Until 2014, flipping through catalogs of Purim costumes for girls presented rather uniform results. Each of the costumes for the Jewish holiday carried an identical and short description: sexy policewoman, sexy nurse, sexy student, sexy doctor, sexy soldier, sexy princess and so on. But as a result of a protest over the use of the word “sexy” to describe costumes intended for teens and even young girls, marketers dropped the term from the catalogs they distribute before the holiday. By the way, the costumes are exactly the same. They still range from skimpy to downright discomfiting. In fact, they are suspiciously similar to the wide variety of professional costumes worn by strippers or costumes that are sold at sex shops to adults who want to spice up their bedroom activity.
Some parents are fed up with this. Last month, attorney Roni Aloni Sadovnik, adviser on the status of women to the chairman of the Israeli Bar Association, sent a letter to Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett, asking him to ban the marketing and sale of such revealing costumes to minors. “I appeal to you urgently as both the mother of small children and as a lawyer who represents minors who are victims of sex crimes, asking you to use your authority to ban the marketing of all Purim costumes to minors, when those costumes are sexual in appearance and correspond directly to the clothing used in the trafficking of women, prostitution and S&M clubs,” she wrote.
She told Al-Monitor that these catalogs are actually deceptive to the consumer: “They say that these are costumes of a policewoman, a doctor and so on. Actually, they are deceiving the young consumer, because it’s really the costume of a call girl. Policewomen, doctors and nurses don’t dress like that.”
The Ministry of Economy and Trade responded that it has no authority in the matter, but nevertheless, attorney Aloni Sadovnik’s letter did cause a media storm. “It all clicked,” she said, “among parents and among the marketers, too. The message was absorbed by parents, who are the most important factor here beyond the regulator, who should be preventing the marketing of dangerous material to minors. Just like real explosives aren’t made available to teenage boys, the costumes of prostitutes should not be marketed to girls. Ever since the issue first evoked public fury, those costumes really have disappeared from the newspapers.”
But not everyone understands what the fuss is about. The holiday of Purim, at its very essence, blurs sexual boundaries, so that even among the Orthodox, dressing up as someone of the opposite sex is acceptable. This year, however, Purim comes shortly after the scandal of singer Eyal Golan, with the media bringing up more and more instances of the sexual assault of minors by minors, at varying degrees of severity. At the same time, the posting of lewd films of teen boys and girls to the Internet by their peers is becoming increasingly common.
“There certainly is a connection between the costumes, which teach girls to use their sexuality,” determines Aloni Sadovnik, “and the recent scandals, in which it appears that girls regard sex in exchange for something else as legitimate. It’s moral corruption.”
According to 2012 figures provided by the Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel, 64% of the complaints that they receive involve the sexual assault of minors. Some 32% of these complaints involve minors under the age of 12. When broken down by gender, 88% of the complaints come from women who were assaulted, while 80% of the complaints made by minors under the age of 12 come from girls, most of whom (68%) were victims of incest.
Daphna Eisenreich, education coordinator at the Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Tel Aviv, claims, “These days, exposure to sexual content begins very early. This is true even in the mainstream media, including news sites that post headlines like, ‘Look!’ for some article about a celebrity’s nipple that slipped out. Children ages 6, 7 and 8 have already been exposed to pornographic content, usually by accident, when a search for innocuous terms on Google brings them to sites like this. They will be disgusted at first, but within two years it evolves into the active consumption of porn.”
A 2012 study conducted by the Open University discovered that 50% of students in grades 7-12 have been exposed to pornographic content either accidentally or intentionally. “Sex,” says Eisenreich, “is perceived at an early age as something humiliating, rather than mutual.”
These skimpy costumes for girls join the catalogs for escort services distributed at street corner kiosks without any supervision, and the calling cards of sex services tossed out in the thousands on Tel Aviv’s sidewalks so that passersby will pick them up. The skimpy costumes match the sexy outfits of the young stars of children’s shows, who appear onstage at the traditional Hanukkah holiday children's festival. And this is all within the normative public sphere. We have yet to enter the world of perverse sexuality, which can be accessed from any computer. “When your only choice is between provocative costumes,” says Eisenreich, “there really is no choice.”
One major point of contention in this issue is the question of schools’ responsibility. The Ministry of Education avoids giving principals explicit instructions to ban students from dressing up in provocative costumes. Furthermore, a 2010 report written in advance of a discussion by the Knesset’s Committee on Children’s Rights claimed that 40% of schools do not provide sex education classes, and that the Ministry of Education does not require principals to provide such classes, leaving it to their personal discretion.
Eisenreich claims that the current situation remains the same, and that it is part of the problem: "What little sexual education there is focuses on reproduction, and not on sexual behavior, such as what is permissible and what is not, the possibility of saying no and issues that challenge conventional myths and stereotypes. As a result of this, teenage girls adopt the message that sexuality is rewarding. Evidence of this can be seen in the case of Chen Tal [a girl who posts revealing pictures of herself online, and who has gained considerable media exposure as a result], who was a candidate for the new sensation of the year on the Internet youth portal Frogi."
The Ministry of Education rejects the argument that there is an absence of sex education in the schools. “There is a memo from the director-general of the Ministry of Education that requires principals to have 'sex-ed' classes, both as part of the regular curriculum and within the framework of the educational system’s Week Against Sexual Violence,” says Hila Segal, head of the Department of Sexuality and the Prevention of Assault on Children and Youth at the Psychological Counseling Services of the Ministry of Education.
“We handle healthy sexuality and the whole topic of sexual harassment. Principals are subject to a network of supervision to ensure that they follow the instructions, and we have professional training as well. From a staff of just 12 people a year and a half ago, we have grown to 70 psychologists and counselors, covering the entire area from the southern city of Eilat to the northern city of Kiryat Shmona. We are active in all schools, including schools in the ultra-Orthodox sector, the religious sector and the Arab sector.”
She admits that the Ministry of Education does not get involved in the issue of costumes. “There are no instructions about costumes, but there are instructions regarding appropriate school attire in general,” she says, and claims that the issue is complicated and difficult to resolve. “There are parents who are unwilling to have us teach content associated with sex education, even though it is compulsory just like mathematics is compulsory,” she explains. “Furthermore, we run into cases of mothers, who appear in school dressed very provocatively, and we have to explain to them that they cannot dress like that. Anyone who believes that a lesson in school can change the reality of a society that sanctifies sex is wrong. The equation claiming that if a class is given, there will be no problematic sexual behavior is simplistic.”
Segal adds, “We are shocked that our children’s world is more sexual, when it is really just a reflection of the world of all of us. The world of all of us has become more sexual. We are surprised that they don’t know what consent is. But do we know what consent is?”
Eisenreich makes a similar point. “Look at the costumes worn by women. They are exactly the same as those worn by girls. Adults have a responsibility to teach norms of behavior, so if we get dressed up in a provocative way, it ends up trickling down to our children.”