Over-exposed, under-educated

In a world where sexual content is easily available to any schoolchild with a cellphone, how do you teach sex education when there is no requirement from the Education Ministry to do so?

A boy with an Ipad (photo credit: REUTERS)
A boy with an Ipad
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Personal smartphones and wide access to the Internet expose children as young as kindergarten age to pornography and other sexual content.
Meanwhile, schools vary in the amount of time and effort they put into sex education, and many children in Israel receive no such instruction at all. Who is responsible for helping the kids cope with this endless stream of inappropriate information? According to the latest Knesset report from 2010 (no newer comprehensive sets of data are available even in the Education Ministry), the majority of pupils in Israel are not taught sex education, or have only ever studied a few hours on the subject. In theory, says the report, the subject is allocated about 70 hours of learning, as part of the “life skills” program for elementary and junior high schools, set by the ministry.
No such obligation exists for high schools, where sex education is only a recommendation. But even with the younger children, where the direction is mandatory, the execution varies greatly between schools, depending on budget, staff training and overall willingness of the school’s management to deal with this complex subject.
Indeed, the biggest problem when it comes to Israeli sex education might be the lack of uniformity across the country.
“The Ministry of Education has a lot of valuable resources on sexual education – it has lesson plans, materials and plenty of ideas and options – but no one is required to use any of them or told what to discuss with the class and what not to,” explains Stav Rave, a child and adolescent psychologist specializing in educational psychology.
This lack of standardization is the root of the problem, according to Rave, and it is one of the things keeping school counselors and teachers from doing their work on this topic.
“It’s not so much about embarrassment – counselors can get over embarrassment,” Rave says.
“It’s about dealing with the parents. Once there are no clear guidelines, no transparency about the mandatory materials like you would find in any other subject in school, then parents don’t really know what a child is expected to know at every stage of his or her development – and they have a lot of leverage in complaining to teachers and to the principal, claiming their child has no business hearing about these things so young.”
Sex education is not the only conflict-ridden topic in school, clarifies Rave; so is the idea of learning about God, for instance, and yet even Bible class curriculum is very clear and unapologetic. Parents know it will be taught and that’s that, she says.
“In some places in the country you can go through a full 12 years of school never once discussing anything to do with sex education,” adds Shlomit Havron, founder of Meyda Amin al Min (‘reliable information about sex’), a private nationwide sex education initiative.
“Other places provide wonderful sex education because it’s a part of their own personal agenda. What we see out there in the field is that often a teacher or a school counselor really does want to put in the hours and invest in it – they understand the importance of these classes – but they don’t have all the tools to do so. Most counselors hardly studied an hour on how to teach sex education during their degree, and even less about sexuality in general. How could you expect them to be experts?” The Education Ministry offers advanced training – in fact it mandates it – but a teacher would have to choose a particular course on sex education out of a wide variety of subjects, with the choice of courses entirely up to each individual professional, says Havron.
“Sexuality is a very complex subject, and unlike other subjects we teach, like preventing use of alcohol and drugs, it’s one that comes with a very strong taboo,” comments Iris Ben Yackov (Menda), manager of the unit for sexuality and prevention of sexual violence in the ministry’s Psychological Counseling Service.
“We do our best to train the educational counselors, and they train the pedagogical staff. But each school can choose by itself which topics to discuss within life skills and even within sexuality. They are autonomous, and that’s a good thing, because if they didn’t have that freedom they may not have taught anything at all. Life skills is not a bagrut [matriculation] subject, there’s no final exam, so every staff tailors its classes according to the community in which it works.”
And yet it is true, admits Ben Yackov, that some schools choose not to touch on the subject at all. The result is that teachers often turn to sex education as a means of putting out fires rather than preparing the children in advance.
“Anything beyond dealing with cases that come to us is considered ‘extra’ in my school,” admits Galia (not her real name), who teaches junior high in Haifa.
