Tag : #MeToo

October 3, 2018 by

“I Wasn’t the Only One.”

Screen Shot 2018-10-03 at 12.22.31 PMThis fall marks one year since the story of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein’s sordid conduct broke. Weinstein’s downfall, after years of apparent impunity, freed many people who’d been sexually victimized—but had been too ashamed, frightened or confused to talk about it—to come forward and tell what had happened to them.

In the wake of the Weinstein scandal and its revelations, allegations of abuse and mistreatment of women by men holding power over them came thick and fast: a famous chef, a comedian, a career-maker in the art world. And then the 150 female gymnasts, including Olympic star Aly Raisman, gave “impact statements” at the trial of former Olympic team physician Larry Nassar, sentenced in January 2018 to up to 175 years in prison.

Alongside these big stories lighting up mainstream media, thousands of less-noticed allegations were also emerging via Twitter and Facebook. Through social media, women who said they had been abused and had kept silent were finding others like themselves. The silence was broken, using the hashtag now recognized as a movement’s call-out cry: #MeToo.

Karen Levine, 57, is one of the women who became fired up by #MeToo. For years, she says, she had pushed away disturbing memories about her pediatrician. But this year she decided she needed to tell her story, too. From the time she was 12 until she went to college, Levine says she was molested repeatedly by her pediatrician, Dr. Stuart Copperman, who practiced from 1965 to 2000 in Merrick, Long Island. After telling Levine that her vagina was “dirty, and needs a cleaning,” Copperman, alone with Levine on more than one occasion, instructed her to lie down on the examining table, she says. Copperman would then massage her genitals with his ungloved finger. “He created feelings in me that I didn’t understand,” Levine says.

She never spoke to her mother about what she said Copperman did to her. Years later—in 2000, the year Levine turned 40—her former pediatrician’s name leaped out at her from the pages of Long Island Newsday. New York State, she read, had just revoked Copperman’s medical license after a two-year investigation found that, between 1978 and 1989, Copperman had molested six other girls. Levine called her mother and told her about the Newsday story.

“That happened to me,” Levine told her mother, who, Levine says, responded by calling her daughter a liar.

Six is the number of women who testified to the state for the public record (available here). The details of their accounts are practically identical—to each other’s and to Levine’s. Of the six, three told the state that Dr. Copperman’s “cleaning” caused them to have an orgasm.

When reached by Lilith over e-mail in August 2018, Dr. Copperman offered this statement:

“I cared for the children of almost every doctor in my area. Many praised me for my diagnostic skills and thorough exams. Part of a complete annual physical by competent physicians involves examination of “private parts”. By being thorough, I found a breast cancer in a 17-year-old, saving her life and her breast. I diagnosed testicular cancer before it had metastasized, and malignant melanoma in an area not visible without seeing that location.

“If, by my being thorough, my examinations done decades ago created painful memories, this was certainly not my intent. I am 83 years old and recovering from cancer surgery. To any former patients I have hurt in any way, I beg forgiveness,” he wrote.

When the story hit the media back in 2000, with coverage in newspapers, television, and in an extensive report in Ladies Home Journal, women all over the country who had grown up in the Merrick area and whose mothers had brought them to Copperman began calling each other. They were also calling news outlets and the hotline that the New York State Office of Professional Medical Conduct (OPMC) had set up for the pediatrician’s former victims. Camille La Pollo, one of the women who says she called the hotline, says she remembers the intake officer telling her that the line was being flooded with calls. Another source, who asked not to be named, confirmed that there had been a large volume of calls.

(Disclosure: I have two adult sons, and Dr. Copperman was once their pediatrician. My sons say he never touched them inappropriately. But one day he put his hand on my rear end while he was writing a prescription for my three-year old, and I changed doctors immediately.)

Screen Shot 2018-10-03 at 10.36.21 AMIn the Long Island community where Copperman lived and worked, there were two high schools and three junior highs— and his practice spanned 35 years. Many parents took their children to this handsome and charismatic pediatrician. Karen Levine recalled his flirtatious behavior towards her mother; some mothers worshipped him as if he were a movie star, and his office was hung with photos from Hollywood films.

