it comes to sex, it is absolutely necessary to talk to your children about it. Avoiding the conversation does not have the effects that a parent may hope for—not only can it unsuccessfully prevent your child from having sex, it can have many other, more dangerous consequences as well.
Although there is a great need to talk about these issues explicitly and seriously, what is the extent to which explicitness precludes or discourages certain Jews from engaging? One of the podcast’s goals is to normalize conversation around sex for the larger Jewish population, yet, in order to maintain tzniut (modesty), listeners are warned that “discretion is advised” (the podcast has even secured itself an “E” for explicit on iTunes). Linzer explains that this warning speaks to an acknowledgement that, although within the context of an educated and serious minded conversation, it may be jarring for listeners to hear about body parts called by their anatomical names (referring to male genitalia as a “penis” as opposed to, say, a “wee-wee”) and masturbation discussed in great detail. (And the thought of talking to their kids about these topics, as is encouraged many times on the podcast, is especially shocking.) However, this warning implies that the content is somehow inappropriate or contentious, a paradox which Linzer acknowledges.
While enabling privacy, the podcast it is still on a very public site, accessible for all and some critics find it inappropriate that an Orthodox Rabbi is participating in these discussions in such a manner. In a blogpost titled “Emes Ve’emunah” (“Truth and Belief”), Harry Maryles comments: “My reservation is in the public way it is being done. And that one of the participants is the Rosh HaYeshiva of YCT.” Similarly, Rabbi Avraham Gordimer, prominent member of the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) wrote on Israel National News, “While many of these issues require private counseling with personal mentors, public airing of them is another story … Taking that which is most intimate and parading it in the open media in the name of the Orthodox rabbinate is reflective of the chipping away of the most basic components and standards of our mesorah (tradition).”
My sex-ed teacher never used “the S word,” preferring “intercourse” as a wholesome alternative. My education on these matters was far from adequate. This podcast is beginning to make up for lost time. It’s not that I never learned about the birds and the bees, it’s that I never got anywhere beyond that. And for the many people in my shoes, this podcast is a very welcome shift away from shoddy sex-ed toward civilized, nuanced, and even scintillating conversation about a topic near and dear to, well, everyone. And put quite simply, the podcast is a joy.
//MIRIAM LICHTENBERG is a Freshman in Barnard College. She can be reached at email@example.com. Photo courtesy of flickr user Eric. The Joy of Text Podcast can be downloaded on iTunes.