EOTVOS LORAND UNIVERSITY
FACULTY OF EDUCATION AND PSYCHOLOGY
Ph.D. SCHOOL OF EDUCATION
ADOLESCENT SEXUALITY AMONG ETHIOPIAN
IMMIGRANTS IN ISRAEL
Supervisor: Professor Franz Schaffhauser
This research focuses on sexuality among Ethiopian adolescent immigrants in
Israel, in its most comprehensive expression (WHO, 2002). It builds on the
past, investigating male-female relations between adolescents in Ethiopia in
order to understand the profound changes these relations have undergone in
Israel. It dwells on their attitudes and beliefs towards relationships, love and
sex, as well as on their perception of their own sexual behavior, including
gender stereotypes, risk taking, use of contraception and HIV/AIDS. These
important issues must be understood in the specific context of youth villages
(residential schools) in Israel.
Adolescent sexuality and sexual behavior are of great concern worldwide. Due
to the decrease in the age of sexual initiation and increase in the age of
marriage, young people tend to have more sexual partners in types of
relationships with varying meanings, putting them at greater risk for
pregnancy and HIV.
Sexuality has been interpreted according to different theoretical perspectives.
Biological determinism sustained that there is an internal force or sexual drive
within the individual. According to it, sexual urges and instincts are located in
people’s bodies and cannot be ignored. There are two common essentialist
themes embedded in this argument: that universal differences exist between
male and female sexuality and that these differences are the result of
biological factors that constitute the sex drive or biological determinism.
According to this perspective, sexuality is considered not just as an internal
force but as one that is predictably stable and similar both across cultures and
throughout different historical times (Irvine, 1995).
The cultural influence model represented a significant advance over the
previous approach. It is based on anthropological premises of relativism and
cross-cultural variability and has served to question the uniformity and
inevitability of Western sexual norms and mores (Vance, 1991).
The social constructionist perspective - contrary to the biological determinist
or essentialist view which dominated sexuality for many decades - sustains
that sexuality is not universal and that biology has a small role in determining
sexuality. Sexuality is deeply influenced and constructed by social, political,
economical and cultural factors. Therefore, the specific meanings attached to it
must be examined at particular historical moments in particular cultures.
Based on this view, research attention has been shifting from sexual behavior
itself to the social settings within which it takes place and to the cultural rules
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which organize it. (Parker & Easton, 1998). Adolescent sexuality is influenced
by a complex set of factors, including gender, ethnic group, class and sexual
identity. Therefore, the meanings teenagers attach to sexuality and
relationships will vary according to different messages and imperatives from
their myriad social worlds (Irvine, 1994).
The awareness of the ways in which different communities and cultures
structure the possibilities of sexual contact among their members has also
drawn special attention to the dynamics of gender power relations, particularly
in relation to reproductive health and to the rapid spread of HIV infection
among women (Rivers & Aggleton, 1999).
The socio-cultural context of young people’s sexuality in urban Africa, in
general and in Ethiopia in particular, is also influenced by the clash between
traditional values and modernization and its ideals. This is reflected in the
conflicts between youth and societies. Cultural norms of premarital virginity,
emphasized more for females than males, are still the rule. Nevertheless, the
practice of premarital sex among adolescents is widespread, contrary to these
norms. Thus, deeply rooted social functions coexist with modern external
features (Gueye et al., 2001; Nyanzi et al. 2000; Taffa et al., 2003).
The socialization process within gender identities and stereotypes from early
childhood impart different social images of being a boy or a girl worldwide
also determining the relative privilege of premarital sexual practice. While the
dominant ideologies of femininity in many societies promote ignorance,
innocence and virginity, the dominant versions of masculinity encourage
young men to seek sexual experience with a variety of partners (Rivers &
Aggleton, 1999; Hendrickx et al., 2002; Taffa et al., 2002).
