Cliff Mazer, PhD, looks at the ways in which society lets sexual gropers get away with assault, and reflects during these High Holy Days on what the community can do to help stop it.
Around this time of year, the High Holy Days, we are instructed to take even more time than usual to reflect and consider what it takes to heal ourselves, our community, and the world at large. There are many shared issues that are food for thought and ripe to become catalysts for our efforts at self-improvement. Others tend to remain hidden, undisclosed and generally not considered to be big “Jewish problems”—problems like alcoholism, drug abuse, or sex addiction. As a psychotherapist and sex therapist for over 30 years I can confirm that that kind of thinking is somewhere between dead wrong and ostrich head-in-the-sand, being in-complete-denial. Jews suffer from the same mental, behavioral, and sexual problems everybody else does. It’s possible we just feel somewhat worse and more guilty about it.
Sexual groping is the topic today. That’s right…unwanted sexual advances using the hands (or anything else) by people who are often falsely assumed to be “those grotesque creepy guys”. Why falsely? Because it happens a lot, and often by people who may be “creeps” but dont always appear creepy, ie. Mayor Filner of San Diego, the former Governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, and more.
Groping occurs in private offices and on Hollywood movie studio “casting” couches. It happens in surprisingly public places like commercial airplanes in flight and to young women who choose to crowd surf at noisy rock concerts. Some of these grabby guys slobber while they grope which I admit makes it twice as gross. Others, like Anthony Weiner/Carlos Danger use social media to electronically cross personal boundaries and then “self-grope” to achieve some kind of twisted egotistical as well as sexual satisfaction.
As a reform Jewish man and minus my professional credentials, I’ve often wondered the same thing that many other relatively law-abiding citizens do, such as, “What the heck is up with these crazy shmucks!!? Don’t they know it’s socially weird, troll-like, and just plain creepy-wrong?” Even certified sex therapists, psychologists and pill-dispensing psychiatrists don’t know all that much about groping as a distinct clinical problem or social issue and offer few definitive insights. For example, why do gropers grope?
The obvious answer is “because they can”, but that tells us nothing, really. Sure it’s a sex crime in the United States and until recently a fairly common form of male patterned sign language in certain parts of Italy and India (and other places), but even such obvious cultural differences shed no light on groping’s origins or fundamental purpose. With or without a therapist, a police officer, a Bible, a Torah, or a Koran to consult, most of us know it’s wrong to physically grope or take advantage of another human being in that way, and yet it still happens at an alarming rate at schools, at colleges, in the workplace, and even in Jewish households and neighborhoods.
Even scarier, from the Jewish perspective, is the fact that all of the individuals singled out in the opening paragraph are Jewish…with the obvious exception of the Terminator. Didn’t our parents and our Jewish upbringing teach us to respect women and to not violate their personal space and physical bodies in such blatant and demeaning ways? To even speak of it as a sex “crime” and unseemly behavior engaged in by someone who is Jewish is to invoke the unwritten Philip Roth rule that whispers, “Oy, it’s a shanda, dont talk about it. It will give all of us Jews a bad name, like Portnoy’s Complaint did.” Unfortunately it does happen and NOT talking about it or confronting its existence in our lives (or childhood) only serves to keep “it” hidden in the shadows of our Yiddishe psyche, with or without the presence of the Kinnehora (evil eye) and the ritualistic spitting, ie., “Tut,tut,tut!” to make it all “go away”.
Let’s start with the old 60’s or 70’s slang phrase, “to cop a feel”. What does that suggest? It almost sounds like a masculine accomplishment of sorts, like hitting a single in baseball or making it safely to second base by stealing. In fact when I was a teenager, baseball terms were interchangeable for sexual achievement, like “going all the way, balling, getting to third base”, etc. To be honest the implication was somewhat of a sportsman’s challenge and question, as in how far or how much can you “get” off of a woman, could you get her in the “sack”, or bag the “chick” or “fox”, etc. If you were sexually turned down by a girl on a date you had been “shot down”, as if it was a board game or aerial combat. It wasn’t a question of religion, ethics, proper etiquette or Torah teaching at Sunday school. It was the existing cultural norm and I’m not so sure it’s really changed that much since then.
