The Lilith Blog 1 of 2

May 29, 2015 by

Voyeurism and the Yeshiva Girl

Madonna has got me thinking about Barry Freundel. To be honest, Madonna often gets me thinking about body, sexuality, and women’s power. I consider Madonna one of the most body-empowered women out there. She has full command of her body, and uses it as her artistic canvas. She can do anything she wants with it, put on any item of clothing and pose in any position, and the effect is one of power and ownership. I frequently find myself wondering whether she represents an ideal of body empowerment, whether on some level I should be teaching my daughters to admire and emulate her for her complete ownership of her life and seeming ability to do anything she wants. (Of course, then the Orthodox voice in my brain usually kicks in and reminds me of how far Madonna is from anything familiar to me in my own relationships with my body.)

Anyway, knowing this about Madonna, I was surprised to discover a few months ago that she took to twitter to express her anger that a photo of her was leaked without her permission. The photo was an unpolished image of her in bra and underwear, apparently in a dressing room. “This is a fitting photo I did not release,” she wrote. “I am asking my true fans and supporters who respect me as an artist and a human to not get involved with the purchasing trading or posting of unreleased images or music.” The reason I was surprised at her reaction was because the week before, she had done a topless photo shoot for a French magazine. It was a strange juxtaposition to me, that she would upset about this photo of her in her underwear when just days before the entire world just saw her undressed. 

But then I realized, it’s all about control, about power. The French shoot was her choice and with her direction. The leaked photo, despite everything Madonna had done, was still an invasion of her privacy.

I have been thinking about this the past few days since posting a blog about the impact of Freundel’s actions on his victims and on other practicing Jewish women. What I argued in this post is that there is a such thing as sexual abuse that does not involve physical contact, and that we should not dismiss the impact of this kind of abuse on its victims just because there was no sexual penetration. In fact, I wrote, that the recovery from this so-called non-violent abuse can be just as emotionally challenging as violent sexual abuse because of the way it plays with the victim’s mind.  

The sense of constantly being watched, even in one’s private moments, that there are eyes on your skin and on your form when you have not invited those eyes in, can be mentally, emotionally and spiritually debilitating. You play it over in your mind in unsuspecting moments, wondering why you feel so strange and uncomfortable, wondering why the whole world feels unsafe for you. I compared it to the experience that teenage girls often have when they “sext” with their boyfriends and then their boyfriends share the photos with the world: research shows that girls have a very difficult time recovering from this, and can find themselves dealing with depression, drugs, eating disorders and suicide. 

Finally, I made the controversial argument that all girls at Orthodox schools where their knees, chests and elbows are discussed ad nauseam, and where their bodies are glared at by staff to determine whether their clothes are too “immodest” or sexually revealing, are also victims of unwanted gaze and voyeurism.

The responses to this post have been for the most part quite validating, and I have received a bunch of messages from people thanking me for saying this out loud. But as we know, the blogosphere can be brutal, and Orthodox men who feel threatened by women’s words can be particularly obnoxious. (I have way too much experience at the receiving end of the vitriol to contain in under 1,000 words.) Some guy wrote on a thread, “What a disgusting statement. It’s time for people who have a preexisting problem with Halacha to stop using a painful case to advance their own agenda.” I get this all the time, the complete dismissal of a point under the guise of “She doesn’t believe in halakha so don’t listen to her.” (For the record, I didn’t mention halakha anywhere in the article – and I never claimed to be a halakhist. My training is in education and sociology). Then he wrote, “The idea of modesty is exactly the opposite—to take attention away from others’ bodies to their personalities and expressions of their souls.” This is the Orthodox party-line: that excessive emphasis on female body-cover actually “protects” women, even if that “protection” entails a rabbi standing at the door as girls walk into school and commenting on their knees and chests. A woman replied with the cogent point that, “As a woman, constant harping on how you have to cover your elbows to protect the men is not much better than constant harping on how you have to show off for them.” 

This thread continued with 20 or 30 more comments, but I stopped reading, mostly because it’s too hard to watch men like the commenter I’ve quoted be so consistently awful and unresponsive in conversations about women’s real experiences. 

Still, the original poster wrote to me privately to support this fellow. “Voyeurism is usually considered observing others while in a state of undress and engaging in private behavior in what they consider a private place.  What you describe, while deeply inappropriate in its own right, is not voyeurism—just as voyeurism is not rape, even though both involve violation. I say that not to minimize voyeurism but to distinguish.” He was trying to be nice, to give me advice about how to get guys to be less hostile, as if that is even possible. So I would just like to note that I’m really over men telling me I should change what I have to say in order to accommodate what some men are possibly willing to hear. I’m done with that.

Nevertheless, his message got me thinking. This idea that voyeurism necessarily involves women who are naked is, I think, too narrow of a definition. It’s not about women’s nudity, but women’s privacy. A guy who stands in your yard with binoculars aimed at your bedroom window is peeping, whether or not he actually got you in a state of undress – and you will likely have the same feelings of unsafety either way. Mostly, though, it got me thinking about Madonna. The whole world has seen Madonna naked. And yet, she still experiences the unwanted sharing of photos of her body as a painful invasion. That speaks volumes about what body invasion looks like. It’s not always about contact. And it doesn’t even necessarily involve nudity. What it involves is a man thinking of a woman’s body as his own to watch, measure, glare at, comment on, photograph or share according to his own desires, rather than according to a woman’s desires. It’s the idea that a view of a woman’s body belongs to someone else other than her.  

All this confirms my main point, which was that girls who are constantly being watched and commented on are experiencing a form of voyeurism. The Orthodox community is so accustomed to considering this kind of behavior normal. But then, the community should not be surprised at the increased incidence of eating disorders and depression among Orthodox women. The connection, I believe, should be obvious. I think the Orthodox community should start to acknowledge that Orthodox girls and women are at risk. And the healing can start by making sure that we stop viewing women’s bodies as part of the communal landscape and letting women experience our bodies as our own.