Ethiopian Jews, known as “Beta Israel”, lived in villages in Ethiopia for
centuries, mostly in the North Western provinces of Gonder and Tigray. Their
traditional life style was similar to their Christian neighbors except for their
religious practices and traditions and the fact that, as many of them did not
own land, they supplemented their income by traditional occupations such as
blacksmithing, pottery and weaving (Kessler, 1996; Kahana, 1977).There was
a clear division of labor between men and women. Boys helped out in the
fields and girls in household chores beginning around the age of six
(Bodowski et al., 1994).
Beta Israel families were extended and monogamous. The community
endeavoured to preserve the family framework in the traditional village
environment. They were patrilocal and married sons continued living in their
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father’s village. The family had a patriarchal structure; the honor of adults and
elders was highly respected and children were raised in an authoritarian
atmosphere. The age of marriage in Ethiopia was young and matches were
arranged only after extended inquiries and negotiations conducted with the
assistance of religious leaders and community elders. The future bride and
groom only met for the first time on their wedding day (Kahana 1977;
Beta Israel abandoned the familiar life style of traditional rural society in
Ethiopia in order to fulfil a dream of generations to return to Jerusalem. Their
immigration process was extended, often spending months and even years in
camps in Sudan or in Addis Ababa in hard conditions (Feldman, 1998; Parfitt,
1985). The transition to a completely strange, modern and pluralistic life style
in Israel affected all life spheres and was often painful for them. This process
led to the breakdown of the extended family structure, to changes in gender
roles, as well as to the weakening of intergenerational relations. It was also
reflected on to the disruption of many traditional customs, such as marriage
patterns (Bodowsky et al., 1994; Edga, 2000; Banai, 1988).
From the first years of Ethiopian Jews’ illegal immigration via Sudan,
adolescents were referred to youth villages, which are residential schools often
situated in rural settings. These were affiliated with Youth Aliyah, an
organization that for almost seventy years has dealt with the absorption and
advancement of youth from different ethnic groups, providing a supportive
educational environment away from home (Gottesman, 1988). During the past
two decades the student population in the youth villages has become extremely
multicultural. More than half are immigrants from Ethiopia and the Former
Soviet republics. The rest are Israeli-born adolescents, often children or
grandchildren of immigrants from many different countries and cultural
The youth village was their first home in Israel for many Ethiopian adolescent
immigrants, opening up educational possibilities, which did not exist in
Ethiopia or in the absorption (immigration) centers where their families lived.
Thus, they learned the new language quickly and their acculturation process
proceeded faster than their parents’. Nevertheless, adolescents often feel that
they are in a difficult situation. On one hand, they want to integrate into their
new homeland and be fully accepted by their peers in the residential schools
and at the same time - and to some extent - they are still influenced by the
traditional attitudes and beliefs sustained by their parents (Goldblatt &
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The research questions
The main research questions are derived from the objectives of the study and
probed in depth by additional ones.
1. What are the meanings of boy-girl relationships for Ethiopian
immigrant adolescents in Israel?
2. What are the differences perceived between relationships in Ethiopia
and in Israel?
3. What are the reasons that adolescents engage in sexual activity?
4. What are the motivators and barriers to contraception use among
5. How do adolescents perceive the risks (including infection and social
aspects) related to HIV/AIDS?
Over the past two decades, the anthropology of sexuality has gained impetus
due to the advocacy of qualitative methods to inform HIV/AIDS prevention
programs and the urgent calls for culturally appropriate interventions, in which
the need to give meanings to sex and sexuality issues and not just to measure
them, has become increasingly important (Lindenbaum, 1991).
Focus groups were selected as the most appropriate research method to
explore a range of opinions on pre-determined topics in a specific social
environment, in which participants influence each other in the same way as in
real life (Krueger, 1994). Thus, this method was considered suitable for
understanding adolescents from culturally diverse backgrounds living in a host
country, where they have adapted aspects of their traditional culture to those of
their current environment (Halcomb et al., 2007).
The group discussion produced meaningful data and insights that would be
less accessible with other methods. Focus groups enabled the study to move
from the concept of sexual behaviour, as the product of individual decisions,
to the concept of sexuality, as a socially negotiated phenomenon, strongly
influenced by peer norms (MacPhail & Campbell, 2001). The group setting
often encouraged the adolescents to reveal their thoughts and views on
sexuality - including stigmatized issues or topics that may be considered taboo
- as they felt comfortable and secure in the presence of peers who share similar
attitudes, opinions and behaviour (Kitzinger, 1995).
