An acquaintance e-mailed me a photographed copy of a pashkvil, an alert, posted on a street corner in a neighborhood that is in an open community. While there are many religious people who live there the community is also home to individuals not as religious and even members of other religions. He assured me that what he sent me is real and not photo shopped. The alert reads:
“Dear Sisters, Please be aware that when schmoozing at this corner, the streetlight shines straight on you, thereby making the nisoyon (challenge) for men passing by far greater!!
By stepping away a few steps you will be stepping away from all troubles and merit a … good year… in the zichus of tznius.
This poster, assuming its veracity, is not unique. Other similarly worded posters pop up all over with increasing frequency, but what is often overlooked is that this approach to what they refer to as tznius is symptomatic of a problem that will only exacerbate sexual tensions and sexual addictions. Some would see posters such as this one as a major step toward enforcing the kind of total gender segregation that was seen in Mea Shearim on Chol Hamoed Sukkot. The slow creep of rationalizing this form of tznius as the only rational approach actually leads to significant issues in sexual acting out even abuse. Specifically there are two issues that are misunderstood and create an even more challenging problem for the religious community. They are: who is responsible for proper behavior and the mis-focusing on sexuality.
Proper behavior is both a Halachic and social requirement that is placed on all people not just women. Those who place posters of this nature seem to believe that only women have the responsibility of proper sexual etiquette. Men, according to this approach have no reason to be accountable if they have inappropriate thoughts when seeing a woman. Worse still it allows a man the excuse of acting on his inappropriate thoughts and placing the blame on his victim. The blame first and always appears to be placed on women. This is precisely the issue that led a young religious man to my consultation room when he mistakenly believed he might be mentally ill because he thought that he was becoming aroused whenever he rode a bus or train. He initially railed against the women on those modes of public transportation for giving him bad thoughts. He had no concept of self-control when it came to his own sexuality. His most memorable line was “The women have legs and you can see them.” I asked what he felt about women dressing up completely covered, as in a burka. He had no clear objection to the idea. I pointed out to him that both men and women are created with natural desires and the human responsibility, not just woman’s, is to learn to control and channel those drives. The general concept was not a foreign one. He understood that he would rather go shopping then learn in the Beit Midrash and that he had to channel the drive to learn, but he had a difficult time applying the model to ideas about women and sexuality. He was reared with the idea that he was responsible only for certain of his behaviors and blame others for his sexual ideas. Pashkvilim such as the one I quote above only perpetuate this erroneous theme.
There is a concept in psychology referred to as habituation. It is an extremely simple form of learning behavior that reduces the intensity of a response by repeatedly exposing an individual to the stimulus that is to be unlearned. A new ring tone on a phone may grab your attention but after hearing it many times you become habituated to it and no longer pay as much attention to it. If you were to ask how to help men stop focusing on women inappropriately the most effective and direct method would be to use habituation. Not placing the responsibility for women to hide and be responsible to restrain men’s normal inclinations but to allow men the freedom to see normally attired women on a regular basis so that they become habituated to normal inter-gender situations is most effective. This mis-focus on sexuality by reinforcing the fear of sex does the absolute opposite of habituation. Allowing some appropriate gender interaction to normalize the socialization process will help reduce the tension. Socially suppressing a normalizing event and requiring an individual to suppress all thoughts only heightens the tension of even passive interactions with members of the opposite sex. In fact, it is a form of abuse that creates trepidation between men and women over normal contact.
To truly understand Tzniut and the fact that in a real Halachic sense it is the responsibility of not just a woman but also a man and the society in which they live, one would have to do an actual study of the topic and not rely on hearsay. Fortunately several individuals have done so. Rabbi Yehuda Henkin has compiled a book from a series of lectures that he gave on the topic that is one of the most complete and understandable. The book is called Understanding Tzniut.
It would be wise for all women and men who see this problem of misdirected tzniut and projecting blame as a major issue and to realize that women have legs and toes and ankles and knees and elbows and men just have to get used to it.