I hate the term and have no clue how that term came into being. I don’t think it is even used in Charedi circles at all. Shomer Negiah – meaning guarding against touching the opposite sex - implies that physical contact between the sexes is some sort of Chumra. That according to the strict letter of the law, it is completely permitted.
That is not true. With the exception of parents (and according to many opinions siblings), it is against Halacha for men and women to have any physical contact with each other unless they are married. While there are Halachic opinions about whether platonic contact is permitted, certainly any contact that is sexual in nature is not permitted by anyone.
When young people say they are Shomer Negiah they usually mean that they do not touch members of the opposite sex in the context of dating - where holding hands for example is a lot more than platonic touching. And certainly it applies to things like kissing and more aggressive forms of touching that are completely sexual in nature.
The thing is that being Shomer Negiah really means that one is following Halacha. It is just as Assur to hold hands with your girlfriend as it is having a glass of milk with your roast chicken. And yet there are Orthodox students who will casually say that they are not Shomer Negiah as though they are saying that they are not Machmir on something like Chalav Yisroel.
I think most religious high school students realize that. And yet this is how Shomer Negiah is treated. Like a Chumra that many do not observe.
Bearing all this in mind I found an article in the Forward about being Shomer Negiah on college campuses very intriguing. I was very happy to see that there are many Orthodox Jewish students who attend secular universities that are very careful about these things. It was also gratifying to see that many non Jews or secular Jews are very understanding and supportive of them.
On the other hand I also found that some students who were Shomer Negiah gave it up as they made their way through the four years of college. And there are also many people who ridicule such strictures in 21st century America. After all non marital sex is about as common and as American as apple pie.
What is interesting for me is that even those who are meticulous about keeping this Halacha, acknowledge the difficulty in doing so in a culture that glorifies ‘hooking up’. That is indeed one of the ‘highlights’ of the campus life in an ‘away from home’ university.
Human nature is what it is. For the majority of mankind the libido (sex drive) is a very powerful force. Temptations to satisfy that drive are often very difficult to overcome. Being in an environment where both sexes interact socially and encourages sexual freedom is no place to be if one wants to guard themselves from temptation.
That said, of course it can be done. And is. Which is to the credit of those who do. Like Chana Lavaddin, a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania. Of course it helps to have a support system like the one at Penn where I am told there are many Orthodox students who for the most part have an on campus Orthodox social structure complete with a Rabbi, Minyanim and Sedorim for Torah study.
But even with that resisting temptation is not easy when one considers that one will inevitably be involved with others (both teacher and students) who do not understand our religious values and often challenge them. Or even ridicule them. Which means that in some cases Orthodox students go in observant of these Halachos and come out not observant of them. As was the case with another student, Jordan Katz. She called it evolving. And explained her reasons in the Forward article.
The fact is that the sex drive is hard to control even under the best of circumstances. Even in sex segregated environments like YU and Stern. Not only that but even the most religious people in the world can succumb to temptation as did one Rosh HaYeshiva that I know about in Israel who ended up having an affair with a married woman.
Even if we go back to the era of the sages - the Gemarah tells us time and again about how certain sages were tempted and how difficult it was for them to overcome those temptations.If I recall correctly there is a Gemarah that says something to the effect that the greater the individual – the greater the temptation and the harder it is to resist.
Which is why the Gemarah also says “Ain Apitropus L’Arayos”. There is no real way to guard against sexual temptation. I think this is why Chazal built so many safeguards into our daily lives. It was to try and minimize temptation as much as possible.
That said, one can go too far with anything and there are certain segments of society that take these laws and extend them way beyond all reason. To the point where it becomes counterproductive. It’s all about balance. Not extremes.
The concept of Ain Apitropus L’Arayos is real, however, and does not go away just because some people misuse it in the extreme.
Which is why I am opposed to co-ed high schools as a rule. (Although I admit that there is a place for such schools in some circumstances.) And why I support Yeshiva University and Stern as the best way to be balanced about these things. That is not to say that there aren’t problems there too. Every approach has problems attached to it. The point is that in an ideal world one must neither be isolated from - nor blindly immersed in our sexually permissive culture.
In any case, the Forward article gives us some valuable insight as to what campus life is really like from the perspective of Orthodox students and is well worth reading