Religion, Sex & Gender

An open letter to the OU on their new pro-abstinence campaign

Dear OU,
I know we’ve had words in the past. Well, at least, I know you and Kelsey have had words in the past and that I published them. But I digress. It’s very important you listen to me just this once, and that you listen clearly:
If you don’t want Jewish kids to shtup before they’re married, don’t lie and tell them that the reason they shouldn’t is because condoms are ineffective. You’re spreading dangerously false information that can actually increase the likelihood of Jewish kids contracting sexually transmitted diseases, which can pose a serious risk to their lives.
If they’re going to have sex — and trust me, they’re going to, whether you like it or not (whereas abstinence education is a proven failure) — you should encourage them to do it safely, otherwise you won’t only be dealing with a problem of promiscuity, but with an even bigger STD problem in the Jewish community than that which already exists.
Furthermore, if you’re serious about fighting intermarriage and promoting Jew-on-Jew coupling, you’re going to have a really hard time doing so when you’re scaring Jewish kids off from being intimate with one another. The Jewish establishment is spending millions annually to encourage Jewish kids to sleep with each other. Michael Steinhardt alone has spent a fortune trying to encourage Jewish kids to jump in the sack. Do you really want to counteract all their efforts by making sex with your fellow Jew a terrifying proposition? (Actually, now that I think about it, if you really want to stem the tide of unwedded sex in the Jewish community, wouldn’t you be better off keeping your kids home instead of sending them on trips to Israel?)
You’re sending mixed messages. Kids are confused enough as it is. Don’t make it more confusing. Lead by righteous example.
Honestly, if such a path is truly emesdik (truthful), you can make a case for tzenuah (modesty) and being shomer negiah (not touching the opposite sex) without promoting lies in the process. It’s unethical and it constitutes lifnei eiver (placing a stumbling block before the blind).
Frankly, I think your campaign would be more successful if you tell kids how much kinkier it is to wait. Tell ’em how dressing modestly is more erotic because it leaves more to the imagination, seeing how the mind is the most erogenous zone. Tell ’em how being shomer negiah and observing the laws of niddah (ritual purity) are really hot because it builds up the tension, making your partner’s most minor touch even more explosive. Show ’em the parallels between the frum approach to sexuality and sado-masochism. Hell, give ’em some incentive!
But don’t lie. Because they know you’re lying. Your kids probably know more about this stuff than you do (thanks, Internet!). And if they know you’re lying about this, you can be sure they won’t believe you about much else you have to say.

33 thoughts on “An open letter to the OU on their new pro-abstinence campaign

  1. …which is why Orthodox kids tend to get knocked up more, and have unwanted babies more, and be disgraced, etc. etc. …
    and now our friends at NCSY want to export this to the rest of the Jewish population. Why should Teaneck have all the fun?

  2. I’m amazed at how I’ve never heard anyone in these circles remember the piku’ach nefesh side of condoms.
    “nope, we decided condoms are bad, so we’re gonna stick to that line. And any kids who get STD’s… well they probably deserve it.”
    It’s sickening.

  3. rebecca m,
    Good news — why restrict Jewish fundamentalism to after school programs when the OU is now in our public schools with their “JSU” *cultural* programs! Completely devoid of religious content — just pizza, and other fun stuff — like paying kids to learn with a yeshiva student after school — check it out:
    Pretty, pretty, cultural.
    You think the OU is right-wing? Hah! You should see the places they are recruiting public school kids for.
    Anyway, they are *only* currently in 166 public schools.

  4. Mobius,
    I don’t know if everyone reading this understands that NCSY is the Orthodox Union, as well as the JSU!

  5. when i was in high school i met a guy, a smart guy, who among other things had gone through DARE. That anti-drug curriculum used pseudo-science and a variety of versions, both strong and weak, of the “all drugs are enormously dangerous and will cause you to lose control and wake up after killing someone” rhetoric, or so he told me. he smoked marijuana, thought it was pleasant and assumed that all the info they told him was bogus. a few weeks later he was incarcerated stemming from a sharp spiral that had begun with his casually meandering into heroine assuming it was as easy to handle as weed. alas it wasn’t, he is still in prison, and i primarily blame DARE’s pedagogy (and of course the people pushing H).
    The take away is obvious. If you mislead people about anything, when they find out they will assume you have deceived them more broadly. In this case, if you lie about condom science, your credibility broadly will be shattered and many kids will tune out your message. Just don’t lie to people, it doesn’t work, it’s a bad pedagogy, and it has dire consequences for the teachers and the students.

  6. Uh Mobius, it would seem that abstinence education and Judaism fail in proportion to one another . Most of my day school friends don’t observe Jewish law, and my friends who do, do so with a habitual reflex (as Dawkins has indicated) that’d make any yid run for the closest ashram. So why not walk away from the religious delusion that “poisons everything”, shut down Jewschool, and focus on promiscuity and the joys of multiple partners. Or something like that.
    Anyway, I respect NCSY for trying. At USY regional conventions, we let the kids ball each other because that’s normal, right? Traditional Judaism takes a stance on sex. We may not like it. It may cut into our fun, but it helps nurture and support momogamous relationships. And Lord knows, I, as well as my friends, can use all the help we can get.

