Looking Can Be Abuse

Writing about Barry Freundel’s actions, victimizing his female congregants and others by secretly videotaping them naked  in the mikveh, I argued  that there is such a thing as sexual abuse that does not involve physical contact, and we should not dismiss the impact of this kind of abuse on its victims just because there was no direct physical contact. In blog posts in May, I wrote that the recovery from this so-called non-violent abuse can be just as emotionally challenging as violent sexual abuse because of the way it plays with the victim’s mind.

The sense of constantly being watched, even in one’s private moments, that there are eyes on your skin and on your form when you have not invited those eyes in, can be mentally, emotionally and spiritually debilitating. You play it over in your mind in unsuspecting moments, wondering why you feel so strange and uncomfortable, wondering why the whole world feels unsafe for you. I compared it to the experience that teenage girls have when they privately “sext” with their boyfriends and then their boyfriends share the photos with the world; research shows that girls have a very difficult time recovering from this, and can find themselves dealing with depression, drug abuse, eating disorders and suicide.

Then I made the controversial argument that all girls at Orthodox schools where their knees, chests and elbows are discussed ad nauseam, and where their bodies are glared at by staff to determine whether their clothes are too “immodest” or sexually revealing, are also victims of unwanted gaze and voyeurism. 

The responses to this post have been for the most part validating. But as we know, the blogosphere can be brutal, and Orthodox men who feel threatened by women’s words can be particularly obnoxious. One man wrote, on another thread, “The idea of modesty is exactly the opposite  — to take attention away from others’ bodies to their personalities and expressions of their souls.” This is the Orthodox party-line: that excessive emphasis on female body-cover actually “protects” women, even if that “protection” entails a rabbi standing at the door as girls walk into school and commenting on their knees and chests. A woman replied online with the cogent point that, “As a woman, constant harping on how you have to cover your elbows to protect the men is not much better than constant harping on how you have to show off for them.” 

But another man wrote to me privately: “Voyeurism is usually considered observing others while in a state of undress and engaging in private behavior in what they consider a private place. What you describe, while deeply inappropriate in its own right, is not voyeurism  — just as voyeurism is not rape, even though both involve violation. I say that not to minimize voyeurism but to distinguish.” He was trying to be nice, to give me advice about how to get guys to be less hostile. So I would just like to note that I’m really over men telling me I should change what I have to say in order to accommodate what some men are possibly willing to hear. I’m done with that. 

Nevertheless, his message got me thinking. The idea that voyeurism necessarily involves women who are naked is, I think, too narrow a definition. It’s not about women’s nudity, but women’s privacy. Someone who stands in your yard with binoculars aimed at your bedroom window is peeping, whether or not he actually catches you in a state of undress–and you will likely have the same feelings of unsafety either way. Mostly, though, it got me thinking about Madonna. The whole world has seen Madonna naked. And yet, she still experiences unwanted sharing of photos of her body as a painful invasion. It’s not always about contact. And it doesn’t necessarily involve nudity. What it involves is a man thinking of a woman’s body as his to watch, measure, glare at, comment on, photograph or share, independent of the woman’s desires. It’s the idea that a view of a woman’s body belongs to someone else other than the woman herself. 

All this reinforces my point: Orthodox girls who are constantly being watched and commented on are experiencing a form of voyeurism. We must stop viewing women’s bodies as part of the communal landscape and let women experience our bodies as our own.

Similar violations  — unwanted looking, rather than uninvited touching  — have been in the news with the reports surfacing of another rabbi outed as a voyeur, albeit of a slightly different sort. The parallels are clear for us to observe. This rabbi, Jonathan Rosenblatt, has been described in the New York Times and subsequently in the Jewish Week as having, for decades, invited pre-adolescent boys and young men to join him in a sauna and shower. Interesting in that he apparently did not typically touch the boys. He “just” asked them to strip naked, and many of the boys (now adults) describe what it meant for him to be looking at them up and down in their own vulnerability. This is what I have been writing about since the Freundel scandal: That we must pay more attention to the impact of sexual abuse that does not involve touching: non-violent, or non-contact sexual abuse. True, it’s not rape. But we shouldn’t let that statement lure us into the complacency that the damage isn’t real. Emotional abuse can be a very damaging thing. Emotional-sexual abuse can play with victims’ minds and spirits in very painful ways.