Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Addressing One of the Hidden Costs of Religious Life among Teenagers

As people of faith, we invest tremendous energy, effort and resources into educating and raising our children to also choose a religious lifestyle. We invest our time, passion and an incredible amount of money so that our children will hopefully see the power, beauty and meaning in living a life connected to God, devoted to the Torah, and enmeshed within the Jewish people.

And, while religious life brings great benefits, it also has costs, both hidden and explicit. The known costs often involve sacrifice – giving up on things that you want in order to lead a life of greater meaning. This might mean not pursuing a certain career; losing out on relationships. It can even be as simple as losing employment opportunities precluded by a Torah lifestyle.

Dr. Yaniv Efrati of Orot
Yet, leading a fully observant Torah lifestyle has hidden costs that we may not be aware of and therefore fail to address. Sometimes, we also really don't want to know about them as well.
Last night, during a staff symposium at Orot, I heard a very short "TED"-Style talk last night given by Dr. Yaniv Efrati, a lecturer on psychology at Orot Israel College. Dr. Efrati has been studying sexual disorders among Orthodox youth and the particular phenomenon of hypersexual activity disorder. I don't really understand the exact nature of the disorder, but basically it implies an excessive focus on sexuality to the point that it begins to interfere with everyday life.
Here's a definition that I found:
Sexual addiction or hypersexuality is defined as a dysfunctional preoccupation with sexual fantasy, often in combination with the obsessive pursuit of casual or non-intimate sex; pornography; compulsive masturbation; romantic intensity and objectified partner sex for a period of at least six months.
We're not talking about a couple of YouTube videos, but instead about teenagers focused on sex to the point that they fail to function. This could include a fixation with pornography that's readily available on the Internet, or staying up so late watching illicit videos that a person can't function the next day.
It probably won't surprise anyone to learn that after conducting a study of over 1,500 secular and religious Israeli teenagers, Dr. Efrati found a statistically significantly elevated rate of self-reported hypersexual behavior among Orthodox teens, predominantly males.

At least it didn't surprise me.

After all, kids raised in Torah environments are taught, incessantly, about the spiritual dangers of inappropriate sexuality. And they should be. While Torah Judaism lauds the notion of healthy sexuality, the Torah completely rejects and absolutely prohibits almost any and all forms of sexual activity or pleasure outside the realm of marriage. Think of all the sexual behaviors Orthodoxy precludes: הסתכלות (gazing), נגיעה (any form of physical contact), שיחה בטלה (flirting), to say nothing of any explicit sexual behavior. It's all out.

I particularly remember studying a specific passage in Masechet Sanhedrin:
אמר רב יהודה אמר רב מעשה באדם אחד שנתן עיניו באשה אחת והעלה לבו טינא ובאו ושאלו לרופאים ואמרו אין לו תקנה עד שתבעל אמרו חכמים ימות ואל תבעל לו תעמוד לפניו ערומה ימות ואל תעמוד לפניו ערומה תספר עמו מאחורי הגדר ימות ולא תספר עמו מאחורי הגדר פליגי בה ר' יעקב בר אידי ור' שמואל בר נחמני חד אמר אשת איש היתה וחד אמר פנויה היתה בשלמא למאן דאמר אשת איש היתה שפיר אלא למ"ד פנויה היתה מאי כולי האי רב פפא אמר משום פגם משפחה רב אחא בריה דרב איקא אמר כדי שלא יהו בנות ישראל פרוצות בעריות (גמרא בבלי סנהדרין ע"ה עמוד א')
Rab Judah said in Rab's name: A man once conceived a passion for a certain woman,  and his heart was consumed by his burning desire [his life being endangered thereby]. When the doctors were consulted, they said, 'His only cure is that she shall submit.' Thereupon the Sages said: 'Let him die rather than that she should yield.' Then [said the doctors]; 'let her stand nude before him;' [they answered] 'sooner let him die'. 'Then', said the doctors, 'let her converse with him from behind a fence'. 'Let him die,' the Sages replied 'rather than she should converse with him from behind a fence.' (Sanhedrin 75a)
I clearly remember studying this piece of Gemara with Rabbi Cooper in high school. The message was pretty clear: anything sexual is totally out, and if you succumb you're a sinner.

Now take that same young man (or woman), and place him in almost any public place in the world today. The mall. The park. A computer connected to the Internet.

Like it or not, sexuality pervades modern society in every publication, television show, magazine, newspaper, many radio programs – it's basically everywhere. It's literally unavoidable. Now tell a teen who has been taught and accepts the Torah's prohibition against illicit sexuality (you know, the good kids…the best kids) who is surrounded by sexuality, that thoughts about sexuality and submission to temptation, even in the simplest form represent the commission of a terrible sin. What do we expect to happen to that child?

Here's what Dr. Efrati found: Orthodox teens reported not only elevated levels of hypersexual behavior, but also greater levels of stress, anxiety and depression than their secular peers. And, he found a direct, statistical correlation between the hypersexual behavior and these negative feelings, which directly led to a diminished sense of well-being among Orthodox youth.
Again, not that surprising: If you think that you're a sinner you're going to feel guilty about it. Some percentage of that population will tend towards anxiety and depression about their inability to suppress their sexual urges and their submission to sinful behavior.

What's the answer? The Gemara had a very clear solution: Marry off your kids early. Very, very early – at the ages of twelve or thirteen respectively.
כדתניא אל תחלל את בתך להזנותה רבי אליעזר אומר זה המשיא את בתו לזקן ר"ע אומר זה המשהא בתו בוגרת (סנהדרין ע"ו עמוד א')
As it has been taught: Do not profane thy daughter to cause her to be a whore; R. Eliezer said: This refers to marrying one's [young] daughter to an old man. R. Akiba said: This refers to the delay in marrying off a daughter who is already a bogereth. (above the age of twelve and a half). (Sanhedrin 76a)
The Sages' solution offers us little solace. Aside from being illegal in most countries, we simply don't marry off our children at these young ages anymore. Teens today confront adolescence and the heightened sexual feelings that come with maturity without any permissible sexual outlet. That's just the way it is.

And for some of them, it's affecting their personal and psychological well-being.

This isn't, by any means, to suggest that an Orthodox lifestyle is harmful or negative. Far from it. But we must begin to acknowledge the struggle and challenge that Orthodox life presents for our children, so that we can openly and honestly begin to formulate a strategy to help those kids suffering from their struggle lead better, happier Orthodox lives.