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No, Rabbi Shafran, modesty won’t prevent sexual assault

People don't want to know that there are some terrible things that all the precautions in the world simply won't prevent
Illustrative. Modestly dressed woman subject to unwanted physical contact. (iStock)
Illustrative. Modestly dressed woman subject to unwanted physical contact. (iStock)

Nine years ago, my husband was run over by a bus. Yes, you read that correctly. He was crossing the street in the crosswalk, with the pedestrian “WALK” signal, looked both ways, and crossed. He wasn’t on his phone, wasn’t looking at his screen, wasn’t distracted, or doing anything that you could “blame” him for…

A mini yellow school bus coming from the same direction as he had been coming from was making a left turn. The driver did not see him in the crosswalk (maybe her view was obstructed by the “bubble mirror” on her left side). The bus knocked him down in the crosswalk and ran over his legs. He suffered multiple traumatic injuries and has permanent neurological injuries and chronic pain (thank God, he’s healed a lot over the years. You can’t necessarily tell anymore, but he lives in constant pain and overcomes it to live a very full life).

I cannot even count how many well meaning people (too many), when they would hear about the accident, would ask questions that implied that my husband had somehow been at fault: “Was he in the crosswalk? Did he look both ways? Was he on his phone? Was he running? Was he distracted?”

Every time someone started asking, it was very painful and hurtful, and it felt like they were blaming or judging him. It wasn’t supportive.

I know that when people ask those questions, they are not trying to hurt me or my husband. They are trying to understand. People have fears. When they hear of tragic or painful events they become fearful for themselves. And so, they try to make a connection in their mind of “Well, this couldn’t happen to me because of X…” They look for a reason, some sort of explanation that will demonstrate how the given situation will never happen to them.

I get it. Fear is irrational. People don’t want to walk around living in fear of something they can’t explain or prevent. So they try to think of reasons that what they can’t explain or prevent would never happen to them, why their situation is different, why the victim next time won’t be them. Because they don’t want to live in fear of the unpreventable, if something can be done to prevent it.

And when they ask the victim questions about his trauma, they aren’t trying to hurt him, just trying to explain to themselves the “why did this happen?” And “how can I prevent it from happening to me?”

* * *

There has been much discussion lately about sexual assault and harrassment, and what the Jewish perspective is on these events.

I recently shared on Facebook a well-informed response to Rabbi Avi Shafran’s suggestions that taking great care with regard to tzniut (modesty), yichud (seclusion), and negiah (physical affection) will protect women from sexual assult. “A 2007 study done in The American Journal of Psychiatry reported that 26 percent of its Orthodox female study participants experienced sexual abuse within the community and that more ultra-Orthodox women reported abuse than modern Orthodox women”

Research has actually shown that there is more sexual assault in ultra-Orthodox society, just that it doesn’t get reported. Instead, the abuser gets protected.

One Orthodox religious woman I know insisted that I was wrong, that modesty is empowering and protective, and that neither she nor any of her Orthodox friends have ever experienced sexual assault or harrassment, and that modesty protects them. She implied that anyone who didn’t keep these halachot (laws) didn’t do everything possible to protect herself — and that my assertion that modesty doesn’t protect you was an assault on her identity, no less.

I understand where she’s coming from. I grew up Modern Orthodox and in Israeli demographics, I am “dati” (religious). I too observe and have always kept the laws of “shomer negiah,” yichud, and so on.

And at the same time, I believe my Orthodox friends who have been abused, even with these laws. I studied at a very religious for seminary for two years after high school. There was a rabbi there whom I admired who was later accused (and put into cherem/excommunication by rabbis across the Orthodox spectrum from Modern to Haredi) for taking advantage of his position and having “inappropriate relationships.”

Even those who are religiously observant should consider themselves lucky if they have not been victims. But it is disrespectful to victims to deny that it happens in our community, yes, even to those who keep the halacha. Just because a given individual may not have had this personal experience does not mean it isn’t true. I believe scientific data and I believe the women who have been abused, yes, even in my own communities. We are not immune.

When I was studying for my masters degree in Public Administration, I researched public policies and the (often wrong) public impressions that create the demand for such policies. I researched child sexual predators, and looked at how public policy addressed the issue. I discovered that while, for decades, children had all been taught to fear the stranger, and were taught “never talk to strangers,” in fact, the vast majority (over 90+ percent) of assaults against children happen not by strangers, but by those close to the victim. This means that our public campaigns against “stranger danger” are wasting our time and energy, in worrying about a rare event, while we fail to teach kids body autonomy and how to protect themselves against predators in their midst.

Sometimes we have to take a step back from what we think we know, and open ourselves up to research and learn something new.

To those who find modesty empowering: I also find modesty empowering, in terms of self-identity, dignity, and confidence. However, that is all about me and how I feel in my clothes, not about who I may or may not be attracting. Modesty is truly about me, not about others. It’s not. It’s not an exclusively women’s mitzvah (which is what it has been twisted into…). And it’s not just about dress. It’s about behavior, and most importantly, about one’s relationship with God.

But to say modesty protects you from sexual assault is false. Sexual assault is not about attraction and desire; it’s about power and control. I do agree that “tzniut, yichud, and negiah” can be helpful — to a degree — but that assumes that the other person respects and abides by the rules too. Supposedly pious individuals have abused others who relied on these halachot to protect them in vulnerable times. The halachot are not a foolproof protection. They are halachot, period, and we do them regardless of the reasons or how they make us feel.

When one claims that the halachot can protect themselves from assault, the underlying implication is that those who were victims should have taken more precautions, that they were assaulted because they failed to do something… Which is victim blaming.

* * *

Recall, please, the story of my husband and the bus that ran him over. We discovered that many people do not want to hear that there are some things you simply can’t prevent. That some traumas are really accidents, that some victims didn’t do anything to make themselves a target for an attack, and that, sometimes, all the precautions in the world won’t prevent this happening to you. Because that’s too scary.

So people think of reasons, precautions, and explanations, and the result is that there’s a twinge of blame that they put on the victim, because he or she didn’t adequately protect themselves from this occurrence, because they didn’t do X. By doing so, they remove themselves from the risk of victimhood themselves, snug in the false sense of security that they have taken the “right” measures to protect themselves.

But when an abuser decides to exert power, those precautionary measures will not necessarily protect anyone from becoming a victim.

Now do you understand?

About the Author
Chavi Eisenberg is a nonprofit consultant, writer, actress and mother. She runs parenting support groups and writes about parenting, Judiasm, and Zionism. Chavi earned her MPA from Baruch College, and now lives in Gush Etzion with her family.
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