To Abstain Courteously

Update: Also see the later and more detailed post How to Handle
SIW points us to the OU’s new site dedicated to abstinence with the redirected link
SIW himself is critical of the OU’s position on condoms:

Read through the literature on the abstinence movement making its way through public schools and other childhood education, and you’ll find that it leads to decreased condom use among the sexually-active, that self-proclaimed “virgins” frequently choose instead to engage in sexual activity that they simply don’t consider “sexual intercourse” and tend to do it in an unsafe manner, and myriad other issues. Now, if you were thinking that when Jewish groups, with so many health professional among their ranks having spoken out against these pro-abstinence tactics, would veer away from suggestions that could tempt Jewish youth into unsafe practices, you’d be wrong.

There’s an exchange I had with my Niddah Rabbi in smikha which may help explain the rationale. Given the increase in sexual activity in the Jewish community (especially among teenagers), I asked if at some point we should encourage women to go to mikvah even single to at least negate the issur karet. The response was that were that to be the policy the result would be an even greater increase in sexual activity and no greater likelihood of taharat hamishpacha. I’m guessing the OU is doing something similar here, advocating a stricter halakhic stance, because allowing for anything less would tacitly approve of sexual activity.

What bothers me here is not so much the content, but the obviously condescending and pandering tone. From the design of the site it seems clear that they’re trying to speak to the younger generation – e.g. a section called “Your Bod” – but such attempts are like your parents trying to act “cool” and “hip.” This approach never works because it’s artificial and eventually the charade will be exposed. Case in point, here’s one attempt at cultural relevancy:

Deciding to abstain can be easier said than done. In our society, sex is literally everywhere, from magazine covers to billboards and from car ads to beer commercials. “Back in the day,” only soap operas might feature sexually active characters. Lucy and Ricky slept in separate beds. All Greg Brady might get after a date was a peck on the cheek. When Natalie lost her virginity to Snake on The Facts of Life, that was huge – and it was only 1988! Now, shows like Friends and Seinfeld, whose characters routinely jump from bed to bed, are considered “quaint.” The personalities of characters on shows like Will and Grace, The OC and Sex and the City are virtually defined by their sex lives! All this makes it seem as if promiscuity is the societal norm. It isn’t, nor should it be.

Demonstrating moral decay from television shows is not a new argument. While they get points for knowing about The OC and Sex and the City, who under the age of 27 would remember a specific episode of Facts of Life let alone I Love Lucy? More importantly, what teenager would find this argument compelling?

Teenagers may be growing up faster, but that also means that they can expose and reject condescending tripe much easier. In other words, just as the behaviors and mentality of teenagers changed over time, the OU would need to adjust accordingly. I’m not arguing against the OU’s agenda given the alarming rise in sexual activity and the dangers involved, but there has to be a more appropriate and effective strategy to communicate and influence behaviors.

Posted in Jewish Dating, Jewish Thought, Theology, and Machshava.
  • Larry Lennhoff

    Love the 1776 reference.
    The studies on abstinence only seem to show that not only does it not reduce the age of first sexual experience, but people educated under it are more likely to indulge in unsafe sex.
    When R. Yochana ben Zakkai abolished the sotah ritual, the reason he gave was that promiscuity had grown to the point that the ritual no longer deterred. Surely an analogy can be made to the situation with single women and the mikveh?

  • Shana

    “he response was that were that to be the policy the result would be an even greater increase in sexual activity and no greater likelihood of taharat hamishpacha. I’m guessing the OU is doing something similar here, advocating a stricter halakhic stance, because allowing for anything less would tacitly approve of sexual activity.”
    There is no evidence of that happening. Do they have any shred of evidence that I do not know about that you do?
    What evidence of populations similar to ours I have seen is the following:
    A likelihood of not using a condom or any other form of protection when having sex (that’s bad)
    A likelihood of not using protection while doing other high risk sexual behaviors (such as oral sex) (do you really want to pass on herpes really…I know people out there who think it is risk free…it isn’t…
    Unlike Larry Lennhoff, I have heard of a couple of studies that do say there is a year or two delay- but the ny time is reporting that people who take virginity pledges are more likely to lie about their sexual experiences anyways, so…..
    Actually the bigger problem is that they still hit college and older misinformed. Married couples still need to use protection for non-PIV sex.
    Plus, at some point, as the famous ex blogger Nice Jewish Girl proved, negiah gets unreasonable at a certain point. Unless we plan on starting a priest/non organization, of course.
    So they need to start figuring out something more reasonable.

  • Shana

    Actually a note on exacty how pointless this is.
    Just go onto
    They are high school kids. Some of them are contemplating coming out as gay…and they are talking about abstinences? It’s a bit of a time warped approach.

  • Janet Rosenbaum

    Josh, my biggest concern is similar to yours. Adolescents are savvy enough to know when they are being given propaganda, and this website may succeed only in preaching to the choir. I hope that in the future the OU tests out their literature with a range of real kids, and not just model NCSY’ers, to find out what works.
    You write:
    “Given the increase in sexual activity in the Jewish community (especially among teenagers), I asked if at some point we should encourage women to go to mikvah even single to at least negate the issur karet. The response was that were that to be the policy the result would be an even greater increase in sexual activity and no greater likelihood of taharat hamishpacha.”
    Good for you for raising this point, which is similar to the argument for abstinence-plus sex education (AP), teaching kids to be abstinent, but to use a condom if not. All the evidence that I am aware of indicates AP does not increase kids’ likelihood of having sex, as Shana also says.
    To avoid the risk of kids being -less- likely to use condoms as a result of this curriculum (as Shana mentions), teachers have to be careful to give a balanced picture of condoms both to avoid being tuned out as propaganda and to avoid giving the impression that condoms don’t work. The information on the website about condoms could discourage sexually active kids from using them because it is dismissive about the advantages of condoms.
    Speaking of HPV, does anyone know the stance of any rabbis on the HPV vaccine?
    To set the record straight on the machloket Shana vs. Larry on virginity pledges, there are 4 peer-reviewed studies of virginity pledges’ (including mine) which reach different conclusions about whether they work. Virginity pledges are a pretty specific phenomenon, and I don’t know that they are analogous to anything in Orthodox Jewish life.


