Modesty Has Nothing to Do With It

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Pixabay Creative Commons by surdumihail

In response to the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the flood of women coming forward to participate in the #MeToo social media campaign, there have been a number of essays and editorials about the Jewish tradition of modesty. This cultural moment is the wrong time for such a consideration. Connecting the issue of modesty to the crimes of rape, sexual assault and harassment is entirely inappropriate, as it makes the conversation about the behavior of the victim rather than that of the perpetrator.

There is a long tradition of this problematic linkage. In the 1970s, as a journalist at Philadelphia magazine, my father wrote a courtroom dialogue called “The Rape of Mr. Smith.” In the dialogue, a mugging victim, Mr. Smith, is asked the kinds of questions rape victims were then accustomed to during a trial: “Did you struggle with the robber? Did you cry out? Were you wearing an expensive suit? And a nice watch?”

The point of the dialogue, of course, was to demonstrate how ridiculous it is to imply that a crime victim is responsible for his or her victimization. A victim of auto theft would not be asked, “When you bought that nice car, didn’t you realize that thieves would be tempted to steal it?” A shooting victim would not hear from police, “Were you puffing your chest out so that it was more visible?”

We laugh at such examples now, but victims of sexual assault are still questioned in this manner, even though the laws have changed to make it harder to do so in court. Victims of assault and harassment are routinely asked to account for their clothing, their past sexual behavior, their decision to report or not report an incident, their behavior after the fact. If a person says he was mugged, the reaction is not to be skeptical of the claim. Yet until quite recently it was extremely difficult for sexual assault victims — children as well as adults — to get a non-skeptical hearing.

By tying the conversation about such crimes to modesty, commentators remove the focus from its rightful place: the behavior of the perpetrator.

This is especially vexing when Jewish commentators focus on modest dress. We already know that modest dress and behavior does not preclude rape, assault, sexual abuse and harassment. If it did, such crimes would not occur in Orthodox communities. They would not occur in Muslim countries or communities. They would not occur in religious schools of any denomination. Yet they do.

It is equally distracting to consider, in the current context, shomer negia, which prevents a man or woman from having physical contact with an unrelated individual of the opposite sex. Again, this is the wrong question. The majority of people who do not practice shomer negia do not commit sex crimes. And practicing shomer negia does not protect those who do maintain it from victimization.

In addition, using shomer negia as a putative solution assumes that such problems are solely encountered between members of the opposite sex. Such crimes also occur in single-sex environments.

Instead of trying to control external factors, Jewish commentators would do better to consider the internal condition of those who commit harassment and abuse. What is it, inside of them, that makes them behave this way? Is there something in Torah that can help them reconcile past crimes and avoid future infractions? The crimes, after all, are originated by the perpetrators. It is time to look at their motivations and behaviors with the same kind of microscope we apply to their victims.