Study probes religious teens' sexual guilt
Researchers hear descriptions of crippling self-loathing from youths confronting sexual urges
Tzofia Hirschfeld • Ynet
A new study performed by Bar-Ilan University has found that religious teens who are compelled to watch pornographic images are afterwards haunted by guilt and self-deprecation.
"You walk around with such an overwhelming sense of guilt in your gut, and you slowly start to hate yourself," one of the teens was quoted as saying.
The research, which strives to depict the conflicting ways in which religious teens perceive sexuality, was presented at an international conference on "challenges in Jewish education" held at the university on Tuesday.
The researchers, Dr. Tsemach Asif, Professor David Tzuriel, and Yaniv Efrati, say they were driven to conduct the survey by teachers and counselors who reported on psychological torment suffered by teens.
They interviewed 80 religious, secular, and Arab teens according to the attraction and repulsion model – focusing on their attitudes to sex and conservatism.
"Religious society exaggerates," said Dr. Asif. "It has turned sexuality into a giant monster. But the problem is today's unlimited accessibility to sex. With a click of a button it can be seen in almost any media. I have worked over the years with numerous religious teens and within the turmoil of puberty the burning issue, for them too, is sex. The problem is that they arrive at sexual content without the proper psychological tools. Someone needs to explain to them first."
The research presents four types, with the main type attributed to religious teens being the conflicted persona – attracted to sexual expression on one hand but also to conservatism on the other. This type was also prevalent among Arabs.
"We assumed that the pubescent psyche was ricocheting between two extremes. On the one hand they are attracted to sex but on the other they have a sense of guilt. This creates a situation in which pleasure and excitement are closely followed by self-disgust, sadness, fear, confusion, and shame," said Dr. Asif.
"Some of the reasons for not responding to sexuality are expressly derived from the scare tactics used in the religious public, and a silent command closely accompanied by vague messages or threats that if you do this or that you will be punished."
'Waiting for punishment'
Asif was relying on testimonies by interviewed teens. One of them described his emotional reaction to watching pornography as "a feeling of self-loathing, inability to be in close proximity with myself, repulsion from being with myself, nausea, vomiting, and general disgust".
Another described religious quandaries: "Every time I battle the urge, I don't know how to describe it, I feel pressure, fear… waiting for the punishment to come already because I know I deserve it."
Researchers have so far presented only documentation of interviews, but say statistics are forthcoming. They add that although the findings were especially prevalent in the religious sector, many secular teens battle the same frustration and conflict.
"Some negative emotions are healthy and designed to protect us. If there was no shame our entire cultural infrastructure would be in danger, so shame is not always a bad word," explained Asif.
But the research found secular males to be extremely permissive, perhaps to the opposite extreme. "When I watch these things, at that moment I feel like king of the world and I don't care about anyone else, because it's the only thing I can see at that moment," one teen testified.
Seculars nostalgic for sexual repression?
While many of the secular teens surveyed appeared far less conflicted, girls were often found to lean towards the conservatism ostensible in religious society.
"I really appreciate my religious friends from the course," says one secular girl. "They don't observe the laws of Negiah (i.e: Refrain from touching members of the opposite sex), but they preserve their virginity. There is this naïveté that goes with you, this modesty, and there is something beautiful about it, something that sanctifies the continuity of life and the side of love."
Religious girls were characterized by the researchers as restrained, repelling sexuality and embracing conservative values. "I go into the website, but afterwards I sit on the bed and think, what am I? What a silly character I have! I'm so weak!" one testified.
"I fill with depression, the depression of a total down in the full sense of the word. You berate yourself – how could you have done that?"
Asif says that when confronted with the word "porn" religious girls responded with such comments as: "A person should watch out for himself" and "It's just disgusting", as well as "God didn't create our bodies to be displayed for all to see".
Deeply entrenched in many was religious society's ethos that a woman must preserve herself. "Boys don't grow up with these warnings so much, so girls pay a higher price of self-revulsion, guilt, and shame when exposed to sexual content," Asif said.
The survey's conclusions provide an unsettling glimpse into conservative ideals existing in religious – and sometimes secular – society, of what is considered normal and natural.
"It happens that religious people begin a romantic relationship carrying with them nothing but fear or memories of uncontrolled exposure providing inaccurate information on sexuality," Asif said. "That which in any other society is never even an issue becomes a serious conflict for religious couples."
On the other hand, however, "secular society has lost this conflict, and I think it misses it", Asif added. "A different threat exists in secular society: The objectification of sexuality. Teens feeling no guilt whatsoever at watching porn may minimize their partners to nothing but sexual organs, ignoring their psyche entirely. From this perspective secular society is in trouble too."
Asif concluded with a warning. "This issue is not going to go away. Even if censorship is applied, we cannot run from it. We need to place it on the table, talk to teens about the conflict just as we do about any other challenge in life. We need to pull this out of the darkness in which teens experience it alone, with great agony, and deal with it, with no fear," he said.