The study encompassed twelve single-sex focus groups (six for each gender)
conducted among adolescents aged 15-18 in six youth villages throughout
Israel. They provided insights into the context of peer social relations and
dynamics, thus enhancing the understanding of their lived experiences, of how
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they negotiate relationships and how they develop coherent sets of meanings
from their sexual thoughts, feelings and behaviors.
The aim of this investigation was to elicit a comprehensive understanding of
the meanings that boy-girl relationships and sexuality have for Ethiopian
immigrant adolescents in youth villages in Israel. Thus, a social constructionist
perspective, which sustains that specific meanings attached to sexuality must
be examined at particular historical moments in particular cultures, was
The findings of the study indicate that most Ethiopian adolescent immigrants
distinguish three main categories of relationships between girls and boys:
friendship, casual relationships and steady romantic ones. The boundaries
between them can be fluid and change over a period of time (Abraham, 2002).
Love and trust are depicted as the most important qualities in a steady
romantic relationship. Sexual activity is also usually considered a part of it,
although some girls expressed ambivalence about this, because they fear that
their partners may enter a relationship mainly for sex (Nyanzi et al., 2000;
Taffa et al., 2002).
Additional reasons - other than love - to engage in sexual activity mentioned
by adolescents of both genders include pressure from the partner, peer
pressure from members of the same gender, influence of substance abuse, of
the environment and of the media. Boys also referred to biological needs,
curiosity and fun as motivators for engaging in sexual activities (Aarons &
Although Ethiopian immigrant adolescents engage in different types of boy-
girl relationships in Israel, they prefer a steady romantic one. It represents an
emerging pattern of relationship in Israel, which replaces early arranged
marriages in Ethiopia (Nudelman, 1996). This kind of steady relationship
fulfils the need for love and affection, which is important for youth who live
away from home, (Goldblatt & Rosenblum, 2007). Nevertheless, the most
important aspect of having a boy-friend or a girl-friend is often the social one.
It raises adolescents' status among their peers in the youth village and, in
consequence, also has the potential to raise their self-esteem and their feeling
of belonging in Israeli society. In addition, steady romantic relationships
supply Ethiopian immigrant adolescents with a sense of being a part of the
global culture of adolescence, as it is perceived through the electronic media
and TV programs, such as soap-operas. This demonstrates how local sexual
cultures are caught up within the cross-currents of global processes (Parker &
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Ethiopian immigrant adolescents went through a faster acculturation process
than their parents, including changes in behavior and the adoption of norms of
Israeli society, and specifically of the adolescent culture in the youth villages.
Nevertheless, they are still influenced by the values obtained during their
socialization process in Ethiopia and reinforced by their families and their
community in Israel (Nudelman, 1996; Goldman, 1999). Although they tend to
choose the Israeli model towards boy-girl relationships, they still feel that
traditional Ethiopian customs are embedded with important values and that
there is too much freedom in Israel (Goldbatt & Rosenblum, 2007).
Adolescents related to virginity as an important value in Ethiopian Jewish
tradition which bestowed honor upon a girl's family. It was connected to
arranged marriages at an early age and to young people's respect towards the
decisions of family members and elders. As opposed to Ethiopia, many
consider that it is rare to find a virgin in Israel, where boys meet girls and get
involved in relationships without thinking of marriage.
Some of the boys would like to be able to relive their meaningful good
memories related to boy-girl relationships in Ethiopia. While also sharing
these good memories, girls usually prefer the new situation in Israel, which
they consider more favorable towards their own gender. A Western value
perceived as important in Israel by both boys and girls, is that a woman is an
equal, and is therefore valued more than in Ethiopia.
