Separation of the sexes and Western society

Through Jewcy I discovered this article by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, a man I tend to respect for his uncharacteristically non-hateful view towards non-Orthodox Jews, about separating boys and girls here.

Now, admittedly, I’m not about to go through the entire article point by point, but what jumps out at me is this: I think attraction and working out what makes people attractive to one another is a pretty subjective endeavor. It would appear that Rabbi Boteach tends to believe keeping some (or a lot) of mystery alive between the sexes is the key, so that even average-looking girls can get some love. In the interest of not misrepresenting, here’s the actual quote:

You see the same thing in virtually every high school movie where the “ordinary” boys and girls, which constitutes 90 percent of the grade, are treated as uninteresting nerds who get wedgies while the quarterback and the head of the cheer-leading squad are treated as movie stars. It is incredible how at even an early age, when teenagers are so hormonally charged, they are erotically desensitized to the vast majority of other teenagers, feeling attracted only to about ten percent of the class.

Single sex schools are attacked for not allowing boys and girls to learn how to get along with the opposite sex. But more often than not the opposite is true. A single sex education leads to boys who are generally interested in crossing the divide and getting to know a girl even if she does not rank in highest beauty percentile.

Anyway, my problem with his reasoning is that even if he himself does not wish to see a return to the strict oppressiveness of the Victorian era, much of his reasoning has been used by fundamentalists of many kinds to mandate forced modesty on both men and women in clothing, most severely for women usually, so I wouldn’t advocate such a position because I know those kinds of excesses are rarely reined in.

Besides, the limits of modesty go back to the subjectiveness of attraction. What he considers modest I might consider more than modest, and what I consider to be modest could be considered salacious or downright blasphemous to someone else. With these kinds of ideas it’s usually the strictest ideal that ends up being enforced.

And also, I don’t agree with his assertion that this envy of the school “rock stars” and disdain of the average has anything to do with public schooling – it’s a cultural problem. Advertising and celebrity culture trains people to want the best of everything, and you couple that with the myth of the American Dream, you end up with a society who not just wishes they could have the best of everything, they honestly believe they can attain it and deserve it.

This is exacerbated by our refusal to see divisions and oppressions within society of any kind – we don’t have an aristocracy because America has no royal family, there’s no racism because slavery is over and black people can vote, there’s no sexism because women can vote and work outside the home (freedom for all at last!) and we know about the Shoah so there’s no anti-Semitism, etc.

It is a misplacing of priorities, mainly – kids want to be the rock stars and star athletes like the football players partly because kids will be kids, but also because they don’t know how risky it is to base one’s career around the upkeep of the body and how freak accidents can derail one’s life (while he certainly didn’t end up in the poverty line, look at Bobby Orr and his knee problems) when you have nothing else as a backup.

Also, TV and movies are full of average schlub guys who end up with disproportionately attractive women and John Cusack movies are full of the notions that Nice Guys win out in the end because they’re so sweet and endearing when they hold up boxes playing Peter Gabriel near the bedroom window – instead of being taught that, you know, maybe guys shouldn’t just value looks and maybe look around a little more, and that valuing women only by their looks sells the whole world short? (I know that’s not what Boteach was arguing, but I don’t blame public schools).

The bottom line here is that there’s more going on than just boys and girls going to school together – at the risk of disclosure I don’t really have a problem keeping any spark alive in my relationship even if I went to public school with girls, and I’m a pretty secular guy, so I’d argue it has more to do with socialization and cultural priorities.

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