Let me make one thing clear at the outset. Men and women in their professional and private interactions should be very aware of women’s sensitivities to unwanted touch or comments about their appearance or bodies. The #MeToo movement does do a good job at addressing raising this need for more awareness and sensitivity in this area. The truth is we could always use more awareness and sensitivity in areas where human nature has historically been shown to be vulnerable to baser instincts and dehumanizing tendencies.
But there is a definite downside to over-hyping a societal problem beyond its proportions.
(I am not referring to rape and violent sexual assaults because I don’t believe that this is a widespread societal problem. I can’t imagine women working at an office are actually afraid that the man working in the next cubicle or their male supervisor is one day going to corner them alone in a room and do something violent. That is not the societal problem we are talking about.)
The downside to over-hyping the problem of insensitivity about unwanted touch or comments about one’s body is that you start to perceive that behavior in people, situations, or places where you didn’t see it before. And it isn’t because you were previously oblivious to the behavior in question. It’s often because you didn’t interpret that behavior as such before the hype began.
Case-in-point is the recent post by Shayna Abramson titled “#MeToo at the mikvah?”
The very fact that Ms. Abramson put a question mark at the end of the title speaks volumes. It reveals that the notion of there being a widespread phenomenon of unwanted touch or comments about one’s body at the mikvah is not based on plain indisputable facts. A lot of it has to do with one’s perception and subjective level of sensitivity.
The author admits as much when she writes:
“If a woman feels sexually violated…that is harassment, even if the person doing the touching didn’t mean it as such.”
This is quite a statement. It anoints the subjective perception of the person as the sole arbiter of whether a violation was committed. There can be no way for the accused to defend his speech or actions by appealing to objective criteria agreed upon by society.
Ms. Abramson goes on to state:
“…there is a real question about whether the way mikvah is currently practiced forces many Orthodox women to feel violated on a monthly basis. Mikvah laws are predicated on a mistrust of women, a denial of their agency, and an objectification of their body…”
I won’t go through the legal details that were used to support this unsavory assessment of the Mikvah laws which Ms. Abramson cites in order to debunk them. I will just point out that it is her interpretation of those details –rather than the details themselves– which support her assessment.
How do I know? Because when I make a parallel from the mikvah experience to a doctor’s visit or a medical examination, it becomes very clear that all her accusations of violation, harassment, and assault (against the system, mind you, not any individual) are products of selective interpretation and are simply not honest.
Let’s begin with drawing a parallel from this:
“The system of demanding that a woman stand naked in front of a stranger once a month, to have her body examined by that stranger, is arguably a form of assault, even if no physical contact occurs, and even if that stranger is a woman.”
The system of mammogram screening demanding that women over 45 stand half-naked in front of a stranger, once a year, to have intimate parts of her body examined by that stranger, is arguably a form of assault, even if no physical contact occurs, and even if that stranger is a woman.
You see how it works?
Did it ever occur to anyone that the recommendations of Cancer societies for middle-aged women to undergo routine breast examinations is “arguably a form of assault”?
Well now, thanks to the #MeToo movement, I guess wouldn’t be surprised if it suddenly started to occur to women who are being induced to look for sexual harassment and assault behind every routine interaction involving women.
And to repeat, what is shocking here is that Ms. Abramson is characterizing the system as a whole and being a form of assault, not the particular actions of any individual Mikvah attendant. This gives her license to accuse all mikvah attendants, all traditional rabbis, and anyone who supports the current way mikvah laws are practiced as enablers of women’s objectification, harassment and sexual assault.
If that’s the result of a #MeToo campaign gone off the rails–where everyone can be made into an objectifier by the whims of someone’s imagination– then honest, sincere men and women who want to improve the situation will be turned off and walk away.