General Topics

Sexual Exploitation


According to the Bible, Noah’s flood destroyed humanity because they were violent. How much have we changed?

We seclude ourselves in our protected worlds and often have little idea of what is really going on around us. We who live in Western “civilized” societies and are reasonably well off know about the millions of refugees, or poor exploited human beings around the world. But it rarely touches us personally. More worrying is the delusion we have that our societies are safe places. They may be safer, but they are not safe. It’s not just a matter of gunfire, fires, and auto accidents. Hundreds of children men and women disappear off the streets each year and are never heard from again.

Specifically, abuse of women (and men) remains a blot on the record of the males of our species, and it is far too prevalent even in the “free world”.

But I want to focus specifically here on the violence, the rape. The Torah compares rape to murder. There is a degree of violent aggressiveness in males worldwide. But even here in a free and American society there seems to be a streak of male violence that seems to glorify this wanton abuse. Columbia University student Emma Sulkowicz has been protesting at the inaction of university authorities by carrying a mattress around campus until her reported rapist is removed. Fifty assault survivors spoke out recently in a campus demonstration supporting Sulkowicz. More and more female college students are coming out to fight against both the abuse and the reluctance of college authorities to act.

Governor Jerry Brown of California has now passed a bill requiring all colleges that receive state money to enforce a standard of “affirmative consent” or “yes means yes” and only a positive “yes” at every stage can lead on to the next. Such a law was first instituted at Antioch College twenty years ago. Until recently no one else adopted it. Harvard still hasn’t.

President Obama has begun a campaign to highlight the problem of college rape in the US. Here are the statistics, according to One In Four:

  • One in four college women report surviving rape or attempted rape at some point in their lifetime.
  • Each year, 5% of women on college campuses experience rape or attempted rape.
  • 673,000 women currently attending U.S. colleges and universities have experienced rape at some point in their lifetime. In one year 300,000 college women, over 5% of women enrolled in colleges and universities, experience rape. This does not include other forms of sexual assault.
  • Every year 5% of women in the U.S. Military academies report surviving rape, as do 2.4% of the men.

Time Magazine (September 22, 2014) reports that every day 13,079 women in the USA experience domestic violence in the USA each year.

The New York Times (September 30, 2014) reports female firefighters suffering job discrimination, harassment, and sexual abuse every day. One in three women have been physically abused.

The boxer Mike Tyson was a classic example of male, physical crime against women; his rape landed him in jail, and for a while the public took notice. But interest subsided. The issue has been brought to the public by the recent revelations of the number of American football, stars, “heroes” who have been guilty of abusing women. A video of Ray Rice’s attack on his fiancée has gone “viral”, in current terminology, and has forced the NFL to start taking action after years of pretending there was no problem. Another footballer, Adrian Peterson, was indicted for beating his child. Jonathan Dwyer was arrested for aggravated assault against a woman and a child. These massively rich Neanderthals have for years been getting away with physical abuse. So too have college sportsmen and ordinary common and garden males of the species.

The defense has always been that women invited their attention, even threw themselves at them, that they dressed provocatively or drank too much and invited it. It’s true that modern fashions tend toward the provocative, and it is true the amount of male and female drinking on college campuses and city bars is excessive. Recently examples of college girls dying from immoderate amounts of alcohol have been publicized.

But nothing justifies the crude brutality of males forcing their unwanted attentions and testosterone-inflamed bodies on women. Many parents are bound to wonder whether sending their daughters away to college is such a good idea. The traditional antipathy of ultra Orthodoxy to allowing girls to go off to college away from home might even have some justification.

The trouble is that it’s not just away from home that violence is a problem. Within homes, all kinds of physical abuse are reported at phenomenal levels. It is estimated that 46% are not even reported. And that is just physical abuse, not mental.

We who gather this time of the year to experience the intensity of our religious tradition are proud of the quality of our religious life. We look with a degree of condescension on the decline in the moral standards of the world around us. We are bound to wonder whether we are doing enough to protect our families from the sexual predations of society within and beyond the home.

It may be true that nowadays women have much more power and greater access to legal means to defend themselves. Nevertheless recent revelations that police forces across the USA neither took complaints of rape seriously nor processed evidence in their possession shows how primitive are the attitudes toward this in a so-called modern world. The problem exists at every level of society and, sadly, in every religious community as well.

The religious world considers itself an antidote to the corruption of the secular world. But it too has a poor record of dealing with abuse within its own communities. Often the clergy, themselves, are the guilty perpetrators. Sadly this past year we have witnessed highly regarded rabbis found guilty of theft, bribery, and sexual corruption. It is a blot on our world. If the charges against Rabbi Barry Freundel, of Washington, DC’s Modern Orthodox community, are proven, it is yet another sad example of how men of religion, all religions, use their positions and power to take advantage and abuse others, men and women. There has been too much of this within the Orthodox community of all degrees.

We recognize that if we leave our children’s morality to society’s default position, we are failing them. The whole purpose of religion is to raise the level of morality and spirituality. But this does not happen accidentally, or by itself. Religion should not be concerned only with our souls. It also requires of us that we take responsibility for our own community and its leadership where it is failing in its obligations, as well as the world beyond. What goes on around us ultimately affects us. Just as a rising tide lifts all boats, so a sinking one leaves them high and dry. Noah’s flood is a reminder that violence by humans against humans can destroy a world.