And then there’s the yetser ha-ra
Actress Mayim Bialik of “The Big Bang Theory” waded into the Harvey Weinstein scandal by stating that she conducts herself in a manner that is neither immodest nor flirtatious. Bialik has since felt the wrath of social media for expressing her position on female modesty she notes is rooted in her Jewish heritage and faith.
As a result of the backlash to her statements, Bialik has apologized for her statements.
In [a NY Times] op-ed Friday, written [by Bialik] in response to allegations of sexual assault against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, the observant Jewish actress said she has long made decisions that she considers “self-protecting and wise.”
“I have decided that my sexual self is best reserved for private situations with those I am most intimate with,” Bialik wrote. “I dress modestly. I don’t act flirtatiously with men as a policy.”
Social media users said that Bialik was insinuating she had not been sexually harassed or assaulted due to her choices and that she was contributing to victim blaming. The op-ed was published as countless women around the world recounted their instances of sexual harassment and abuse using the hashtag #MeToo.
On Monday, Bialik defended her column in a Facebook Live video event with the Times. But on Wednesday she changed course, writing on Twitter that she was “very sorry.”
“What you wear and how you behave does not provide any protection from assault,” Bialik wrote, “nor does the way you dress or act in any way make you responsible for being assaulted…I support…women as we seek out and demand accountability from the only ones responsible for for assault and rape: the people who perpetrate those heinous crimes. I am truly sorry for causing so much pain, and I hope you can all forgive me.”
Bialik is an actress who has described herself as an “aspiring” Modern Orthodox Jew as well as a feminist. She also happens not to be conventionally beautiful. What she has stumbled on here is an old, old issue that has to do with much more than Harvey Weinstein or the conditions faced by Hollywood actresses who were assaulted by him.
The issue is whether there is anything women themselves could or should or can or cannot do that would make them less likely to be sexually harassed and/or sexually assaulted.
The answer to that question has changed over time and is different in different societies. There are—as even those women who were angry at Bialik must be aware—societies on earth today in which women are supposed to cover themselves in shapeless sacks with only slits for their eyes, in order both to demonstrate their own modesty and to refrain from inflaming the desires of men who might pass them on the street. There are also nudist camps existing in very different societies, with extremely different rules. And there is just about everything in-between, including the mores of my own youth, in which about 50% of the women walking around today would have been considered to be dressed in a very provocative manner.
I suspect that many modern feminists would say that any woman should be able to walk down the street naked at high noon and run no special risk—with nary a criticism either—and that Hollywood actresses should be able to appear nearly-naked in public and trade frankly on their sexuality in terms of getting roles, without anyone ever getting the wrong idea and hitting on them.
It’s also obvious that any man who rapes or otherwise assaults or harasses anyone, or acts as Harvey Weinstein did, bears 100% of the responsibility for his actions. Funny thing, though, Bialik actually stated as much in her original op-ed, the one that caused all the furor:
While she acknowledged that “nothing—absolutely nothing—excuses men for assaulting or abusing women,” she also continued to suggest, “We can’t be naïve about the culture we live in.” And in an especially self-righteous line: “As a proud feminist with little desire to diet, get plastic surgery or hire a personal trainer, I have almost no personal experience with men asking me to meetings in their hotel rooms.”
Bialik is actually saying two things. The first is non-controversial and very widely accepted in Western society: that a man (or any person, actually) is wholly responsible for whatever rapes / sexual assaults and/or harassment that person commits. But the second is that if you look like Bialik and present yourself like Bialik (who is not your average Hollywood babe, and who dresses modestly as well), you’re unlikely to get propositioned (or assaulted) all that much by Hollywood executives.
These are actually two quite separate thoughts, and it’s the second one that’s apparently unconscionable to modern feminists. However, are they actually suggesting that Weinstein’s predations were completely random, and had zero to do with age or attractiveness? And do they really think that Bialik was saying that if you dress modestly or are less than optimally attractive you’ll never be harassed, attacked, or even the recipient of an unwelcome proposition? Are they suggesting that there is nothing whatsoever women can or should do to reduce their own risk, and that to suggest that there might be something incumbent on women would be to absolve perpetrators of responsibility for their own actions?
What’s more, a great deal of sexual harassment is not of the extreme Weinstein variety. It exists in a much grayer zone that includes what is often thought to be playful flirting or jokes. And in that zone, it’s not always clear what is consensual and what is not.
Another fact that is undeniable—although I suppose people deny it all the time—is that sexuality of the consensual kind often contains a hint of aggressiveness. We don’t want it to be real aggressiveness, destructive or unwanted aggressiveness. But I don’t see how one can ignore the fact that we face a dilemma in trying to do away with the unwanted type while keeping the desired type. It’s not impossible to do so—and in fact I think most people manage to do so. But we have to be very very careful not to take all the—well, let’s just call it the “yetser ha-ra”—out of life:
The ‘evil inclination’ [yetser ha-ra in Hebrew] is frequently identified in the Rabbinic literature and elsewhere with the sex instinct but the term also denotes physical appetites in general, aggressive emotions, and unbridled ambition. Although it is called the ‘evil inclination’, because it can easily lead to wrongdoing, it really denotes more the propensity towards evil rather than something evil in itself. Indeed, in the Rabbinic scheme, the ‘evil inclination’ provides human life with its driving power and as such is essential to human life.
As a well-known Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 9: 7) puts it, were it not for the ‘evil inclination’ no one would build a house or have children or engage in commerce. This is why, according to the Midrash, Scripture says: ‘And God saw everything that he had made and behold, it was very good’ (Genesis 1: 31). ‘Good’ refers to the ‘good inclination’, ‘very good’ to the ‘evil inclination’. It is not too far-fetched to read into this homily the idea that life without the driving force of the ‘evil inclination’ would no doubt still be good but it would be a colourless, uncreative, pallid kind of good. That which makes life ‘very good’ is the human capacity to struggle against the environment and this is impossible without egotistic as well as altruistic, aggressive as well as peaceful, instincts.
It follows that for the Rabbis the struggle against the ‘evil inclination’ is never-ending in this life. Nowhere in the Rabbinic literature is there the faintest suggestion that it is possible for humans permanently to destroy the ‘evil inclination’ in this life…
So although it’s important not to wink at or excuse sexual harassment, we don’t want to do away with the yetser ha-ra altogether, either. Let’s not pretend this is a simple matter. It’s the sort of thing people have wrestled with for just about as long as we’ve been fully human.
A great many feminists wish for a certain a world, a world in which human sexuality and male aggressiveness bend to their will. It lies quiet and remains peaceful when they want it to be quiet and peaceful (that’s part of what civilization is all about, after all, and I’m all for it, too). But they want it to be activated on their behalf when they summon it up, when it’s desired by them and they give the signal (that sounds like a good idea, too, and I second the motion).
But funny thing, humanity isn’t at our beck and call, and sometimes glitches occur. In just about every society that has ever existed, both sexes have been expected to conform to standards of behavior that attempt to harness the awesome power of human sexuality so that it does the least harm while retaining enough of its driving force that such a society remains viable. The rules are sometimes very rigid and restrictive and sometimes rather lax, and sometimes they fall more heavily on one sex and sometimes on another. But these rules always exist, and they exist for both sexes. Our society is currently in a state of flux over what our rules will be.
[Neo-neocon is a writer with degrees in law and family therapy, who blogs at neo-neocon.]DONATE
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