Copperman was also active in his synagogue, Temple Beth Am of Merrick. The rabbi’s children were among his many patients, and when the news of the original allegations surfaced, Rabbi Ronald Brown wrote a letter to the local newspaper defending Copperman. A number of congregants objected, as this reporter documented in a story for the New York Times on September 23, 2001. Still, many gave the rabbi a pass, among them Karen Levine’s then-husband. Their children were in Hebrew school at Beth Am at the time, and Levine said she felt very uncomfortable having this rabbi preside over their son’s bar mitzvah. The rabbi continued in his position until he retired in 2017.

The truth was that, for many of his patients, Dr. Copperman administered great care. A woman who asked not to be identified recalls his gift for diagnosis. “He saved so many lives,” she told me. One former patient told then-Newsday reporter Roni Caryn Rabin in 2000 that when her sister had been hit by a car and was in a coma, Copperman sat by the girl’s bedside day and night. When Copperman’s license was revoked, the OPMC received hundreds of letters singing his praises, according to a source who asked not to be identified—a counterpoint to all those phone calls on the ad-hoc victims’ hotline.

How to reconcile the two sides of Dr. Copperman? Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, as described by this haiku signed by someone using Copperman’s name in a 2011 online competition:

Hero, villain, hard to tell
One from the other
—Stuart Copperman, MD, Melville, New York

When Karen Levine was Copperman’s patient in the 1970s, he’d made her feel “so dirty,” she says, and so alone. Back then, she had no way of knowing that other girls had shared her experience. Now, social media and the internet offered a chance to find out; Levine googled Copperman. In addition to all the news coverage about him after the state rescinded his license in 2000—including my piece in the New York Times, followed by another report by me in the Winter 2001-2002 issue of Lilith—Levine found that Copperman, now in his 80s, lives in retirement. He was never charged with a crime, because of New York State’s statute of limitations on childhood sexual abuse, one of the most restrictive in the country. His three children occasionally post pictures of Copperman and his wife on Facebook, both tastefully attired, presiding over family celebrations and attending a “women’s health day” at a hospital.

For the six women we spoke with who say they were abused, seeing these public postings rankles. They so distressed Karen Levine that in January 2018 she started a closed group, “Victims of Dr. Stuart Copperman,” on Facebook. (In March 2018, I received an email from group member Dana Marcus asking me if I was interested in revisiting the story.) It turned out that Levine wasn’t the only former patient of his who was Googling around. Other former patients similarly came upon the group simply because they too had typed “Dr. Stuart Copperman” into their search engines. 

Within a few days, the Facebook group had 10 members; it now has 28. (Levine, who has since handed over administrative duties for the group to Dana Marcus and Dina Ribaudo, allowed me into the group with the understanding that I not quote members without their explicit permission.) For most of the women posting, this is the first time they’ve told their story. “We know that children and adolescents who have been victimized may not report in a timely manner. We know that this is part of the dynamics of victimization,” Nassau County Assistant D.A. Silvia Pastor Finkelstein told Lilith. Nassau County is where Copperman practiced. From 2007 to 2013, Finkelstein served as chief of the county’s Child Abuse Unit, prosecuting sex crimes against children.

“Children often don’t understand the implications of what is happening, and are o en groomed by their abusers into keeping the conduct a secret, just between them,” explained Finkelstein. “As for adolescents, they feel or are made to feel shame and guilt about the conduct. So they keep silent, until maturity, support or insight gained by time provide the strength they need to speak up.”

The group’s postings on the Facebook page are often emotional. “We need each other,” wrote one woman. Another reported that she was 10 years old the first time the pediatrician molested her, at her yearly checkup. Another posted: “He was a person I trusted from toddlerhood to young adulthood, HIM, who was DOING these things to me. That’s how good he was at manipulation.” Another: “I’d sit in the waiting room and look at the other girls and think, you too?” A handful of members agreed to speak directly with me; of those, five were willing to speak on the record. “It’s traumatic to talk about,” Levine tells me emphatically. “Even as I’m talking to you now, I feel anxious.”