  7. shtreimel– there’s a difference between taking a stance on sex, and using pseudo science to scare kids into toeing the line, even when they aren’t convinced by the halacha on its own terms. And considering the physical and emotional health of kids who do have sex, a reasonable casualty.
    What I think they should do? Sure, tell the kids not to do it*. But accept that some kids will anyways, and try to keep them as safe as possible, along the way.
    *I’m not going into halachic arguments regarding premarital sex and mikva and all, because really, what are the odds of NCSY agreeing with that?

  8. This reminds me of a story my son’s pediatrician told me about the time she spent in Mexico. People who came to her clinic refused to use birth control and when she asked why, they told her the local priest told them condoms would give them cancer.

  9. I don’t see why they can’t teach the kids all about sex, reproduction, intimacy, and contraception in CONTEXT of halachically-approved relations. (i.e. marriage)
    That way, if kids are gonna go off and break halacha, at least they won’t get pregnant / diseased / injured..

  10. halachically-approved relations. (i.e. marriage)
    how about we drop the phrase in parentheses so it will actually be true?

  11. amit–I agree with you, and maybe alan does too. Ideally, halachic frameworks would encourage sexually active unmarried people to keep nidda, and mikva’ot would cooperate. (I actually was taught that in high school, but I think it’s the exception rather than the rule.)
    but realistically, the odds of convincing NCSY of anything isn’t too good, but this strikes me as a particularly lost cause.
    DK– It took all of one shabbaton in high school,to convince me that NCSY was creepy.

  12. Ah, someone who knows the difference between “id est” and “exempli gratia!” My librarian’s heart is pleased… of course, this kind of thing is probably why I was one of the kids who didn’t get any in high school.

  13. It’s also important not to limit talk of safe sex to birth control/condoms and STD’s.
    Many schools push a shomer negia line– ok, they’re entitled– but it’s also important to teach kids about consent, setting boundaries, etc.

  14. i had a chabad friend recently who accidently got a girl pregnant because he (and she) had no sex education what-so-ever, got drunk at fabrigen and never considered a condom . . . because, what? sex ed is for sissies . . .
    now she’s pregnant. they had to marry to hide the shame . . . and all because of absitence only education.
    so much for the holy kavanah of concieving children

  15. This post is written in an immensely witty fashion, which, as always, is greatly appreciated.
    That said, ‘sex’ education has a pretty abysmal track record, as evidenced by STDs, and non-marital pregnancies being rampant.
    Rubbers are great (provided they don’t break, or get lost) in the prevention of syphllis, gonorhea, hepatitis B & C, and are probably excellent in prevention of chlamydia, also.
    They are practically useless in the fight against herpes (some of the lesions hide among the hair beyond the reach of the condom.
    As for pregnancy and HIV, there are numerous accounts of sperm sneaking through condoms that appear to be unbroken, and the HIV is much smaller than a sperm.
    I imagine, though, if these issues were taught by any sex ed teacher, there would be even fewer people using rubbers.
    It’s in everyone’s best interest to get tested before taking on a new lover, and to have that person do the same thing. Clinics which charge on a sliding scale, can be found all over the place.

  16. rebecca:
    I couldn’t agree more. But I should add that its not just the shomer negiah ethic that does it, its the entire tznius rhetoric which essentially tells girls that if they don’t obey the dress code they’re asking for it (it being whatever you don’t want to happen to you), have no respect for themselves, are “easy”, etc.
    The entire contemporary orthodox sex ethic is completely screwy. So screwy, in fact, I catch myself wondering if the USY approach described above may not be less detrimental – if not to the holy monogamous relationships (which somehow seem to work regardless) then at least to the psychological and physical well being of the kids.

  17. Miriam–
    I’m with you on the screenings part.
    but condoms are far from useless against herpes (and hpv)– they offer partial protection, by limiting the areas of contact. Yes, kids should know that it’s only partial, but that’s hardly a reason to scare kids off condoms. it’s just a reason to give them the most and best info possible on all aspects of safe sex.
    as for HIV, my understanding is that condoms most often break when used incorrectly, so the more kids know in that line, the better off they’ll be. still not 100%, but much much better.
    So I’m not sure why there would be reduced condom use if kids knew more about what condoms can and can’t do, so much as there would be smarter condom use, more screenings, and more careful choosing of partners.
    As for sex ed’s track record, teen pregnancy rates have been steadily declining in the past several decades, and are now less than HALF of what they were 50 years ago. Hardly abysmal. What the research does seem clear on is that abstinence-only ed with its fake science scare tactics, is useless at best, and dangerous at worst (kids still have about as much sex, only start slightly older, and do much riskier things). So it’s hard to talk about the success of comprehensive sex ed regarding STD rates when all gov’t funded (e.g. in public schools) sex ed for the last 10 years has been abstinence only.
    Amit– yes, I had an eighth grade chumash teacher tell us that girls who wear tight clothes are asking to be raped.
    could you specify the “entire ortho sex ethic” you’re referring to? negiah? no premarital sex? tzniut?

