Jewfem Blog

When the abuser is a woman

I’ve been hearing and talking a lot about sexual abuse, like so many other people. And not only from the news, and not only from sharing stories of our lives, but also from reading Genesis. (Yes, I sound like a rabbinical student, don’t I?). What can I say, the Torah portion readings from the past two months have been swamped with stories of sexual impropriety – the pimping of Sara, the incest of Lot’s daughters, the rape of Dina, the using of Tamar by her father-in-law – just as in parallel, hundreds of stories of sexual abuse are being revealed in #MeToo stories. It’s coming at us from all sides. What happened thousands of years ago doesn’t seem that different from what is happening today. But today, I’m reading a different kind of story. Preparing for the Torah portion that I’m reading tomorrow, I am learning about Joseph and Potiphar’s wife. (Or, as Andrew Lloyd Weber wrote in his musical, Joseph , “It’s all there in chapter 39 of Genesis.”) The millionaire’s wife, according to both the Bible and Weber, relentlessly hit on the head servant, Joseph. When he resisted and ran out into the street undressed, she quickly changed the story, framing him for assaulting her. Everyone believed her. Nobody believed him. Her story was understandable, as she is a woman. His was not, because he was a lowly servant.  He went to prison. She went on. It is the first recorded case of woman-instigated sexual harassment in the workplace, from over 3000 years ago, and the narrator is sympathetic to the male victim. How progressive. The issue of women-instigated sexual abuse remains one of the last taboos in this ugly topic of sexual abuse. I understand why. I am also guilty of putting this topic on the back burner. I’ve done this because so much of sexual abuse has to do with the sexual objectification of women by men. It is part of a larger system in which men have disproportionate power to do this – men hold more positions of power, they often have better jobs and lots more money on the whole than women, as well as intricate formal and informal networks with which to sustain each other, as Harvey Weinstein was so well-kept by men in power all around the world. Injecting the reality that women do this, too, can be too distracting from that narrative. I don’t want to talk about it so much – even though I, too, have also been sexually harassed by a woman; even though so many women I know have been verbally-sexually harassed by women but may not even know it; even though I know all this to be true. Despite all this, I have refrained from writing about women who abuse because I wanted to give the topic of men abusing women its crucial moment. It’s having its moment. And so now I think it is time to talk about the women who abuse. As painful as that subject...

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