Sex & Gender

"Me, Too” and Jewish Ethics around Sexual Assault

“He asked, ‘was it a REAL sexual assault, or was it just like harassment or something?’”
A friend described how a tone deaf coworker responded to her “me, too” status regarding sexual assault and harassment. On the one hand, her coworker had been trying to be supportive. On the other hand, holy crap, how are people so painfully stupid sometimes?
The “me, too” status is going viral right now, highlighting how prevalent sexual assault and harassment is in our world right now. We think we’ve come so far, and yet there are countless stories of sexual misconduct around us all the time, hushed up for the benefit of the perpetrators. Harvey Weinstein is far from alone in his predatory actions, and more often than not it is the survivors who come forward who bear the brunt of society’s misplaced outrage.
“Was it real? What were you wearing? Did you lead him on?” The verbal skepticism of coworkers and our legal system is just the beginning in many cases. Survivors of sexual abuse who come forward are forced to submit to invasive medical exams and legal procedures which are often re-traumatizing, and frequently the end result of all the bureaucratic ordeals is a slap on the wrist for the perpetrator, if there is any consequence at all.
Looking towards Jewish traditions, I wish I could find some sanity–unfortunately, it seems that the Torah is a few steps behind the viral hashtag this time.
Parsha Ki Teitzei has ancient laws about rape that don’t feel much different from today’s rape culture. While women usually aren’t encouraged to marry their rapists for fifty shekels anymore (Deuteronomy 22:28), there is a discussion of sexual assault that tries to figure out whether the assault is “real” or not. If a rape happens in a field, it’s considered somehow more serious than if it had happened in the city; theoretically the survivor could have yelled loudly enough during the assault to get help. Even thousands of years ago, our ancestors were trying to figure out ways to justify certain kinds of predatory behavior!
Splitting hairs about sexual assault and harassment is NOT helpful.
Think of it this way: when one questions the authenticity of sexual assault, what is the result for the survivor? If it was a “real” sexual assault, she is then put in the position of discussing a horribly painful experience with a coworker, as though it were fodder for water cooler gossip. If it was sexual harassment, if it wasn’t the sort of physical assault that could have resulted in a criminal conviction, then she is made to feel somehow less authentic than other survivors, when in fact sexual harassment is a very real problem and traumatic in its own right. Being catcalled and followed three blocks down the street is still NOT OKAY, regardless of whether the survivor is ever touched or not.
Instead of pushing survivors to tell what happened to them in explicit detail, try one of these: “I believe you.” “I’m sorry that happened to you.” “If you want to talk about it, I’m here.”
Part of the power of the “me, too” status is about bringing people together rather than splitting us apart–we are all impacted by rape culture, directly or indirectly. It’s time we stop trying to hush up allegations of sexual misconduct and start working to create a better, safer world for all of us.

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