“But you have to talk about it!” So said Dina Ribaudo, 42, another member of the group. “Because it’s the secrecy that allows it to continue.” Ribaudo says her abuse began in 1984, when she was eight—the same year her father died, when she was particularly vulnerable. When she was 19, she told her mother that she’d been abused for 10 years; she says her mother responded, “No. That’s crazy.” In 2000, when the story was reported, she says her mother apologized.

More than one woman who spoke to Lilith on the record talked about how the various traumas the abuse engendered had reverberated within their families. Karen Levine became estranged from her parents even until her father’s recent death, she told Lilith, because he hadn’t believed her testimony. Robin Sosin, 56, told Lilith that she never goes to male doctors; but once, when a male gynecologist was about to examine her in an emergency room, she had a panic attack. Levine told Lilith that her sexual life had been affected. And Dina Ribaudo said she thought she had put her experience behind her, until her own daughter was born seven years ago.

“Since then, I cry over Copperman every day,” Ribaudo told Lilith. “I worry, how can I protect her?” So Ribaudo, who moved to Arizona when she was 18, has become politically active. “I want to help. I want to help prevent abuse.” She and two other women in the group—Dana Marcus and Robin Sosin—are driving forward the activism that Karen Levine sparked on that Facebook page.

The group has expanded its social media presence in order to locate other survivors, they say. They have created two pages on Facebook, one public and one private. Several of the women posted on their high school alumni association Facebook page a link to “The Childhood Victims of Dr. Copperman” group. The page administrators promptly removed their posts and blocked the posters. When Dana Marcus, an attorney, objected on legal grounds, the posts were reinstated with a disclaimer: “The Alumni Assn does not support or endorse this delicate situation and remains neutral in its position.” The high school is located in the area where the doctor had practiced.

Facebook group members say they have been contacting public figures, including the current Nassau County District Attorney and the Special Victims’ Unit, and journalists. They want their story about Dr. Copperman to be known. But most women in the group insist on anonymity, knowing that when a woman claims that she has been sexually molested, the revelation can boomerang in all kinds of ways.

Wrote one Facebook group member: “I have to stay anonymous because I haven’t told my daughter yet and would hate for a potential new landlord to look me up on the internet and read such things.” Another explained to me: “It winds up defining you when people look at you.” Indeed, one of the million lessons of the #MeToo era is that women don’t want to be defined by their trauma, with many preferring the term “survivor” over “victim.”

On the Facebook site, some self-identified survivors talk about whether the former doctor will face further judgment. (“On earth, rather than in death,” Ribaudo posted.) So far, the New York State Senate has blocked change. Sosin told me that when she told a female lawyer friend about Copperman, the friend told her: “Forget about it, Robin. Just move on.” Sosin says she was horrified at the response.

She, Ribaudo, Marcus, and a few additional members of the group say they are determined to drive New York State to change its approach to childhood sexual abuse. The unsuccessful battle to change the statute of limitations has been going on for 12 years in the Albany legislature.

Women had first spoken to the authorities about Dr. Copperman as far back as the 1980s. But a state panel in 1988— consisting of two doctors and a priest—did not believe the two women who had then come forward, and the panel cleared him. More complaints about Copperman followed. Meanwhile, in an article published in 1997 in JAMA, the respected Journal of the American Medical Association, Copperman described how, for many years, he had been using the annual physical exam of his teenage patients to discuss critical health issues, such as drugs and sex. “There is a mystique to the ‘laying on of hands’ that creates an opportunity for dialogue,” Copperman wrote. He described how he would prepare his patients’ mothers for this scenario one year in advance. “At the end of an annual physical exam of an early teenage patient, I indicate that at every subsequent annual examination, we will discuss important health issues, but the parent will be asked to leave during the discussion. I stress to the parent and patient that any discussion will be private and confidential. And while I will encourage at-home discussion of sensitive issues, I will not violate the child’s confidence. The parent always agrees.”

(Recently, Dina Ribaudo got in touch with JAMA, asking that Copperman’s article be taken down. JAMA tweeted back: “Thank you for sharing your concerns with us. We will share your request with the appropriate internal teams.”)

By the time the state revoked Copperman’s license in 2000— the proceedings against him took two years—he had had access to countless girls and teenagers.

