Responding to sexual harassment with repercussions is too little, too late. If one person has already been violated we’ve responded too late. We must prevent the violations from happening in the first place. We can do this if we’re ready to change the social norms we’ve become accustomed to. Our human weaknesses need stronger boundaries to protect ourselves.
What we can do and what is within our power is our ability to control those impulses.
In the past few weeks, many powerful men in different industries have been exposed for their ugly behavior of sexual harassment and their industries are finally responding to this behavior that, in some instances, they were aware of for quite some time and are responding strongly by stripping them of their power and stripping them of their job.
And we can discuss this issue of sexual harassment after the abuse has already happened and before the abuse has happened. I want to begin discussing it after the abuse has happened briefly. Because I want to make one point clear, and that is that we always must make sure to put full responsibility where it lies. When we misplace responsibility, then we actually weaken the morality of our humanity, of our nation, of the world. And so we need to be clear. If I leave my car door open at night, that doesn’t make the fact that someone steals the things in my car any less an act of theft than if I locked my door. The full responsibility of that theft lies on the shoulders of the thief because he stole something that wasn’t his.
So whatever the other person may or may not have done, whatever those details are, are really irrelevant. The violator, the perpetrator, is 100 percent responsible and 100 percent wrong. And that person must carry full responsibility for their actions, period. And that’s the reason why when the perpetrator gives a half‑hearted apology, such as I’m ashamed but it wasn’t as bad as they make it out to be, that is, as far as I’m concerned, no apology. Any qualified apology is not an apology, that is a person who is still defending themselves instead of taking full responsibility for what they have done.
Only unqualified apologies are real apologies. Whenever there’s a “but” to an I’m sorry, the person isn’t really saying I’m sorry, the person really hasn’t accepted what they’ve done, they really have not taken responsibility for what they’ve done, they’re still in their very ugly state.
And the response of these industries to strip them of their power and of their job is a very strong repercussion which will surely stop and deter others from doing the same behavior in the future. It will make many people think twice, there’s no question about that, but there’s also no question that there will be plenty of people who will still violate others and harass others despite the fact that they know the responsibility of these repercussions happening to them. And this is because of the psychology of human beings who always think that it will always happen to the other person and it won’t happen to me. And that means that repercussions will not stop the problem, they will alleviate the problem a little bit. They will not stop the problem.
And here is the very other important point. We cannot wait to impose repercussions on violators because that means that someone has already been violated. And if one person has been violated, if one woman has been violated, then we are too late in our response to this problem. So that’s the reason why I want to primarily discuss this issue from a preventative angle, not a corrective angle. How can we prevent this from even happening at the outset?
And while I don’t think we can absolutely prevent it, as I will explain, we can minimize it significantly. And here I may be stepping into some hot water and so I am going to ask you to bring your most open mind to this conversation. Because my goal in this conversation is not to defend a belief system, not to defend a political system, not to defend any form of leanings in one direction or another, but to defend all of humanity, both men and women, from being sexually violated. And for that matter, violated, period, in any way, shape or form.
Jewish spirituality teaches us that our mission in life is not to seek perfection. In fact, perfection is impossible for us to seek and that’s probably why you’ve never met anyone who is perfect. And the reason why is because we are designed with instinctive desires and lusts which are unavoidable. You cannot get rid of those instinctive desires and lusts. We have impulsive urges that will always be within us. We are sexual beings that will always have impulsive responses to certain things. And the reason for this is because our natural or, as some people would call it, our animalistic self is impulsive because of who we are, the way we are designed.
So that impulse that shoots up within us, somewhere deep within us when we hear something or see something or smell something or whatever it may be, that is part of who we are and the way we were designed. However, what we can do and what is within our power is our ability to control those impulses. We can control whether we’re going to think about that impulsive feeling that shot up within me, whether we’re going to speak about it or whether we’re going to act on it. That is all within our control.
And, therefore, while we cannot resolve that we have certain urges or desires, we can control them. This distinction is very important because it reminds us that we are flawed beings. We are not perfect people and we cannot expect perfection from people but we can expect and we must expect that people control their urges, that we control our urges. Knowing that we are imperfect reminds us that we are vulnerable to weaknesses that we have. Reminding ourselves that we can control those urges reminds us that we have a responsibility to make sure that we do. We must control those urges towards negative things.
