Gender Differences in Messages about Sexuality in Religious Education

Published: 
Spring, 2008

Source: Jewish Educational Leadership. Spring 2008 (6:3) pages 15-17

 

A study based on nearly fifty in depth interviews with self-identified Modern Orthodox men and women in Israel showed marked differences between men's and women's educational experiences in the realm of sexuality. Although these interviews were conducted in Israel, many of the interviewees were products of North American schools.

 

The female interviewees often reported that throughout their schooling there were many negative messages about sexuality including convictions that physical closeness was not appropriate for religious girls, it would "defile" them and was immodest to think or speak about such matters. There was a deep social stigma to any girl crossing those forbidden lines. The messages were both delivered explicitly by teachers and implicitly passed on through the culture. The need for separation between the sexes was ever-present, so that anyone not in step with the pervasive message felt "dirty".

 

Ironically, as soon as these same girls graduated high school, they were encouraged to commence dating and marry. Post high school/pre-marriage classes which they attended emphasized the beauty and sanctity of the sexual relationship. The transition was jarring. The association of the clear negative messages of high school and the very different ones received later created for many of the interviewees a traumatic feeling which some reported as remaining with them for many years. This often resulted in difficulties with engaging in and enjoying the marital sexual relationship.

 

In sharp contrast, none of the interviewed men who had attended religious institutions parallel to those of their wives reported the same kind of powerful messages in high school and in consequence none of the dramatic, traumatic effects of a radical educational shift. The sense of social stigma or deep guilt for having desires or wanting to engage in sexuality was absent in the men.

 

The educational messages and the experiences they inform are powerfully different for men and women who studied in the religious educational system both in Israel and North America. These different messages are relevant in their impact on relative religious and experiential realities that these men and women later must deal with in marriage.

 

The author feels that further research is necessary to determine exactly how these different messages were transmitted in the interviewees' educational environments and whether they are peculiar to Jewish or Orthodox education. However, she notes that awareness of the existence of the phenomena is in itself quite important.

Updated: Sep. 22, 2008
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