At the state hearings, Dr. Copperman denied that he’d done anything wrong. For this reason, the case report afterwards stated, revocation of his license was the only way to ensure protection to the public. After the ruling, the doctor immediately led an appeal to get his license back and the state quickly turned him down. By then the Copperman story was being widely reported in the media. Women were calling the hotline at the OPMC in Albany and contacting media outlets, reporting that they, too, had been molested by the doctor when they were young, as Newsday reported on December 18, 2000.

When asked by reporter Roni Caryn Rabin about all the women coming forward after the state licensing hearings were made public, Copperman accused them of copycatting those six state witnesses. In an ironic example of unintended prescience, Copperman gave those supposed liars a moniker; he called them “Me-toos.”


Alice Sparberg Alexiou’s most recent book is Devil’s Mile: The Rich, Gritty History of the Bowery. She is a contributing editor at Lilith.

Continue Reading

  • No Comments

October 3, 2018 by

Over 23? Too Late to Testify

In New York and some other states, revoking a doctor’s license to practice medicine is a matter of administrative law, not criminal law. If it seems likely that said doctor has com- mitted a crime, the case then routinely gets referred to the appropriate district attorney, which indeed happened in the case of Dr. Copperman. But the D.A. didn’t go a er him, because, presum- ably, there was no point: New York’s statute of limitations—with a cut-o age of 23—posed an impossible hurdle. After the doctor, then 65, lost his license in 2000, he simply packed up and retired to a Florida condo.

So far, the law has seemed difficult to change. Since 2006, legislation has been continually introduced to extend the statue of limitations for victims of child sexual abuse. Stonewalling and lobbying by groups including the Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts of America has stymied its progress.

The bill proposed in the 2018 legislative session included a one- year “look-back” window to allow survivors older than 23 to le civil suits against their alleged abusers, regardless of how long ago the abuse took place. The window so alarmed the Catholic Church that New York Cardinal Dolan made a special trip to Albany to lobby against it. The bill was quashed once more.

The current statute is a major obstacle in bringing certain sexual predators to justice in New York State, Nassau County Assistant D.A. Silvia Pastor Finkelstein said. In a recent telephone conversation with Lilith, Robin Sosin said that during the six months of the 2018 New York State legislative session, she telephoned the o ce of Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan three times to ask whether he was supporting the Child Victims Bill, which so far the conservative Republican was refusing to release from committee for debate on the Senate floor.

Flanagan’s assistant always responded, “He’s working on it.” A er the third time she heard that answer, Sosin says she lost her patience. “Do you want to know what Dr. Copperman did to me when I was his patient?” she asked.

The aide, clearly rattled, respond- ed: “You don’t have to tell me.” But Sosin would have none of it. “He’d rub my clitoris for 10 minutes.” It’s details like this that lawmakers don’t want to know.

Continue Reading

  • No Comments

September 26, 2018 by

An Obsession with Sex and Statistics

An exposé in the New York Jewish Week chronicled the allegations by eight women in which they accused noted sociologist Steven M. Cohen of exploitative conduct. As historians of American Jews, we do know that these allegations reflect the troubling gender and sexual politics long embedded in communal discussions of Jewish continuity and survival, the focus of Cohen’s work….

The framework of Jewish continuity has become its own power structure, with employment opportunities and field leaders. And yet it is also a relatively closed power structure, isolated in many ways from the larger world of social scientific scholarship and from many facets of Jewish studies scholarship. Indeed, the most innovative qualitative research on intermarriage, which often challenges the assumption of a continuity crisis, has come from women scholars.

Yet in its isolation and its power, the apparatus of Jewish continuity has created an environment resistant to this criticism and tolerant of ongoing abuse. It’s time to acknowledge that a communal obsession with sex and statistics has created pernicious and damaging norms. These norms make it okay to tell women how to use their bodies, whom to marry, when to have babies, and how to allocate their time. They have also told people who fall outside of the parameters set primarily by men that their ways of being Jewish are not valued or valuable.. KATE ROSENBLATT, RONIT STAHL and LILA CORWIN BERMAN, “How Jewish Academia Created A #MeToo Disaster,” Forward, July 19, 2018.