“I had no training in the field apart from a brief and very basic test I took while studying teaching. During my master’s degree, I took a short course on sexual violence. But that’s about it – neither in training nor at school did we ever learn how to deal with these things, so each teacher solves it however they see fit.”
The same experience is shared by a teacher from Yavne who teaches sixth graders, who says that as class educator she had never received any particular training on how to teach sex education or even how to deal with prevention or crises. She tries to learn what she can online, from various sources of information including Havron’s Meyda Amin al Min, but she is left to do so on her own.
Great variation also exists between different sectors. Arab schools, for instance, tend to put their emphasis on what they call education towards family life – healthy relationships, physical changes and development, some would even discuss equality between the genders. “They would probably not discuss sexual relations, though, because it goes against their traditions,” explains Ben Yackov. Neither would the Jewish religious and Haredi sectors.
“The classes are always adjusted to fit the community and the population.
But the religious educational system for instance had a conference recently about LGBT, giving out a strong message to all educators on tolerance, on not denouncing children who have come out as gay.” In other words, it’s up to each individual principal and community to set the tone.
Children on their way to school (MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)Children on their way to school (MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
An outsider’s perspective
One way to set the tone is to bring in an outside organization that specializes in sexual education. Havron’s project Meyda Amin al Min is one of a few of its kind in Israel. Her staff travels the country, conducting workshops both with children and with parents and teachers.
Another such project is Lada’at – Choose Well, which focuses mostly on Jerusalem.
“The information unit about sexuality is passed in training to school counselors,” explains Alexandra Berger- Polsky, director of Lada’at. “They’re supposed to be enriching school counselors, who in turn are supposed to implement the workshops. What happens in practice is that training sessions are not frequent – this is a topic that not everybody feels comfortable talking about – and sometimes it just kind of doesn’t happen. When it does happen, it’s often only after they see something bad occur, so it’s reactive rather than preventive.”
Unfortunately, no part of the budget is set aside for this cause.
“We are funded by private donations,” says Berger-Polsky, “and schools pay a fee too, which is a small part of the actual cost. But as far as the Education Ministry is concerned, they do their part by training counselors, so why should they fund us too?” While this model of bringing in an outside organization to teach sex education might work in some places, it has its problems too, for instance in supervision.
“There are a lot of organizations and individuals working this field in the community,” says Berger-Polsky. “Some are amazing and have professional training… but some are not. And there’s really no state supervision on this; there’s no process of getting any kind of approval before entering schools.”
This lack of supervision can actually be harmful to the young pupils, adds Berger-Polsky.
“Sex education can be damaging if it sends the message that sexuality should be suppressed or is inherently risky, or when it is understood to be solely about prevention of sexual violence or assault, thus equating sexuality with violence and painting it as a solely dangerous force, an association already deeply ingrained in our culture. Of course it is damaging as well when different messages are sent to girls and boys – girls are often taught that they need to ‘preserve’ or ‘save’ themselves, while it is assumed that boys' sexuality is an uncontrollable force.”
Children in classroom (MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)Children in classroom (MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
It all starts at home
Lack of supervision and low budgets may not be the only problems with private organizations conducting sex education workshops. This sensitive material and important information is much more effective when it comes from someone familiar, not a one-time visitor, agree Rave and Havron.
“In an ideal world, every school would have its own teacher for sex education,” says Havron.
“She would meet every class one hour a week and give them ‘spiral’ training, circling the same topics again and again throughout the students’ development. In fact, I would prefer to never work with the teens themselves – I would much rather teach counselors and parents and have them open these discussions with the children. There’s a great advantage to knowing the child personally, even if you don’t have quite all the information or all the training that I do as a specialist. We’re also trying to let the parents know they can’t just place this burden on the teachers, just like they don’t expect the teacher to be solely responsible when it comes to crossing the road or eating healthy.”
Ben Yackov also opposes outside organizations taking the lead.
