Sex Education in Orthodox High Schools

Recently, I sat in on a sex education course at an Orthodox high school. The class was for seniors and was the first one they had been offered on the subject; they were understandably full of questions. I realized, based upon the nature of their questions, how vital this course is.

If you search the Web for an Orthodox approach to sex education, one of the main responses goes like this: “Education teaches people how to live. If you are educated about sex, you begin to live with sex. This is not a theory. This is fact. … There is an accepted view within Jewish orthodoxy that sex education should be taught when people are ready to have sex. When adults are ready to get married, they are ready to learn about sex.” 

This is not a “fact.” Do we not teach our students about the ideas of other religions lest they come to follow those faiths? Further, this falsehood does not even have the advantage of being useful. How will students learn about the risks of sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancy, promiscuity and sex abuse? How will they learn about their anatomy and the menstrual cycle? How will they learn to have mature, sophisticated conversations as adults if their educators censor learning about a vital life reality? The myth that sex education leads to sex must be challenged for the welfare of our children.

The Jewish perspective is that sex in the right context is necessary, good and holy. Sex education can be taught in a way that maintains and promotes the values of sexual restraint, modesty and intimacy while teaching teenagers about the responsibilities, risks and values that come with an adult sex life. These can help inform other Jewish laws related to adultery, taharat mishpachah (family purity) and hirhurim (sexual thoughts).

Orthodox high school students will have sex in marriage or beforehand. Not providing them with a comprehensive education, including sex education, that prepares them for life as observant Jews in the 21st century, is irresponsible. A recent study published in the journal Pediatrics found that pregnancy rates are twice as high among teenagers who watch television shows with high sexual content compared with teens who don’t. Given that most Modern Orthodox teens are exposed to an entertainment culture that normalizes sex, addressing sexuality is crucial.

Further, avoiding teaching sex education may violate lifnei iver (the prohibition against placing a stumbling block before the blind). If we do not include sex education in our Jewish education, we risk putting our students in harm’s way.

Students, if uninformed about the health, moral and emotional risks that come with sexual activity may find themselves with herpes, gonorrhea, chlamydia, syphilis or AIDS; unwanted pregnancy or sexual abuse; and emotional scarring and future resistance to healthy physical intimacy.

We do not want to promote sexual activity in teenagers. However, there is a way to teach this material responsibly and to empower students, as emerging adults, to construct their spiritual and moral guidelines. 

We would be naive to think that some Orthodox students were not already engaged in sexual activity. Nationwide, around 72 percent of high school seniors and 90 percent of 22-year-olds have had sexual intercourse. The numbers at Orthodox high schools are, of course, much lower, but even students not engaged in sexual activity are thinking about it. Is the classroom not a safe and sacred place to enhance these conversations? 

Judaism teaches that there is Torah in everything and that God can be found everywhere. Jewish teachings have much to offer in this realm of thought and experience. Sex education is Torah and should be taught.

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Director of Jewish Life & the Senior Jewish Educator at the UCLA Hillel and a 6th year doctoral candidate at Columbia University in Moral Psychology & Epistemology. Rav Shmuly’s book “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century” is now available for pre-order on Amazon.