Sunday, October 28, 2007

No Religious Haven From Abuse


If anything, the abuse is probably more devastating because a religious woman going through this has a lot more on the line than her sisters in secular society. First, she is likely to have many more children than her secular sister and more dependent upon her spouse for income, she is less likely to say anything for fear that she will be ostracized in her community--including fear that she will not be able to find a shidduch for her children, and she is more "placed"--she is not as mobile as her secular sisters. She is dependent upon her small community where she cannot rock the boat. In addition, she will not speak to anyone about it as it is a taboo subject.

The Mikvah is an important place to post information, and it would be wonderful if the community would train their Mikvah ladies to politely make inquiries when the woman seems hesitant to return home, and know a competent and confidential person who either volunteers or is compensated by the community to send the woman to (as financial abuse is often connected to the victimization of the woman).

I would love to see a national training project for Mikvah Ladies to recognize and approach the victims of abuse and to refer them to appropriate assistance.

New study finds Orthodox women are sexually victimized as much as other American women are.
by Debra Nussbaum Cohen
Staff Writer

Despite the widespread impression in the Orthodox world that sexual abuse doesn’t happen within its precincts, or happens less than in the “outside world,” a report in the November issue of the journal of the American Psychiatric Association says that Orthodox Jewish women suffer as much of it as other American women do.

Twenty-six percent of respondents in a study about the sexual lives and attitudes of married Orthodox Jewish women — 55 percent identifying as Modern Orthodox and about 45 percent as fervently Orthodox — indicated that they had at some point suffered sexual abuse.

That figure is on par with the 25 percent to 27 percent of American women in general, without regard to their marital status or religion, who have reported
in numerous studies that they had been sexually abused.

The new article also says that fervently Orthodox women are more likely than Modern Orthodox women to have experienced sexual abuse, to have experienced it multiple times and to have experienced it the first time before age 13.

Fifty-eight percent of fervently Orthodox women who participated in the study reported experiencing sexual abuse multiple times, according to the article, compared to 39 percent of Modern Orthodox women.

Overall, 16 percent of respondents said they experienced their first sexual abuse at or before they were 13 years old, which is less than the approximately 22 percent of American women who have reported in other studies that they were sexually abused at that age.

Among the ultra-Orthodox respondents, 20 percent said they had experienced abuse by the age of 13, while among the modern Orthodox respondents it was 12 percent.

“It’s very important to note that this is just a slice,” said Rachel Yehuda, a professor of psychiatry at Mt. Sinai Medical Center in Manhattan, and one of the paper’s lead authors. “We only studied married women who agreed to be studied, and we have no idea of how representative these women are. More importantly, we didn’t study single women or women who decided not to be Orthodox anymore.

“Nonetheless, the observation that this is not less of a problem here is important. ... One can’t walk away saying Orthodox Judaism is protecting women against abuse,” said
More women who became religious — ba’alei teshuvas — also report having been sexually abused at some point compared to those raised in Orthodox homes, according to the study of married observant women.

“We’re not the first to show that heightened religiosity may be a response to trauma,” says Dr. Michelle Friedman, a psychiatrist in Manhattan who is the article’s other lead author. Living an Orthodox life is viewed as “a whole lifestyle of perceived protection and meaning, of clarity and order.”

The article, which focuses just on sexual abuse, is based on information drawn from a broader study of Orthodox married women’s sexual lives and attitudes that Friedman and Yehuda conducted about four years ago. Respondents ranged in age from 19 to 58, and were required to report regular use of a mikveh, or ritual bath, in order to be included in the findings.

This was the first study of observant Jewish women’s sexuality, said Friedman. Though face-to-face interviews with randomly selected people on such topics are preferable, even getting Orthodox women to fill out anonymous questionnaires “is a hard thing to do,” she said. “You have to get to the sample, and it requires trust. For them to answer something that’s a study, people have to believe that it’s useful for them, that it’s necessary.”

The researchers advertised the study in synagogue bulletins, Jewish organizations, newspapers, Jewish listservs and Web sites, and through medical offices, like pediatricians and obstetricians/gynecologists, whose practices include many Orthodox women.

They did not count as abused respondents those who said that their adult experiences had been consensual even if uncomfortable, or said that they had abuse threatened but not carried out, or who experienced something that might not be strictly considered abuse, for example, someone who reported that a stranger fondled her rear end on the street.

Of the 380 respondents, 208 of them defined themselves as Modern Orthodox and 172 described themselves as ultra-Orthodox.

The study found that the ultra-Orthodox women were more likely to report that their husbands had forced them to have sex — 5 percent compared to 1 percent of the Modern Orthodox women.

This could be in part because fervently Orthodox women sometimes view their sexual role differently than Modern Orthodox women do, says Bronya Shaffer. Shaffer teaches marriage education classes to brides, and provides counseling to women about marital and family issues.

Shaffer, who is a member of the Lubavitch community in Crown Heights, has also had clients from the Williamsburg, Borough Park and Monsey chasidic communities, and found that “all of them were extremely sheltered up until marriage. They really had no clue about men and women or about how babies are made. All of them went into marriage knowing that part of their responsibility was to defer to their husband’s sexual needs, and none of them had any sense of themselves as sexual beings,” she said.

The article hopes to illuminate the need for greater sensitivity to sexual abuse among those who might treat its victims, and also to the reality of its existence in Orthodox Jewish communities.

“Religious life is not necessarily protective of the human condition,” said Friedman. “In theory, it’s clearly forbidden. But in practice it happens, and people suffer.”

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