“Our policy is that educators need to teach these topics because they’re the ones meeting the children every day and all day long, not just during that particular class,” she says. “If teachers excuse themselves from discussing these things with their students, the students will not approach them in time of need. Educators are meaningful figures. They’re not just there to teach academic subjects, they need to talk about life, and that’s something that’s important to us and we will not give up on. Some teachers do choose to bring in outside organizations, and that’s a shame.”
It seems that today more than ever, with the easy availability of pornography, children need a reliable source they can trust and learn from about their own sexuality, and indeed about relationships, power relations and respecting boundaries.
“It starts as early as kindergarten age, unfortunately,” explains Rave.“Children have so many sources of information: Google, pornography, even friends showing each other images and videos. These sources are a far cry from reality when it comes to portraying what a healthy relationship looks like, what menwomen relationships look like, what people actually look like and so on. We need to establish certain values and worldviews which would help the children cope with this material they are exposed to, by accident or not, and be able to see it with a critical eye and not take it for granted.”
The trouble is that at such young ages, taking information at face value is precisely what children do. “Take TV commercials for instance,” Rave says.
“Of course a three-, four-, even five-year-old child doesn’t understand what marketing content is. If the ad recommends buying some brand of food, or even a certain brand of laundry soap, they take it as a fact. As far as the child is concerned, this is an actual recommendation. The same goes for pornographic materials, which can really distort their view of relationships and sexuality.”
Having this stream of media all around them makes the children particularly vulnerable.
“Children use their parents’ tablets and phones and see all kinds of things they are really not ready for nor fully understand.”
Rave makes the distinction between an elementary-school child and a kindergarten child being exposed to these materials.
A younger child, she explains, may indeed be excited about what they just saw, out of naive, genuine curiosity. At that age children tend to repeat things as means of understanding and processing them; this could cause secondary trauma, sending them to search for the image again and again, and if they try to reenact it with their friends, it could even lead to sexual assault on other children.
It is important to understand that curiosity about sex is natural at this age, she explains, and that not everything the child says or does necessarily points to a problem.
“Adults tend to see this behavior through their own mature and sexual-aware point of view, but children don’t actually experience it that way,” says Rave.
“Theirs is a much purer curiosity. And when children are curious they play games, they’re excited about finding out new things, they want to know what the other children’s sex organs look like or touch mommy’s breast… that’s very natural.”
She says that as long as these games are accompanied by laughter and fun, and the children seem happy and curious, there’s nothing to worry about.
“What parents should do, though, is keep an eye open. If the child seems anxious or confused, or if they keep repeating the same activity again and again which does not seem natural for what they might know – reenacting oral sex, for instance – then parents need to ask themselves what the cause is. Could the child have seen this somewhere? Could he or she have been exposed to something not appropriate for their age?” The Education Ministry also recommends keeping a close eye, particularly on the child’s Internet use.
“Parents should be involved in their children’s Internet browsing habits, and discuss not only the benefits but also the dangers involved,” advises Ben Yackov. “If the child displays sexual behavior or interest not fitting their age as a result of exposure to pornographic materials, parents should consult with professionals.”
The slightly older children tend to be a different challenge.
“Around six years old the child develops his or her Theory of Mind,” explains Rave, “meaning they understand that other people around them have thoughts and feelings too, separated from their own. At this point their sexuality becomes more hidden. Again, this is completely natural.”
The trouble here is that a child may not be so open about what they have seen, making it harder for parents to understand that something is wrong.
“Children are getting their own smartphones as early as eight or nine years old, and suddenly there’s a whole new situation for them, where they spend time alone with the Internet – something they never had before – browsing through their parents’ tablets,” Rave says.
“And again we see them getting exposed to things entirely inappropriate for their age – some inappropriate for anyone in my opinion, but that’s arguable – and they get a very wrong sense of love and sex and relationships.”
Parental guidance in this area varies greatly from household to household, naturally. Some parents find that an open dialogue from an early age is the best solution.
