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The JC Comment Blog – Let's talk about sex

Sex education has never been more essential, but some Jewish parents are actively trying to block it - that's a mistake, argues Rosa Doherty

    A banana and a condom in a PSHE lesson, in year 10, sums up my sex education at the hands of appropriate adults.

    The only other conversation I had about sex happened when I was 16.

    It was with my mum and we were sitting in her car outside a tube station. I was about to get out when she uncomfortably found the words to say that she knew I was probably thinking about sex, and that I could talk to her for advice. It was of course, by that point, too late.

    Looking back, the lack of information available to me at the time was terrifying.  My sex education came from my peers, spread through gossip about what other people were doing, along with pressure about when you’re meant to do it.

    No one told me what a healthy relationship looked like, or more importantly how to get help if you found yourself in an unhealthy one.

    Luckily I was the kind of young person who was not easily pressured, however others are not so fortunate and early negative experience of sex and relationships can impact you forever. 

    When Damian Hinds, the recently appointed Education Secretary, reiterated the right of parents to take children out of SRE — although not from lessons on reproduction in science, I did wonder.

    On what planet would any parent conclude that educating their child about a subject that will help to keep them safe, is in fact a potential harm?

    My school was a local comprehensive: friends who attended Jewish schools tell me tales of biology lessons where the pages about sexual reproduction were stuck together.

    And that it wasn’t until they were in their late teens that they learnt about sex and what the opposite sexes’ body looks like, or more importantly, how it functions.

    That learning wasn’t done through formal education but through porn, which often presents an entirely unrealistic expectation of sex, and regularly promotes negative attitudes towards women.

    “It is obvious that teenage boys regardless of their religious background are going to find out about these things one way or another.

    “I would have preferred for it to have been through formal education,” remarks one friend, who like many turned to porn for education.

    The idea that some parents want to withdraw their children from sex education today, blows my mind.

    Instead of making these subjects less taboo, they are pushing young people to learn about it from unreliable sources.

    I grew up without the pressure of social media, where today children as young as 12 are goaded by their peers into sending nude photos of themselves.

    It is a problem we know exists in Jewish schools and many have struggled to protect their students from harm.

    The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Association UK says a child’s access to accurate information on sex and relationships should not be determined by their religious background.

    And I agree.

    Jofa UK says that while there should be some flexibility depending on schools’ cultural needs, this should not allow them to omit “whole subjects that are slightly less comfortable to conservative faith communities”.

    The government wants to extend sex education to academies and free schools as well as primary schools, meaning many Jewish schools might have to teach students about things they traditionally liked to avoid.

    Under legislation passed last year, this education should be “appropriate” to the age and religious background of pupils.

    The law says the education authorities should produce further regulations on when pupils may be “excused” from receiving SRE.

    And those religiously conservative schools “should not be able to ignore this education by saying it is not relevant to them”.

    And why should it, it doesn’t mean that a school should be stopped from teaching its preference for pre-marital abstinence from sex, but that it teaches about the mechanics of sex, safe sex, and healthy relationships.

    I’d challenge anyone to explain to me how that level of knowledge causes harm.

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