DOREEN WACHMANN COLUMN
Women’s mixed messages fuelled cases of sex abuse

SHOMER negiah refers to the laws — kept by Orthodox Jews — of not touching a person of the opposite sex, unless it is a close relative.

Up till recently, this concept has only been discussed within Orthodox circles with the assumption that the general public would not be able to grasp its purpose.

But since the eruption of the Weinstein sex abuse scandal and its offshoots all over the world, the question of when touching becomes abuse has become the constant subject of TV breakfast shows.

Whether it was OK for former defence secretary Sir Michael Fallon to touch journalist Julia Hartley-Brewer on the knee is a question to which no one, except the rabbis, seem to know the answer.

One thing that halacha does on this subject is to set clear boundaries which attempt to guarantee the personal space of women from abuse.

Some may regard the laws as far too extreme. For example, the prohibition against shaking the hand of a member of the opposite sex, the refusal of a man to sit next to a woman in a plane or a bus and totally segregated simchot in which one never gets the chance to catch up with one’s male relatives.

But it is possible to keep the essence of the law with some flexibility.

For instance, I will not volunteer my hand but neither will I refuse an outstretched male hand, deeming that to be extremely insulting. After all, a handshake is a mere formality, not a sexual act, and some more lenient rabbis, make allowances for this.

Also there are degrees of separation at simchot. Some chassidim don’t even have the bride and bridegroom sitting together at their own wedding.

Others have the bride and bridegroom next to each other, but everyone else in segregated seating, and yet others have mixed seating but separate dancing.

What is important is that people are aware of boundaries which protect women’s personal space.

They are by no means foolproof. Human nature is such that there are always people who break laws, but that does not mean that the laws should be abolished.

But in general society it is no wonder that there have suddenly come to light so many alleged cases of sexual abuse because for decades women have been sending men very mixed messages.

One of the outcomes of the sexual and feminist revolutions of the 1960s was the desire of women for total sexual equality. The birth control pill allowed women to be just as sexually promiscuous as men and the fashion industry cashed in rapidly on this phenomenon until even toddlers’ clothes became sexy.

For decades women have been deliberately dressing to sexually attract men and have been keen to show that they are just as keen to jump into bed as their male counterparts.

These commonly accepted behaviour patterns do not excuse rape or sexual abuse, but they do definitely blur the lines which can only be established with a moral sexual code like that of halacha.

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