Notwithstanding the different attitudes expressed on some of the aforesaid
issues, almost all adolescents were against arranged marriages and wished to
select their partners themselves, as generalized in Israel. Most boys prefer
Ethiopian partners, especially when considering marriage. This will enable
them to continue with some aspects of their traditional culture and to
communicate with their parents in Amharic, according the appropriate cultural
norms. These findings coincide with additional studies, that indicate males'
preference to marry girls with traditional values, who will behave according to
normative Ethiopian gender expectations (Goldbaltt & Rosenblum, 2007).
Nevertheless some of the males revealed a double standard while choosing
partners outside of their community at present, but not later on for marriage
purposes (Shabtay, 1999).
Girls were divided on the issue of partner selection. Some of them prefer an
Ethiopian partner for cultural continuity as indicated by boys. Nevertheless,
others consider that modern values such as love, respect and additional good
qualities are more important than their future husband's ethnic background. It
was suggested that to marry a non-Ethiopian may also be a way for crossing
cultural boundaries and integration (Shabtay, 2001).
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The influence of living between cultures is reflected on Ethiopian immigrant
adolescents' perceptions and expectations regarding sexuality. Although they
tend to adopt relationship patterns perceived as Israeli ones, they often
reminisce traditional values, such as virginity and the traditional female script.
Adolescents still desire clear boundaries in their lives. Therefore, the past is
sometimes depicted as an ideal time and the family and all it represents are
highly valued, because they enhance a needed sense of belonging (Goldblatt &
Rosenblum, 2007). The need to cope daily with these conflicting cultural
contexts also may affect adolescents' perception of their personal identity.
The influence of gender stereotypes was noted throughout this investigation of
sexuality among Ethiopian adolescent immigrants in youth villages. In
traditional Ethiopian society, gender scripts were very distinct. Beginning
from an early age they were internalized in the socialization process, including
the culturally accepted sexual roles (Nudelman, 1996; Taffa et al., 2002).
The immigration if Ethiopian Jews to a more egalitarian society in Israel had a
strong impact on gender roles, affecting the family structure and the power
balance between men and women in general. Although a new Western
femininity script is cognitively accepted and embraced by many women, their
behavior is still be influenced by traditional gender stereotypes. Thus, many of
them complete their education and get jobs in Israel, but dress modestly,
continue with their traditional Ethiopian duties at home and defer to their
husbands in public. As a result, traditional gender roles are still fresh in
adolescents' minds and have the potential to influence boy-girl relationships.
These findings correspond to similar studies among immigrant adolescents in
Europe (Hendrickx et al., 2002).
Traditional sexual gender stereotypes are also quite generalized among
Ethiopian adolescents and many agree that it is socially acceptable that boys
need more sex than girls. Therefore, this may sometimes even legitimize cases
of their infidelity towards their girl-friends. In addition, it is common for boys
to pressure other boys, in order to conform to the male gender sexual
stereotype, according to which more sexual experience gives them a higher
status (Nyanzi et al., 2000; Eyre et al., 1997). It is further enhanced by the
prestige game, in which boys tend to exaggerate about their sexual activities in
order to build their social reputation in the eyes of their peers (Eyre el al.,
1998). This is related to the universal theme of double standards towards
sexual behavior and sex roles among adolescents (Ward & Taylor, 1994),
which is limiting and oppressive to females, while males were allowed more
freedom and assumed to be more sexually active. This double standard also
affects Ethiopian immigrant adolescent girls' reputation, which is very
important to them. Rumors can ruin a girl's reputation among her Ethiopian
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immigrant peers, especially considering that they move in the same social
circles. Gossip, whether false or true, passes very quickly from one to another.
Thus, since a girl's sexual reputation is constructed by her peers, she can also
be labelled a whore or a slut if she is perceived as too assertive or sexually
knowledgeable by them or by male sexual partners (Eyre et al., 1998).
Unequal power relations and gender sexual stereotypes influence both the
initiation of sexual activity among partners, as well as the negotiation of
contraception use. For many young men worldwide sexual persuasion is a
legitimate component of the masculine sexual role (MacPhail & Campbell,
2001). Male pressure reflects the legitimacy of traditional (Ethiopian) gender
sexual stereotypes and of unequal gender power relations, in which the male is
dominant and the girl is passive and submissive (Kibret, 2003). Thus, a girl's
ability to influence decision-making, to refuse sex or negotiate the use of
condoms is limited (MacPhail & Campbell, 2001; Rivers & Aggleton, 1999).
