The World Has A Big Problem With Sexuality

Trigger warning: This essay involves very frank, but not graphic, discussion of rape and sexuality. It is intended to be read by adults. 

When you get to the root of child sexual abuse, whether it’s first-world pedophiles taking sex-tourism trips to third-word export processing zones in order to pay to rape children, or whether it’s sexual abuse in religious schools, or whether it is teenage football players raping unconscious drunk girls, or whether it is older children abusing younger children in the name of “playing”, it comes down to the same issue: The world has a big problem with sexuality, and it is manifesting as child sexual abuse (among other things, many other manifestations, but this essay is about child sexual abuse.)

Questions: Is it possible to shelter any child from images of sexuality and from sexual activity itself until they are mature enough to make their own decisions in the context of long-term committed relationships? In the world we live in, in which there is no absolute safety from sexual violence and sexual intimidation (including in same-sex religious educational institutions), is it realistic to think that we can instill a sense of dignity in our children without ever making a concerted effort to do so? And if we want to instill a sense of dignity in our children, such that they do not abuse other children and such that they know how to properly respond when faced with undignified or abusive sexual scenarios, can we do it without talking about sexuality? Can we do it if we, ourselves, as parents, can’t even talk about sexuality in an educated, balanced, and dignified way? Do we, as adults, as products of the culture of violent and undignified sexuality that pervades even religious communities, have a grip on our own shortcomings in our own relationships with sexuality?

I ask all those questions not to blame parents for the negative actions or the victimization of their children. I’m asking because we parents are the only buffer our kids have against the sexual culture of the world, which hovers somewhere between “exploitation and violence are titillating” and “sex is a commodity, and therefore humans are commodities.”

I’m obviously responding, to some extent, in the way that I can, to the Newsweek article about sexual abuse in my very own community. I’m not even going to link out to that article because the tone of it is so anti-Torah-education, anti-Chabad, anti-Crown Heights that its message is obscured. Here’s why I’m not responding to any of the specifics of that article: I am an outsider here in Crown Heights, meaning I live here and I’m part of the Lubavitch community, but I didn’t grow up here and I didn’t even grow up frum. There is a marked difference between me, with my secular education and wide variety of life experience, and somebody who has been here her whole life and has gone through “the system”. I don’t feel qualified to comment on the specifics of that article — I don’t see any good coming out of me jumping on that soapbox as an outsider who doesn’t quite have a firm grip on how things work in this community. I want to address the issue of sexual abuse, though, so I’m going to talk about the world’s big fat problem with sexuality, and maybe it will shed some light on how we can keep our kids safe from sexual predators and from becoming predators themselves.

The world has a problem with sexuality. Not just with how it relates to sex, the physical act, but how it relates to sexuality as a whole. We live in a world where humans are considered to be commodities, sex is a commodity, and violence is considered pleasurable. We live in a world where money and personal gain come first, and when there is no money to be had, there is still the pleasure of domination to be had. We live in a world where people’s lives have no meaning beyond their jobs and the television and their physical pleasures. No matter how religious you are, there is nobody who isn’t affected by the way the world relates to sexuality, and also to how the world relates to humanity, meaning what it means to be a human. I can’t talk about sexuality without talking about what it means to be a human.

I have this weird thing where I wake up in the middle of the night and watch nature documentaries. A few nights ago I was watching a documentary about lions in Krueger Park, and I watched this pride of lions tear apart a zebra with their teeth. It was really gross and bloody, a whole show of tendons being stretched out and bones being crunched, but lions don’t see their eating habits that way because they are lions. They are programmed to eat that way. They can’t sit down with a plate of pasta and eat like humans. Lions fight, lions kill, and lion sex is not a real dignified or holy activity. Yet they can’t do better, because they are animals.

