While reading and reviewing two years ago a dreadful book on chassidic life, I came across a footnote citing a remarkably high incidence of sexual abuse among Orthodox Jewish women. The source was a May 7, 2004 article in the Forward reporting on a paper presented shortly before at the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association. I was jolted and intrigued by the assertion that more than 25% of married Orthodox women participating in the survey said that they had experienced such abuse. The statistic was at once startling and I thought questionable. I contacted the two principal researchers and requested a copy of the paper, only to be told that it was not available and would not be available for perhaps two years.
I did not know at the time that in the same period, a companion – or perhaps the same - paper had been given at the annual meeting of the Orthodox Forum, a Modern Orthodox group, and that it had been sharply challenged, the upshot being that in what I have been told is a rarity for the group, the paper, entitled “Sexual Life of Observant Jewish Women,” was not accepted for publication in the book that includes the 2004 Orthodox Forum papers.
In fact, sexual abuse was a minor concern in that paper. Now, the November 2007 issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry, certainly a major publication, includes an article derived from the same study that served as the basis for the earlier paper. This one is on the “History of Past Sexual Abuse in Married Observant Jewish Women,” with Dr. Rachel Yehuda listed as the first of five authors and with the highlighted finding that “sexual abuse was reported by 26% of the respondents surveyed, with 16% reporting abuse occurring by the age of 13.”
This is now the definitive word on the subject, to be Googled for nearly all of eternity and regarded as authoritative and cited in books, newspapers and other publications. This newspaper did its part with a badly flawed article headlined, “No Religious Haven From Abuse.”
It is not prudishness that begets my reluctance to write about sexual abuse. I do not want to cover up any form of wrongdoing. My reluctance arises from the likelihood that what I write will engender the false claim that I and the Orthodox cover up all abuse. We Orthodox live in a real world and there is sexual abuse in our community and while its incidence is, I believe, significantly below what it is in the larger society, what occurs is a serious issue that must be confronted. Any who protect a sexual abuser is guilty of a great sin.
There is a huge gap between acknowledging this truth and accepting the reckless scholarship and statistics of Dr. Yehuda, et al which constitute a form of group libel and severe cruelty toward observant Jews. They have an obligation, scholarly and ethical, to calculate how their presentation of their findings will be interpreted and distorted because of their flawed use of statistics. At the end of the day, we are left with the statistic that one in four married Orthodox women has experienced sexual abuse and this statistic is false.
Sadly, claims of abuse of one kind or another among the Orthodox have become routine, as if “Orthodox” and “abuse” are like love and marriage in the popular old song, you can’t have one without the other.
The AJP article does not include the questionnaire, nor is it available online, which is surprising. The questionnaire is important because it indicates why I believe Orthodox women in droves refused to participate in the survey. A half-dozen polite requests to Dr. Yehuda for a copy were to no avail. Nor have I been able to access the promotional material that was utilized to attract participants. Dr. Yehuda acknowledges that while the survey was once online, it “is no longer on the website.”
A substantial effort was made to publicize the survey and to encourage self-identified Orthodox women to participate. As the AJP article puts it, “subjects were sought across a large range of religious Jewish communities by advertising through synagogue bulletins, Jewish organizations, newspapers, Jewish-oriented websites and listserves, and a network of medical professionals…whose practices consisted of sizable numbers of Orthodox Jewish women.”
This extensive and doubtlessly expensive effort, conducted here and in Israel, resulted in 380 completed questionnaires that constitute the survey. The authors acknowledge that they cannot “estimate the number or characteristics of women who heard about the study and refused participation.” It is a fair estimate that this number dwarfs by a hundredfold and probably much more those who participated.
Methodological concerns alone raise serious questions about reliability. While there is research on the sexual activity of American women, what Dr. Yehuda et al report is the first study of its kind on any ethnic, religious or nationality group or subgroup. As they write, “there are currently no statistics regarding the life-time prevalence of sexual abuse within religious communities,” and, “we are not aware of any other study examining sexual abuse…in any similar insular religious society.” Inadvertent as it may be, there is a sensationalist quality to what is reported in the AJP. Once more, we Jews – and, once more, just the Orthodox - are the chosen people. I wonder what the reaction would be if research based on a comparable approach reported that one in four women in other ethnic and religious groups had experienced sexual abuse.
In fact, the statistics about the Orthodox are distorted – and by a wide margin. The study is afflicted by a severe case of survey bias, by now a chronic problem in Jewish demography and acknowledged as a serious issue in sexual activity research. Survey bias refers to the powerful tendency of quantitative research to attract respondents who are not representative of the entire group and whose participation is enhanced by the nature of the research and the questions asked. Their responses tilt the data in a pronounced way, invariably in the direction favored by the research. There are major articles in the literature on survey bias in sexual activity research, with one review article authored by A. Catania and others and published in 1990 in the Psychological Bulletin stating that the responses tend to come from those who are “more sexually liberal” and “more likely…to report sexual difficulties.”
