Monday, November 23, 2009

Women as Sex Objects

The attitudes about sexual modesty in Orthodoxy are clearly designed to prohibit men from focusing on a woman’s sexuality. But is that the result? Or does it have an opposite effect? Do modesty laws cause one to actually focus more on sexuality? And why are women not treated in the same way as men? Why do Chazal not legislate similar restrictions in dress for men? Do women not have the same sex drives as men? Are men not seen by women in the same way as men see women?

These are questions that deserve more than a cursory answer. Here is what an Orthodox Nice Jewish Girl’ said in her blog:

Am I the only woman who feels extremely awkward and sexualized interacting with a chareidi man? I do. No matter how conservatively I'm dressed, no matter how demure I am, I always feel sexually exposed. The very act of insisting that I dress "modestly" accentuates rather than conceals my sexuality. It separates and displays my sexuality, rather than letting it recede into the background.

As a group Charedim are more sensitized to sexual modesty issues than other populations. As such their reaction to the sight of an attractive woman might be perceived by her in 'extreme awkwardness'. But Tznius is Halacha based. All of Orthodoxy must adhere to certain standards of Tznius. Even if Charedim might react to it in an exaggerated manner.

The focus on modesty makes Nice Jewish Girl feel like a sex object. And I believe there is a certain validity to her thinking. Not that Orthodoxy defines women as sex objects. Quite the contrary. Orthodox Judaism sees women as an equal partner with men in their endeavor to be members of holy nation - each with their own role - in service to God.

But when it comes to modesty laws it is about women as sex objects.

Is that sexist? I don’t think so. It is just recognition of human nature. Although men are forbidden to see women in sexual ways outside of marriage – the Torah recognizes that the male libido – or sex drive - doesn’t work that way. Men do look at women in sexual ways when given the opportunity.

One of the ways in which women can be seen as sex objects is in their manner of dress. The more provocatively a woman dresses - the more likely it is that a man will see her as a sex object. It’s not that he should. It’s not that he wants to. It’s just that he does. Men are visually oriented. They react to visual stimuli much more than women do. Women of course have a libido too. They see men sexually. But their attraction to men is not as visual. This can be demonstrated quite clearly in western culture.

There is an advertising slogan that spells it out: Sex sells! If one looks at the world of advertising, one will note a heavy emphasis on attractive women. Those ads clearly address men. And the more provocative the ad – the more attention it will get – from men. On the other hand the idea of a provocatively dressed man in an ad is nonexistent. Women will generally not focus on such ads.

Another demonstration of the differences between male and female libidos is pornography. It is almost all geared to men. There seems to be a limitless number of pornographic magazines for men. How many are there for women?

This is not just a function of secular culture. The most religious men in Orthodoxy are just as attracted to the visual as as are men in general society.

No greater proof of that phenomenon is the unfortunate fact that even in the world of the right wing Yeshiva student- men who are dating will often insist on dating a ‘size 2’. That is a dress size.

Not that men know dress sizes. But they do know ‘thin’. And a Shadchan knows dress sizes. Most women - religious or secular - rarely make physical appearance a condition of dating. Of course no one wants’ to date a slob. But the basic requirement is that a potential date looks… ‘Mentchlich’ (for lack of a better word).

I sometimes wonder if women as a rule understand the sexual nature of men. An attractive young woman who feels like a sex object is not imagining things. Complaints that it isn’t right are justified. Of course it isn’t. Women should never be treated as sex objects. But the truth is that most men must work very hard to overcome seeing a beautiful woman dressed provocatively and not think of her in sexual terms.

I think this explains these comments in Nice Jewish Girl's blog:

I speak with men all the time - for work / school / day-to-day stuff, etc. In all of the those interactions, I feel viewed as a full person (skirt not withstanding), viewed first and foremost in whatever capacity necessitates the interaction - I am a teacher, colleague, customer, etc. Sure, to some extent or another the person I'm interacting with knows that I am more than simply my role at the moment, but it's not important to the situation, so there is no focus on it.

At a certain point, covering my body increases attention to my sexuality, rather than on my whole self.

Well – yes it does. And it is true that context is a major factor in how the sexes interact. But context does not change human nature. If a woman comes to a meeting dressed provocatively she will be noticed for that as much as anything she has to say – if not more so.

I think that many women do not realize that. They want to be as attractive as they can be and that perhaps context will override the male sex drive. Men should therefore not react sexually to it. But that isn’t what happens. That in the vast majority of such situations men do not react to it is a function of societal conditioning and self restraint. Men have as rule learned to behave themselves in the public square. But the truth is the provocative manner of dress often does provoke erotic thoughts in most men. It is just their nature.

So I guess my answer to ‘Nice Jewish Girl’ is yes - modesty codes do over focus on female sexuality. Women are seen by this Halacha as sex objects. But the alternative is to let society dictate modesty standards.

Our current societal standards have led to a culture of sexual promiscuity where many a good man has fallen victim to his own libidinous nature. And the Orthodox community is not immune from it either. Even though infidelity can and does happen in even the most religiously modest environment – the chances of it happening in an overly sexualized environment has to be far greater than it is in one that insists on dressing modestly .

There are other factors that contribute to infidelity. But one cannot in all sincerity overlook the sex drive of men and the provocative way in which many modern women dress in the public square as a huge component of this phenomenon. And we ought to acknowledge that religious codes of modesty help prevent it.

Updated: 5:19PM CST