Continue Reading

  • No Comments

September 20, 2018 by

When a flawed male with a lot of power shapes Jewish priorities.

You may be numb to #MeToo news, but bear with me for a few paragraphs, please.

Allegations of sexual misconduct against noted men in Jewish life are nothing new. One among them this past season is sociologist Steven M. Cohen, who appears to have acknowledged the veracity of such charges from women in his field. Cohen has now stepped down (or been asked to resign) from his many prestigious posts in the Jewish world, including as the head of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive, which he founded, and the flagship academic institution of Reform Judaism, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, where he was on the faculty. Why focus on a situation that seems to stretch at least as far back in time as there have been women in academe?

Here’s why. Steve Cohen was not just some random randy professor with a faulty ethical compass. His considerable influence has included being the American Jewish community’s reigning demographic expert, the go-to guy for an opinion on where resources ought best to be deployed. And because reports that have emerged in the past few months suggest that women who did not yield to his advances were closed out of meaningful career advancement, the perspectives of these women social scientists have been lost.

There have been serious concerns that the damage goes beyond what was experienced by the individual women, and that policies built on Cohen’s many survey findings are flawed because their very questions—lines of investigation about the perils of intermarriage, say—don’t take into account the realities of Jewish women’s lives today. If women had been framing the questionnaires used to determine a community’s priorities, the data yielded might have been different. Maybe they would demonstrate that interfaith couples in which the Jewish partner is a woman are flourishing. Maybe they would demonstrate that if a Jew marries a non-Jew and the couple establishes a Jewish household there’s an advantage to the community as a whole. But without the talents of social scientists who are looking at a community through a gender lens, how can we know? Social science, as a locus of study, should be hypothesis-driven. Thus the researcher has to know what important questions to ask of the subject, needs to really understand clearly the human dimensions of a field in order to develop useful hypotheses. And if the hypotheses are based on faulty perceptions about the subject’s reality, the wrong questions are asked and fruitful data will stay beneath the surface.

A few examples from the Lilith annals.

Jewish women staying single.

In the 1990s, the magazine wanted to report on Jewish women’s expectations of becoming mothers. Since Jewish women then were rarely having children outside of marriage, we sought marriage statistics from the national Jewish population surveys then being commissioned. Lilith asked the late demographer Egon Mayer, who had shaped those surveys, to substantiate our hypothesis that Jewish women, for a variety of reasons, were more likely to remain single through their childbearing years than other women were. (The reasons included many years of higher education and a shrinking pool of eligible Jewish mates as more Jewish men were marrying “out.”) The common wisdom was that Jews were all interested in being fruitful and multiplying as part of a family-oriented religious practice. Professor Mayer, initially skeptical, sifted through the data for information that hadn’t yet surfaced because no one had asked the question from this particular perspective. It turned out that Jewish women at the time were exactly twice as likely to remain single through their childbearing years than their white American peers. If you follow a feminist hunch, the results may surprise you.

Women’s philanthropy.

When Lilith first investigated Jewish women’s philanthropic donations, women’s charitable giving to Jewish causes was viewed as “pin money”—unimportant in the general calculus of a community’s budget. No one had yet asked how heterosexual couples made these money decisions. The man usually got credit in public for the family’s “gift,” even when the woman determined the cause and the amount on the check. In fact, when professional fundraisers failed to recognize women’s role in the couple’s process, the donation was likely to shrink.

Male and female addicts.

Researchers have noted that addiction-cessation programs like Alcoholics Anonymous work well when the sufferer concedes that he needs to recognize a “higher power” and put himself into the hands of that power. Jewish men in these programs may find this process “too Jesus-y,” but in publishing one woman’s revised version of the famous twelve steps, Lilith learned that for many women there is a different impediment. For women who have been in the hands of more powerful others their whole lives, this step may be so counterproductive as to thrust them back into their dependencies. The Jewish universe loses out when women worthy of professional respect are driven from their academic positions by a flawed male with a lot of power. The harm done by Jewish leaders who are also sexual predators goes beyond the considerable damage to individual women; it also skews how the Jewish community will shape its present, and the Jewish future.


