One of the reasons why I don't post that often is because I try to let thoughts percolate so that I can post something more substantive than a reflexive rant. Last Friday I first found the OU's new abstinence website www.Negiah.org and posted a quick response to one of their articles. Since then I've had the opportunity to read through all the articles on the site, and it appears I was inappropriately glib.
My argument was that the site was condescending towards teens in a painfully clumsy attempt at being cool and relevant. Other bloggers have similarly blasted the OU for either being naive or promoting an irresponsible health policy. But after carefully reading the entirety of the site, I have concluded that the problems are quantitatively and qualitatively far worse than initially reported.1 Sadly, the sanctimonious tone of the OU's site is merely one example of a systematic disregard for teenagers and Torah.
Before we get to the quotes, we should keep in mind that Negiah.org bills itself as "The First Abstinence Website for Jewish Teens." As such, the goal ostensibly would be to either convince Jewish teens to refrain from sexual activity or to provide external support and validation for those teens who have decided not to give in to temptation. Given both of these daunting tasks and seriousness of the halakhic, social, and medical ramifications (abortion, STD's, etc) we should expect the site to treat subject matter and its audience with candid and mature respect.
However our expectations are denied in the very first article, What Is Abstinence?
For the purpose of our web site, we will simply define abstinence as refraining from sexual activity, but we'll leave it up to each person to determine for his or herself what constitutes sexual activity. Just be aware that halacha (Jewish law) does not permit any intimate or affectionate contact between men and women who are not married to one another (or close relatives). This includes hugging, kissing and even handshakes (under normal circumstances). So, one can be abstinent in the societal sense without conforming completely to halacha. (Of course, if one adheres to the halachic parameters, he or she will be abstinent by even the most conservative definitions.)[Emphasis added]
In this introductory article, the logical and halakhic credibility of this site is already jeopardized. First, for a site explicitly intended to discourage sexual activity leaving the individual to define "sexual activity" is either careless or dishonest. There already a widespread misconception that oral sex "doesn't count," not to mention other activities not involving intercourse. If the site wishes to deter these behaviors as well - as it does elsewhere - then pretending the reader has intellectual autonomy of is misleading. Furthermore, it seems illogical that an abstinence website cannot bring itself to state explicitly the actions from which teenagers ought to abstain.
Perhaps this ambiguity is intentional and serves to welcome the readers to a "safe space" which is not necessarily operated by prudish fundamentalists. However, this assumption quickly rejected as the paragraph continues stating that halakha forbids shaking hands with the opposite gender. When compared to other sexual activities, the halakhot of handshaking are relatively inconsequential.2 Worse, teenagers who read this article will see an overly restrictive and possible irrational model of Jewish law as the basis for the site's position.3 Finally, the inclusion of handshaking as halakhically problematic is particularly questionable considering the evasiveness in defining the primary topic of "sexual activity."
Admittedly, these complaints are relatively minor quibbles compared to the rest of the site, but this introduction does set the tone for what is to follow. The article titled Why Abstain? compares those with different moral standards to wild animals:4
Human sexual behavior is strongly associated with our emotions. Unlike dogs, lions or lowland gorillas, we can weigh our choices and control our physical urges. As a result, humans are able to engage in relationships based on mutual fidelity and trust. Sexual activity is even more rewarding in the context of real commitment. (We call it "marriage." )
The comparison between humans and animals is not uncommon in mussar writing, but hardly convincing for teenagers. Those who decide to be sexually active could also contemplate their decision, and yet reach a different conclusion. This is not so much an argument as an ad hominem insult against those who do not meet the author's moral standards,5 and the gratuitous parenthetical exemplifies the condescending juvenile mindset.
Such an attitude is not surprising considering that Negiah.org does not respect the intelligence of its target audience:
So what can teens do about it? Sadly, not much. You've got an adult body with adult hormones, but a not-yet-adult brain. The best you can do is be aware of this limitation.
Since the teenage mind is vastly inferior, Negiah.org has no need for honest discussion or sound, valid logic. Rather all the site needs to do is make assertions as unquestionable dogmatic truth and teenagers, by virtue of their inherent intellectual handicap, must simply submit and accept the gospel.
Here's another example of moral sanctimony:
No one has ever died from abstaining. The same cannot be said of the those who indulge their passions.
Oh yeah - the odds of contracting an STD are increased the more partners one has. Just thought we'd mention that.
Even when Negiah.org cites empirical statistics to support its position, its arrogance and disregard for the individual negates their argument. For example, the article Everybody is NOT Doing It! asserts:
As if normal surging homones [sic] wasn't enough, peer pressure makes abstaining even harder. Everyone thinks everyone else is having sex and nobody wants to be the only one too prudish, too unpopular or too cool not to be "doing it."
News flash: Not everyone else is doing it. More people are NOT doing it, but they don't want to admit it. And most of those who are not doing it aren't doing it by choice.
