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What the Torah says about sexual assault

Author:
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By Sofia Heller

Content Note: Sexual assault, sexual violence, rape

“Dustin Hoffman accused of sexual assault.” “Mario Batali Tells Fans: Sorry for the Sexual Assault, Here’s a Cinnamon Roll Recipe.” “More Women Accuse Russell Simmons Of Rape, Sexual Assault.” “California Democratic Party official resigns after rape, misconduct allegations.” “Former Intern Accuses Wyoming’s Secretary of State of Sexual Assault.” “Houston firefighter arrested for sexual assault of teen.” “No charges for alleged sexual assault at Kansas basketball dorm.”

These headlines are only a few in the recent surge of coverage about sexual violence. The avalanche of sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape allegations over the past few months – catalysed by the sexual harassment and assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein – make it clear that sexual violence is a problem deeply embedded in our society; it even finds credence in Judaism’s foundational text, the Torah.

Deuteronomy 22:28-29 says, “If a man comes upon a virgin who is not engaged and he seizes her and lies with her, and they are discovered, the man who lay with her shall pay the girl’s father fifty [shekels of] silver, and she shall be his wife. Because he has violated her, he can never have the right to divorce her.”

In other words, the Torah determines that a rapist must marry his victim, thus framing it as punishment for the rapist. The wording in the last sentence – “he can never have the right to divorce her” – makes it seem like we’re supposed to feel bad that the rapist is trapped in this marriage. No part of this passage recognises that the person truly being punished in this type of arrangement is the victim – a disturbing example of the Torah’s patriarchal views and authorship.

If the Torah had been written by women, I’m pretty certain that marriage between a rapist and victim wouldn’t be conveyed as punishment for the rapist, and this type of “punishment” probably wouldn’t have appeared at all. The text, as it is written, completely erases the woman’s victimhood and trauma, and, while framing it as a punishment, actually gives all of the power and privilege to the rapist. To add insult to injury, the text makes it seem like the woman benefits from this type of arrangement, when in reality, we know that couldn’t be further from the truth.

This text illustrates the great importance of being aware of who has a voice and who doesn’t; who gets to tell stories, and who isn’t given a voice. The recent flood of sexual violence allegations as well as the #MeToo movement represent women seizing control of the narrative, and that’s extremely significant. However, there remain those voices that sympathise with the predators because of how they’re being punished, just as the Torah does, when it’s the survivors who should finally be receiving the sympathy and support they deserve.

In the aforementioned headlines, there’s an emphasis on men in positions of power who have taken advantage of women beneath them in rank. These men seem to feel that they are invincible, and they have a basis for feeling so entitled. Companies and even whole industries often work to protect men who have been accused of sexual violence. Women are intimidated or threatened into staying quiet. We see this in the Torah as well. After all, since women are forced to marry their rapists, staying silent is theoretically a way to avoid that fate.

While these past few months are not, by any means, the first time women have come forward to speak out against their attackers, hopefully the mass media attention and the actual punishments we’re starting to see represent a positive shift in our society – a shift away from the type of male privilege we see in the Torah, privilege born of a patriarchal system that’s intentionally designed to benefit men and oppress women. These allegations, and subsequent repercussions, serve as a new message that sexual violence will no longer be tolerated and that sexual predators will no longer be protected.

This content has been provided by the Jewish Women’s Archive

We must never look the other way

Author:
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By Kaylen Forsyth

Content note: Sexual assault, violence against women and girls

People often look out of the window to avoid the problems sat right in front of them. When there is something in need of addressing, we tend to plunge into an irrelevant stream of thought in order to dismiss the matters at hand. Society has reached a point where it would rather silence the oppressed than cut down the roots of the oppressors. Or, injustices are ignored completely.

Ignorance, of course, feels infinitely more comfortable than protest. However, within those reactionary walls of ignorance and comfort, we are only incubating inequality. We are creating conditions in which true change can never occur.

In the past few weeks, the issue of widescale sexual harassment has come to public attention. One high-profile case (the sexual assaults carried out by film producer Harvey Weinstein) has led to many more people speaking out about their own experiences. The accounts were both harrowing and inspiring to read. On the one hand, I was saddened to be reminded that patriarchal power structures still exist that allow this kind of abuse to happen so easily. At the same time, listening to these immensely brave people speak so openly about their trauma was sobering indeed.

Initially, it seemed as though everyone’s stories were taken seriously. There was active effort to make people feel comfortable enough to share. Reading Lea Seydoux’s distressing retelling of her encounters with Weinstein highlighted a sad truth: so many women are made to feel vulnerable, and there are malicious, exploitative men who are eager to capitalise on that vulnerability. The upside that manifested out of these heart-breaking stories was the fact that a discussion had now begun. For a brief moment, I allowed myself to believe that the days of sexual assault being something to hide or keep to oneself were nearly over.

