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Make More Noise. What Do Our Silences Cost Us?

With sexting becoming more common among teens and photos of every meal rife on social media, are oversharing and full disclosure the norms? Not by my reckoning.

In fact, I’m struck by how many women keep their opinions — and their experiences — to themselves, sometimes for fear of retaliation or other unwelcome outcomes, sometimes out of a kind of misplaced self-abnegation. We know that the self-silencing can be induced early on. Rewards for politesse. “Girls should be seen and not heard.” Jewish customs and ordinances that say a woman should not sing or pray aloud in public. And more. The recent vocal push by women in Israel to reshape the ultra-Orthodox hegemony at the Wall demonstrates the power of a chorus in order to invoke needed change. But what if you’re speaking up alone? When you can’t trust your peers to have your back?

Unwilling to speak out for fear of being called out, an otherwise confident 20-year-old told me that she and her college buddies no longer reveal their opinions on social media. “I just don’t want to be called out for every sentence, and I’m always nervous I’ll offend someone.” Scalded several times, now she posts only “neutral” items she trusts none of her friends will find fault with. Millennial call-out culture, in which you’re supposed to name the problem and speak your mind, leaves this woman — and her friends too, she said — feeling bullied into a kind of false neutrality, scrubbing anything that might stir dialogue.

Unwilling to speak out for fear of being labeled humorless, or too sensitive (the opposite of the millennials’ social justice vigilance), we don’t protest the language used toward women, including our poultrification as “chicks” or “old biddies,” and our infantilization as children, indicated by the widespread return of the term “girls” when we refer to grownup women.

Unwilling to speak out for fear of not being believed, women who are the victims of sexual violence are often afraid to report the abuse after they’ve seen how other survivors are treated by the authorities whose job it should be to protect them. The recent Canadian court case brought against media star Jian Ghomeshi provides an example of how this works. Women accusing him of vicious sexual attacks were shredded by the defense attorney for having misremembered details and for having emailed him after the alleged attacks: women across the country revealed that they would themselves not press charges if they were assaulted, for fear that confused testimony would be similarly scorned.

Unwilling to speak out about our needs because we believe they’re trivial. Best example: the reports in the new book by Peggy Orenstein, Girls and Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape. Orenstein reminds us, again and again, that girls — like many of their mothers — are reluctant to say what they want. The focus, for heterosexual teens and for many adult women as well, is on male pleasure rather than on their own desires. The Washington Post nails it when their reviewer says teen girls are “empowered in every sphere except the sexual one.”

These silences come at a cost.

Not only do we feel less than our authentic selves every single time we fail to speak up or speak out, but we also lose the chance to model courageous self-disclosure for other women. We lose the chance to be the change we want to see.

Editorial work is often silent, too, with the process hidden behind the product, known to the writers but largely invisible to readers. So I want to announce news about some Lilith editors. The fine poems you’ll read in this issue have been selected by our new poetry editor, renowned poet Linda Pastan, author of 10 books of poetry; she takes over from Marge Piercy, poetry editor for 15 years.

And this issue is the last where Susan Schnur appears on the masthead in an editorial role. She has helped shape Lilith for three decades, both as a marvelous writer and as an editor gifted at eliciting telling details, nurturing first-person stories and fostering new rituals that are among Lilith hallmarks. We salute the landmark pieces that have her fingerprints all over them: Lilith’s notable “Jewish Hair” issue (1995), the section on Jewish women in therapy and as therapists (2013), her eyebrow-raising take on Purim and the true meaning of hamantaschen (1998), an interview with a Holocaust survivor who remakes the doll Nazi guards tore from her (1989), and many more. A rabbi and a clinical psychologist in addition to all else, she told us this winter that her clinical practice in Boston has grown, and she will devote much of her time to this. We celebrate her razor-sharp editing and uniquely probing style. We’ll miss her in our lively office conversations and we look forward eagerly to seeing her byline over her own highly original writing in coming issues — watch for it!

© 2011 Lilith Magazine