A few days ago, I started seeing headlines of a bishop at Aretha Franklin’s funeral inappropriately touching singer Ariana Grande during a speech he gave after her performance. Pastor Charles H. Ellis III’s “friendly” hug quickly turned into an uncomfortable grope. The Twittersphere exploded with words of disgust, people calling on the bishop to apologize. As an observant Jewish woman who doesn’t touch any men besides my husband, I was reminded of my days growing up in secular America among guys with wandering hands.
Thank God, I was spared from any serious incidents, but I was unfortunately privy to unwanted bodily contact on several occasions. And like with Ariana Grande, it was difficult for me to verbalize my discomfort. I, perhaps like Grande, wondered why these guys felt entitled to my body.
By the time I got to college, I had a formal excuse as to how to keep guys’ hands off of me – it was called shomer negiah. (The prohibition of touching a member of the opposite sex outside of your nuclear family.) I was already an observant, skirt-wearing Jew my freshman year of college. The other Orthodox male students knew not to touch me, but I had a non-Jewish guy in my dorm who was very handsy, always patting me and putting his arm around me, not realizing I didn’t do this. Even if it was “friendly” and “innocent” – it was uninvited and undesired.
It was my first time in a situation where I was shomer negiah interacting with someone outside of my community who wasn’t familiar with my practice, and while I will shake a hand if a hand is extended to me, I did not want to be continually touched by this guy. After a short while, I worked up the courage to confront my classmate and put the kibosh on his behavior by explaining my religious practice. He did his best to honor it, though he would occasionally forget and touch me anyway.
I would never, ever claim that shomer negiah is a panacea when it comes to women avoiding unwanted touch because a) true sleaze balls will just ignore it, and b) negiah does not include nuclear family members (and unfortunately, the vast majority of sex abuse that occurs in the parts of the Orthodox community that are careful about negiah are cases of incest).
Nevertheless, in normal circumstances, around guys that would never outright assault a woman (but may have boundary issues), observing the laws of negiah sets a comfortable tone for women, and I believe it is a step in the right direction against rape culture. The message is my setting is on do not touch me unless I invite you to.
I think that’s what guys need to assume. Touching is unwanted unless it is explicitly asked for. The #Metoo movement can’t only be about outing predators and sharing stories of pain, we must also examine societal norms and find ways to create more comfortable and safe environments. Then, perhaps one day our daughters will be able to say #Notme.