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One of the most uncomfortable conversations that parents of teen-agers have with their children, if indeed they have this conversation at all, is about sex. Far too many parents avoid the subject altogether out of embarrassment, ignorance or confusion, and assume that their kids will figure it out the way they did or get information from school psychologists and counselors.

Leaving this sensitive and vital area of a young person’s life to others, however, is a missed opportunity for parents to help their teen-age children navigate through rough waters while at the same time keeping open the lines of communication as their children enter young adulthood.

What does Judaism have to teach us about sex that we can discuss with our children, and what thoughts about sex might parents share with their teen-age children that can be helpful to them in our liberal age?

It is one thing for traditionally religious Jewish parents to discuss these issues with their children and quite another for secular liberal Jewish parents to discuss them. I encourage parents to speak with their rabbis, educators and development specialists if they are at a loss about what they should say and how they should say it.

Many traditional Jewish values are affirmed by all the religious streams including Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Reform Judaism, though the concrete behaviors relative to those values differ between the traditional and liberal approaches to Jewish tradition.

All the religious streams affirm the principle that the human being is created “B’tzelem Elohim – In God’s image” (Genesis 1:26-27) thereby endowing each person with infinite value and worth. As such, our bodies are to be appreciated as far more than millions of atoms and chemicals, flesh, bones, and blood. We are, each of us, a k’li kodesh (holy vessel) infused by the n’shamah (divine soul).

Other classic Jewish values embraced by the whole of Judaism, though understood differently by each religious stream, are tz’niyut (modesty) and anavah (humility). Ostentatious display of and exploitation of our bodies, and public sexual behavior are contrary to both liberal and traditionally religious virtues of modesty and humility.

Classic Judaism affirms essentially three purposes for sex – procreation, the establishment of loving and enduring relationships, and pleasure. Though traditional Judaism does not accept the legitimacy of homosexuality, liberal Judaism does, and it regards committed heterosexual and homosexual unions (for orthodox families heterosexual sex within marriage and for liberal families heterosexual and homosexual sex before and after marriage) as opportunities to fulfill Judaism’s three purposes of sex.

What about teen sexuality?

The most common question teens ask is: ‘How will I know when I am ready for sex?’ Planned Parenthood articulates clear and appropriate criteria in assessing a young person’s sexual readiness. It defines a healthy sexual relationship as having seven basic qualities: respect, honesty, equality, good communication, trust, fairness, and responsibility. Further, Planned Parenthood recommends that teens ask themselves these questions before they become sexually active:

  • Do each of you have the other’s consent?
  • Have you been pressured to give consent?
  • Are you honest with each other?
  • Do you treat each other as equals?
  • Are you attentive to each other’s pleasure?
  • Have you protected each other against physical and emotional harm?
  • Have you guarded against unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infection?
  • Are you clear with each other about what you want to do and don’t want to do?
  • Do you respect each other’s limits?
  • Have you accepted full responsibility for your actions?

I do not believe that most young teens (i.e. 13 to 18 years of age) are ready for sexual intercourse even if they are able to answer in the affirmative all these questions. Most are too emotionally immature to cope with the power of their sexual feelings and the meaning and consequences of sexual intimacy.

Parents ought to be the first to advise their children to exercise caution by discussing Jewish and family values and by encouraging their teen-age children to ask the above questions about their sexual readiness. Our children need to feel, as well, self-confident that they are able to refuse sexual activity if they feel in any way unready, uncomfortable, embarrassed, demeaned, exploited, or pressured.

Finally, our teen-age children need to understand that they are still very young and that their time will come when becoming sexually active feels and is right.

Note: This is one in a series of blogs I am writing about difficult conversations that come up in families, among friends and in the workplace that we sometimes avoid or do badly. For a complete list, see my blog entitled “Difficult Conversations – January 17, 2014.”