THE BLOG
11/13/2014 04:49 pm ET Updated Jan 13, 2015

Sexual Surveillance of Women is a Consequence of Conservative Norms, Not Liberal Social Mores

The Washington Post via Getty Images

It is a powerful and sad truth that the only place men are subjected to the levels of surveillance and sexual assault that women live with is in prison. A casually dismissed, and now camera-enabled, "boys will be boys" spying on girls and women, is the muted background noise of fever pitch concerns about mass surveillance -- which essentially translate into the fact that men are now feeling the heat of being watched. Girls and women have no safe spaces or reasonable expectations of privacy. Ever. Anywhere. Take this most recent case involving a rabbi.

A few weeks ago, Barry Freundel, an internationally renowned leader of a prominent synagogue in Washington, DC, was arrested and charged with secretly filming women in his synagogue as they dressed and undressed for a ritual bath. They did this in a mikvah that he had specifically built and in which he instituted a new custom, "practice dunks" for female conversion students, to whom he also suggested "long showers." Police found multiple computers in Freundel's home, which housed more than 100 files, some titled with the single first names of women he filmed. A hotline has been created for women who think they were recorded. That Freundel may be brilliant, which apparently he is, is irrelevant. He has pleaded not guilty to six counts of misdemeanor voyeurism.

First, let's get any doubt about the ubiquity and seriousness of this alleged crime out of the way. We live in an increasingly voyeuristic culture that affects us all, but, it turns out that girls and women are watched secretly, without their consent, for male sexual pleasure, much more than most care to think about or admit. From girls and women who are being abused by spouses or fathers to women who have no idea at all who is watching them. It happens to women in their apartments; in changing rooms; department store rest rooms; supermarket bathrooms; on public stairways and subway platforms; in sports arenas and locker rooms; in police stations and in classrooms while they teach. Last Spring, a solider in the U.S. army faced charges for filming women cadets in showers. In July, Johns Hopkins Health System agreed to pay $190 million to 8,000 women and girls after it was revealed that a doctor, Dr. Nikita Levy, had filmed women during gynecological exams. He was a doctor there for 25 years. He wore a pen-shaped camera and took more than 1,200 videos, including 62 cases involving minors. During the same month, students at the University of Delaware, almost all female, were offered free counseling after it was revealed that male student had hidden video cameras in school bathrooms. He had more than 1,500 recordings. Last month, a man in a café secretly set up a camera in a neighborhood restaurant's bathroom. Yesterday, it was a man arrested for secretly filming "people" on tanning beds in a Planet Fitness gym. Taken to another arena, what do people think non-consensual, invasive ultrasounds legally mandated for women by male-dominated state legislatures are? These are pictures of women's bodies, taken against their will, for no good reason, in the exercise of traditional, paternalistic male power. That these images are recategorized so that they are not considered coercive surveillance is a discriminatory slight of hand that comes with power.

Betrayals like the one Freundel is charged with are particularly profound. As with cases involving sexual transgressions in the other conservative faiths, the military, schools and families, these intimate violations, perpetrated by a trusted authority figure, do particularly deep harm, not just to individuals, but to an entire community.

While it is safer and comforting to think that men looking at women in these ways is not a question of power "looking," "taking," and sometimes "sharing" women and images of women, these images are, and always have been, political acts with social consequences. As Amy Stone, writing in Lilith put it, Freundel didn't just allegedly break the law, "he was the law." Freundel was not only a respected rabbi, but also a prominent ethics advisor with a specific interest in technology and sexual ethics. This case simply makes the connection between status and institutional tolerance for abuse more obvious. However, as with almost ever other article I've read about similar cases, while the fact of his betrayal is frequently mentioned, the act of voyeurism itself as an expression of male dominance is not. Neither are the ways in which traditional, conservative ideas about gender, masculinity, control and sexual entitlement are implicated in voyeurism.

"Creepy" is the word most frequently used to describe acts like those Freundel is accused of, but that is a tired, trivializing euphemism for serious infringements of privacy and degradation of people's, mostly female people's, dignity. Sexual objectification of women, the core of voyeurism, is the exact opposite of autonomy. First, the widespread, fundamentally conservative belief that this is "natural" and that "boys will be boys" is what enables abusive sexual entitlement. Second, the gender binaries that inform those attitudes inform consequential others. Third, shame, particularly sexual shame, is central not only to the mechanisms of voyeurism, but to maintaining conservative religious cultures and their hierarchies. Fourth, the regulation of nudity, especially female nudity, is based on historic ideas of women as property, governing who has the "rights" to them. Voyeurism, from this historic perspective, is a theft. Cameras and their abuse are only illuminating these ideas, and their ubiquitous expression, in unprecedented ways.

