My first confrontation with sexual harassment was not on the streets but within my small Modern Orthodox high school. As I walked down the hallways, its walls decorated with quotes from prominent rabbinical figures and pictures of students bent over Judaic texts, I heard my name being called alongside whistles and jeers, crude language and gestures, and comments on my body and clothes. The harassment even followed me into the classroom, where I had such difficulty concentrating that my grades slipped. Yet while I certainly felt hurt, and scared enough that I avoided interaction with a number of perpetrators as often as possible, I had no language to describe the crimes being committed against me. I had never been given an opportunity to learn about consent; the closest thing to sex-education my high school offered was a three-day series of “kallah classes,” (bridal classes) two of which were spent learning the Jewish laws concerning a married woman’s menstruation and the last of which was spent on a field trip to the mikveh (ritual bath). I had never heard the term sexual harassment, and perhaps more importantly, I had never learned that I had a right to be uncomfortable with it and stand up for myself. Without this understanding, I remained a victim of harassment for years.
An appreciation of both the severity of the sexual crimes one may be committing and that of the crimes committed against them is dependent upon comprehension of bodily autonomy and the constant relevancy of consent. When institutions responsible for educating young people neglect to ensure that they recognize consent or a lack thereof, they indirectly facilitate sexual transgressions. The importance of actively protecting against such ignorance is particularly relevant in light of these students’ age-appropriate vulnerability. Yet my Orthodox school is only one of many that toss the subject out of their curriculum with the rest of sex-ed.
One argument frequently used by Orthodox schools against sex-education is that it crosses their value of adhering to the Jewish laws against premarital touching. Even while studies show a positive correlation between abstinence-based sex-education and sexual promiscuity among teens, their reasoning does not waver. When it comes to teaching about consent, however, these schools’ claim justifying a deliberate absence of sex-education from their curriculum is irrelevant regardless of whether or not it inspires premarital touching. Teaching about consent in terms of its inviolability has nothing to do with exposing kids to information about sex and everything to do with Orthodox Jewish values. Rather than potentially tempting students to violate laws against premarital touching, it seeks to protect against such sexual contact, including verbal confrontations with crude sexual references. It is, arguably, even implied in various mitzvot (commandments).
For example, the Talmud famously instructs a father to teach his son, among other things, a trade and how to swim — the larger idea essentially being to teach those dependent on you for survival the skills they need to survive on their own. Schools are likewise subject to this commandment. A school’s purpose, after all, is to instill in their students the knowledge they need to succeed in their education and in life outside of it; such knowledge includes an understanding of bodily autonomy and the importance of consent. Schools cannot simply relegate their pedagogical responsibilities to parents; they must assume that not all parents are providing their children with such vital information and teach it to their students themselves.
Furthermore, teaching about consent is a key component of protecting against sexual abuse and assault not only within the school but also throughout students’ lives. Ingraining in youth a value of respect for bodily autonomy has a twofold positive effect: it illustrates how one can know when to seek help as victims of sexual crimes, and it insists on an agreement not to be the perpetrators of those crimes. If Orthodox schools aim to produce young men and women who live righteous and fulfilling lives — or, as my school’s motto phrased it, “inspire bnei and bnot Torah to thrive in the modern world” — then they must provide their students with all relevant life skills, including an understanding of consent.
Years after my first confrontation with sexual harassment, and after a post-high school sexual assault, I conducted my own independent research until I finally found someone who told me what I needed to hear: “What happened to you has a name. It is wrong. And it is never, ever your fault.” The nature of that experience highlights something fundamentally wrong: a system that leaves teens to fend for themselves, utterly alone in emotional turmoil. Helping to prevent sexual harassment, assault, rape, and abuse should not be a second thought. It is a matter of ethics. It is a matter of protecting those who need it most.
With enough distance and maturity, I am learning to move past my own harassment and assault. But while Orthodox schools continue to abstain from the conversation about consent, they are only allowing for more.