  18. oh man, my last comment is “awaiting moderation”. I used the word “sex” frequently; maybe I set off a spam detector 🙂

  19. as an aside to my as yet unmoderated comment, just wanted to add that STD rates are significantly lower in European countries with comprehensive sex ed, and easily available sexual health care.
    just sayin’

  20. The usy approach is especially bad when the kids then socialize with their frum friends. Which way you think it rubs off?

  21. The so-called orthodox establishment lags approximately thirty years behind what the NY Times decides is news, and fifty years behind what kids are actually doing.
    Theoretically this is an effective letter. Delivering it to the OU on the other hand is a difficult task. Given that the Internet is “Assur” and I’m not certain the US postal service gets all the way out to their gender segregated suburbs.
    Baruch HaShem we are free from Mitzrayim.

  22. Rebecca:
    I’m especially referring to “tzniut”, but negiah does not lag far behind. The Classical Rabbinic concept of Yeser is that everyone has it but only men can control it, so they should try and stay away from possible sources of “excitement” (?). The Orthodox concept of Yeser is that men have it, women don’t have it, and women are responsible for stemming the tide of emotion sex awakens in men. This responsibility – which is the main pillar of both “tzniut” and “negiah”, in their vulgar use – essentially makes women responsible for all sex offenses, including those involving no women at all (!). Thus we have an entirety of an “Orthodox Sex Ethic”.
    (And I’d rather the USY ethic rub off on the other kids, then have the USY kids (a) not use condoms, or (b) think that women are the root of all (sexual) evil. so there.)

  23. I’d love to see the expressions on the collective OU’s face if they were to see the AIDS awareness/use a condom ad campaign that’s been on-going on French television for 3+ years now.
    Two of them are here: (NSFW).
    If abstinence is going to be taught, I’d like to see what some sex educators have coined “abstinence plus.” Abstinence plus encourages abstinence, and abstinence is the official party line. But they acknowledge that once sex is happening, it needs to be safe, and for that reason they teach about pregnancy prevention, STDs/STIs, condoms, etc.

  24. HIV is actually a pretty bad virus. In the sense that, in fact, it’s pretty difficult to become infected. It needs a much higher viral load than most other diseases in order to actually have an effect. So the stories about HIV slipping through a condom may be true, but the truth is they won’t cause someone to actually CONTRACT HIV. Our immune systems really are effective. However having sex without a condom is the easiest way to become exposed to enough of it to become infected. Condoms are effective against HIV.
    This idea of needing a high enough viral load is the reason you can’t get it from kissing (or why it’s extremely unlikely, unless you both have gaping lesions in your oral cavities). HIV, in an infected person, is present in all bodily fluid, including tears. The amount of HIV there though, is the reason why it doesn’t matter. It’s not like TB where one bacillus is going to mess you up, you’d need to drink like 2 buckets of tears.

  25. I have a friend who went to Ramaz, and her sex-ed classes contained the following statement: “Now, you shouldn’t have premarital sex, because it is wrong, and against our tradition, but just so you know, condoms are the most effective form of birth control, and the only one that also protects against STIs… but you shouldn’t have sex.”

  26. I got a similar statement at my MO day school. It’s a good step, but could use some more information.
    I also suspect that not all classes got the same shpiel; I know my little sister’s class didn’t.

  27. I think abstinence plus is amazing, and I think the line that I got at MO high school, which was almost exactly the same as what Annie’s friend got, is a good start, but when that was combined with a whole semester of negiah study, it just didn’t make much of an impact. The result of this was that a bunch of my friends went to college, were so frustrated sexually they freaked out, and within two years many were sleeping around and interdating. Mainly I think we need to be really honest (especially with girls) about the realities of sex. I’ve tried to give some basics fo that conversation over at faithhacker. Check out

  28. I VOTE MOBIUS FOR NASI OF THE SANHEDRIN!! (or whatever post is available these days)
    YOU SO ROCK! I’m glad we share the same first name!

  29. Did no one else notice the total lack of awareness here about the needs of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender teens? Not surprising at all given that this is the OU, but I’m amazed that in the great letter by Mobius and all the comments no one thought to mention the impact on roughly 5% of the Jewish population. Wait until you’re married to have sex? Ummmm… gay people can’t get married (except in one state and a handful of countries). How is a gay or questioning teen supposed to model this behavior? Does a queer youth even think this applies to him or her? And questioning condoms is dangerous enough for straight kids, but to encourage doubts about condoms among young men thinking of, or already having, sex with other men is horrifying. The rates of new HIV infections among young men are alarmingly high. And to just stick one’s head in the sand and pretend that there aren’t Jewish kids having same-sex attraction, let alone frum kids, is the worst form of denial.

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