What percentage of married Orthodox women is represented by these 380 responses? According to the Orthodox Forum paper, “it can be estimated that there are approximately 250,000 to 300,000 women” in the U.S. and Israel who would be eligible for participation in the study. My estimate is lower. Whatever the number, the 380 represent a small fraction of one-percent of the potential response pool and, as will be shown, they are not representative of Orthodox married women. Without any doubt, they are also a tiny proportion of the eligible women who learned of the survey and were invited and encouraged to participate. We do not know how many considered participation and then decided against it, certainly in many instances because they were repelled by the questions that were asked. Yet, we now read unqualified newspaper accounts that one-quarter of married Orthodox women experienced sexual abuse.
If nearly all surveys are prone to participation bias and sexual activity surveys even more so, there is a yet more heightened prospect that Orthodox women will shy away from such questions. According to an item in Science & Theology News about this research, “nearly 25 percent of American women surveyed did not respond” to some of the questions. There is a touch of prurience to certain questions, at least from the perspective of many Orthodox women and certainly those who identify as fervently Orthodox. An example is questions relating to the wedding night experience.
In short, the 380 respondents are an atypical group who represent only themselves. How atypical is indicated by the curious statistic that 53% of those who self-identify as fervently Orthodox attended graduate school, apart from those who went to a religious seminary. Indeed, Yehuda et al note that “the high level of education, even among the ultra-Orthodox, suggests a survey bias that may be associated with a willingness to participate in research.” This doesn’t deter the trumpeting of the 26% abuse statistic.
There are other question marks, invariably with the acknowledgement that they may affect the survey’s representativeness. A bit more than half of the abuse reported in the AJP article involved improper physical behavior that did not include genital contact. In fact, in the authors’ words, “many researchers have historically defined sexual abuse as genital contact.” Hopefully without being accused of excusing wrongful actions, I wonder whether inappropriate conduct without genital contact should be included in the survey of Orthodox women. The issue is relevant because while in the general society standards of physical contact are more permissive and so there is a strong tendency not to regard such contact as sexual abuse, among the Orthodox and especially the fervently Orthodox, in the words of Dr. Yehuda et al, “the threshold at which someone may feel the victim of sexual abuse may be lower for those living in a more restrictive religious community.” It is of note that of the Orthodox women reporting sexual abuse, more than half said that it did not involve genital contact.
An additional area of doubt arises from the extraordinarily large number of respondents – 53% - who have been treated at least once by a mental health professional. This is a sensitive issue and it is sufficient to note that the statistic is substantially higher than what is known about American women and psychotherapy services.
Many of the Women Were Not Orthodox
The greatest flaw in the research and presentation is that 137 or 36% of the respondents were not raised Orthodox, becoming observant later in life, a statistic that is incompatible with the distribution of baalei tshuva or return to Judaism women in the Orthodox population. Of the 96 women who reported abuse, more than half or 49 were not raised Orthodox. The title of the article refers to past sexual abuse among married Orthodox women, the suggestion being that the abuse was experienced by persons who were observant at the time that it occurred. This is how the data were reported in this newspaper and how they will continue to be reported.
This issue is crucial in light of the statistic that nearly two-thirds of those who report abuse say that it occurred before the age of thirteen, when in fact many of the women were not Orthodox. Of note, one-third of the women raised Orthodox say that their perpetrator was a stranger, as compared to but 14% for those who were not raised observant. Contrary to popular wisdom which decrees confidently that the Orthodox tend not to report abuse, 44% of those raised Orthodox reported the incident. The comparable figure for those not raised Orthodox is 39%.
When the women not raised Orthodox are excluded, the abuse statistic declines to 19% and that is the point at which survey bias and other factors come into play, reducing the figure even further and probably substantially, although it is not possible to estimate an accurate figure. In sum, to the degree that this survey has any value, it appears to point to a lower, probably much lower, incidence of sexual abuse in the Orthodox community than in American society as a whole. To put it mildly, the message sent by the authors is quite different.
Sprinkled throughout the AJP article are declarations that the responses may not be representative. That isn’t sufficient because it is certain that they aren’t representative. As someone who read the AJP article emailed to me, “I don’t understand a field in which a major journal publishes an article that contains emphatic declarations that its data is utterly meaningless.” Of course, the declarations do not make it into the publications that cite the study.
Whether the substantial deficiencies were inadvertent or not, the authors bear a moral and scholarly responsibility for what appears under their names and for the harm, distortion and pain they have caused. Sexual abuse is terrible and never to be condoned. In condemning sexual abuse, we must be careful not to condone scholarly abuse. Dr. Yehuda and her colleagues should take the morally responsible step and retract their article.