In recent weeks, we’ve been confronted with shocking, insulting and derogatory footage and language against women (by a presidential candidate!), and we’ve seen an outpouring of responses every which way we turn. People of all genders are deeply disturbed and offended. In a recent New York Times editorial, Frank Bruni writes “No human being — woman or man — should be regarded as a conquest or an amusement with a will subservient to someone else’s” www.nytimes.com/2016/10/12/opinion/daughters-and-trumps.html?emc=eta1&_r=0.
And Nicholas Kristoff’s recent weekly column opens with:
Is there a double standard for women in politics?
Imagine if it were Hillary Clinton who had had five children by three husbands, who had said it was fine to refer to her daughter as a “piece of ass,” who participated in a radio conversation about oral sex in a hot tub, who rated men based on their body parts, who showed up in Playboy soft porn videos.
Imagine if 15 men had accused Clinton of assaulting or violating them, with more stepping forward each day.
Imagine if Clinton had held a Mr. Teen USA pageant and then marched unannounced into the changing area to ogle the young bodies as some were naked and, after doing the same thing at a Mr. USA pageant, marveled on a radio show at what she was allowed to get away with.
Perhaps it’s is no coincidence that these events unfolded during the Jewish High Holy Days. “The ten days starting with Rosh Hashanah and ending with Yom Kippur are commonly known as the Days of Awe (Yamim Noraim) or the Days of Repentance. This is a time for serious introspection, a time to consider the sins of the previous year and repent before Yom Kippur.” (http://www.jewfaq.org/holiday3.htm), Our prayer books are filled with both ancient and modern prayers, words and passages that remind us of our responsibility to perform acts of social justice. And this year, at my synagogue, Congregation Hakafa, something unexpected took place. Actions transcended beyond the words on the pages in response to the unsettling misogyny unfolding in the media. On the eve of Kol Nidre, Rabbi Bruce Elder decided to place this holy service under the leadership of women, and asked Rabbi Ali Abrams to lead the service and give a personal reflection in his place (See Rabbi Abram’s reflection on moving from “disengagement to paying attention, from reacting to listening” on the JCAST blog spot.) The honor of holding the torahs was given to all past female presidents of the congregation. And at the end of the service was another act of solidarity by members of the congregation, who generously responded to the collection of tzedakah donations for the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation (http://caase.org/). On this eve of Kol Nidre, acts of intention against misogyny and in support of gender equality spoke louder than the words on our pages.
While acts can, at times, speak louder than words, we simply cannot deny or ignore the power of words, specifically the negative words or “ locker room talk” of any man who brags about groping or kissing women against their will, and later claims it was it just “talk” while allegations continues to surface. What does “locker room talk” have to do with sexual exploitation, the purchase of sex, and sex trafficking? Plenty! Such repugnant, disgusting, degrading talk reminds how often women are objectified in our society. Are the men who frequent Backpage.com and purchase sex from trafficked minors and adults the same ones who engage in “harmless” locker room talk? And what about their children? Are sons being reared to respect all genders as equals or to view women as objects to be critiqued, touched, groped and raped for a fee or for free? And are daughters being taught to view themselves as equals and respect one another as well as themselves? Can we find a silver-lining in this disturbing and unsettling language against women that promotes their sexual exploitation, including sex trafficking and the purchase of sex?
Personally, I’ve been subject to these kinds of derogatory for decades, since my early teens. It was as unsettling then as it is now. I’m ready to start talking about it in constructive ways. And I know I’m not alone. Are we ready to have these much-needed conversations in our homes, schools, places of faith and in our communities? How we think about gender equality and how we talk to each other does influence our actions. If we want to change cultural views on sexual exploitation, then we need to denounce words that objectify women and people of all genders whether we hear them inside or out of the confines of a locker room. When we don’t speak out and create positive models for our youth through our words and actions to promote respect and equality, then we are complicit. We are bystanders. On the other hand, when we stand up against words and actions that objectify any gender as dehumanizing and unacceptable, then we are one step closer to changing the way our culture views the sexual exploitation of all genders, and that includes the sex trafficking.
In closing, I highlight the unique preventative curriculum offered by Caleb Probst and the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation (CAASE): Empowering Young Men to End Sexual Exploitation, A Curriculum for High School Boys “The best way to address sexual exploitation is to prevent it from happening in the first place. Young men are exposed to a culture that stigmatizes women in prostitution, yet glamorizes pimping and patronizing the sex trade. CAASE has created and implemented the first curriculum in the country specifically designed to educate young men about the harms of prostitution and to enlist them as allies in the movement to end violence against women and girls. We have reached more than 2,300 students since the curriculum launched in 2010.” I encourage you to take a look: http://caase.org/prevention. May this New Year be filled with words and actions that promote respect and reject objectification of all genders, and move us one step closer to the change in culture we so desperately need in order to eradicate exploitation and promote gender equality.
Beth Gordon, JCAST Chicago, Steering Committee