    Society including Orthodoxy has delayed marriage. But the people who are unmarried are still sexual beings. Whereas society has substituted different relationships, for better or worse, more conservative groups such as Orthodoxy recommends only that people live in abstinance, i.e. a status to be recommended only to nuns and monks.
    The weird thing is that Orthodoxy only advances a traditional Western family today, one that is certainly permitted and recommended by halacha but certainly not the only relationship halacha has traditonally allowed.
    Josh, so long as Orthodoxy stands behind abstinance as the only fit response for delayed marriage there is no way to sugercoat it and the onlt thing to dop is bash all alternatives – ‘good’ boys and girls don’t do it, diseases, scandal etc.

  • miriam

    ahhhh!!!!!! abstinence only sex education meets jewish education, two of my favorite topics to whine about!
    first, the bogus statistics:
    check out the one where they show the increase in teens not having sex by comparing “high school boys/girls who are virgins” in 2002 to “high school boys/girls not currently sexually active” in 2004. this is particularly odd since the “virgins” number actually did go up since 1988, so the fake comparison is extraneous!
    also, basically all the numbers cited re: HPV and cervical cancer are irrelevant (100 strains has nothing to do with how dangerous or prevalent something is, eg…)
    blah. these criticisms are not new.
    but, one point i would make on the “adults trying to sound cool” point is this: that problem is endemic to all of NCSY, yet somehow it attracts people anyway. This site may not work as abstinence-kiruv, but it likely will work as abstinence-chizuk (or even negia chizuk) for those pre-disposed to want to be abstinent/shomer, but running into difficulties of various sorts. for every hyper-cynical teeneger who hates this sort of thing there may very well be a hyper-earnest one who craves it, i think…

  • Shana

    Dr. Rosenbaum- I can’t see the silver ring thing hitting the orhtodox community any time soon, just because both sex and oaths are taken very seriously. There is a social tendency not to take real oaths, and oaths that you just can’t live up to are ‘annulled’ before yom kippur. I can’t see the concept taking off very well. Plus there is the pledging to Jesus thing…which seems really pagan….
    Of the four peer reviewed studies, I could only find the 2004-2005 Bruckner-Bearman study…which after reading over, seemed to want to make more correlations than they had. The critiques of their earlier study seen here still hold. As to why I would bother reading the,m, consdiering I do not have the training to fully understand the number stuff…ummm…that’s a whole other story.
    It is really a pity that the exact same sort of studies are not funded by the jewish community. we really don’t know what kind of sexual education course is needed. While miriam is right in that this is all chizuk, the reality of high schoolers is complex, and the reality of college students even more complex. GBLT critiques of abstinece only campaigns as they stand today are correct, in that they defintely fund clearly defined, gendered expectations that will give you very little to go on if you don’t clearly fit into the roles described for you. (this might be more true for middle america…where the concept of shomer negiah is a little out of this world, and guys definitely have more leeway than girls….from what I have heard)
    Being that it is not Christian, and that it can develop its own unique set of responses to sex and sexuality, I’m just surprised and frustrated that they really want to wait until reality bites them in the tuchis. I’m waiting in bated breathe of the first cases of HIV to break out publicly, since we all know that not everyone is faithful…or for something to happen, something serious.
    I mean, can they really be that blind to not know that gay students are graduating YU? And transsexual students? who probably would want to be orthodox if they could just also deal with the GBLT issues? Are they blind to some of the umm creepier guys in YU who definitely pressure girls into sexual acts, probably most of whom go to Stern? Or how about that long term couple who are at that cracking point with the shomer thing and marriage is not in the cards for a long time coming? Don’t these people deserve a fighting chance to learn the basics that should go into a sex ed course- Protect yourself physically and protect yourself emotionally?
    Talking about protected sex and making protected sex and sexuality ok has gotten so bad that even among the people I know who are sexually active but are not sleeping each other won’t use condoms because of their inherent assurness as far as I can tell. Someone is eventually going to get herpes this way.
    I’m just frustrated at this messagealready because it is just so stupid. gah…

  • Steve Brizel

    As I predicted, this issue has attracted those who have argued for resort to pilegesh, etc.
    HAGTBG-WADR, Orthodoxy views marriage as the optimal state, as opposed to either extended singlehood, nuns or monks. The fact that a Rishon or Acharon advocated for Pilgesh is really irrelevant because it was never accepted by the Rov Binyan Uminyan of Rishonim and Acharonim. Again, we don’t adjust halacha simply because the world around us acts in a way that seemingly disregards halacha.
    It is indeed sad that most of the posters here have discussed this issue without even thinking about teaching Tznius,emphasizing early marriage as opposed to extended singlehood,etc. Apparently, this is an issue where the secular world has rendered too many in the MO world emphasizing the Modern at the expense of the Orthodox. IMO,it is a profound educational failure.


    Steve Brizel states I call for pilegesh. I state this nowhere.
    I stated that Orthodoxy’s current option for the long unmarried is unappealing and sucks. There is no nice way to frame it. So to talk it up, the OU has to bash the alternatives.
    I did write that Orthodoxy essentially denies that the unmarried are unsexual beings and has removed options that could halachically have been seen as permissible from them. Steve says that is calling for pilegesh. To me my statement is one of fact. To state that a fact requires such a jump is Steve’s own leap.