“In our home we talk about everything, ever since the children were very young, and they slowly learned to share and to feel comfortable expressing their thoughts and fears,” says Dana from Jerusalem, mother of a teenage boy and girl. Dana and her husband discuss sexuality openly with their kids, who in turn come to them with questions and even tell them their friends are curious and watch pornography. Her daughter’s friends, she says, “are good kids, but still, they browse around and find these things which can be really extreme. And the result is that they think what they’re seeing is real. Or maybe they know it’s not real, but they don’t know what is.”
Dana has long conversations with her daughter, and does her best to speak naturally and even matter-offactly, “as if we were talking about dinner,” as so not to embarrass her. Her son has similar conversations with his father. “We know he and his friends are exposed to pornography, and look for these things. And he always says, ‘we know it’s not reality.’ I trust him, but I know these materials can’t help but distort things. They have no healthy model to learn from.”
Critical thinking 101
“We work on normalization with the children,” says Berger-Polsky.
“Accepting their bodies, for instance. Girls in particular get this message from the media that their genitals are inherently dirty and need to be cleaned with special washes, which by the way are not healthy for them. We show them a picture of a vulva and they would go ‘eeeew! I can’t look!’ and for me that’s very sad, but I can see where they get it from.”
It’s worth noting that these types of classes are usually taught separately for boys and girls.
“For certain topics, like healthy relationships, mixed classes can actually be an asset,” says Berger-Polsky.
“But for the more intimate or graphic topics, like anatomy and physiology, we find that separate gender groups enable teens to really open up and not be embarrassed to ask honest questions. Also, boys and girls tend to have very different needs, and we work to develop materials especially for them. We also make an effort to have the groups be led by a workshops facilitator of the same gender.”
Relationships are indeed a key topic.
“We go over and over again about roles in the relationship,” Berger-Polsky explains. “Sometimes we would ask why someone would actually want to have sex to begin with, and some answer that for the girls, they want to please the guys. That’s how they see their roles! [With teens,] we also normalize not wanting to have sex – what if I’m not ready yet? What if I am ready, but don’t want to? They have to understand what consent is, and that every step is a choice and they can always say no, no matter what.
“When we bring up the idea that some of them may not be ready for sex just yet, they usually assume we mean the girls. When we say, ‘what if it’s the guy?’ someone always says ‘he must be gay.’ Homophobia is always there and it needs to be addressed.”
Rave agrees. “I hear ‘gay’ as a slur in schools all the time. This is something hardly anyone talks about. In many cases it’s actually silenced – teachers are afraid of the parental backlash should they try to open the subject for discussion. But even if they don’t want to go into sexual identity, the least they can do is teach tolerance toward the LGBT community. Too often, even that doesn’t exist.”
“OVERALL, THINGS aren’t too bad,” clarifies Rave.
“Despite the system’s faults and shortcomings, we do still live in a country that’s relatively educated and open about sexuality.”
Still, she thinks any solution needs to starts with the Education Ministry taking more responsibility for this subject.
“The ministry needs to have a clear and transparent outline like it does every other topic of study, and it needs to back teachers and principals. Today principals have so much pressure on them, on their school, on their municipality – parents have their say.”
But there’s no shortage of quality professionals, she adds. If they had the right training and were properly backed by the state, things would be very different.
“The Education Ministry’s Psychological Counseling Service has a clear outline for educators as well as many materials,” clarifies Ben Yackov.
“We support our teachers and yes, we too deal with many parents who call to yell at us because they don’t like the way their children were taught about sexuality, or because they don’t think that’s a suitable topic at all, or because they want it to be taught even more.”
Ben Yackov adds that all government ministries are currently working side by side on a new plan for creating a shared language on sexual violence across each city, a combined project that will set the tone in education but also in welfare services, health services, law and more.
“It’s true that there’s a certain gap, and we are constantly trying to fix it in many different ways. One of them is this new collaborative plan which should go into a test phase next year.”
The other thing that needs to happen, according to Rave, is for parents to take responsibility too, and start talking openly with their children.
“Parents need to understand that children learn not only from words but from actions too, and to think about what messages they are teaching them by example.”