Coed Activities Are and Should Be Normal: What Both Rabbi Shulman and His Critics Get Wrong
There’s been a lot of discussion recently about Rabbi Shulman’s statement against the Wilf coed Shabbaton. Rabbi Shulman urged students to leave campus for Shabbat in protest of the event. According to The Commentator, he questioned the tznius of such an event and said, “Boys and girls should date, but they don’t have to date in the beis midrash.” The statement came under a torrent of critiques from many different angles. Many justifiably took issue with the double standard between the uptown and downtown campuses, the undermining of the student body and its leaders, the marginalization of women from “the yeshiva” — and macrocosmically the Orthodox community — and the implication that the existence of women as people (i.e. subjects, not objects) is only on the periphery of our religious leadership’s judgment.
But the most prevalent critique I saw by adults on social media was that enforcing such strict gender segregation between eligible young adults perpetuates “the shidduch crisis”. Every Jewish mother was up in arms. How will their child meet someone?! According to these people, coed events are positive and necessary because young adults need fora to meet other-gendered people for courtship.
Unfortunately, both Rabbi Shulman and his detractors share a common error — one that itself demonstrates the necessity of normalized coed activities. Both sides automatically associate coed activities with the prospect of dating. There’s no good reason for this to be the case.
I cannot speak for the orchestrators of the coed Shabbaton, only as an attendee and, more broadly, a participant in YU student life and the Modern Orthodox community. But the Shabbaton was not a shidduch event, nor are most coed events and activities. Coed activities can be — and usually are — merely informal social interaction. It’s absurd for Rabbi Shulman to jump from “coed Shabbaton” to “boys and girls going on dates,” but it’s just as absurd and harmful for his detractors to accept this conception.
Talking about coed programming as a breach of tznius or primarily as a healthy medium for forming romantic relationships makes sense only if you accept that the default social landscape is single-gendered and view coed programming through a hypersexualized lens. But this conception of the social landscape is inaccurate and this hypersexual lens is harmful.
We live in a coed world. Students at YU often come from coed high schools, participate in coed summer programs, do coed extracurricular activities, and even the minority who refrain from all of the above will go on to a coed workforce. These happenings aren’t opportunities for courtship or licentiousness; they’re just everyday social occasions. As society progresses, gender differences — whether essential or constructed — play less and less of a role in our everyday lives. There’s no barrier or planetary divide between men and women in our society. Having coed meals, tisches, learning, board games, conversations and whatever else your Shabbat may include is only natural and normal in such a context. Conceiving of a coed Shabbaton as a breach of tznius or as a singles event is divorced from the reality of our world. The Shabbaton wasn’t made up of people trying to meet potential partners, it was people who already know each other — many already in relationships — merely hanging out. The Shabbaton created an institutional outlet for an already existing community. And this community — like most in our modern society — included both men and women.
Not only is a hypersexualized conception divorced from reality, but it also results in a self-perpetuating toxic environment. Many frequently lament the “meat-market” atmosphere at many coed events. Jokes and memes abound about downtown Shabbatons, The Seforim Sale and the more social floors of the Gottesman Library. But the only reason these are seen as occasions for “shidduch shopping” is because of the rarity of intergender mingling at YU. When dating is on the back of someone’s mind — as it is for many single twentysomethings — and they have few interactions with the other sex, every interaction is going to be seen as an opportunity and every interlocutor as a prospect. This dynamic is what makes many at YU anxious and uncomfortable in coed spaces. One either has to be on the defensive from being pursued or nervous due to all the pressure on this momentary opportunity. Any innocent socialization is tainted with perceived expectations.
Meaningful relationships are difficult to form without regular proximity. Friendships generally don’t form by active pursuit, they form from frequent informal interaction. Many of the closest friends I have made at YU have been people I happen to share classes with, have sat next to during lunch repeatedly or have hung out with on Shabbat afternoons. Friendship arises organically with the people we happen to be around. The only sort of relationship that at all lends itself to more active pursuit is the romantic, where we have designated rituals. In a single-sex social landscape, where coed activities are the exception, substantial intergender relationships can form only by active pursuit. Non-romantic relationships are therefore totally precluded, and even romantic relationships cannot arise in a more organic and less nerve-racking way. Segregation is what creates the hypersexual focus and the toxic environment. If we want to relieve this pressure and free ourselves from this hostile atmosphere, coed activities need to be the norm.
This dynamic is not unrelated to the other issues with Rabbi Shulman’s statement, namely the underlying sexism and double standard. As in all cases, socialization and diversity breed empathy, whereas homogeneity perpetuates inconsideration. It is not uncommon to hear yeshiva bochurim and alumni talk about women as mere objects of distraction and temptation. They object to their presence in the library, cafeteria and lounges, and they certainly don’t want them giving divrei Torah. Surely this hypersexualization is the opposite of what religious spaces intend when they segregate. The idea that a woman’s mere presence is problematic or that their publicness is inappropriate is perverted, regardless of the context. Yeshiva is no exception. While less explicitly vulgar, this yeshiva-breed of objectification is fundamentally no better than its counterpart that arises in other all-male spaces such as fraternities. Women are people and ought to be related to as such. Policy decisions must take their experiences into account.
This feedback loop of segregation and hypersexualization runs unchecked in our largely segregated YU community. It is incumbent upon us to question it and to halt its toxic force by normalizing coed activities. Not so people can meet romantic prospects, but so our social landscape at YU can come into line with the rest of the world’s, where intergender interaction is normal and generally conducted in a healthy fashion.
Photo Caption: A scene from a recent YU coed event..
Photo Credit: YU News