menacing voyeur

WASHINGTON (JTA) — With all the conversations surrounding the allegations against my congregation’s former rabbi, Barry Freundel, no one is saying what desperately needs to be said — that voyeurism is sexual assault and that eliminating sexual assault in our communities should be the direction of our next steps.

In emails, blogs and articles, the reaction to allegations that Freundel installed hidden cameras in order to view women in the mikvah has focused repeatedly on the specific location of the crime, the importance of making mikvahs safer and the abuse of rabbinic authority. But deciding to change who controls the mikvah is a narrow perspective on the wider issue of violence against women, and addressing this as an isolated incident would be a mistake. Although considering policies to make our religious spaces safer is certainly worthwhile, it is important that we recognize voyeurism as a form of sexual assault, with its own place on the spectrum of violence against women.

Sexual assault is often thought to be synonymous with rape. But according to the National Institute of Justice, sexual assault encompasses a range of unwanted sexual behaviors, including voyeurism. Whether the perpetrator is peeping through a window, hiding video cameras in locker rooms, posting illegally obtained intimate photographs or forwarding explicit private photographs intended for one viewer only, he is committing sexual assault.

The true nature of the crime is masked by the use of the word “voyeurism,” which makes it seem as if there were no victim. This is an issue of substance and not merely semantics.

Think about it. When a robbery occurs, there is a victim — someone is robbed. When a murder occurs, someone is killed. Butvoyeurism? Someone is “voyeured”? It’s as if there is no victim, only a perpetrator. The victim is the object — the thing that is watched. But women are not objects. This is not a victimless crime. And that’s the point.

Women know, whether consciously or not, that voyeurism is part of the continuum of violence against women, a continuum with catcalling on the less severe end and violent rape on the most severe end. Hypersexualization and objectification of women devalues women. When we see women as objects — when we dehumanize women — we enable violence.

With this understanding, our response to a high school student who forwards explicit pictures of his girlfriend to his teammates should not be “boys will be boys.” Nor should we dismiss concerns about websites that publish private, naked photos of celebrities as “the cost of fame.” Actress Jennifer Lawrence named it correctly when hackers stole and posted her images online. This wasn’t about theft or pirating; this was a “sex crime.”

Only when we place voyeurism in the mikvah in this larger context — not as a one off, but as one more example of what is becoming normalized behavior in our society — can we ask and begin to find answers to how to end gender-based violence.

To accomplish this, I suggest that we start by asking three questions in each of our communities:

* Does the environment allow all community members, even and especially the most vulnerable, to feel respected and valued?

* Is there a way for any individual who feels devalued to communicate that safely to the leadership, and is the communication taken seriously?

* Are checks and balances in place to assure that authority figures (both clergy and lay leaders) are held accountable for their words, their time and their actions?

Let’s use this opportunity to minimize the possibility of sexual assault, and then let’s turn to questions about rabbinic authority and women.