The article then cites some surprising statistics:
% of high school boys not currently sexually active: 65.5%
% of high school girls not currently sexually active: 68.8%
(Source: National Survey of Family Growth, Center for Disease Control and Prevention)
While these numbers seem to confirmed here (PDF) they are also irrelevant for most teens. When teens face peer pressure it's not on a national level, but in their immediate social group. Meaning if in their school 70% are sexually active, the national trends are not going to have much of a meaning for the individuals.
Attempts at encouragement are no less obtuse and even contradictory. From the article Advice for More Successful Abstinence:
Every day is a new start. If you cross the line you've set for yourself, don't give up. That doesn't mean that it's all over. You can press the reset button and start over again today.
Just like a video game, all you need to press a button and everything will go back to normal. Of course, the site doesn't exactly believe this either. From the article
Other organizations like to call a fresh start "secondary" or "born again" virginity. Those terms don't really work for us, but the concept has a certain validity. No, you won't be a virgin again. That action will always leave whatever mark on you, whether emotional or physical. But you can get a fresh start spiritually. It's called "teshuva."
So the reset button is not in fact all powerful. On the other hand, you have the comfort of knowing that you have some sort of permanent badge of shame but your spiritual side can somehow be corrected to a degree.
Thankfully, Negiah.org has a solution, which also happens to be one of the most abhorrent comments on the site:
People who have already had sex may think that it is too late to be abstinent. Not true! By that logic, nobody could ever become a vegetarian if they ever ate meat. Maybe you thought you were ready before, but now you realize that was a mistake. Perhaps you were the victim of rape or another form of sexual assault. Whatever the case, just because you had sex in the past, that doesn't mean you can't stop now. If you abstain proactively, you can still reap many benefits, just like a smoker who gives up tobacco.
This about this for a moment. According to Negiah.org, a rape victim is comparable to a vegetarian.
Furthermore, Negiah.org's concern is less about the mental or emotional welfare of a sexual assault victim than it is in ensuring abstinence. The selling point is that even if you were raped you can still "reap many benefits" from abstinence, as if of course, the first time was your choice.
Lest you think that this is simply an oversight, I refer you to the article entitled "Rape!":
Rape is rape. It's a violent crime. (The Torah goes so far as to compare rape to murder - see Deuteronomy 22:26.) It doesn't matter whether one is raped by a stranger, a family member or a boyfriend, it's a crime and it's wrong. Treating sex casually leads to objectifying people and exploiting them.
Let's ignore for a moment the trivialities of the exclamation point and misreading of Devarim 22:26.6 There are two fallacies in this statement. The first is the assumption that all extra-marital relationships are objectifying and exploitative (tacitly implying that all marriages are not). The second and most upsetting is the causal relationship between casual sex and rape. In other words, if someone does engage in casual sex, he or she can expect or possible deserve to be raped. Or conversely, if someone was in fact raped, he or she must have been "treating sex casually." In truth, rape is not even about sex at all but control and violence and its inclusion in this context demeans the victims.
Over 25% of sexually active teenage girls report that they are depressed all or most of the time. Less than 8% of girls who are not sexually active are depressed all or most of the time.
Again we are faced with the correlation=causation fallacy. Perhaps it is the a priori emotional problems which lead people to engage in sexual activity. In which case the solution should not be to guilt people into abstinence, but to actually deal with the underlying emotional problems which would lead people to engage in risky sexual activity. This however would require concern for the overall wellbeing of the teenagers.
Being a religious site, it is not surprising that Negiah.org appeals to Jewish sources for law and morality. But even in its use of traditional sources, Negiah.org fabricates and manipulates text to achieve its sacred mission.
For example, here's what Negia.org has to say about yichud:
The Gemara in Kiddushin (80b) discusses the prohibition for a man and a woman to be secluded alone together unless they are married or close relatives. This prohibition is called "yichud" ("seclusion") and the Talmud tells us (Sanhedrin 21b) that it is a Torah prohibition (as opposed to a Rabbinic enactment).
B. Sanhedrin 21b actually says:
But surely the prohibition of yihud with a married woman is a Biblical law! For R. Johanan said on the authority of R. Simeon b. Jehozadak: Where is [the prohibition of] yihud alluded to in the Biblical text? It is written: if thy brother, the son of thy mother entice thee. Is it then only the son of a mother that can entice, and not the son of a father? But it is to teach that only a son may be alone with his mother; but no other man may be alone with women Biblically interdicted on account of incest! - Say rather that they enacted a decree against yihud with unmarried women.
And confirmed with some elaboration in B. Avoda Zara 36b:
[The correct explanation is that] the Biblical ordinance against such association refers to an [Israelite] married woman; David came and extended the law to association with an unmarried woman; and the disciples of the Schools of Shammai and Hillel came and extended it still further to association with a heathen woman.
Given that the site is focusing on teens and premarital sex, the Biblical prohibition of yihud for married women would be irrelevant and its reference in context is nothing short of deceitful.7 I will let my readers debate if this was intentional textual manipulation or simple run-of-the-mill illiteracy. In either case, it is clear that their understanding of teen culture is rivaled only by their Talmudic proficiency.