Female Ethiopian adolescent immigrants indicated that a girl sometimes
accedes to her male partner's pressure to engage in sexual relations, not only to
satisfy his needs or to prove her love for him, but as a way to hold on to a boy-
friend, who otherwise may abandon her (Kumar et al., 2001). Apparently,
having a boy-friend may justify engaging in sexual activity, even if a girl does
not feel ready for it yet or may just not want to do it. A few girls also noted
that sometimes they agree to engage in sexual activity due to social pressure
To conclude, the lack of interpersonal communication between partners in
Ethiopian culture suggests that adolescents rarely have conversations about
decisions concerning sexual activity or condom use (Goldman, 1999; Kibret,
2003). This is enhanced by the difference in perceived gender roles and power
relations, which affect adolescent sexuality in general and HIV/AIDS related
perceptions and prevention behavior, in particular (Goldman, 1999; Kumar et
al., 2001; Rivers & Aggleton, 1999).
Adolescents demonstrated a certain amount of knowledge regarding
contraception and the risks of getting pregnant or contracting HIV through
unprotected sex (Ben-Zur et al., 2000). Nevertheless a number of barriers to
condom use exist. Many of them admitted that they are often embarrassed to
bring up the issue of contraception with a partner or are afraid of the gender
stereotype attached to such an initiative (for example, a girl who brings a
condom is a considered a slut). Adolescents engaged in romantic relations,
who know and trust their partners often feel that they are not at risk to get
infected and therefore have a low level of condom use (Goldman, 1999;
Hendrickx et al., 2002; Moore & Rosenthal, 1998). Some boys also believe
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that condoms reduce pleasure and influence spontaneity. In addition, loss of
control under the influence of alcohol and drugs, as well as lack of availability,
may also pose barriers to condom use (MacPhail & Campbell, 2001; Taffa et
The analysis of all the aforesaid indicates that there is a considerable
discrepancy between adolescents' knowledge and their sexual behavior. The
two most important variables underlying this finding are their low level of
perceived vulnerability, as well as the lack of an open communication among
couples on issues related to sexuality and sexual behavior.
Most Ethiopian immigrant adolescents acknowledge that the threat of HIV
infection is real and dangerous, but they do not perceive themselves as
vulnerable to the disease. Many feel that the information they receive about
AIDS is not relevant to them personally because they are engaged in romantic
sex, or because they do not belong to groups at high risk (such as homosexuals
and drug-users), even though the rates of HIV infection are higher among their
community compared to the general population in Israel (Chemtob &
Grossman, 2004). The denial of personal relevance and responsibility is
reflected on their low level of perceived vulnerability, as well as on their risk-
taking sexual behavior, such as infrequent use of condoms among adolescents
who engage in sexual intercourse (Ben-Zur et al., 2000; Fisher & Fisher, 1998;
MacPhail & Campbell, 2001).
This study explored Ethiopian adolescent immigrants’ expectations, attitudes,
beliefs and the meanings that they attach to relationships in Israel, as
compared to Ethiopia. Most of them have embraced a form of steady romantic
relationship, which substitutes the early marriage pattern in Ethiopia.
Motivators and barriers for sexual activity and contraception, as well as
adolescents’ low level of perceived vulnerability towards HIV/AIDS, were
explored. The dilemmas they must cope with as young Ethiopian immigrants
in youth villages have the potential to influence their sexuality and sexual
behavior in Israel.
Contribution of the study
The findings of this study will facilitate the development of a culturally-
significant sexual health program for Ethiopian adolescent immigrants in
youth villages in Israel, based on the understanding of the range of cultural
meanings they attach to boy-girl relations, sexuality and sexual behaviour
(Aarons & Jenkins, 2002; Irvine, 1994; Nudelman, 1999).
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