I’ve been hearing and talking a lot about sexual abuse, like so many other people. And not only from the news, and not only from sharing stories of our lives, but also from reading Genesis. (Yes, I sound like a rabbinical student, don’t I?). What can I say, the Torah portion readings from the past two months have been swamped with stories of sexual impropriety – the pimping of Sara, the incest of Lot’s daughters, the rape of Dina, the using of Tamar by her father-in-law – just as in parallel, hundreds of stories of sexual abuse are being revealed in #MeToo stories. It’s coming at us from all sides. What happened thousands of years ago doesn’t seem that different from what is happening today.
But today, I’m reading a different kind of story. Preparing for the Torah portion that I’m reading tomorrow, I am learning about Joseph and Potiphar’s wife. (Or, as Andrew Lloyd Weber wrote in his musical, Joseph , “It’s all there in chapter 39 of Genesis.”) The millionaire’s wife, according to both the Bible and Weber, relentlessly hit on the head servant, Joseph. When he resisted and ran out into the street undressed, she quickly changed the story, framing him for assaulting her. Everyone believed her. Nobody believed him. Her story was understandable, as she is a woman. His was not, because he was a lowly servant. He went to prison. She went on.
It is the first recorded case of woman-instigated sexual harassment in the workplace, from over 3000 years ago, and the narrator is sympathetic to the male victim. How progressive.
The issue of women-instigated sexual abuse remains one of the last taboos in this ugly topic of sexual abuse. I understand why. I am also guilty of putting this topic on the back burner. I’ve done this because so much of sexual abuse has to do with the sexual objectification of women by men. It is part of a larger system in which men have disproportionate power to do this – men hold more positions of power, they often have better jobs and lots more money on the whole than women, as well as intricate formal and informal networks with which to sustain each other, as Harvey Weinstein was so well-kept by men in power all around the world. Injecting the reality that women do this, too, can be too distracting from that narrative. I don’t want to talk about it so much – even though I, too, have also been sexually harassed by a woman; even though so many women I know have been verbally-sexually harassed by women but may not even know it; even though I know all this to be true.
Despite all this, I have refrained from writing about women who abuse because I wanted to give the topic of men abusing women its crucial moment.
It’s having its moment. And so now I think it is time to talk about the women who abuse. As painful as that subject is.
Of course, some people have been talking about it for a while. The victims of Malka Leifer, an Australian headmaster who abused and raped the girls who were her students, have been courageously trying to bring Leifer to justice, fighting the Israeli government for extradition. (Why and how Israel protects sexual predators is another huge topic that I hope to write about more one day.) Leifer’s victims have come out of anonymity in order to tell this story, risking the wrath of social media as well as the ultra-Orthodox community that Leifer is part of, in order to tell their story. And one of the main things that they have been saying is that despite everything Leifer did to them, they had no language or understanding to be able to call this what it was. They were innocent, religious, teenage girls who knew the bare minimum about sex. And the concept of a woman sexually abusing girls was so beyond anything that they could comprehend that it took them many years to come to terms with it all.
Female-on-female sexual abuse does not even have to involve physical contact. Excessive body commentary with a sexual component is also abuse. Many women get asked if they are pregnant, or when they are planning on getting pregnant, or they get comments about their buttocks or their breasts or the way a dress snugs. One woman told me that her board chair asked her to remove her hair covering during a fundraising meeting – that is, to remove the hat she was wearing for religious reasons of modesty – because she looks better without the hat. That is no different from a male supervisor asking his employee to disrobe or uncover the hair that she covers every day. It just so happens that this boss was a woman making the demand.