I dont feel, for the purpose of this essay, that I need to research or look up contemporary slang terms for groping in the New Urban Dictionary. I’m sure there are at least one or two phrases for that kind of disrespectful, sexist and uncalled-for behavior when engaged in by adults in skinny jeans, saggy pants or Mad Men-wannabe suits. Historically I know there are probably equally suitable Medieval terms for sexual groping, most likely in Olde English to mean “using ones plague-infected man-hands to touch another person in and around their private Medieval parts without permission”.
In high school and later in college, I remember reading about a lot of uninvited grabbing and groping in the dark in Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” that ended up with the Baker sleeping with the Miller’s wife…or maybe it was the other way around. Apparently, the lack of electricity or ambient light at night in those truly Dark Ages was a convenient excuse for many men to be sloppy drunks as well as nocturnal creepers.
More important, I remember that when I grew up it was considered fairly normal to “see what you could get” as far as sex and groping one’s high school girlfriends and college dinner dates were concerned. Of course if they (women) said “no” back then, that probably meant no, much to our chagrin and low adolescent frustration tolerance. Some guys, however, were known to “not take no for an answer” and seemed oddly comfortable sharing their techniques for overcoming “resistence”. It usually involved drugs, alcohol, or guile in a thousand different forms—all of which we now obviously identify as rape.
The point is, there is a long and well-documented history (including classical literature) to suggest that some men both now and then don’t/didn’t ever perceive it to be wrong or bad to assert themselves physically or touch women inappropriately. I admit to lacking knowledge of older manuscripts or ancient texts (like carved stone tablets or papyrus scrolls) that may have given men license or biblical authority to be gropey pervs. However, we all KNOW there is a lot of well, hard-to-swallow, on-the-edge-of-being-creepy stuff in the Old Testament, and it doesn’t feel any better to know that Lot’s daughters returned the favor after the whole Sodom and Gomorrah angry God beatdown incident.
It even makes you wonder if God, his angels (or his early publishers-writers) weren’t a bit confused, conflicted or sexist from the very “beginning”, so to speak. Mind you, I am NOT saying that God himself is a groper or that he/she/it ever condoned such rude and crude behavior. I am merely saying if Yahweh thought it was clearly wrong to touch and drool all over another person, male or female, just for kicks, he could have maybe added it to the “Do Not” list, like an 11th commandment or even a minor addendum to one of the other related ones.
In addition, Thou shalt NOT reach out and grab the busom of Abraham, Abraham’s wife, daughter, niece, slave OR ANYONE ELSE without prior consent”, or even, P.S. ”BTW, while staying busy NOT worshipping the Golden Calf, lying, stealing, killing, or committing adultery, please also keep your nomadic-semitic hands to yourself…. or else there will be a “pillar of salt” and/or lightning bolt waiting for you.” Love, Your God (The One Who Smotes) P.S. In retrospect, I realize that “not laying” with someone this way or that was rather vague.
It would be easy to either minimize the whole groping thing as a less serious or inconsequential kind of crime compared to being hung upside down in some sexual psychopath-serial killer’s basement in Ohio for ten years, or conversely overanalyzing its necessary connection to the patriarchial power structures in developing nations. Still, there does appear to be a correlation between personal narcissism and the kind of power-fueled CEO psychopathy that leads certain people (and politicians) to reach for their penises, cell phones or other peoples private parts rather than just shake hands and hug like the rest of us.
Maybe the gropers, troll-like as they are, are also in a certain way the “cultural canaries in the sex related coal mine”. They might just be the more impulsive, compulsive, self-centered expressions of our own confused sexual psyches. Or perhaps they are just the more emotionally disturbed, ignorant or clueless among us who watch some kind of porn video (out of the 47829274927 varieties easily obtained online) and stupidly assume, “Hey, I could do that in the real world”!
What was the Orthodox Rabbi’s excuse on the Delta flight? How about we first clean up the contradictory societal messages about sex, our “blurred lines” regarding personal boundaries and especially people who think for whatever reason that it’s ok to touch the non-consensual male or female merchandise?
In addition, we might want to decide what needs to be said to grabby former governors and current mayors who fondle and kiss constituents like a drunken camel on a World ORT/ Federation mission to Israel. Whatever we decide, the same clear and consistent message needs to be sent to all the other gropers we may know (but tend to silently put up with) whether they may be at work, at synagogue, or even at family gatherings and lovely candle-lit shabbat dinners. How could we ever hope to truly repair ourselves or the world without finding the psychological, spiritual, and moral strength to do so?
AP Photo/Evan Vucci