This is the reason why there’s that Biblical story where King David had a son by the name of Amnon. And King David had a daughter by the name of Tamar. This son and daughter were born to different wives of King David so they were half‑brother and half‑sister. And there’s a well-known story of Amnon, who raped his half‑sister Tamar. And what was King David’s immediate response to this? He immediately extended the prohibition known as Yichud in Judaism, which is the prohibition of seclusion between a man and a woman. And I’m not going to go into those particulars, but it’s just the point of creating an environment which makes it less likely for a man to sexually harass a woman. And for that matter, in the reverse, for a woman to sexually harass a man.
It means revising our social norms. When we create safety and freedom for people to be their vulnerable selves without being taken advantage of, we are offering freedom to people. And the only way we are going to do that is if we take more responsibility. And the way we take more responsibility may just mean revising social norms. Because we have a choice. We can protect the social norms that we’ve become used to and we can insist that humanity lose their cardinal desires ‑‑ and while that is idealistic and it would be fantastic if that could happen, that never will happen. Because realistically, as opposed to idealistically, human beings have impulses. And human beings need support to control those impulses.
Now, this is no form of justification for someone who doesn’t, because we are fully responsible, each of us individually for our own impulses because we can control them. But we can’t just keep social norms where people are clearly continuously failing to control them. We need to impose from outside on to individuals a culture that minimizes and also supports, minimizes a person acting upon their impulses and supports a person in controlling their impulses. So we have a choice. Do we protect our social norms and just leave things the way they are? For many many years, thousands and thousands of people have been deeply violated while we were protecting our social norms. Or do we accept that while we are required to control our cardinal desires they will always exist and, therefore, we need to revise our social norms in order to prevent people from being abused. Because, again, if our focus is protecting people, not protecting political or whatever type of leanings that we have but to protect people, then we need to ask ourselves, what is it that is in the best interest of people? Men have a responsibility to prevent themselves from being in a situation where they will not be in control of themselves. And, therefore, men need to impose upon themselves restrictions so that they won’t find themselves in a situation that makes them vulnerable to their own impulses and where they will do something which will be irresponsible and wrong and a violation of another human being.
Corporations have a responsibility to set up a corporate environment which doesn’t permit their employees to be violated. And marriages have the same responsibility. Two people who are married are responsible to each other. And we need to have a culture in our marriage where we do not make ourselves vulnerable to our own weaknesses where we may succumb to them and, therefore, violate our marriage.
So stage one in response to all the sexual harassment is creating boundaries before anything happens. Because creating boundaries creates safety for other people. Now, we know, of course, and even with boundaries, there are certain people who will always ‑‑ who will always insist on following their impulses and not control themselves and then, of course, we need Stage Number 2, which is too late but it’s necessary for after someone has still insisted on violating another person, where we have repercussions. And that will hopefully, at least, give another person a second thought before they themselves harass someone else.
But insisting that we maintain the same social norms is endangering future victims. Imagine someone who has a drug addiction and they go into rehab. When they go into rehab, let’s say for the first 30 days, do we tell them, take some drugs in with you because you need to learn to control yourself? No, we understand that they are not in a position right now to control themselves because their urges are way too strong. So we support them by containing them and putting them in an environment where they cannot have access to drugs. And hopefully, as that person matures, they develop themselves and they will be able to control themselves in the future.
And the point is that while we must work on controlling our deeper cardinal desires, we cannot permit people to be hurt throughout that process of us learning to control ourselves.
And another very important point to know is that when we set up structures and boundaries, we aren’t violating people’s freedom. We are creating freedom. All freedom comes with boundaries. All relationships must have healthy boundaries; otherwise, we don’t have relationships and we end up violating each other in very severe ways. It creates a safety when there are boundaries. And it’s a safety to be true to ourselves, to be our true selves. And that is what real freedom is.
The irony here is that when I put boundaries on myself, which is the entire point here, I create freedom for you. Because you don’t need to live in fear of me because I set up boundaries that are there to protect you in the context of what we’re talking about. When I don’t put boundaries on myself, I take away your freedom. Because without those boundaries I can, God forbid, end up violating another person.
When we are truly concerned for everyone around us, we will implement healthy boundaries. And that’s what we all need to do.