Content warning for accounts of sexual assault, domestic violence, and harassment.
I am over rape culture in the progressive Jewish community.
I am done with rape culture in the progressive Jewish community.
Okay, I am actually “done” with rape culture in general, but I’ve been burned a few too many times by it of late in the Jewish progressive circles I run in – because underneath all the condemnations of Orthodox sex abuse, non-egalitarian halakha, and sexist tendencies on the Israeli and American right wing, the same sense of dominion over bodies, disregard for victims of sexual violence, and entitlement to sex still permeate the left-wing communities from Washington Heights to North Tel Aviv.
What is rape culture? I would best describe it as the societal condition in which, due to the continued hegemony of the patriarchy, rape and sexual assault are normalized and condoned by a society with continued gender- and sexuality-based oppression. It is the fact that one in four to six women and one in thirty-three men are sexually assaulted in their lifetimes, yet only a tiny fraction of assailants are ever punished or castigated. Beyond that, it is the fact that victims are routinely blamed by their peers and media for their own attack, the lack of support for survivors generally, and a culture that romanticizes and reifies the dominion of bodies by some – especially that of straight men over women. Rape culture is not a thing that is solid and distant: it is pervasive, everywhere, the fungus that we as a society have constructed and feed within our midst.
This is more than a little personal for many of us in the community: I, like thousands of other gay Jewish men, am a survivor of sexual assault. I was sexually assaulted repeatedly, and subject to physical violence, by an abusive (now ex-) boyfriend. Even now, I have the “privilege” of having post-traumatic stress disorder, which almost certainly stems from the violence I was subject to. For very specific reasons of physical safety, I cannot be public about my own experience at this time. And in the Jewish community, in the wider world, and certainly in the progressive Jewish world, many people of all genders deal with the after-effects of assault. And those experiences are completely tied into rape culture.
Generally, I think, the progressive Jewish community would like to be on board with dismantling rape culture; certainly, it is discussed. One can hear it castigated in rabbis’ sermons and think-pieces; the most obvious and disgusting behavior is called out in Haredi communities and the Israeli army; Jewish feminists like Blu Greenberg are celebrated and feted. As a survivor of sexual assault I have found some in the Jewish progressive world to be incredible resources, comrades, and shoulders to lean on. However, things are not always as they seem – for after all our world is made of mere human beings in a system encouraging this behavior. I have personally witnessed victim-blaming and rape apologias; I have seen sexual harassment in our communities; I have had people confess to sexually assaulting other members of the community to me. We are nowhere near perfect, and what we want has certainly not been achieved.
How common is rape culture in the progressive Jewish community? The answer to this question is of course unquantifiable – but if my own and some of my peers’ admittedly limited experiences are any indication, the response would be at least “quite common.” In order to illustrate this frequency, I would like to provide three anecdotes from things I have seen or experienced in the past month alone. Keep in mind, these three things happened in the space of one month.
Exhibit A: I have this friend from a period of time when we were both living abroad, a young man with perennial romantic frustration and desires for a girlfriend. Publicly he has been involved in several Jewish leftist causes, recently in refugee support. Yet to me he has spoken of the women in these communities with which he is in “solidarity” as only sexual conquests, and stopped working with several women who chose to reject his advances. “I had to establish consequences,” he notes. But here’s the thing: what gives him this supposed right to establish consequences? The revolution starts at home, and his entire solidarity is rightly suspect if he sees the women he is supposed to be helping in a new country as simply a series of potential sexual conquests. I suspect that this specific behavior of “consequences for disinterest,” and the fetishization of vulnerable folks tied to it in this and other cases, are common among many progressive Jewish people. After all, this incident was certainly not my first exposure to such behavior. If anything, I would like to see more discourse on them.
Exhibit B: I have this acquaintance, not someone who I ever found particularly friendly or kind, but not someone I had the heart for the longest while to dismiss either. Now, this person – who also calls a certain progressive Jewish community in their city home – at a dinner decided to tell me about how they manipulated their ex-boyfriend into sex with alcohol and emotionally abusive language, in order to feel better about breaking up with them a few weeks prior. “He said I had raped him! But he never said anything during the act,” this person claimed. Yet we all should know now, in 2015, that consent at the beginning does not guarantee consent throughout the act. Furthermore, what sort of community are we in where someone can feel comfortable admitting to manipulating and coercing their ex-boyfriend into sex, and then expect sympathy for an “exaggerated claim of rape?” (Fact: most rape claims are true.)
Exhibit C: I was sitting in a café in the New York area, one of those places where “folks like us” tend to gather to discuss things like rape culture. Next to me sat two folks that I can only describe as frum-liberal-bros, discussing various progressive things. Then the conversation shifted and one guy said “she just needs to get laid,” to which the response was “someone should get her laid.” Who this “she” is, I don’t know, but that little statement is not as innocuous as it seems. It is not about a woman getting laid, but about the fact that someone should “lay” her. What is more rape culture than the idea of this obligation? If anything, this is proof that no one, no one in this community is exempt from the patriarchy or completely out of rape culture.
I use these three examples illustratively. Of course these statements could be interpreted otherwise, but the revolution really starts at home, and the fact that these things are said or done in the progressive Jewish community is really indicative of how far we have to go. I will not exempt myself from complicity – I have often been too scared of retribution, or getting triggered, or having to come out of the “survivor closet” to call out or challenge instances in which rape culture was perpetuated. I challenged the people in Exhibit A and B, to some success and a total lack thereof respectively, but was not quite able to intervene in Exhibit C. And there are all the times that I did not say anything. In some ways, I am learning to become braver and more able to publicly challenge instances like these, but it is hard – especially as the fear of a PTSD relapse hangs over my head and those of other survivors. Where are our beloved “allies” now? And let’s not forget that coming out as a survivor is itself a fraught and often dangerous process – this piece is written under a pseudonym for this very reason, lest my violent ex-boyfriend consider this “justification” for some violent act. Perhaps I and others would be braver and more able – if others did not leave us scared to come forward. If every “ally” held their tongue one instance less, maybe I’d be able to write this under my own name. Maybe I would not have felt compelled to carry a knife with me, in case my violent ex showed up somewhere to attack.
Maybe I would never have been assaulted.
At the end of the day, if we want to do something about rape culture, and begin the process of dismantling the patriarchy, it will not come from any fancy statement or solidarity initiative, but in changing and demanding change in our behavior. Here and now. It will require not relying on us survivors to carry the burden, but stepping up to the plate and “showing up” when disgusting things occur. Here and now. We survivors do not always have the luxury of being able to speak under our own names safely – and that fact is itself part of a rape culture that lets off assailants.
And that is going to require a lot of hard work, and constant vigilance, and a willingness to call out incidents of rape culture. And it means that sometimes we will have to be uncomfortable, and sometimes we will have to challenge those we call friends and those we admire. By no means should this be a continuous performance of accommodating trauma – our experience cannot become a performance prop to make “allies” feel good about themselves – but nor should we make false equivalencies that “we are all traumatized.” Challenging rape culture in our communities also means putting survivors at the center of discussions that affect us – be it about victim-blaming, support for folks who have been assaulted, or how to address assailants in our community. And it requires a lot of listening.
But I think it’s worth it. Because I am absolutely “done” with rape culture in this world and definitely in this community. You should be too.
*Footnote: the author recommends an excellent piece by Rabbi Jonathan Ziring on discussing rape culture in Modern Orthodox yeshivot.