A few years ago, I was interviewing a woman for research on sexual abuse in the Jewish community when she told me something that roiled me. My interviewee, a religious journalist working for a Jewish publication, described an experience she had at a media conference, in which a male colleague drew her into a hotel room, closed the door behind them, pushed her up against the wall, and started to kiss her.
She immediately pushed back, by her telling, and yelled at him. “Don’t touch me, I’m religious!”
Then he said, “I’m not asking for sex, I’m just asking for a kiss, it’s not a big deal”. She replied, screaming, “Absolutely not! Don’t you dare touch me! I’m shomer negiya!”
In case this term “shomer negiya” is new to you, I’ll explain. In the Orthodox Jewish world, not only is sex between unmarried people forbidden, so is any kind of touch at all, or negiya. In practice, given that it can be a rather extreme restriction on social interaction, especially in modern Orthodox communities where boys and girls actually talk to each other and sometimes go to school together and sometimes even date (gasp!), the reality is that not everyone who is supposed to keep this rule actually does. Only the truly adherent are shomer, literally “guarding” the negiya rules. The super-religious ones often give themselves the “shomer negiya” moniker to let people know that they are off limits for, you know, any physical touch at all.
I remember well the millions of conversations we had at school and at camp and seminars about being shomer. I think every single teacher, rabbi, and counselor implored kids to be shomer, some more creatively than others, all of them knowing that it would likely be a losing battle. They did it in large part for themselves, I think. After all, a teacher who replaced “regular” learning with a “discussion” of anything sexual automatically became the cool teacher, and we would talk about his class for days afterwards. But I think they were also trying to convince us to be more religious. And nothing says “I’m more religious than you” like being shomer negiya does.
Still, even though the overall message was that less touch equals more religiousness, there was another message directed particularly at girls. That is, being more untouchable means that you are better, more worthy. The less sexually available you are, the more deserving you are, the more good you are, the more loved you are, and the more protected you are. Yes, protected. Shomer – protect your virginity, protect your body, keep your desires locked away, and in turn be protected by the almighty God and of course rabbis.
This quid pro quo is what my interviewee had fully expected when she suddenly found herself being sexually assaulted. Like, “How can this possibly happen to me??? I’m one of the good ones!”
It was a bit shocking for me to hear her tell the story in such terms. Because obviously the research does not in any way support the premise that religious observance protects girls from sexual assault. On the contrary, some activists argue that there is an epidemic of sexual abuse in the religious community. And although I’m not yet done with my research on the subject, there are many indications thus far that religious girls and boys can be extremely vulnerable to attack, especially from people that they know, in part because they often lack basic knowledge and understandings about what sexual touch is and how to protect themselves from unwanted touch in real life.
Nevertheless, while there is zero evidence that negiya protects from sexual assaults, facts rarely interfere with religious dictum, especially when it comes to gender and sex. As girls and later as women, we were told lots of things about our bodies that weren’t remotely true. We were incessantly badgered about body-cover, so-called “modesty”, with non-stop rationales that body-cover “protects” girls from unwanted sexual activity. I have spent much of my adult life unpacking the fallacy of this argument, reminding the world that there is a far greater range of attire for women other than polar opposite outfits of prostitute and nun. We have options in between. We can dress for comfort, style, color, or simply feeling good in our bodies. We don’t have to internalize the over-obsession with the male sexual gaze on our bodies, or the false dichotomy of all-or-nothing. I write about this quite a bit in my latest book, Conversations with my Body.
The interview I mentioned above got me thinking again about how the language of negiya gave us messages similar to those around “modesty”. I must admit that I was shocked at how emphatically the thinking came out in the middle of a woman’s actual sexual assault. The idea that religion makes girls and women “safe” was so deeply embedded in my interviewee’s mind that it was the first thing she blurted out about why he couldn’t do that to her.
To be honest, I also found the story obnoxious and patronizing, as if women who are not shomer negiya are in a way asking for it. The internalized patriarchy of that assumption made me wonder how many Orthodox women continue to over-cover out of a fear of what awaits non-covered women. As if non-covered women are “fair game”. As if being a woman who at times willingly engages in sexual touching means that she has no ability or power to ever say, “No.” Those assumptions are appalling, and yet clearly women are internalizing them along with men.
