Crime Warning-Sexual Assault: What Vashti Teaches Us About Consent

Vashti's bravery differs from Esther's, but she was brave, too. She stood her ground. It’s time for Jewish tradition to venerate Vashti for her bravery.

by Rabbi Andrea Steinberger, Hillel at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. 

Note: Includes references to sexual violence


Many times on a Sunday morning I will scroll through the emails on my phone and there it is. It always takes my breath away. It is an email from our university entitled, “Crime Warning-Sexual Assault.” What follows is a very brief description. Where it occurred, about what time, any details that the student gives. Sometimes alcohol was involved. Many times the victim and the suspect are known to each other.

The sentence that follows is usually something like this: “These crimes will not be tolerated on campus and are a violation of state law as well as the student code of conduct. Violence and the fear of violence can disrupt the working and learning processes.” And it’s true. After a sexual assault, often one’s life really becomes a mess: we hear women say: I couldn’t study. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep. I stopped functioning. I was so anxious. A person cannot stop thinking about the incident and their life is derailed for a time as they continuously run through the details, replaying the scene in their head endlessly. What happened. What could have happened…

This Purim I think about Vashti and what could have happened to her. I wonder what it would be like to be married to a powerful person who drank to excess and wanted his wife to dance naked in front of him and his drunken party. I wonder, what did Vashti owe the king? And what do we owe one another, we who, as the crime report says, are known to one another, have a crush on one another, are in relationship with each other?

If he takes you to the fraternity formal and pays hundreds of dollars for the dance, the alcohol, the hotel room, do you owe him a sexual experience? Should you consent to this activity, even if it’s not your own desire?

What if the guy you like and really want to be with follows you into your dorm room and you’ve both been drinking and he suddenly becomes violent and aggressive and you do not want this activity, but you are surprised because you thought you liked him and now it’s just not clear? Do you worry that his interest in you will wane if you do not have sex with him?

Many people talk about the hookup culture on the college campus, where drinking and drugs are part of the scene. Many college students will say that alcohol is a regular part of their hooking up. It’s hard to separate the two because the alcohol makes the hookup so much easier. Lines are blurred, boundaries are easier to cross. And the whole sexual experience can be dismissed as something that was fun at the moment and nothing more. It allows both people to be more adventurous, to enjoy themselves, and to blow it off if necessary and move on.

During a recent discussion about intimacy a student said that if people are married, then drinking and having sex, even if one person is not completely aware of the activity, is not a problem. Other students vehemently disagreed with the student and said that being in a relationship, being married, doesn’t make sex a foregone conclusion every time. Consent is necessary every time.

Vashti has long been a teacher for us in the area of empowering women in their sexual safety. Long ago, even as a child, I remember that I felt liberated and triumphant if I would dress as Vashti for Purim. After all, she was the one who refused to dance naked in front of the king and his drunken party! What a hero!

But traditional Judaism venerates Esther over Vashti. Esther was loyal and deferred to her husband. She was brave to reveal her identity and to save the Jewish people. But Vashti was brave, too. She recognized that she did not want to agree to the sexual misconduct of her husband and she said no to participating in activity that violated her. She stood her ground. It’s time for Jewish tradition to venerate Vashti for her bravery.

Thank you, Vashti. So long ago, in ancient times, you taught us all that you had a right to refuse sexual activity to which you did not consent. It didn’t feel right to you and you refused, even though you were married to a king, and even though it would cause you to lose your position as his wife and as the queen. Your story matters to us, especially in these times when women’s voices are getting stronger, when women are reporting sexual violence on campus and when universities are trying so hard to hear these voices and support these women. There might be times when alcohol and sex mix on campus and women consent to this situation, but Vashti’s story reminds us that a woman has a right to refuse this mix of alcohol and sex for any reason, just because she says so.

I hope that Vashti’s story can stay with us as a reminder, all year long, that a woman has a right to refuse, even if there is alcohol involved, even if she is in a relationship, and even if she is married to a king.

Rabbi Steinbrenner serves on JWI’s Clergy Task Force Against Domestic Abuse in the Jewish Community.