Continue Reading

  • No Comments

The Lilith Blog

September 20, 2018 by

When You Say #MeToo, What Dangers Lurk?

We’ve heard a lot recently about becoming an upstander, rather than being a passive bystander when you’ve witnessed a bad event. We’re learning how to defuse a threatening situation on a street or in a crowd, how to offer support on the spot to someone being bullied or harassed.

But now, especially in the wake of Yom Kippur, I’ve been thinking about how we can become attentive to other aspects of wrongdoing or suffering that seem less obvious. We fast and beat our breasts and recite our transgressions and shortcomings each year to improve. And one of those ways is to become more aware of the less obvious needs around us—something that recent trends in feminist activism can help us do.

Continue Reading

  • No Comments

The Lilith Blog

September 5, 2018 by

Rosh Hashanah Forgiveness for #MeToo Offenders? Not Yet.

MicWill no one think of the poor abusers in the #metoo moment?  Don’t they get a shot at redemption?

The question sounds like a joke, or maybe a gross parody at first. We’re nowhere near the point of spending enough time supporting and thinking about the victims survivors to feel anything close to an obligation to help their abusers. Not. Even. Close.  But right now, that damn question (phrased in almost exactly this way — I’m not kidding!) is everywhere. As the summer ended, Louis C.K. quietly showcased a new set at the Comedy Cellar, his first since he admitted, and sort-of-apologized , for forcing aspiring female comics to watch him masturbate, the question of redemption is everywhere. 

Continue Reading

  • No Comments

The Lilith Blog

August 22, 2018 by

When a Queer Feminist Professor is Accused of Harassment

canada-ontario-toronto-front-campusWe defend our friends. It’s natural. It’s powerful. It’s what friendship is all about. Certainly Avital Ronell’s friends— the most powerful philosophers in academe, for what it’s worth—wanted to defend her from the recently revealed allegations that she’d sexually harassed one of her male graduate students. The Title IX complaint by Nimrod Reitman  resulted in her year-long suspension from NYU.

But she had high-profile defenders in the feminist world. Judith Butler. Slavoj Žižek. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Shoshana Felman. These are just a few of the famous progressive scholars who lept to her defense in a widely circulated letter excerpted in the New York Times. Presumably without all the facts, they chose to attack the survivor. That’s certainly not a surprise, human behavior being what it is.

But to be honest, as an academic, I expected more. From the most revered names in the humanities, people who would be expected to make conclusions based on evidence in the name of social justice, I expected more. 

Continue Reading


The Lilith Blog

August 20, 2018 by

#MeToo, The Supreme Court, and Immigration Cruelty: Connected by Misogyny

At this summer’s ESPY, Excellence in Sports Performance Yearly, awards, the 141 survivors of sexual abuse by Dr. Larry Nassar (one of them was Olympian Aly Raisman) received a standing ovation. These women athletes had suffered for decades in silence, shamed into believing that they were at fault, or that what the doctor was doing was all right. They weren’t, and it wasn’t.

As the future of Roe v. Wade seems to waver, I thought about how, in this day and age, these young women weren’t even sure they had the right to determine when and by whom they could be touched. Only in the months since #MeToo did that change.

Continue Reading

  • 1 Comment

The Lilith Blog

August 7, 2018 by

When an Accused Sexual Harasser is an Academic Superstar

The news report that Steven M. Cohen, a luminary in Jewish sociology, is an alleged serial sexual harasser sickened me. New York Jewish Week broke this story that brought the #metoo movement to the heart of Jewish Studies. Cohen is currently a professor at Hebrew Union College, Jewish Institute of Religion in New York and has just voluntarily resigned his position as the director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at Stanford University; his work on contemporary Jews is widely known and supported not only by prestigious academic institutions but also by well-regarded Jewish communal networks.

Cohen’s sexual misconduct has apparently been part of his professional modus operandi for decades. He has not denied the multiple charges against him, which include touching women’s breasts in public, propositioning mentees for sex, and using sociological research as a screen for homophobic conduct.

