By Daniel Brenner
Jewish teen boys, like typical American teen boys, have learned most of what they know about sex from pornography, raunchy comedy, and rowdy conversations with friends. They have likely heard mixed or confusing messages regarding affirmative or enthusiastic consent and are anxiously concerned about how they will navigate hook-up culture. And our nation’s recent public discussion, where actions that implied sexual harassment and assault were dismissed as “locker room talk,” has only served to cloud the minds of teen boys.
As a Jewish educator, these issues are constantly on my mind: over the past two years, I have been fortunate to be part of a team that is researching and developing Jewish ethics-based educational materials on relationships and sexuality. Now, a new book shines further light on this topic.
Andrew P. Smiler, a developmental psychologist in Winston-Salem, North Carolina (where he is active in the Jewish community at Temple Emanuel) is on a mission to help educate teen boys about the contemporary realities of dating and sex. In his latest work, Dating & Sex: A Guide For The 21st Century Boy, published by the press of the American Psychological Association, he attempts a truly daunting task: speaking directly to teen boys.
Smiler succeeds by maintaining an informal and slightly comic tone throughout his book, throwing terms like “that’s BS” and “gangsta” into his prose and imparting a slew of useful, practical, and down-to-earth information about sex and dating. The book’s flow is also cleverly designed: he starts with the inter-personal – crushes, hook-ups, and dating – then delves into the personal and writes about masturbation, then goes back to dating to address topics like consent and safe sex. The book concludes with an excellent overview of gender codes, body image, and late-stages of puberty. It is a comprehensive work, covering sexual and gender diversity without sounding preachy. It is the best dating and sex book for teen boys that one could imagine, and I believe it should be included in every bar mitzvah boys’ gift bag from the congregation. My only concern: that only a fraction of teen boys will read it.
Knowing the realities of life for teen boys in the Jewish community – many of whom have little free time between academics, sports, hobbies, YouTube consumption, and various family and community responsibilities – it is hard to imagine them plowing through Smiler’s text. But I am certain that many boys would benefit from owning the volume and flipping to a section when they had a particular question.
While it is difficult to imagine teens reading Dating and Sex from cover to cover, Smiler has written a superb, text that’s especially helpful to teen educators who are willing to discuss ethical decision-making around relationships and sex. Smiler’s informal writing style is paired with some cartoons to make it an easy read, and his willingness to tackle some of the more difficult issues (e.g. the dissonance between pornographic fantasy and sexual reality) make this the perfect preparatory guide before discussing any topic regarding dating and sex with teen boys.
As Jewish educators, it is difficult to avoid discussing relationships and sex. These topics are embedded in Torah (particularly in the stories of Jacob, Rachel, Leah, Dinah, Joseph, Judah, Tamar, David, and Esther), discussed extensively in the Talmud, and have been the topic of much contemporary Jewish commentary and scholarship. With little healthy discussion of relationships and sexuality in school settings, it often falls on parents and Jewish educators to fill a void. This book is a phenomenal primer for any parent or educator who is willing to step up to that challenge.
Rabbi Daniel Brenner is the Chief of Education and Program at Moving Traditions.