A Modest Proposal

When it was time for sex ed, Wendy Shalit opted out. Now she says she’s the one who’s well adjusted, in her book about modesty.

Wendy Shalit has a modest proposal for young women. She believes that the traditional feminine virtue of modesty is the solution to many of the problems — from sexual harassment to depression to eating disorders — faced by young women today.

The 23-year-old Milwaukee native makes her arguments in “A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue,” a new book by the Free Press that is already generating what she calls “a visceral reaction.”

“I was on [National Public Radio] and one woman said my book should be banned … but another woman was so glad that finally someone is discussing these issues,” Miss Shalit said in an interview last week during a visit to Washington. “I never have somebody tell me that they have mixed feelings or they’re not sure what they think about modesty. They always have one extreme reaction or the other.”

Miss Shalit, the younger sister of former New Republic writer Ruth Shalit, first gained widespread attention in 1995. That’s when, as a sophomore at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., she wrote an article for Commentary magazine criticizing several sex-related problems on campus, including coed bathrooms in the college’s dormitories. Reader’s Digest reprinted the article, and numerous pundits cited Miss Shalit’s account as testimony to political correctness run amok.

Her conflict with a sexually explicit culture actually began years earlier when, as a fourth-grader, her complaints about a sex-education class led her parents to request that she be excused from the classes. She spent those hours in the library.

“I was glad to be in the library, because the other girls got teased, and I would just pretend like I didn’t know what they were talking about,” she recalls. “And in a lot of cases, I didn’t, and I was glad not to, frankly.”

Sex education in public schools should be “completely abolished,” Miss Shalit says. “At best, it’s redundant, because kids do not learn the facts from sex education. They know it already.”

But Miss Shalit also says sex education hurts girls — “and boys, too” — by eroding natural modesty. “The problem is that we have it so early now, we really don’t allow people to develop their personalities before their sexual identity,” she says.

The argument that sex education helps resolve unhealthy sexual “hang-ups” is flatly wrong, she contends. “Every single study” shows that “low self-esteem is correlated with early intercourse for girls,” she said.

“That’s very interesting, because we associate modesty with making women weak. That’s what we’re told — that modesty oppressed women. Then why is it the case that women … who wait the longest are indeed the ones who have the most self-esteem?”

Miss Shalit answers her own question: “Well, it’s because they have a sense of self that is beyond how they view themselves as a sex object. And they want to wait for the right person. There’s nothing wrong with that. When you’re insecure, you feel like you have to sleep with … every guy who asks, because otherwise you have ‘hang-ups.’ You don’t have enough self-confidence to say, ‘I don’t have a hang-up. You’re just a jerk.'”

Beyond coed bathrooms and sex education, Miss Shalit’s book explores the intellectual history of modesty, examining arguments by such philosophers as David Hume and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, as well as by feminists from Mary Wollstonecraft to Simone de Beauvoir.

“The early feminists were very interested in sexual virtue,” she says. “Simone de Beauvoir thought modesty was natural, and that was interesting to me, because … you associate her with the most radical feminists…. But even she felt modesty was the one thing that was natural for women, and that if society didn’t respect that, there would be a lot of brutality against women.”

That prediction has proved true, Miss Shalit says, citing the 1993 case of the “Spur Posse” — a gang of high school boys who scored “points” by having sex with girls — as evidence that male honor is an “obligation related to … female modesty.”

“Today we have the real sexual double standard, because we have the ‘Spur Posse,’ men who are men by scoring, instead of being men by sticking by one woman and being honorable,” she says. “What is manly has changed.” What is womanly has also changed, she says, because feminists, women’s magazines and the mental health industry are all devoted to desensitizing women to sex.

“Now it’s become pathological, if you have feelings about sex,” she says. “I see a lot of my friends on Prozac because they think they’re too sensitive. And it’s just very sad, because we’re ‘curing’ precisely the instincts we should be valuing.”

Women today get too much bad advice, especially from women’s magazines, Miss Shalit says. “The women’s magazines play a huge normative role” because “they do give advice,” she says. “We’re all encouraged to become, basically, adulteresses, and grow up to be very sophisticated, hip, ‘fatal’ women…. I think the advice is so bad that a lot of women would rather have no advice than to read these magazines.”

Advice from feminists is just as bad, Miss Shalit says. Feminist author Naomi Wolf says, “we’re all bad girls now, there are no good girls, and we have to liberate our ‘shadow slut.’ … I don’t think it’s true. I think there are a lot of girls who are good and want to be good, it’s just not cool to be good anymore. It’s decidedly uncool, because we’re all supposed to be jaded and very sophisticated at age 12.”

The author says modesty is important because it “protects sexual vulnerability,” which she believes is “a wonderful thing” that can lead to “a profound connection.” But feminists, she said, now view modesty as “something that we’re trying to cure young women of.”

Miss Shalit has kept her sense of humor about critics, such as the hostile caller on NPR. “She said, ‘I’m a feminist, and I’m just hopping mad, you can imagine, and I think you should take that book and burn it.'” It was not until after the show was over, Miss Shalit said, that she thought of “the clever response” to the caller: “You should buy millions of books and burn them.”

Copyright 1999 The Washington Times. All rights reserved.

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