At the National Sex Ed Conference last week, I met Joanne Zack-Pakes, professional director of Open Door Counseling Centers, the flagship project of the Israel Family Planning Association (a member of the International Planned Parenthood Federation European Region). I asked her about the Israeli youth and young adults who seek sexual health counseling from Open Door’s 14 counseling centers in person, over the phone or online. Her comments revolved around pornography, pregnancy and pressure.
Joanne noted that the use of pornography among teenagers is a big issue in Israel. Many 13- and 14-year-old boys ask questions about the size of their bodies; many girls ask questions about body hair. The porn they see is their model for how they should measure themselves. At 15 or 16 years old, when some youth are becoming sexually active, boys ask about the timing of sex and girls ask about ways of pleasing their boyfriends without losing their “virginity.” At 17 or 18 years old, girls ask what to do when sex is painful, while boys ask about how to help their girlfriends enjoy sex. Joanne reflected her sense that these later adolescent relationships tend to involve strong communication and mutuality.
Older adolescents and young adults ask a lot of questions about contraception, especially the pill. One challenge for the counseling centers is encouraging young people to continue using condoms along with birth control pills, known as the “dual method” of contraception and more effective at preventing both pregnancy and, clearly, sexually transmitted infections. (Although Joanne fears that many Israeli youth think STI’s “won’t happen to them,” she has observed that some couples go together to get tested before they stop using condoms.) In contrast, for young people who are not using birth control pills or another form of hormonal or long-acting contraception, they can access emergency contraception for free at the counseling centers. Indeed, emergency contraception has been available over the counter in Israel for over a decade.
Young people of all ages can choose to have an abortion without parental consent. It’s a right, and every professional must support that right under the penal code. Up to the age of 19, abortions are fully funded. Teenagers do not have to pay for their own pregnancy termination procedures. Soldiers in the army also have coverage for an abortion if they need it. In Israel, 20,000 abortions are conducted each year, and the highest abortion rate is among 25- to 34-year-olds. Most abortions are medical abortions (using an abortion pill instead of surgery), as 90 percent of abortions occur before the 12th week of pregnancy. The 10 percent of abortions that occur after the 12th week may be related to the detection of a fetal defect rather than the pregnancy being unwanted.
I asked Joanne her advice for American youth and young adults spending time in Israel. She showed clear concern for American women who may get involved with Israeli men. “I came to Israel at 18 years old, and here were these gorgeous guys in uniform,” she reflected. Talking about cultural differences and miscommunication, she emphasized the sexual culture of Israel: “Israel is a very sexual country. It’s hot, people are close, there’s no private space, and the place is full of innuendo.”
She described not just a culture that is very sexual, but specifically a culture shaped by macho sexuality and male power. “Israeli men will pressure you not to use condoms, saying: ‘I’m fine, I’m clean…don’t I look clean?’ If they can get away with not using a condom, they will. They will assume you are on birth control. They might not even have a condom with them. They might not even ask.”
Joanne didn’t say what she thinks, but I think that not asking if it’s OK not to use a condom sounds a lot like not asking for fully informed consent. And that’s not OK.
She said American youth and young adults in Israel often end up with unplanned pregnancies. “It’s the cultural differences that cause problems,” she explained. I wonder if it’s more than that, if these stories might be more about pressure and coercion than miscommunication.
Pornography, pregnancy and pressure: Maybe Joanne’s reflections on Israeli culture can help us gain insight into sexuality in our country. What do American youth learn from pornography? How do American youth access resources, such as STI testing, contraception and options for addressing unwanted pregnancies? In what different ways do gender, power and pressure shape the lives of teenagers and young adults across the country? Furthermore, Joanne’s comments primarily focused on heterosexual activities—what support is available for queer youth in Israel and in America to pursue sexual health and pleasure? Share your ideas and stories in the comments below or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
*Photo of Mimi, right, and Joanne at the National Sex Ed Conference