In an another example of dubious reasoning, the article Abstinence - It's Not Just for Single People introduces the laws of niddah, with the implication being that married couples must also abstain:
This practice is called, of all things, taharas hamishpacha, or "family purity." In many ways, keeping the laws of taharas hamishpacha brings a couple closer together. They learn to appreciate one another more and to interact on a level without the sexual aspect. In some ways, it's like Shabbos. Shabbos can be difficult for a beginner, who may view it as a burden or as a series of "can'ts." People who have "mastered" Shabbos enjoy it as a break from the everyday world and a way to grow closer to their families and to G-d. Similarly, taharas hamishpacha, while no doubt challenging at first, is an opportunity for a couple to grow in their relationship with each other and with G-d.
The problem here is that the "rest" of Shabbat is preceded and followed by six days of work (Ex. 20:8), and the separation of niddah is preceded and followed by marital relations (B. Ketuvot 61a). For this analogy to hold teenagers would have to make use of the "reset button" more frequently.
Negia.org also tackles the important question of sending singles to mikvah:
Having relations with a woman in a state of niddah (or, if you are a woman, having relations while in a state of niddah) is liable to kareis (Leviticus 18:29). It's not just a pastime. It's not a Rabbinical law. It's not a small thing. It's as basic and as important a principle in Judaism as bris milah, Pesach and Yom Kippur.
The answer is not for single people to start using the mikvah. That is prohibited specifically to prevent promiscuity. Even if one were to consider that the "lesser of the two evils," it would be ill-advised. Going to the mikvah is not like taking a bath or a shower. It's a religious act, complete with its own bracha. Going to the mikvah specifically to commit a sin is like putting chalav Yisroel cheese on glatt kosher meat, then washing and bentching on the cheeseburger.
If you wouldn't serve a big bowl of pasta at your Passover seder, you shouldn't use the mikvah in order to have sexual relations until you're married.
After spending much of the page discussing how damning karet is we, we are now told that minimizing the issur is not a valid option at all - for reasons best described once again by logically flawed food metaphors. While there are
valid reasons for discouraging pre-marital mikvah usage, if a couple does in fact keep taharat hamishpacah the halakhic repercussions are relatively negligible. Similar to their attitude on condoms, Negia.org is not interested in minimizing either the physical or spiritual risks, but in absolute compliance with their ideal.
The homiletical approach is no less flawed. Negia.org encourages us to "Be Like Joe:"
Who is our Jewish role model in the area of abstinence? That would be Joseph, or as he is known in Hebrew, Yosef HaTzaddik - Joseph the Righteous.
The premise here is that we should follow the examples of our historical Jewish leaders. However, astute readers will point out that the monarchy was delegated to Yosef's brother Yehuda, who had a very different approach to abstinence .
Given these numerous flaws - and we have not covered all of them - it is interesting to see who actually endorses this site. The About Us page informs:
Negiah.org is proud to be an affiliate of The Abstinence Clearinghouse. The Abstinence Clearinghouse is a non-profit educational organization that promotes the appreciation for and practice of sexual abstinence through the distribution of age-appropriate, factual and medically-accurate materials.
And what exactly is The Abstinence Clearinghouse? Reader Janet Rosenbaum PhD recently published an article on the ineffectiveness of virginity pledges and her work was dismissed by them in a press release, and later called the study "junk science." Officially there are no religious ties, but we do know its President Leslee Unruh is herself an Evangelical Christian.
This is not to say that there are no Jewish supporters. The most prominent Jewish endorser is YU's own Rabbi Herschel Schachter:
I have reviewed all the articles herein and I found them to be very powerful and fitting. It is quite appropriate to publicize words such as these in a style such as this - words that are straightforward for the sake of people with less background and words of encouragement that are agreeable and in a clean language for the sake of Observant Jews.
To each his own.
1. I'd like to thank the several people who have offered their insight and suggestion. My first attempt at a thorough review was overly sarcastic. I found the content infuriating I did not feel the site deserved an honest analysis - and I thank Jose for his calming words of wisdom.
2. Rambam (Issurei Biah 21:1) defines the impermissible contact as "derech ta'avah" - in the way of desire - which would exclude more casual contact of "affection." Furthermore, under normal circumstances handshaking is neither lustful or affectionate but congenial, i.e. outside the parameters of sexual contact.
3. Even if someone did believe that intergender handshaking was prohibited, it does not have to mentioned in this specific article.
4. As we will see in a bit, this site is, not coincidentally, endorsed by R. Herschel Schachter.
5. Additionally, the assertion that "sexual activity is even more rewarding in the context of real commitment" invites the challenge of comparison. Indeed, one wonders the empirical basis for the author's evaluation.
6. Jose adds that the use of the passive voice - "when one is raped" not "when one rapes" - shifts the crime to victim. I also thank Jose for assistance in formulating my response.
7. Unless of course they're worried about future Graduates.