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Between the Sexes
Mom with a View

Between the Sexes

The need for clear boundaries at the workplace.


The Wall Street Journal printed an article recently (11/28/08) entitled "The Young and the Restless: Why Infidelity is Rising Among 20-Somethings" by Naomi Schaefer-Riley. It's a cute title, and a serious problem.

"There is no doubt," she says "that the opportunity for infidelity has increased since large numbers of women came into the workplace." I don't think we should put that genie back in the bottle, but perhaps this recognition can make us more focused on our behavior and more conscious of the need to, dare I say it, establish some boundaries.

In Jewish life, relationships between men and women who are not married to each other are conducted on a much more formal basis. There is no physical contact -- no friendly pecks on the cheek, no hugs or pats on the back. There is little socializing; in general men and women sit separately at social and religious functions, and often the custom is to call each other by the title Mr. and Mrs. or Rabbi and Rebbetzin, as the case may be.

All this probably sounds strange to American ears. It is foreign to western sensibilities. And yet it helps keep the barriers in place that may prevent an inappropriate office or neighborhood romance.

#Many women would welcome greater distance.

And with a little probing I have found that many people appreciate the wisdom in it. Numerous women I have discussed these ideas with confess that they are uncomfortable when their husband expresses affection to other women or not so thrilled when male acquaintances hug them. Although no one says so in polite society, it seems many women would welcome greater distance. Yet it is so hard to speak up, to stand out.

To some, the Jewish views may seem quaint and anachronistic. But in a world where between 1991 to 2006, the number of unfaithful wives under 30 increased by 20% and the number of unfaithful husbands increased by 45%, it certainly seems a more prudent course.

Yes it leads to some social awkwardness. But the formality and occasional segregation (both sides are equally segregated; there is no "discrimination") seem a small price to pay for the benefits acquired.

By calling my neighbor "Mister Smith" instead of Bob, I am creating a wall between us. I am saying, "You are married and not available to me," and vice versa. No ambiguities. No wondering what that look or touch really meant.

Everyone is subject to temptations. And in our society today, temptation abounds. It is naive to think otherwise. American society is not known for its exercise of self-control -- not in its food consumption and concurrent obesity, not in its spending and concurrent credit card debt. And not in its sexual manners.

It may not be what everyone around me is doing, but I'll stick with the lack of physical contact, the separation and the formality. Besides, I like the idea that Judaism is counter-culture.

December 6, 2008

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Visitor Comments: 17

(17) MF, December 11, 2008 12:43 PM

Fear of Sexual Harrassment Prevents It

In my workplace, there is virtually no physical contact outside of hand shaking because people are afraid of sexual harassment accusations. There is virtually no casual hugging or kissing. I once saw a man rubbing a pregnant woman's belly, it turns out he was her husband and they worked in the same area!

(16) Batsheva, December 11, 2008 7:12 AM

I now understand mechitza (separation)

To Susan E. -- Coming from egalitarian Reform Judaism to Orthodoxy, I wrestled with the mechitza (separation at synagogue and parties) issue for a long time. Here's how I came to be comfortable with it. I became a true davener (pray-er) and I needed to concentrate in my prayers, so sitting next to my husband was a distraction. At social occasions I now find it more comfortable and in a way more liberating to dance with women-only, out of men's view. Re your comment about "grooming down." I NEVER do that. Being frum (religious)does not mean being frumpy. I wear a beautiful wig that is often mistaken for "real" hair, modest clothing and light make-up, and I feel like a queen.

(15) Sonia, December 11, 2008 1:18 AM

And what about computers as a disrupting influence in the husband and wife relationship?

The propensity for sexual politics have provider fodder for many a book analyzing the relationship between women and men. That oft what expresses in a seemingly sexual context conveys another message as well. Its a game of hierarchy in which the touchee declares the place for the touched and a reason for the discomfort often felt by women! As for the biological aspect - and infidelity - while opportunies may abound at the work place, the individuals core values are in my experience the powerful operating principle in any decisions made in this regard. As for technologies - I wonder to what extent they play interference as the propensity for addictiont can as well subvert the husband and wife relationship if boundaries are left unclear and priorities skewed.

(14) SusanE, December 10, 2008 8:27 PM

I Still don't Quite Understand Separating

I am a single woman and have had to carry something in front of me, or have needed to extend a hand quickly on many occassions. But I can handle most situations and would not like to be separate from the men. Other groups besides the Jews also have separate or non-mingling of the sexes. One example is the young LDS men and women are separated in church, and closely chaperoned at social functions. The adult men and women have their separate study groups. The adult and married women are expected to dress in an appropriate and modest fashion. I understand the prudence among young or unmarried people keeping separate or being chaperoned, and I agree with that. But I don't understand the separating of the married couples in shul and social situations. I have never heard that a young Jewish woman was corrupted because the young man was way too good looking and well groomed. It's usually the woman in most situations who has to dress down and groom herself down. Please anyone, Is there a better way I can understand this? Thank you, Emuna for a thoughtful article.

(13) anonymous, December 10, 2008 9:00 AM


Yasher Koach! Very excellent article. Straight forward. Incidentally, there is one thing I do laugh at facetiously. Whether it is this article or almost any other, the article will have show the % of cheating females to be lesser than the % of cheating males. I think, in some ways, thoses percentages should be even. Meaning, the men, it seems, are just willing to admit their behavior. If not, then, who are the men cheating with on the uneven % portion difference that is heavily noted in the comparison of the two stats? Are they cheating with other men? I doubt that high of a stat exists for that. Both men and women would definately benefit from discretion.

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