NEW YORK (JTA) — It wasn’t your typical college sex scandal. There were no accusations of molestation, inappropriate faculty-student relationships or date rape charges.
Instead, the precipitating incident was the publication by a student-run newspaper of a female student’s first-person account of a premarital sexual encounter.
But this is Yeshiva University, an Orthodox institution where the campuses for men and women are separated by approximately 10 miles, and the story’s publication in the YU Beacon newspaper prompted an intense, open discussion of a topic normally considered taboo in this conservative college community.
Following a cascade of negative comments by online readers of the piece, titled “How Do I Even Begin To Explain This?” the student council elected to withdraw its funding from the newspaper and several editors resigned. Meanwhile, stories about the clash between freedom of expression and fealty to Orthodox Judaism’s emphasis on modesty appeared in news outlets such as The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.
Yeshiva University officials issued a statement noting that the decision about de-funding the Beacon was made by students, but YU officials declined to be interviewed by JTA about sexual health practices at the school.
The university’s reticence to talk publicly about student sexual activity extends beyond the pages of student publications. A review of the Health & Wellness section of the school’s website found no discussion of contraception or other relevant information, and several students — including the anonymous author — said the school had not provided them with any sort of orientation on health issues related to sexual activity.
That’s not to say student health services doesn’t provide students with guidance or resources — it does — but the university’s low-key approach to sexual health issues stands in stark contrast to the approach of many U.S. colleges.
“The information should be available,” said Lisa Maldonado, the executive director of the New York-based Reproductive Health Access Project. “If you look at the data of who is having the most unintended pregnancies, it’s young women in their 20s.”
Sarah Lazaros, 21, a senior at YU’s Stern College for Women, said it’s clear why Yeshiva doesn’t have such material available online.
Having information on the website "would go against a lot of what the university stands for, which is total devotion to Jewish law. A lot of potential students would see that and not come to the university," Lazaros said. “I think the main reason is that they don’t want to encourage these behaviors.”
Several YU students interviewed by JTA said it’s a mistake to pretend that the university’s students are not sexually active.
The sex essay “addresses something that we don’t often talk about in the Orthodox Jewish community, especially at YU,” Simi Lampert, 22, the Beacon’s editor, told JTA.
The Beacon, an independent, online newspaper launched in January by students at Yeshiva’s men’s and women’s colleges, will continue to publish, albeit without funding from the student council.
Lampert said she saw the story’s publication as an opportunity to start a conversation about sex among YU students.
“You have someone like me who went to a coed high school, has had boyfriends and has no intention of waiting until marriage for intercourse,” said S.B., a freshman at Stern who, like others interviewed for this story, asked to be identified only by her initials. “I don’t think anyone should go around denying that there are students having sex because that is not reality.”
The author of the Beacon story, a 20-year-old Stern student who asked not to be identified, said her essay was true. She said she penned the piece, which was published in the literary section, where fiction and nonfiction appear, to help resolve her own complicated feelings about the experience.
“I was really kind of distraught about the whole thing,” she said, her voice cracking.
Maintaining the appearance of the typical Orthodox Stern girl, the author of the Beacon article said she felt like she could not talk to her friends about her night in the hotel room.
“It’s not like it was expected of me by how I dress,” she said. “I wear skirts. I do that whole song and dance.”
The author complained that the culture of the Orthodox institution makes it difficult to take effective safeguards when engaging in intercourse. When her period was late in coming after her sexual encounter, she said she was worried about pregnancy even though she and her partner had used contraception.
Panicked, she went to Stern’s Health & Wellness Center, where she said she was counseled nonjudgmentally and asked for and received a pregnancy test.
“They’ll have a conversation with you about sex,” she said. “They’ll talk to you about the risks of being sexually active.”
Responding to a JTA inquiry about the contraceptive and counseling options available to students, YU’s senior director of media relations, Mayer Fertig, referred to the website of the Health & Wellness center. The site does not list contraceptives, Plan B or pregnancy tests as an available resource, unlike the websites of other major universities, and students say that Stern College doesn’t explicitly inform students that there are pregnancy tests and counseling about sexually transmitted infection available in the university system.
“From what I know, there is no information that has been made very accessible in terms of contraception, rape or pregnancy,” S.B. said.
Many Stern students hail from Orthodox institutions and thus are unlikely to have picked up knowledge about condom usage, pregnancy or the risks of disease transmission from their high schools.
Tamar, a senior at Stern who asked that her last name not be used, said she could recall just one event in her three years on campus in which women’s sexuality and health was discussed. As for contraceptives, she said, “It’s not something that’s talked about.”
Lazaros, a women’s studies major, said that a student-run women’s studies society on campus once brought a sex therapist to the college to speak. She also said the Health & Wellness Center does not provide a broad spectrum of services, probably because of limited demand and the school’s small size.
While the essay did not go into much detail about the sexual encounter, several YU students described how their friends at the school attempt to skirt the Orthodox ban on premarital intercourse by being sexually active in others ways.
M.H., 27, who graduated from Yeshiva College in 2007, told JTA that he engaged in oral sex with girls from Stern and talked with friends about their similar exploits.
“I know that they were definitely hooking up — oral sex, kissing, touching,” he said. “I found that it was much harder to get a religious girl to actually have sexual intercourse because they place a premium on virginity.”
In public, at least, the rule at Yeshiva remains unchanged, students say.
“I know couples that behind closed doors, they’ll cuddle or they’ll make out,” the author of the Beacon article said. “But when it comes to sitting in the student lounge, they sit five feet apart.”