It's Time For a New Story
BY AMY JOSEFA ARIEL
VAYESHEV GENESIS 37:1 - 40:23
9 DECEMBER 2017 / 21 KISLEV 5778
Note: Addresses issues of sexual assault.
Growing up, our family t.v. was in the cold, concrete-floored, cinder-block-walled basement. I had to really want to watch for it to be worth it. When I got to college and worked for the health center where the t.v.’s flicker of light and sound was constant, it was hard not to pay attention. Maybe that’s why I remember so clearly, Oprah stating firmly that even if a fourteen-year-old girl child walked naked into the room where her uncle was alone and sat herself down on his lap, his immediate response should not be to respond to her sexually, but to put his hands far away from her and tell her to get herself up off his lap and go put some clothes on. He is an adult, said Oprah. It is his job to behave like one.
The middle-aged women who ran the health center weren’t so sure. I mean, yes, of course, he should do that, but who could actually expect a man to behave that way with all that temptation sitting right there on his lap? On the one hand, I was indignant. Of course men could behave that way. On the other, I admit I saw their point. At 18 life experience had already made me cynical, who could expect adults to do what they should do?
I wanted to write about something else this week. Frankly, I wanted to write about anything else. So much so that I wrote this in the eleventh hour. I got stuck here.
In the first eleven chapters of Genesis God spoke the universe into being, created humanity in God’s own image, entered into a covenental relationship with us promising decendents and land, and gave us the ability to do both good and bad and made us morally responsible for our actions. So far, so good, but that isn’t the whole story.
A reoccurrent theme that bubbles up no less than seven times in Genesis is the persistence of sexualized danger from both within and without.
Three times, Abraham (Gen. 12 and 20) and Isaac (Gen. 26) are forced to leave home because of famine. On all three occasions the husband fears he will be killed so that the local ruler can take his wife into his harem. All three times the men put forward the story that their wife is actually their sister. In the fourth and fifth case, Lot in Sodom (Gen. 19), the people cluster round Lot's house demanding that he bring out his two male visitors so that they can be raped. Lot offers them his daughters to rape instead. In the sixth case (Gen. 34), Shechem rapes and abducts Dinah. This week, Vayeshev, there is the seventh episode when Potiphar's wife attempts to seduce the “na’ar”, the “youth” Joseph, then to sexually force him, and failing accuses him of rape and has him imprisoned.
As Jews, we aren’t literalists, the point of the Torah isn’t to record a literal history, but given that in addition to what we know from our own lives and from stories of sexual violence coming to light each day, the Center for Victims of Crime reports that during a one-year period in the U.S. 16% of youth ages 14 to 17 reported having been sexually victimized; that over the course of their lifetime, 28% of U.S. youth ages 14 to 17 report having been sexually victimized; and that every 98 seconds a person in the United States is sexually assaulted , the prevalence of sexual violence isn’t fiction.
I resent having to spend so much time immersed in this story. This week, I wanted to focus on something else in this text, but I can’t stop thinking about what we might do about that.
I so want our community to be part of writing a new story together.
I've been actively working on crafting new stories for about 20 years.
Comprehensive sex and sexuality education, consent education, relationship education - facilitated well, facilitated expertly, starting early can help write a new story. I've seen it. I've heard it. I've witnessed it. 7th grade is not early. 5th grade is not early. Infancy is early. Pre-school is early. Kindergarten is late, but not egregiously so.
Adult middle-age is egregiously late, friends, but it still matters, and we could still do this.
We could ask ourselves:
What does "NO" feel like in our bodies?
What does it feel like in our stomach?
Our whole body can feel "NO" . . . what does that feel like?
How do we move our bodies when we are feeling "NO"?
What does it sound like in our mouths?
We need to practice it.
When we feel "NO" and we say "NO" and we move our bodies in a way that means "NO", what do we have a right to expect from the other people who are sharing space with us in that moment?
What can we do if the person or people who are sharing space with us in the moment we are feeling "NO" and saying "NO" and moving our bodies in a way that means "NO" isn't able to understand or hear our "NO" or ignores our "NO"? What options do we have? What's available to us?
We need to practice hearing someone else's "NO".
What does it sound like and feel like to hear someone else's "NO"?
What does it feel like in our body?
What should we do with our voices, our eyes, and our bodies when we hear or see or become aware of someone else's "NO"?
What can we do if we feel hurt or confused by someone else's "NO"?
What can we do if we missed someone else's "NO" at first, and then became aware that we had missed it?
What about "YES!"?
Not just "yes" or "ok," but "YES!" All caps YES exclamation point!
What does "YES!" feel like in our own bodies – in all of our parts?
What does it sound like in our ears when we hear it in our own voice?
When we feel "YES!" and we say "YES!" and we move our bodies in a way that means "YES!", what do we have the right to expect from the other people who are sharing space with us in that moment?
What does it sound like to hear someone else's "YES!"?
What does it feel like in our body?
What can we do if we feel hurt or confused by someone else's "YES!"?
What can we do if we missed someone else's "YES!" at first, and then became aware that we had missed it?
What if it isn't that clear?
What if what we are feeling in our body is "maybe"? "I don't think so"? "Yes question mark"?
What if we are hearing someone else's "yes question mark"?
Maybe we could say, "let's talk about it more"? "okay, not right now" or "maybe another time"?
Maybe we could try to respond, "It sounds like you aren't sure, so let's do something else." Or "I'm hearing you say "maybe", do you mean maybe - or do you mean "no"?
We could more often say to each other, "No is a perfectly good choice in life." And not just when it's about sex.
I believe our bodies are the most external expression of our souls. When we move our bodies in the world, I believe we are moving the most external expression of our souls in the world. When we touch someone else's body, I believe we are touching the most external expression of their soul with the most external expression of our own soul.
Whether you believe that with me or not, I challenge us all to spend a day or more thinking about bodies the way I think about bodies. Watch how we move our bodies in the world, watch how we touch each other.
We need a new story. Let’s see if we can write one together.