(The above review was commissioned for publication and written in 1998. Unfortunately, however, the commissioning editor never published another issue of his journal.)
In her book, A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue, Wendy Shalit argues that not money, but modesty (read: chastity) makes the world go ‘round. Shalit sees the loss of female sexual modesty as having made girls and women miserable, and invited men—who hardly need such an invitation—to treat them badly. In the name of a more “authentic” sexual culture, everyone’s “doing it,” yet almost everyone’s miserable.
A 23-year-old recent graduate of Williams College, Shalit believes that real sex differences exist, as opposed to socially constructed “gender” differences, and that the popular obsession with crude sexual behavior has made society not only uncivilized, but boring and sexless, as well. Restraint is sexy. This young fogey is apparently a Himmelfarbian neo-Victorian, for whom modesty is just the beginning of a silk-gloved campaign of moral renewal.
Shalit sets out three positions: 1. Women’s misery today is due to their embrace of a crude, misogynistic ethos of promiscuity that goes against their nature; feminists and conservatives alike have imposed on women (with their cooperation) a sexual ethics that denies that fundamental, natural differences distinguish women from men; 2. The ethics of feminine sexual modesty that grew naturally out of those differences, and for millennia respected (even celebrated) them, not only allowed girls to be women, but permitted (or should I say, forced?) boys to be men. In other words, female sexual modesty served a general ethical principle not limited to females; and 3. Thus, if we want to have a society in which men and women can relearn how to tolerate, respect, and even perhaps, love one another, we’d better relearn how to teach girls sexual modesty and boys to honor that modesty.
Shalit opens by telling of her upbringing as a economist’s daughter who always knew she could become whatever she wanted to, and thus never took feminists seriously -- until she went to Williams. Confronted with classmates suffering from anorexia, bulimia, and the after-effects of rape, she concluded, “The feminists were not exaggerating. The feminists were right.”
Seeking a way out of the morass in which she saw her female peers mired, Shalit stumbled onto what she calls the “modestyniks,” young Orthodox Jewish women who, as per Jewish law, do not engage in premarital sex.
In my freshman year I became friends with an elderly couple ... One night after dinner they brought out some pictures of one of their granddaughters... with her then-fiancé.
What a curious picture. Although the blissfully betrothed were grinning very widely, unlike most engaged couples they didn’t have their arms around each other. Here were a young, beautiful brunette and a tall and handsome man standing extremely close together, but they weren’t touching each other at all.... How strange, I thought: If they didn’t really like each other, then why in the world did they get married?
Fortunately my friends spoke up. ‘See,’ said the grandfather, pointing at the photo, ‘they observe the laws of tzniut.’ I said, ‘God bless you!’ He said, ‘No, I didn’t sneeze: tzniut means modesty. They observe the Jewish laws of sexual modesty.’
Shalit notes irritated secularists’ assumption that the modestyniks are “abuseniks,” young women who have been sexually abused. From my experience working with abused and neglected children, I know that aggressively sexual behavior by extremely young (e.g., eight-year-old) girls is often an indication of sexual abuse, but (as Shalit suggests) there is no evidence that the refusal to engage in early sexual behavior is an indication of abuse.
Unlike Shalit’s teachers, who began talking about AIDS in kindergarten, my teachers had not yet progressed to sex ed. Fortunately for Shalit, her “neglectful” mother ordered that she removed from a class in which a red-faced, sex education “specialist” asked a classroom of eight-year-olds what “69” meant to them.
Shalit sees a causal connection between early sex ed and boys’ sexual taunting of girls, pro-sex-ed feminists’ perverse demands for lawsuits on behalf of prepubescent “sexual harassment” victims, and sexual attacks on prepubescent girls in schools.
For Shalit, the ability to love, which is inseparable from female vulnerability, is the signifying characteristic of what it is to be a woman. An invulnerable, atomistic monad may be capable of narcissism, but cannot love. And so, sex “experts” encourage young girls to have countless sexual partners, so that they may disconnect the notions of “love” and “sex.” This is to liberate them. Liberate them from what? Shalit says: from love ... and from being a woman.
There may be a Deweyan (“we only value what we have lost”) problem here. Shalit is trying to philosophically reconstruct something that still succeeds in much of the world, as long as folks don’t get philosophical about it. For instance, millions of American girls of all colors abstain from premarital sex. However, they don’t attend Williams or Columbia or NYU or Berkeley. If they read Cosmopolitan, it’s for a laugh, or to check out hairdos, not to learn “how to seduce a married man.” Most are devout Christians, though that majority is being slowly supplanted by first-generation, American Muslim and Hindu girls. They don’t do “it,” because they don’t want to lose out on Paradise or be reincarnated as animals; their mothers would surely beat them; and their fathers might shoot their boyfriends.
America has been in the grips of a charismatic, religious revival for some time, but the mass media and academia have both willfully misrepresented this, identifying it with the so-called Religious Right, or fancying that non-white religious revivalism (e.g., Harvey Cox on Pentecostalism) is a leftwing phenomenon.
Shalit discusses the return to religious-based modesty, but does so in terms of women from the same upper-middle-class background she has limited herself to all along.
I have a number of problems with this book.
