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by Alyssa Goldstein
Now that I have your attention...I’m going to be sharing some of my thoughts on sexuality and sex education. You can do this too...in the next issue of Jewish Currents! The next topic for “Concealed/Revealed” is “In the Bedroom.” Submissions should be 300 words or less and are due by June 30th. (Send them to email@example.com).
When I was younger, I was lucky enough to go to a school that had relatively good sex-ed -- none of that abstinence-only nonsense. We started in the fifth grade with diagrams and little quizzes about the reproductive organs. I still remember the overwhelming embarrassment I felt. I could feel the tips of my ears turning scarlet at the sight of the penis and vulva medical illustrations in front of me. I could scarcely even look at or touch the drawings. And when my teachers insisted that we take the materials they’d given us home and have our parents sign them? I spent the next week practicing forgeries of my parents’ signatures.
Of course, this squeamishness extended to my own body as well. To touch or even look at what was between my legs? Unthinkable. When I got older I knew I’d have to have sex one day, so my reasoning went, so that the other kids didn’t think I was immature or undesirable or a lesbian. But it would definitely have to be with the lights OFF. Then, after the deed was done, I would be magically transformed from an uncool, unattractive virgin to a mature, sexually experienced and safely heterosexual woman. I didn’t really expect to feel much pleasure of my own -- the whole point was to move from the category of people who don’t have sex to the magical category of people who do.
I began thinking this way especially after I joined the Socialist-Zionist youth movement Hashomer Hatzair at the age of thirteen. I’ve heard the rumor that Jewish youth movements and summer camps are notorious hotbeds of overflowing youthful sexuality, but in Hashomer it must have been especially so. From what went on in the cabins when the counselors weren’t around to the raunchy plays that the counselors would put on for the campers in the evenings, there was sex all over the place, and I was clearly behind the game. “You’re so innocent!” my fellow campers would gush, but I knew what that meant. The movement wasn’t always very friendly to women who weren’t conventionally attractive or feminine like myself, and if you were queer, your time would be much rougher. This was probably the result of some combination of the dominant American culture we were all raised in and the masculinist “New Jew” ideology that Hashomer ascribed to. In any case, it wasn’t healthy.
When I think back to my 10-year-old (or even my 18-year-old) views on sex, it’s obvious that my turnaround could scarcely be more dramatic. When once I cringed at the thought of sex-ed, now I want to teach it. I can go on for hours about the vulva, or condoms, or orgasms. I’ve memorized a good chunk of The Vagina Monologues. If anyone mentions virginity in my presence, god help them, they are in for a lecture. I’m not exactly sure when and how this shift came about -- it probably began when I discovered the excellent sexual health resource Scarleteen. My own former sex negativity has informed the way I would want to teach sex ed. If no one had ever told me that sex or my body were bad or dirty, yet I’d still thought so -- then what about kids who had been told those things all the time? My life would have been dramatically improved if I’d known much earlier about how sexual pleasure and arousal work, and about the fact that virginity is a social construction instead of a physical state, and that the idea that only penis-in-vagina intercourse is “real sex” is false and restrictive. Learning about these things made it possible for sex to be fun, pleasurable, and loving once I stopped constructing my sex life based off what I thought other people would think about it. I’m lucky enough to know all of this now -- but what about people who have lived much longer than I, yet never had access to this information?
In my school, the most the teachers had done was assure us that this was all perfectly normal, but we didn’t spend any time exploring why any of us were so uncomfortable about it in the first place. Even as a kid, I’d considered myself a progressive and a left-winger, but it never crossed my mind that my discomfort about sex had any sort of political meaning. I had never questioned that the only definition of sex I knew was centered around male pleasure and orgasm. I supported gay rights, and at the same time worried about being perceived as a lesbian if I wasn’t sexually active enough. I called myself a feminist, yet I was too scared to even sneak a glance at my own vagina. I thought it was cool to be a radical, but I didn’t think about what a radical act it would have been to stand up for the right to safety, pleasure, and appreciation for my own and all bodies.