Continue Reading

  • 1 Comment

April 17, 2018 by

#MeToo in High School

I vividly recall the school-wide assembly my high school held to discuss date rape. Our friendly and peppy presenters reminded us that sex with a too-drunk-to-consent person was against the law even if both parties were inebriated, whereupon dozens of male students, in the throes of a tidal wave of shock, got up to decry the unfairness of it all—the brutal cruelty to men.

That day in about 2000 came back to me this winter when I read an essay by an 11th-grader named Abigail Fisher in her (Jewish) high school newspaper, describing the way her classroom conversation recently devolved after a discussion about #MeToo. “I worry that because my male classmates could more easily imagine being falsely accused of rape, they were more empathetic towards the perpetrators than towards the victims,” she wrote. “They were thus unreceptive to the female voices in the room who spoke strongly, though some on the verge of tears, about their feelings and fears surrounding the unstoppable wave of sexual assault allegations.”

Outraged teenage boys. Tearful teen-age girls. It’s all too familiar.

Today, there is an alarming national trend of abstinence-only sex education (which tends to position women as gate-keepers and men as aggressors). In the last decade, the federal government has invested over $1.5 billion dollars into abstinence-only education, despite statistics that show it to be ineffective.

These kinds of messes can still happen even at the schools that supposedly care about sex ed. And that’s partly because messages about consent—whether they come from porn, pop culture, or parents—are imbued early and often. “High school is too late to start talking about consent,” says Jaclyn Friedman, sex educator, activist and author of Unscrewed: Women, Sex, Power, and How to Stop Letting the System Screw Us All. “If you’re getting resistance at that age, it’s because it feels like a shift in everything kids have learned from the culture up until now.”

In secondary education, where the gendered power imbalance and prevalence of disturbing (and often hetero-normative) social hierarchies may be even worse than in the “real” world, it can be hard to fight the tide and instill new values: affirmative consent, for instance, in which an enthusiastic signal of “yes” is required, rather than the absences of a “no.” Yet there is hope, say a handful of Jewish educators and national experts. There are models that work, and that are worth trying. But they caution that a true emphasis on consent can’t be checked off in a single class period, or a day. There are no tips and tricks, no “magic bullets” says Debra L. Hauser, president of the youth sexual health organization Advocates for Youth. Instead, it requires a commitment from every level of education, starting with lessons from the earliest age about not touching others’ bodies or things without an OK—along with emotional education about love, healthy relationships and respect.

“It starts in kindergarten when a kid grabs something from someone and a teacher says ‘you have to ask permission’,” says Hauser. “So by the time you get to puberty education you’ve laid the foundation of how you ask for consent.” Starting early also lays the groundwork in another crucial way. “If language (around sexuality) is introduced early, it is less ‘magical’ and taboo,” says Kate Greenfield of Rodeph Sholom School, a K–8 day school in New York. It’s the same principle behind teaching toddlers to name their body parts with correct anatomical terms rather than slang; the goal is demystification.

I emailed a healthy assortment of Jewish schools to ask how they approach this topic, and only a few got back to me—but those that did respond were eager to share their approach to the curriculum. Consent-based sex ed can and should be done Jewishly, they say. For instance, before students at Solomon Schechter Westchester start sex ed, they read a passage from the Talmud in which a student hides under his teacher’s bed while the teacher is having sex with his wife. When his teacher discovers him, the student explains his action thus: “This is also Torah [that is, how you treat your wife in bed] and I need to learn it.”

“One of the lessons here is that the teacher should have taught this!” says Rabbi Harry Pell, the Associate Head of School for Jewish Life and Learning. “Also, the piece makes it clear that while the student’s presence is inappropriate, what’s going on is mutually consensual. And that the bedrock principle [of sex] is understanding and consent.”

At Schechter Westchester, a K–12 school, “We’ve been talking about consent for years,” according to Sami Mazo, the school’s 11th grade dean and 10th grade health teacher. “It’s the staple of our health education. We talk about consent, and we do so explicitly. We talk about what it means in non-sexual situations, and we talk about what it means to have a healthy relationship.”

Rabbi Pell points out that whether they’re Jewish or not, schools that have a point person or a unifying curriculum through the years have a major advantage in being able to teach consent effectively. And everyone I spoke to suggested that if schools are willing or able to commit to peer education and teacher education programs, they’re in a much better spot.

