• U.S.

Modestly Provocative

5 minute read
Tamala M. Edwards

Let’s be real. The sexual revolution, goes the argument, has been a curse for women. Before girls had the power, their modest ways set the rules of the game: to pursue meant to woo, and to bed meant to wed. Sexual modesty fostered not only a more civil society but also a sexier world. A glimpse of a knee, the graze of a shoulder sent shivers. Delicious! But now women are encouraged to be like men, and what a mess it is. The refined has been replaced by the vulgar, and sex has become just the thing you do on the third date. Is it surprising that girls lack self-esteem, that sexual harassment abounds, that men act like boys and women ultimately sit home alone? If only we could go back…

Conservatives–and even some feminists–have been making the argument for years, most recently in books like What Our Mothers Didn’t Tell Us by Danielle Crittenden. But it’s Wendy Shalit’s debut book, A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue (Free Press), that is currently bubbling in the public debate. The book has earned the neoconservative author an interview by Katie Couric on the Today show and inspired heated online debate, as well as a drubbing from many across the feminist spectrum.

One reason Shalit is garnering so much attention has to do with, well, who she is: a petit, pretty 23-year-old who has already been labeled brilliant by the likes of conservative icon Norman Podhoretz. The youngest of three sisters from a suburb of Milwaukee, Wis., Shalit first gained national attention in 1995 as a sophomore at Williams College, when she wrote a piece for Commentary (later reprinted in Reader’s Digest) attacking the school’s coed bathrooms. But her precocity did not necessarily make her Miss Popularity. Her conservative views made her so despised by many on campus that her parents pleaded with her to transfer. Shalit, now a writer living in New York City, also is better known to the cognoscenti as the little sister of Ruth, a former New Republic writer whose own quick rise was stalled by accusations of plagiarism.

But her book has touched a nerve in a society overdosed on sex and emerging from a most immodest year of sexual scandal. (Is it any surprise that sweeter days of swing dancing and Shakespeare are all the rage?) Shalit defends, at times compellingly, shame, privacy, gallantry and sexual reticence, if not virginity until marriage. Without these, she says, women have lost power, consigned to “dreary hookups” or sexual violence. “We want our ‘feminine mystique’ back,” she writes, “and with it male honor.” Sitting in a Manhattan restaurant, modestly attired in dark tights and a calf-length, buttoned-up olive shirtwaist, she elaborates: “Modesty is misunderstood as repression, prudery and evil. But it’s about your right to limits without being accused of hang-ups.” Holding back, she adds, “is about the erotic, not the neurotic, waiting for the right person to try.” Meeting her, one is struck first by Shalit’s smoothness, then mostly by her fervor; she is a girl willing the world to be just so.

Shalit’s ideas get currency these days even in magazines usually interested less in modesty than in multiple orgasms. “Modesty keeps us carnal by remystifying our relationships,” trills a male columnist in this month’s Mirabella. But Shalit is taking a lashing from feminists of all stripes, like conservative writer Katie Roiphe, whom Shalit criticizes in her book. “She overstates and simplifies,” says Roiphe, adding of Shalit’s pious tone, “I find it strange to be condescended to by a 23-year-old virgin.”

Shalit won’t confirm the virgin part, saying only that she’s “inexperienced.” And that’s exactly the problem with the book: for every statement that seems knowing, there are three that seem naive or exaggerated. Shalit attacks Prozac and the Pill as antithetical to female nature and argues that sexual harassment is better addressed by courtly standards than by legislation. Say what? She wields Kant and Kierkegaard in defending the past; for modern times, however, her shaky authorities tend to be women’s magazines. And though she properly skewers those who ridicule women who say no, her modesty can’t handle the complex motivations of those who sometimes say yes.

Shalit longs for all sorts of corseted restraints. She wants policemen to stop her if she smooches in public, and society to “young lady” her, as in, “Young lady, what are you doing?” But do grown women really want to be young ladied? Karen Lehrman, author of The Lipstick Proviso, agrees that women want courting and less coarseness, but not a staid modesty. “I think a better word is elegance,” she says, pointing to Lauren Bacall and Grace Kelly in their subtle but steely glory. Now there’s something worth returning to.

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