Humans, on the other hand, have minds and consciences, and we make choices, and we don’t live by instinct alone, and the bottom line is that we can do better. Humans have our animal instincts, but we also have complicated emotional and intellectual faculties, and the ability to choose, and above all humans have souls. Humans have a fundamental need for dignity, for a sense of feeling whole and unharmed. Sexuality is fundamentally tied into the idea of dignity, wholeness, and a feeling of being unharmed, namely because when its used against a person, that dignity and wholeness and sense of being unharmed is taken away and in some cases never comes back. Once you lose your dignity, it can take a lifetime to reclaim it.

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If you don’t believe me, then consider why rape is, and has always been, a weapon of war. Widespread murder people can survive, but widespread mass rape will break a culture. It’s more demoralizing than murder. It’s more demoralizing than theft of national resources. It’s used as a weapon of war because it is one of the cheapest, fastest, easiest ways to break other people down. It’s not just because of the physical pain involved that rape is used as a form of torture. It’s used as torture because it is a wholesale assault on a person’s dignity, and therefore on his or her sense of humanity, humanity meaning that he or she is a human, not an animal, and has worth and purpose. (I am not in any way insinuating that animals should be violated; they are sentient beings and creations of G-d and should never be abused.)

Are we, as frum Jews, living truly dignified lives, or are we wrapped up in money and power and not even caring about our own humanity? Are we teaching our children that they are important to G-d not because they are obedient and wear their black suits and pleated skirts, but because they are humans? Are we teaching our kids that each one of them has a unique purpose in life, and has a right to fulfill that purpose without being sexually assaulted along the way? Are we teaching our children that they have souls, and that their souls are their instincts, and that when something or someone makes them feel icky or unwholesome, that’s the soul — the source of human dignity — saying, “This is wrong”?

When the feminist theorist Camille Paglia came out and said that rape is an act of sex, not an only an act of violence, people got mad. How dare she say that unacceptable sex is a sexual act just like acceptable sex?! I agree with Camille Paglia on this one. Sexuality has two uses in the world: To bring together two people in an intimate bond, or to function as the easiest-to-access form of personal gain. When it is used correctly, sexuality bolsters the power of the people involved in using it through healthy intimacy. When it is used incorrectly, it is the pettiest, lowest tool of subjugation. But it’s all sexuality, whether it is healthy intimacy or whether it is violence and exploitation.

It’s not enough to teach our children about stranger danger. Safety workshops are certainly a step in the right direction, but we have to teach them a lot more. We have to teach our children that they are humans, and part of being human is having sexuality, and it’s a powerful force that should not be misused. We teach kids about electricity, don’t we? We teach kids that a live electrical wire will cause injury or death, but when it comes to sexuality and its massive power, we’re silent. We can’t be silent anymore. When our kids are not safe anywhere, we can’t be silent anymore.

I’m not suggesting that we hand our kids anatomical scale models and copies of “Our Bodies, Ourselves” at age five. Sex education has to be age-appropriate and modest, meaning, fundamentally, non-threatening. Sex education itself should not make our children get that icky feeling. It has to be age-appropriate and modest. It’s like, we teach toddlers, “Don’t stick your finger in the socket!” and then we teach young school age kids about metal, water, and electrical conductivity, and then we teach older kids about electromagnetic fields and circuitry. We don’t say to our kids, “Electricity is bad! You are bad because you have electrical wires in your house!” We teach them that electricity exists, and that it has to be handled properly.

If we don’t teach our kids about what it means to be human, and therefore what it means to have human dignity, and therefore what it means to treat sexuality appropriately, they will learn it from bullies at school; they will learn it from somebody’s brother’s porn collection; they will learn it from billboards and subway ads; they will learn it from movies and TV (yeah right like your kids will never watch movies; they will, and you just might not know about it); they will learn about it from molesters and rapists; they will learn about it from what they see on the street.

Would you let your kid jump into a lake during a lightning storm because you’re afraid to tell him that water conducts electricity? Whether we like it or not, our kids are in the water. Do we let them keep getting shocked to death, or are we going to be the buffers that they need us to be?