At Jewish Community High School of the Bay in San Francisco, Roni Ben-David is that point person, serving as the Director of Social Justice & Inclusion. She works with teachers to provide the solid grounding they need when tough moments crop up. “I’ve been working with faculty and staff,” says Ben-David. “We’re talking about how to turn uncomfortable moments—which are happening more and more… into those teachable moments.” At Schechter, the staff tell me that the moment when a talented or charismatic young man feels discriminated against might be a good time to back up and talk to him about the advantages he brings into the world—including his very comfort in speaking up when others can’t.

Yet before those moments happen, a lot of that work must be done outside the classroom, Ben David notes. “When I’m reacting to something I see in the news, I have to process and learn with my colleagues, and do some of my own emotional work too, so I don’t get in their way. So in preparation to talk about #MeToo, for instance, I’ve been reading lots of articles and listening to interviews online.” Experts emphasize that it can be difficult without real institutional support and training for teachers, who have their own blind spots or discomforts, or even traumatic personal histories, to venture into the territory of #MeToo on a random Tuesday when a kid wants to talk about Aziz Ansari or Harvey Weinstein. And that puts schools burdened by budget issues or controlled by a top-down hierarchy (like a religious denomination, potentially) at a disadvantage. “Planned Parenthood and other organizations do trainings for people who teach sex ed,” says Jaclyn Friedman, author of Unscrewed. “But who’s going to pay for that? As a teacher, do you have to do it during your time off? Part of the reason sex ed is such a mess is not just about prudery,” she notes, but about red tape and budgetary priorities.

The impact teachers have, beyond the health classroom or special assembly, can be lifelong. I recall watching videos about consent and harassment in my 10th grade health class at the end of the last millennium—dated videos in which women with big permed hair and shoulder pads, relics of another sartorial era, contended with all the same issues we’re now talking about as #MeToo continues to roil the world.

Yet my first #MeToo conversation was the very same year, at which point any lessons about consent and respectful sexual environments our school had attempted to deliver had been obliterated by a social world where sexual rumors were printed in the school paper, boys dominated every extracurricular activity, and homecoming parties offered an opportunity for older boys to prey on drunk freshmen teen girls (who themselves would have been outraged if you called them victims).

To be honest, I don’t really remember drawing any clear line between the staged discussions we had in class and the nascent horrors that were beginning to crop up all around me. It actually took a faculty member to explain to my friends and me that some of what we were describing was, in fact, sexual harassment—that the term didn’t apply just to the besuited businesswoman in a popular legal advertisement shouting at her boss, “This is sexual harassment… and I don’t have to take it!” a line that was treated as a big joke. We were amazed that it could actually apply to us.

That’s why any discussion of consent has to go into deeper issues of power and control, and maybe interrogate the social hierarchy of high school itself, including issues like race, class and gender. “You have to ask, ‘What does power do? How does power cause people to get what they want? How does power silence people?’” asks Sami Mazo, of Schechter Westchester. “When you start to hear that one person or one opinion dominating the room, you have to shut it down and unpack it. I’ve had kids push back many times, but we want to develop an atmosphere where we’re teaching kids to have empathy for each other.”

Debra Hauser of Advocates for Youth notes that that instilling that kind of empathy means addressing students’ needs on all areas of the gender and privilege spectrum. “Because the world is imperfect, we still need to educate girls to stand up for themselves, and we still need to focus on educating boys about respect and consent,” she says. “The pie is big enough for us to do both—while remembering that LGBT kids are more likely to experience dating violence. So for all kids, the idea of communicating boundaries, wants and desires go hand and hand.”

By starting with the younger members of society, schools actually have a huge role to play. Because as most of us know, there’s never going to be a real sea-change unless something fundamentally shifts in society. As that high school student wrote, after her classroom erupted in misogyny: “We can write until our hands are bloody, speak until our voices are hoarse, but unless our school, our community, and our country decide to believe women who come forward, my friends and I might have to say ‘me too’.

Sarah Seltzer is a writer and editor in NYC. She tweets at @sarahmseltzer.

Continue Reading

  • No Comments