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Ex-Orthodox Women Must Learn To Say No. Ex-Orthodox Men Must Learn To Listen

Recently, news broke that three women who had left the ultra-Orthodox community alleged that they were sexually assaulted by a man who also had left that community. As a woman who also left that world, I found the story devastatingly familiar.

A few years ago I co-produced an informal survey of 59 women who had gone “off the derech” (OTD). The survey was produced through SurveryMonkey and shared on the Footsteps listserv and on Facebook. We encouraged all women to take the survey, but it was clear that we were collecting data about sexual assault, which may have led to some selection bias. Nevertheless, though non-scientific, the survey was telling.

We found we OTD women had rates of sexual assault three times those of the general population. Sixty three percent of our respondents had been raped or assaulted at least twice. Twenty six percent had been raped or assaulted three or more times.

Ultra-Orthodox girls are taught to obey fathers, husbands, male rabbis, and a male God. Thousands of laws of modesty strip autonomy from the female body and remind us that we are merely and mostly sexual objects to be controlled by the law of men. This causes plenty of problems within the ultra-Orthodox community, but the damage doesn’t stop there. Once a woman leaves and tries to navigate the broader sexual freedoms of the secular world, this training leaves her highly vulnerable to assault.

I, myself, have been raped twice, though there have been numerous other incidents that did not quite make the cut. As an OTD woman in my twenties, my interactions with men sometimes resembled those of a secular woman, but were built on an entirely different cultural physics. In an instant, I could find myself spinning out from an innocuous flirtation into a spiral of terrifying trauma, a shift whose logic would be nearly impossible to understand for someone not part of the nightmare.

Lux Alptraum recently wrote about this gray zone, in which a woman might unenthusiastically participate in sex without ever expressing her unwillingness. She uses the term “dubious consent”: when women feel pressured into saying yes to sex by either their partner, their culturally ingrained need to please, or reactivations of previous trauma.

OTD women, groomed to appease men, seem particularly vulnerable to these encounters.

It seems to me that while men have a responsibility to obtain fair consent, women have a responsibility to improve our strength to vocalize the word “no.” We need to educate our daughters, our sisters, our friends, and ourselves to identify moments of agency in flirtations and sex where we can say no. We need to train ourselves to say that word and stand by it. We need to act it out, shout it out, practice it, until the word becomes ours. This is essential for OTD women, who may have received steep punishment for saying the word no to a man in other contexts in their religious past. There’s a great deal that needs to be unlearned.

Buying a first pair of jeans or reading a first line of Nietzsche can be a monumental accomplishment for an OTD individual, but these are nothing compared to the task of extracting the toxic ultra-Orthodox ideas about sexuality and agency that are implanted in the brains of both women and men. To adjust to the secular world requires a brave and bloody series of self-performed neurosurgeries.

The fact that the alleged perpetrator in this latest story is “one of us” makes the incident more painful, but frankly I am surprised that it took so long for something like this to come to light. There have always been troubling issues of gender politics amongst OTD people.

OTD men face their own challenges when they leave the ultra-Orthodox community. While OTD women often struggle to shake off the impulse to avoid upsetting men and serve them at all costs, OTD men struggle to shake off the image of women as either trifling or terrifying sexual objects. It can be difficult for OTD men to understand that a woman’s expression of sexual freedom is not an invitation to sex. It can be even more difficult when that woman is OTD. Her fashion, attitudes, and personality, a mix of religious and secular, may cross wires for the man who can see both, causing him to read her not as an average secular woman but as the most wanton of religious women, on the prowl for sexual adventure.

Of course, many OTD men are nothing like this: they have learned how to treat women with dignity. But too many OTD men are.

Attempts to address issues of misogyny in the OTD community face obstacles similar to those we now see playing out on the national stage. Most OTD men have suffered terribly. Many have been abused. While there are no statistics that relate specifically to the OTD community, significant anecdotal evidence suggests a consistent level of abuse – mirroring the wave of sexual abuse scandals that have plagued the haredi community in recent years.

OTD men are often victims of oppressive yeshiva systems, forced marriages, and stifling gender norms. They have rarely received much secular education or job training. They have often lost family, friends, and jobs. At the very least, they have fallen from a position of power in a closed patriarchal community to a position of helplessness in their new, more egalitarian world.

Yet an OTD man’s gender still gives him an element of privilege in both the world he came from and the new world he has arrived into. I imagine that my frustration in conveying this to some OTD men mirrors the emotions many feel in trying to talk about white privilege to low-income white men. It is sometimes hard for someone who has suffered to understand that they also have institutionalized advantages that may, if left unexamined, disrupt their ability to act in a moral and just way in the world.

As we insist that men take responsibility for sexual assault, I believe it’s important to avoid the general framing of the epidemic as the fault of monstrous rapists. The act of rape is monstrous, but rapists themselves are not monsters. They are people we love: our sons, our brothers, our fathers, our friends. Demonizing rapists as monsters, as frequently occurs in Facebook discussions, alienates the very men we need to reach, who don’t see themselves in those characterizations. More importantly, in reducing a man who rapes to his crime, we reduce his ability to choose differently in the future. The way to bring men into a conversation about rape is, as our Christian friends say, to hate the sin and love the sinner.

This is particularly true for OTD men, who have been so hindered by their upbringings that they may require profound patience and education in order to understand how to act in a just and moral way.

Sex is messy. I myself have given “dubious consent” too many times, in encounters that have haunted me for years. But certain bright lines must be respected. Rape is rape. Insisting that a person take responsibility for their mistakes is one of the greatest and most difficult acts of love. And it is the only way the community as a whole can heal.

I have seen many OTD people shy away from the word rape even when they should rightly claim it. While it is true that the word is sometimes used too carelessly, such frivolous accusations are far rarer than some men suggest. Everybody exiting the ultra-Orthodox world (and certainly everybody within that world) needs a basic education on the concepts of sexuality, sexual agency, and consent. Every person leaving ultra-Orthodoxy should insist on acquiring that education, and any group attempting to serve this population should insist on providing it as a prerequisite of service.

Some OTD people are upset that this issue is getting attention, but I think it’s an important moment for OTD individuals and groups to re-examine our understanding of sexual agency, to work to support each other, and to bring our hard-earned conclusions to the national debate on these subjects.

Leah Vincent is the author of “Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After My Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood” and the co-author of “Legends of the Talmud: A Collection of Ancient Magical Jewish Tales”.

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