The #MeToo campaign has led thousands of women (and men) to share personal stories related to unwanted sexual advances and, far too often, abuse. In response, Mayim Bialik, an American actor and neuroscientist, wrote a controversial New York Times op-ed claiming that dressing modestly can serve as a form of self-protection against assault. This article was widely criticized as an act of victim shaming and since, Bialik has issued an apology via Twitter stating, “Let me say clearly and explicitly that I am very sorry. What you wear and how you behave does not provide any protection from assault, nor does the way you dress or act in any way make you responsible for being assaulted; you are never responsible for being assaulted.”
Mayim Bialik’s argument is not new to the women of Stern College, who are often taught that the halakhic guidelines of tzniut will protect them from sexual harm. Yet, the negative response to Bialik’s op-ed witnessed among much of society can function as a moment of self-reflection, raising important questions regarding how the students and alumni of Stern college, many of whom choose to dress modestly, relate to such conversations. Do they find the Jewish laws that relate to sexuality, along with the way they are being taught and the culture they promote, protective or harmful when it comes to issues of consent?
One Stern College student, who wishes to remain anonymous, seemed to agree with Bialik’s stance, and commented that she does think “dressing modestly can protect women from unwanted sex.” However, she did add that people who choose to dress differently than she does are “not necessarily inviting unwanted sex.” She also expressed that this is not why tzniut is an important value of hers. Instead, she stressed that she believes it to be a halakha reflective of how God expects a dignified person to behave and dress.
Yael Mayer, SCW ‘18, strongly disagreed with the notion that tzniut protects women from sexual advances, and cited her own experience of getting cat calls regardless of how she is dressed. She also considers the tzniut education she received at a Bais Yaakov elementary school to be a damaging philosophy, and a form of victim shaming. She and her friends were taught that their bodies should be hidden to protect themselves from men and their inevitable reaction to the female body. She attributes the hunched posture of many of her classmates to be a product of such thinking. Mayer, however, was never comfortable with this school of thought, and to this day, would love to discover an unapologetic explanation for tzniut that does not make women feel shameful. She has not yet found one, and though she does believe that this framework has given her an overall sense of modesty and professionalism, her motivation to follow the specific guidelines is rooted exclusively in the fact that they are halakha.
Recent Stern College alumna Nahal Talasazan, SCW ‘18, echoed Mayer’s sentiment, explaining that she was never taught a satisfying explanation as to why tzniut is important, or how the actual halakhot developed. She thinks this is especially unbelievable because women’s religiosity is often judged on the basis of how they dress. One answer that people have offered her is that the purpose of tzniut is to protect men from thinking about women inappropriately. Talasazan finds this explanation especially irresponsible in relation to issues of consent since it places all the onus on the woman and none on the man. She also believes that this mode of teaching often causes men to equate women with sex or sinful acts. Instead, she wishes that Jewish men were exposed to a positive conversation about how sexuality is natural and beautiful when used in the right way, helping them relate to women in a healthier manner. She therefore hopes to see a change in this sort of education for both sexes.
Nechama Lowey, SCW ‘20, shared her experiences of how the way tzniut is taught and spoken about can “oversexualize everything,” leading to a lack of control in Orthodox circles, and problematic assumptions in relation to consent. She explained that because there is such a strong rhetoric that women dress modestly to prevent males from objectifying them, whenever women dress differently it is assumed that they are inviting men to sexualize them. One student shared personal stories of being flirted with, and touched in ways she doesn’t like because “it is assumed that if I’m not adhering to laws of modesty it’s a free for all.”
Educator and Stern alumna Erica Brown shared her perspective with The Observer, focusing on perceived barriers for women to speak up in situations of harassment or abuse: “what makes it hard for women to come forward or protect themselves are community norms, fear of mesira, lashon ha-ra and the fact that communal entities are often so protective of authority…” She added that while she “thinks an understanding of halakha is always beneficial,” she does not believe that this will change the problem. “Do I think teaching more women more about these laws that “skirt” the real issues of gender sexual tensions will minimize problems? I don’t think so.”
Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt, a professor of journalism at Stern College and Stern alumna publicly weighed in on this issue with a Forward article. While she disagrees with the idea that dressing modestly protects women from sexual harm, she does think that observing the laws of yichud, though they were not originally intended for this purpose, can serve as a “powerful tool to cope with the realities of a Weinstein world.” Multiple Stern College students also cited shmirat negiya as a halakhic boundary that helps individuals navigate issues of consent.
One student who wishes to remain anonymous explained that “consent issues often come up at the beginning of a relationship, when communicating is hard. With shmirat negiya, at that point, touch is not an option.” She also added that the temptation to touch grows stronger with time as the couple grows closer, so even if they eventually decide to touch, they do so only at a stage when they have already developed strong and effective communication. Another anonymous student commented that a positive benefit that has come out of her desire to adhere to shmirat neigya is that whenever she and her boyfriend do decide to touch, they always ask each if it’s okay to since the assumption is that they usually don’t. Therefore everything “feels very consensual and safe even though we have never had an actual conversation about consent.” Another student who also wishes to remain anonymous added that in a shmirat negiya relationship neither partner “feels entitled to anything sexual. If one partner says no, the other will stop, because in a certain way this act is already off limits and something they both don’t want to be doing on some level.”
However, other students reflected on how their experiences with shmirat neigya have been less helpful regarding issues of consent. Many commented that since Orthodox institutions assume their students are adhering by these laws, they are never taught sex-ed and have no real guidance about safe sexual behavior, or how to have conversations about consent. Many high schools in today’s secular society recognize that teaching abstinence is ineffective and irresponsible since there will inevitably be students who will continue to have sex. Similarly, many Stern students believe that teaching the halakhot of shmirat negiya and yichud, with the assumption that students will never be sexually active, is an irresponsible way of avoiding the difficult but important conversations that prepare students for the reality they may face.
Another anonymous student remarked that because of the taboo that surrounds not adhering to the laws of shmirat negiya, students often don’t share sexual experiences that made them feel uncomfortable with their friends, from fear that someone may judge, or think less highly of them. This might prevent them from clarifying what is and isn’t normal, or from having the emotional support often necessary to report acts of abuse. Finally, a student shared a common phrase she has heard, along the lines of “if a woman isn’t shomer she is probably okay with partying and hooking up.” She concluded that this stereotype is not only false, but also very dangerous because it is predicated on the belief that a women’s religious observance, and not her words, dictate whether or not she is comfortable with various actives.
Dr. Yael Muskat, director of the Yeshiva University Counseling Center shared her perspective that “conversations about the halakhot of modesty and yichud and conversations about sexual harassment are very important, but from a mental health perspective, they should be two separate conversations.” She explained that statements which link keeping or not keeping certain halakhot to sexual assault “inherently place partial blame on the victim even if that is not the intention.” She added that this “can add stigma and pain to the already vulnerable victim, which is especially problematic because a frequent response to sexual harassment is self-blame.” She concluded by saying that “Anyone who has been impacted by sexual assault or sexual harassment should be encouraged to seek support from friends and professionals and to report the incident. We at the Counseling Center are trained to help students dealing with these issues and can be reached at 646-592-4210.”