It’s a sadly familiar routine: Story breaks of woman accusing famous person of past sexual harassment, abuse, or worse. Accused goes on the defensive. More women come forward with similar allegations. Accused breaks down and admits to having a problem (though not to being a lowlife). Media and accused’s colleagues—in Hollywood, Washington, D.C., or whatever power-bubble—chatter endlessly about the scandal, cluck-clucking with righteous indignation.
And anyone who dares to suggest that women ought to consider how they present themselves to the world is shouted down as blaming the victim.
That’s a shame. Because while there is no excuse for a man to sexually harass, pressure, or force himself on a woman—ever—no matter what the woman looks like, that doesn’t mean that women should not, for their own protection, think twice about the way they dress and act. Hollywood has its own weak, self-serving moral norms, but for the rest of us, the possibility of being treated like a sex object is a daily hazard of being female.
Consider this: If I were to walk down the street with cash hanging out of my pockets, that would not mitigate the crime of the thief who would swipe those bills from me. He could not beat the charge against him by claiming entrapment or that I was “asking for it.” Yet flashing my money that way would be a pretty stupid thing to do. It’s not how one protects something of value.
Jewish law sets up boundaries between the sexes, including rules of modesty in attire and a prohibition on yichud, an unrelated woman and man being alone behind closed doors. (Of course, there is a range of interpretation of these laws.) These boundaries, though in some places too invasively enforced, are meant to protect women. They won’t necessarily shield women who follow them from harassment or abuse by men, but they guide us toward a way of presenting ourselves that is not ostentatiously sexual. They remind us of the power of our femininity.
Some women seem to want to test the limits of men’s self-control by revealing and using their bodies as a tease. That’s not only immodest but unwise. Prudishness is scorned these days, but its cousin prudence should not be.