“Unorthodox,” the four part Netflix original depicting a Chasidic girl leaving her marriage captivated viewers across the world and generated fierce debate. I won’t comment on the accuracy of the costumes or the dialogue, or whether the Berlin scenes added or detracted from the portrayal, others have done that. What I will say again and again until everyone who cares, has heard and will listen, is that the scenes of marital rape in Unorthodox are real, and reflect the experiences of thousands of couples in our community.
Rape, including marital rape, is expressly forbidden in Jewish law. Many an apologist will remind you of that. You can also expect the ‘No True Scotsman’ argument to be trotted out. None of that changes the reality that many people experience as normality, and, because they know no different, go on to place their children in precisely the same situation that they have experienced.
Rape is a strong word. When I use it, I am referring to a sex act perpetrated on someone who either hasn’t, or can’t, consent to it. To be clear, I am not arguing that every couple in an arranged marriage has experienced what I am describing. Neither am I suggesting criminal intent or liability. I am describing a social phenomenon that harms Charedi men and women, that needs to be acknowledged before it can be eradicated.
These are uncomfortable facts to acknowledge. Those who can’t sit with their discomfort may experience a certain cognitive dissonance, but that changes nothing for a woman who finds herself lying beneath a man she doesn’t know and to whom she cannot say no.
On the wedding night, very few Charedi brides can actually say no. This is because young brides and grooms are often told that a marriage must be consummated on the wedding night. The reasoning is that marital sex is a mitzva, and a mitzva shouldn’t be delayed. That obligation to have sex, with a time limit, is itself enough to remove capacity for consent. It is often compounded by other factors. For example, the couple are unlikely even to have touched before the wedding. On their wedding day, the couple will move from first physical contact to penetrative sex in one go. The young couple may not have even spoken to each other since their first meeting, which might have taken place up to a year before the wedding. Consummation must take place before dawn, and the wedding will finish very late at night.
Many kallah teachers will tell their female students that they have the right to say no. They will also be told that if they do so, and their husband ‘spills his seed’ or ‘goes elsewhere’, they will have to answer for his sin. For girls brought up on obedience and fear of heaven, this injunction means that true consent can barely be distinguished from no consent.
Although it is far from guaranteed, the couple may be attracted to each other. They may go on to overcome early difficulties, and enjoy exploring their sexuality together. They may, and many do, fall in love with each other.That doesn’t change the fact that many will have experienced their wedding night as trauma. They may disassociate from it, or they may talk about it and process it, but it won’t be forgotten.
There is also significant risk of the cumulative trauma. The duty to have penetrative sex, subject to the dawn time limit and the resultant urgency to complete the mitzvah without delay, will repeat itself every mikvenight. Charedi psychotherapist Elisheva Liss talks about this in her blog post with the jarring title ‘I used to rape my wife’.
Liss explains how a lack of sexual education for both men and women leads to unwitting assault and subsequent trauma within marriages. She is describing a phenomenon she has noticed with many of her Charedi clients, but the issues she explores are universal. In many cultures, for many reasons, young people are pressured into saying yes to sex they don’t want, or don’t feel they can say no to. Young men often feel obliged to lead, women feel obliged to comply.
There is no shame in admitting we have these problems too, irrespective of the scale. The shame is in denying that there is a problem. The shame is the constant defensive reactions to the suggestion that we need change, growth and healing.