Traditional stereotypes revolve around conservative ideas about male/female binaries inform consequential others, such as public/private, logical/emotional, serious/trivial, object/subject and, finally, gazer/gazed at. These stereotypes are not just symbolic, but fundamentally structural and pivotal to how many people think about the full spectrum of sex crimes. What I am saying about traditional ideas about gender doesn"t mean that all boys and men are full of shame, sexually deviant or rapists. But, traditional ideas result in the expression of sexualized violence, control and dominance being masculinized, and sexual passivity, weakness and subjugation being feminized.

Take the recent Sayerville football players accused of sexually assaulting their younger teammates. The Freundel story broke during a week in which seven boys in Sayerville, New Jersey were arrested in a "hazing" incident. According to news reports, older players would "pin a freshman to the floor, lift him up, and shove a finger into the player's rectum." Rape by any other name, but because they are boys, it's more comfortable for everyone to say "hazing." Or consider the treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, where men were humiliated by feminizing them, including putting them in pink panties, violating and filming them without consent; or even in an atypical gender reversal, in schools, when female teachers abuse their charges. Schools are one of the few places where women tend to dominate the way men do almost everywhere else.

What Freundel allegedly did in the exercise of sexualized power -- voyeurism -- is defined as a psychosexual disorder that is highly gendered. One of the only large-scale studies conducted on the subject indicates that men are up to three times more likely than women to engage in voyeurism. While some voyeurs might have particular characteristics and issues, most of these boys and men aren't mentally unstable, nor are they outliers. Peeping Tom's are your neighbor, the guy sitting next to you on the beach, the one in school carpool lines, random dudes you've never met, your dentist, employer, student, classmate, teacher, military trainer, or banker. We live in a Peeping Tom culture based on traditional conservative, not liberal, "boys will be boys" ideas. Girls and women have to adapt constantly, with vigilance, frustration, anger, pain and/or shame, to what amounts to sexist malice and violations of our rights every day.

A huge problem with our societal response to sex crimes and women, however, is the inability to really think of sex crimes as rights violations and not crimes of property. Voyeurism, typically involving strangers or at least people who are not intimates, has deep roots in Abrahamic religious norms regulating sexuality and nudity. Only certain people have rights to do "look" at nakedness. Ideas about who has rights to women's bodies (and their products) are embedded in the traditions of our rape legislation, which was never meant to protect women, but rather, historically, established to protect male property rights. Marriage was legal access to the property that a wife represented; rape was an illegal access. When a married woman was raped, her husband was the person compensated. Think about where Freundel's alleged surveillance took place: in a mikvah used by women to ritually, symbolically cleanse themselves after their periods, before they resume sex with their husbands, who, according to conservative religious standards, are the only men allowed to see them naked. Put in other, less palatable words, these are the men that they are reserved for and those with the right to see them. That may seem like a turn of phrase today, but the idea itself is alive and well.

Modern surveillance, regardless of who's being surveilled, as researcher Torin Monahan explained in a paper on the topic, is built "upon masculine logics of disembodied control at a distance." That control, along with the entitlement that comes with it, is the issue at hand because they are both so central to notions of traditional definitions of masculinity. Freundel violated these women's rights to privacy, but he also violated their husband's rights to exclusive access to them. Is that a trespass and an affront to their masculinity? Entitlement and control are how we end up with rabbi's filming women in sacred spaces, school boys seeing nothing wrong with taking upskirts of their teachers and boys and men abusively stealing and sharing sexualized images of women without their consent; it's how the male gaze has been normalized in social media ; it's why entire communities participate in sharing rape images and slut-shaming girls until they kill themselves from shame.

That shame is a core aspect of conservative cultures. It is also a seriously gendered experience. For men, loss of control is particularly shame-inducing, because loss of control means vulnerability and weakness, "feminine" traits. It's at least interesting to note from this perspective that the single greatest predictor of voyeurism is the consumption of pornography, 80% of which is viewed by men by themselves.

It is cognitively dissonant to consider the complex, intimate hypocrisy that is sexism when it hits you in the face. Most people look away. However, it is entirely possible to lead a spiritual life, to seek God, to engage in communities of faith and adapt traditions without adhering to outdated notions of gender. I'd suggest that it is better to consider the broader harms of strict and segregated gender binaries, and the effects of their inevitable hierarchies, than to ignore them, because until we openly discuss the relationship between sexual violations, stereotypes and traditional ideas about authority there will be no end to cases like this. I just wish we were past the point of people being surprised.