So much of this female-initiated non-contact sexual abuse seems almost “normal”, if only because it is so common. It is not rape. And yet it can be debilitating. Some Jewish women’s organizations have been known to comment excessively on the weight of their execs, tell their execs to go on diets, send their execs to trainers, hairdressers or personal shoppers in order to help them “sculpt” their bodies. Although some women may be grateful for the investment, it can also have a deleterious effect on a woman’s self-concept in which she is valued for her appearance over her intelligence, professionalism and skill. Moreover, the emphasis on a woman’s appearance reinforces the sense that she is there for her ornamental value, as décor rather than as substance. I believe that the Jewish community has yet to truly examine the impact of excessive sexualized body commentary on women’s self-concept.
Meanwhile, men are sometimes victims, too. In one of the online #MeToo conversations that I’ve been following, a young man described sexual harassment in a very Potiphar’s-wife way. He reported that his female boss was coming on to him even from the interview stage. She inserted sexual innuendo into every conversation, repeatedly implied that she wanted to have an affair with him, whispered in his ear about having sex with him even during an important board meeting, and made the workplace impossible. Again, even though there was no physical contact involved, the impact of this harassment took a toll on his sense of self-worth and on his career trajectory, at least for a little while.
Sexual harassment is about power and hierarchy, perhaps more than it is about gender. Even Joseph could not have actually harassed Potiphar’s wife because she was his boss. It doesn’t work. Even a little unwanted come-on would have gotten him fired, and as the story played out, gotten him thrown in jail. The power dynamic is more significant than the genders of those involved.
Outside the workplace, women can also be sexual abusers, and can be very hard to explain, as Leifer’s victims demonstrates. One of the most vocal advocates about this in the Jewish community is Asher Lovy, a blogger, web manager at a fashion company, and director of Zaakah, a group that advocates for child sexual abuse. He is very open about the sexual abuse he suffered for many years from his mother. Some was physical abuse, but a lot of it was verbal and emotional. He breaks a lot of these taboos and provides a painfully vivid description of how women can sexually abuse.
I have been listening to other people, men and women, describe sexual abuse by women – sometimes emotionally violent and sometimes physically violent as well. Women caretakers who abuse their charges, mothers who aggressively break sexual boundaries, and women who think that because they are women, they can say anything, touch anywhere, it’s all okay. This is a very difficult topic to understand and to discuss, but it’s real, and we are here.
Perhaps the most difficult aspect of this is to understand how women can rape men. This really happens, because rape is not about physiological reactions but about violent, emotional control and the absence of consent. To understand more about this dynamic, I recommend this article which culls a series of narratives by men who were raped by women.
It is important to emphasize that women are still in the small minority among the pool of sexual abusers – although recent research suggests that the numbers may be larger than previously thought. Still, the statistics are not the whole story. I would not want to maintain a narrative that all perpetrators are men and all victims are women. It is simply not true, and it is a narrative that is damaging to victims, blocking the path of healing and justice.
One last point: Women can also be enablers of abuse committed by men. The UK community is dealing with the role of women in carrying out the marching orders of the “sex pest” men in government. One Tory, Brexit Minister Mark Garnier, used to have his secretary buy sex toys for the women he was hitting on, and called her “sugar tits”. She did the work, and this raises questions about the role of women like her in enabling others to abuse. Similarly, when women like Arianna Huffington or Lena Dunham defend men who are caught abusing women, they give the abusers power. And women’s complicity is exactly what has created the environment we are in now.
(And if I'm already mentioning Lena Dunham, let's not forget that what she called "playing" or "experimenting" with her sister's genitals is also sexual abuse. And how.)
As Suzanne Moore writes that, “For a long, long time certain men have taken such complicity for granted. But something is changing. Women are speaking out.” But we still need to address women’s roles in all this. And not to take for granted women’s automatic innocence, just because women are women.
Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman is a feminist thought-leader, anthropologist, and writer whose research and ideas help shape a vision for a compassionate society. She has published five books on gender in society, and today helps women amplify their own voices and find their power through Lioness Booksand Media. She coaches women through the writing process, edits, and ghost-writes women's books, and publishes women's writing through Lioness. She also speaks and consults with groups and organizations around the world on gender issues and women's experiences in the world. Would you like to schedule a chat? Contact her at email@example.com