My optimism was ruined very quickly. I had the displeasure of catching a short glimpse of a popular UK panel show – Have I Got News For You. A panel of incredibly privileged men were openly laughing and making light of sexual assault cases. The only female panellist, Jo Brand, was left to defend the seriousness of the situation. Ian Hislop (editor of popular UK political publication Private Eye) made a patronising comment regarding sexual harassment – ‘Some of this is not high level crime, is it?’ – and Jo quipped back: “If I can just say, as the only representative of the female gender here today… I know it’s not high level, but it doesn’t have to be high level for women to feel under siege… And actually, for women, if you’re constantly being harassed, even in a small way, that builds up and it wears you down.”

I admired Jo’s boldness and the accuracy of her comment. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed and disheartened by the fact she had to intercept in the first place. The fact that a group of adult men had failed to understand the severity of sexual harassment on any scale was demoralising. I had thought the entertainment world was making significant progress toward recognising the abuses of power happening behind its closed doors. This seemed like a tragic step back – to have comedians deriding the struggles of women who had been maltreated and exploited. I was outraged.

It may appear like a small issue – a group of men laughing – but the problem runs deeper. A society that can laugh at women speaking out about their discomfort is a society that promotes their oppression. If a panel of comedians can joke about cases of sexual assault, then anybody watching the show at home who may have been a victim in the past will no doubt feel reluctant to speak out and seek help. It’s a violent cycle that needs to end immediately. I wish for all future cases of sexual assault to be treated with the utmost humanity and integrity. No matter the scale. I never want to see a panel of grown men make snide comments about the suffering of women again.

Toxic masculinity fuels this kind of childish, unwarranted behaviour. It is also the reason why so many male victims of sexual assault are made to feel like they shouldn’t speak out. An inundation of groundless patriarchal ideals tells them they should remain quiet. Women are certainly not the only victims of sexual assault to be recognised recently. Actor Anthony Rapp told how Kevin Spacey made sexual advances towards him when he was only 14 years old. This is horrifying to imagine and Rapp’s courage is admirable. The masculine ideals that lead to a culture of shame surrounding male rape and assault need to be fully dismantled.

Obviously, this is not just an issue occurring in Hollywood. Sexual assault happens everywhere. There is a worry that the current discussion ignores issues outside of Hollywood and parliament. Because those who have come forward are privileged in terms of class and wealth, it is essential that people from less privileged backgrounds are not left behind. Many women’s organisations are closing or facing the possibility of closure due to austerity measures. People who rely on these kinds of centres do not have the same platform as multi award-winning celebrities to voice their experiences and gain mass support. They do not have that privilege. Minority groups and working classes cannot be left by the wayside. Patriarchy can’t only cause outrage when it’s happening in The Weinstein Company, it has to cause outrage when it’s happening in the local pub or on the street corner as well.

An end must come to the atmosphere of terror we live in, an atmosphere that means women fear being seen or noticed in case that means being hurt. It is not appropriate to deride anybody with the courage to come forward. Nobody should ever feel embarrassed or ashamed about what has happened to them. Right now there is a real chance for change. Everyone has a responsibility toward each other; we must listen and give support… we should never look the other way again.
Help Line Numbers and Sites Available for Support (UK) –

Help after a sexual assault or rape – https://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/Sexualhealth/Pages/Sexualassault.aspx

Find a Rape/Sexual Assault referral centre-
https://www.nhs.uk/Service-Search/Rape%20and%20sexual%20assault%20referral%20centres/LocationSearch/364

NSPCC Helpline: 0808 800 5000 (24 hours, every day)

https://www.nspcc.org.uk/

https://www.nspcc.org.uk/preventing-abuse/child-abuse-and-neglect/grooming/

Rape Crisis-

Helpline: 0808 802 9999 (12-2:30 and 7-9:30)

https://rapecrisis.org.uk/

Support for Victims-

Victim Support Supportline: 0808 168 9111

https://www.victimsupport.org.uk/crime-info/types-crime/rape-and-sexual-assault
RASAC (Rape and Sexual Abuse Support Centre) National Helpline: 0808 802 9999 (12-2.30 & 7-9.30)
http://www.rasasc.org.uk/
The Survivors Trust Helpline: 0808 801 0818

http://thesurvivorstrust.org/
Help Line Numbers and Sites Available for Support (US) –

Help after a sexual assault or rape –

https://www.rainn.org/get-help

RAINN Helpline: 800.656.HOPE (4673), open 24/7

https://www.rainn.org/about-national-sexual-assault-telephone-hotline

Sexual assault helpline – 1800 010 120

http://www.dvconnect.org/sexual-assault-helpline-2/

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