First off, Shalit’s male-female distinction is too vague. She’s on to something, yet fails to convince me. Though she defines femaleness in terms of emotions (needing love, and being vulnerable to rejection) I routinely feel, my wife insists that I am a man. In Shalit’s defense, attempts to be precise about sex differences tend to either get schmaltzy or pseudo-scientific.
Shalit’s problems with nature carry over to her discussion of ethics, where she says that modesty is natural to being a woman, only to later say that modesty is necessary to keep women from giving in to nature. If sexual modesty is a response to men’s natural brutishness, protects women from the ill-effects of too much “nature” (illegitimacy), and civilizes both men and women, it is not natural, but a moral response to nature.
Shalit’s discussion of relations between the sexes is limited to a one-sided, libertine, sexual revolution model in which young women live in a state of anomie, with adults refusing to give them the guidance they so desperately need. That may be true of many girls and young women, but feminism has also developed its own brand of sexual authoritarianism. This involves bullying both (sometimes very willing) women and men about what they may think.
Bullying women: During my senior year at Stony Brook, in 1980, an acquaintance of mine told me she initially had not been aware of having been gang raped in one of the campuses wooded paths, until my best girlfriend, radical feminist firebrand P., had “explained” it to her. I don’t know what happened to my acquaintance, but I am sure of this: If a 21-year-old, sexually active American female needs someone to explain gang rape to her, she hasn’t been gang raped.
Bullying men: During the past seven years of teaching college, I have had many discipline problems with students. The vast majority of these problems have been with women, often women in their thirties. Most of my department heads were women; when I sought to discipline such students, my chairwomen always sided with them. Indeed, I think the misconduct was based on students’ expectation of the academic matriarchy’s support.
Shalit shies away from any confrontation with feminism, not that that is going to help her with feminists. The feminists are wrong about date rape, sexual harassment, stalking, and pay disparities, and Shalit’s refusal to confront these issues is odd, to say the very least.
Shalit even speaks fondly of Mary Daly, whose increasing megalomania and obsessive, pseudo-etymology recall Nazi philosopher Martin Heidegger after the war.
Occasionally, Shalit takes swipes at unnamed “conservative” straw men who supposedly justify rape with bromides such as “boys will be boys,” and who encourage girls to be as crude as boys. I don’t know of any such conservatives, and since Shalit is otherwise so fastidious about naming sources, I don’t believe she does, either.
Politics: Much of the problem Shalit discusses is -- as she grants -- a ‘60s thing -- but she is too vague, in blaming the Sexual Revolution (really a seventies thing). In the 1960s, white Marxists and black welfare politicians began a national campaign to get millions of unwed, working black women to stop working and get on welfare. Eventually, joined by middle-class, anti-family feminists, the anti-family, anti-modesty campaign spread to other races.
Shalit neglects certain obvious social policy issues that flow from her narrative. Many of the problems she discusses would diminish, if school sex education programs and condom distribution were eliminated, and underage girls were no longer permitted to get abortions without their parents’ consent.
Shalit’s reliance on the letters and advice pages of girls magazines is helpful early on, but gets repetitious, and serves to dumb down (and pad out?) a serious book.
Shalit speaks constantly of “the culture” in personalized, objective terms: “the culture chooses,” etc. Cultures don’t choose, people do. Besides, there is no unified “culture” in America. Shalit’s “culture” is largely middle and upper-middle class, white, secular and American-born. Tens of millions of females don’t belong to that culture, because they are tied by birth to a religious or common-sense moral tradition that sees promiscuity for the immoral foolishness that it is.
Many of the women I know are from just such cultures. But first, let’s look at a woman Shalit sees as typical of “the culture.” Standing outside a Manhattan shop, waiting for Shalit, the young woman is “accosted” by a man who walks up close to her, and says, “You have pretty eyes.” That’s it. The woman felt “violated”; Shalit defends her as normal, rather than neurotic.
I have heard other upper-middle-class women react similarly to virtually identical situations, and I say, she’s neurotic.
Let me give counterexamples. Circa 1997, in midtown Manhattan, I saw a thug accost a petite, attractive, black American female about 20 years of age. Putting his hand on her arm, he commenced to tell her she should come with him. But rather than become upset, the young woman gave a textbook lesson on how to politely blow off what used to be called a “masher.”
Similarly, my Pentecostal, Dominican former girlfriend, Mary, acts like a perfect lady in public. She exemplifies what feminists call a “traditional, oppressed” woman. However, Mary would laugh about the situation that so upset Shalit’s girlfriend. Not only does Mary not fear men, but she carries in her bag a knife, which she is ready, willing, and able to use, if necessary.
My Christian, formerly Hindu wife is similar to Mary, except for the knife. As a skinny teenager in Trinidad, my wife once punched a large, notoriously violent man in the face, when he tried to force a kiss on her sister. Millions of women in this country -- all invisible to Shalit’s “culture” – have been raised to be “ladies,” and to defend themselves to the death, if necessary. Some of them carry guns, and know how to use them.
Shalit’s theoretical dichotomy and cultural limitations lead her to a one-sided picture of womanhood and sexual ethics that is blind to women’s ability to be strong and vulnerable, depending on their upbringing and the circumstances. I wish her well in wrestling with these issues in her future works.