Thursday, April 06, 2017

Sexual Harassment, Consent, and Coed Schools

Illustration from the Forward
After reading this article in the Forward , my first thoughts were that its author, Brocha Shanes, should never have attended a coed school. Brocha complains that there is not enough sex education (if any) taught in religious schools. That may be true. But her particular focus was on the concept of consent. Which means that no human being has the right to engage sexually with another without their permission.  

Teaching about consent seems to be almost ignored in religious coeducational high schools. And I can understand why. Halacha forbids intimate relations between the sexes outside of marriage. And even then only when the Halachic requirement of Taharas HaMishpacha (i.e the use of a Mikva) is observed (The details of which are beyond the scope of this post). 

Included in this prohibition are many sub-laws - one of which is the prohibition of any physical contact at all between a man and a woman. In modern Orthodox circles this is referred to as being Shomer Negia. (No touching.)

I assume that since this Halacha is so strongly ingrained into the minds of our young students  the idea of consent is a non starter. There can be no consent since such activity is forbidden even if there is consent.

And yet Brocha Shanes experienced sexual harassment while a student in a religious modern Orthodox high school. Now I don’t know the exact nature of that harassment. But if she’s talking about consent, I have to assume it was more than the ‘whistles and jeers, crude language and gestures, and comments on (her) body and clothes’ that she described experiencing in her school. Some of it might have been physical. What about the laws against physical contact between the sexes? It seems that far too often they are observed in the breach in these circles.

I hasten to add that many – hopefully even most students do not engage in such behavior. But based on Brocha’s experience far too many do.

Teaching young people in high schools about consent might work to avoid harassment. But there is a much better way to eliminate this problem. I have always been opposed to coed religious high schools. Not because there is anything technically wrong with them. Halacha can and should be observed in such an environment.  And many students do. But it cannot be denied that puberty breeds sexual awareness and the feelings that go along with that.

Teenagers are especially vulnerable to these feelings. I know this because believe it or not, I was once a teenager. And I remember…  

What often happens in a coed school is that relationships develop and the desire to have some sort of physical contact is difficult to overcome. Generally teenagers have not yet learned how to fully control those desires. While many are able to, some are not. That rarely leads to a full sexual relationship in high school, although it can and does happen. But even short of that, (and without going into detail) there is often physical contact of a sexual nature that is still clearly forbidden by Halahca. 

That doesn’t surprise me. Even if they are strongly cautioned by their parents and religious teachers not to engage in physical activity, the desire to do so can and often does override it. Consent isn't even an issue.

That's why religious schools do not talk about consent. Because that implies that as long as there is consent – it’s OK. Which it is not. 

It is because of the human nature I just described that I oppose coed high schools.But that is not the only reason. A coeducational classroom distracts young people with raging hormones from the task at hand – their studies. Which is what they should be focused upon instead of worrying about whether the boy or girl sitting next to them will go out with them on a Saturday night.

If a young man or woman has added to their plate all the social pressures involved in a coeducational structure, their studies can easily suffer. But more importantly, the constant interaction between these young men and women can and often does lead to inappropriate behavior. With or without consent.

Why put these young men and women with their newly raging hormones in a position that can lead to all of these problems? Why not avoid the social climate of the coed classroom so that students can avoid those distractions and instead better focus on their studies?

Well, there is a counter argument. And it does have some merit. Putting young men and women together in the classroom teaches them the social graces and how to interact with each other. Without such exposure a young man or woman will not be able to learn how to properly do that. Making the male female encounter awkward. At least at first .  

After all – the argument goes – will they not be living in the real world where male female encounters are an everyday affair? What better place to learn how to do that than in a religious school - under the guidance and tutelage of their teachers? That might be true. But for me it is outweighed by the aforementioned pitfalls. 

There is plenty of opportunity to learn how to properly socialize with the opposite sex outside the classroom. Whether at family gatherings; or at a Kiddush at Shul; or at a wedding; or at a Bar Mitzvah. 

That being said, I am not in favor of abolishing coed religious schools. There is still a need. There are many parents who insist that their children attend a coed school and will not send their children to a religious school that is not coed under any circumstances. They will send them to public school. There are also special circumstances for individual children that should be sent to a coed school - even if the parents are opposed to coed schools. (What circumstances those may be are also beyond the scope of this post.)

For these reasons the religious community (from right to left) needs to support coed religious schools despite the pitfalls. But in the ideal, a coed high school is something that should be avoided. If Brocha Shanes had attended an all girl’s high school, I think she would have been spared the experiences she had. And her grades would not have suffered.