I have been thinking about this story this week as sexual harassment allegations against Andrew Cuomo have emerged. He apparently kissed women he didn’t know, touched the lower backs of women without asking, and drilled female employees about their sex lives. We know the modus operandi well. We have seen before – his denial and pseudo-remorse, the minimizing of victims’ stories as “misunderstandings” or old norms, the placing of blame everywhere else other than where it belongs, in preparation for the perpetrator’s expected comeback. All of that is familiar and still infuriating.
However, amid the predictable chatter, one particular headline caught my eye. Jessica Valenti wrote on her blog: How Can We Make Men Stop Touching Us?
My first thought when I read this headline was: Orthodox rabbis are going to love this.
The headline will undoubtedly be used in high schools and summer camps and seminaries everywhere to prove that being shomer negiya is the way to go. I mean, I remember how rabbis would use all kinds of select research from the secular world to “prove” how important body cover is. They would talk about advertising and how much Madison Avenue relies on naked women to sell things. Or a famous study that showed that when a man sees a woman in a bikini his brain stops functioning. You see? You see? We are totally right about all this! Girls, cover up, and don’t ever touch boys!
But that isn’t exactly what Jessica Valenti is saying. She is not saying that all touch is bad. She is saying that a particular kind of touch is bad – that is, uninvited touch. “Women’s safety and comfort has always been treated as secondary to men’s ability to do what they want. So if a man wants to rub our shoulders, touch our pregnant belly, or hug us a little too long—he just does it. (My personal hell are the men who—instead of saying ‘excuse me’ if they want to pass by you in a crowded space—put their hands on your hips and physically move you.),” she writes.
The problem is not all touch. The problem is men touching women without considering whether that is something that we want. In which we are objects in their landscape instead of whole beings. Consent, anyone?
Jessica Valenti is 100% right that men should stop doing this, period.
That does not mean that women never want to be touched, or that all touch is bad. It just means that men should stop treating women as shiny objects that exist for their pleasure.
That is hardly the same thing as keeping negiya or dressing with extreme body cover. In fact, I would argue that these things have nothing to do with each other.
Case in point: One of my rabbis in high school who was known as one of the “cool” teachers and often gave us the “discussions” about negiya, would also randomly touch girls on the shoulder. You know, to be cool. I didn’t like it then, and it seemed to be quite hypocritical given his talks on negiya. But it wasn’t sexual abuse or sexual harassment, and even today many of my classmates think he was awesome. Some might even call him affectionate. But I don’t think that’s what it was. I think it was an act of power over our bodies. He was king, so he could do what he wanted, whether or not we had a say.
I do not want men – or women, for that matter – randomly touching my back or my face or hugging me. I don’t want distant uncles insisting on hugs from me or my kids. I don’t want board members I barely know kissing me on the cheek. And I do not need to announce that I’m shomer negiya in order to get that basic courtesy. That should be the norm.
At the same time, sometimes I do want to hug a man, just as sometimes I want to hug a woman – an old friend, a cherished co-worker, a beloved relative. Sometimes I want to hug and sometimes I don’t. That is the whole point. It is about respecting choice and personal boundaries, and about empowerment and consent. Our default position should be that we do not touch anyone – woman, man, child, or anyone else – without their consent. And that position shouldn’t be so hard to comprehend.
Most importantly for those of us still talking back to Orthodox Judaism, nobody should let that very simple premise that consent matters lead to any wild or extreme ideas about what we as women should or shouldn’t do with our bodies. We can make our own choices, own our own bodies, and still be worthy of respect.
Dr. Elana Sztokman is an award-winning Jewish feminist author, anthropologist, activist, educator, writing coach, and indie book publisher. Her new book, Conversations with my Body: Essays on my Life as a Jewish Woman, is available from Lioness books here. Follow heron FB, twitter, or IG, or on her blog at www.conversationswithmybody.com