Purim, drinking, and consent: The Jewish community's role in preventing sexual violence
In the end, I hung the plastic bag of condoms on the door handle of my hotel room. In the manner of a trip staffer, I'd sleep like the dead every night, so if someone was making a ruckus outside or making a show of taking a condom out of the bag, I never knew it. I didn't count the condoms when the trip was over, so I have no idea if anyone ever used one.
I had addressed the existence of the condoms on the first night of the trip, when people were simultaneously jet lagged and curious about the opportunities afforded to them by Israel's 18 year old drinking age. It wasn't the destruction of a hotel room I feared, or hang overs, but non consensual sexual behavior exacerbated by the drinking that I knew would happen.
As Purim approaches, with its imperative to turn the world upside down, and the mitzvah of drinking until you no longer know the difference between Mordechai and Haman, I'm finding myself thinking about the absence of any conversation around consent in the Jewish community. While we might advise folks (college students) around what it means to drink responsibily, it seems like we've ignored, or perhaps misplaced the fact that falling down the stairs is not the same issue as the one where a person cannot consent to sexual activity when they're drunk. (Rape? Not a mitzvah.)
If you've ever worked in a campus Jewish community context, Purim is one of those events that you probably dread (or you definitely do, if you're me). It's a late night, everyone is sloppy, you will more than likely have to have the uncomfortable conversation about what's in the Nalgene bottle besides water. By then, of course, it's too late to have a different conversation about how no means no, always, actually, no matter what. That conversations needs to be had much earlier on, it needs to be contextualized so that it can heard in all corners of the Jewish community. The idea remains that sexual violence happens in the frum world, regardless of where you’re standing in relation to the mechitzah, and what length your skirt or your tzit tzit are. This issue of consent demands a total reframing of what it means to have and create boundaries, as well as how gender and power operate in Jewish communities, and perhaps most basically, how we talk to each other.
I hope that I’m wrong here, and if I am, that I’m presented with evidence to the contrary. Maybe there are Jewish communities everywhere who are making the necessary decision to talk about consent all the time, and not just when it’s about to be a holiday when drinking is mandated. Maybe it’s not being pushed into a corner and dismissed as something the secular world will handle, or worse, ignored all together because the conversation is seen as unneccesary-our boys and girls (so deeply is the gender binary entrenched) don’t do things like this. Or at least, they don’t talk about it.