Dear Jew in the City-
I came from the secular world and the hyper-sexualization is so disturbing. Women are treated like objects, sex is ubiquitous, taking away the boundaries of private and public. I am proud to be raising my kids in a sheltered environment. But at the same time, I don’t want them to be so sheltered that they have hang ups once they are married. I want them to have to positive and electric marital lives the Torah believes in. So how do we shelter while also not oversheltering?
This is an excellent question, and one that I have grappled with myself. You’re correct in observing that the status quo in the secular world is a lack of boundaries between public and private, and that sexually explicit images are almost everywhere we look. Just recently my 6-year-old asked me what the word “sexy” means, because she saw it written on a billboard near our house (advertising chewing gum no less!). Most ads feature both men and women in various stages of undress, sometimes engaged in in intimate poses. It is very difficult to find movies and television programs (even those geared at kids) that don’t have some type of intimate scene (such as kissing) or modestly dressed characters (the majority of female stars wear low-cut and tight tops).
For those of us who embrace a religious lifestyle, we want to minimize our children’s exposure to immodesty, which generally involves some type of sheltering. If we want to observe the laws of family purity and modesty, then there is definitely value in raising our children in relatively sheltered environments. But where do we draw the line? How much is too much exposure? And if I shield my child from all forms of sexually explicit media, then how will they ever know what to do once they’re married? Furthermore, aren’t I going to be raising a sexually repressed, frigid, and all-around prude adult?
In my opinion, we need to clarify two separate aspects of your question. On the one hand there’s the concept of following Torah law, which dictates that we must dress modestly and guard our eyes from gazing at immodest and sexually explicit media. On the other hand, you’re concerned about raising children with a lack of sexual self-awareness, resulting in dysfunctional sex lives.
The question is whether these are mutually exclusive. I’m not so sure that raising children in sheltered environments will guarantee in either way that your children will or will not have positive and electric marital lives, or hang ups when they are married. True Torah Judaism teaches that healthy and passionate intimacy is the cornerstone of a great marriage.
While it’s not appropriate for children to know about the passionate side of marriage when they’re young, a husband and wife can still model affection. Simple things like seeing a hug and a kiss between mom and dad can go a long way in showing children what a loving relationship can be. While basic mechanics of intimacy can be taught at a younger age, we don’t go into explicit details about it until they are closer to marriageable age. Nevertheless, our children should feel comfortable asking us questions once they know the basics. (A future post will discuss how to educate our children on the facts of life.) Children should also know about their private parts and be comfortable discussing them in private settings.
The more in-depth education is taught when a couple is engaged. Typically every engaged couple learns about intimacy from premarital classes (the women learning from a kallah teacher, and the men learning from a chosson rebbe). Ideally, these instructors have been well trained on how to give over both the technical details and halachic details of attaining a rich and pleasurable sex life. Of course the couple may run into issues if their instructors are not adequately prepared to teach about this sensitive topic, but for the most part the couple is set to embark on their sexual journey with knowledge that it is a valuable keystone of their marriage.
There are countless Orthodox Jews who grew up completely sheltered, only learned about sex for the first time during their premarital classes, and have deeply satisfying sex lives. On the other hand, there are plenty of folks who were exposed to sexuality from a very young age and are dealing with a plethora of issues (as any therapist will confirm!).
So how should we raise our children? The answer lies in the Torah itself. I don’t think that inundating our children with inappropriate images will in any way enhance their future sex lives. In fact, Hollywood generally has it all wrong when it comes to healthy intimacy. From patriarchal and misogynistic messages about sexuality to glamorization and objectification of unhealthy stereotypes of all genders, I typically have to spend at least part of a session working with a new couple on undoing the damage that has been caused by a Hollywood-style sexual education.
When we expose our children to lessons on sexuality from a true Torah perspective, we are setting them up for success with their partner, because we are setting them up to build trust, safety, and intimacy. We are teaching our children that while physical pleasure and intimacy is essential, establishing an emotional connection built on mutual respect and kinship is crucial as well. Unfortunately, those same messages are rarely taught in secular media. Instead, by teaching our children that certain things remain private in order so that they can remain sacred, we are teaching our children the value of intimacy.
Editor’s Note: This question was answered by a Kallah Teacher and Sex Therapist in private practice who wishes to remain anonymous. She can be reached via our site at firstname.lastname@example.org.