A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue

Overview

Updated with a new introduction, this fifteenth anniversary edition of A Return to Modesty reignites Wendy Shalit’s controversial claim that we have lost our respect for an essential virtue: modesty.

When A Return to Modesty was first published in 1999, its argument launched a worldwide discussion about the possibility of innocence and romantic idealism. Wendy Shalit was the first to systematically critique the "hook-up" scene and outline the ...

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Overview

Updated with a new introduction, this fifteenth anniversary edition of A Return to Modesty reignites Wendy Shalit’s controversial claim that we have lost our respect for an essential virtue: modesty.

When A Return to Modesty was first published in 1999, its argument launched a worldwide discussion about the possibility of innocence and romantic idealism. Wendy Shalit was the first to systematically critique the "hook-up" scene and outline the harms of making sexuality so public.

Today, with social media increasingly blurring the line between public and private life, and with child exploitation on the rise, the concept of modesty is more relevant than ever. Updated with a new preface that addresses the unique problems facing society now, A Return to Modesty shows why "the lost virtue" of modesty is not a hang-up that we should set out to cure, but rather a wonderful instinct to be celebrated.

A Return to Modesty
is a deeply personal account as well as a fascinating intellectual exploration into everything from seventeenth-century manners to the 1948 tune "Baby, It’s Cold Outside." Beholden neither to social conservatives nor to feminists, Shalit reminds us that modesty is not prudery, but a natural instinct—and one that may be able to save us from ourselves.

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Editorial Reviews

National Review - Florence King
"A Return to Modesty is...so uncompromising in voice and stance that one is tempted to think of its author as Simone de Shalit or Wendy Wollstonecraft, but make no mistake: she imitates nothing and no one...Every page of this book [is] wise, fresh, and funny, sparkling with her special brand of astringent charm"
Time - Tamala M. Edwards
"Her book has touched a nerve in a society overdosed on sex...Shalit defends...compellingly, shame, privacy, gallantry, and sexual reticence"
The Wall Street Journal - Ruth R. Wisse
"Ms. Shalit marshals impressive evidence from philosophers as well as the tabloids to make her case for a return to modesty — as both a sexual ideal and a strategy for greater pleasure...[a] serious yet bouncy study"
The New York Times Book Review - Emily Eakin
"A Return to Modesty provides one invaluable service. There is a growing body of scholarly research on young adulthood that may, in the aftermath of Shalit's booming polemic, be more difficult to ignore."
Los Angeles Times - Shari Roan
"The book of the moment...makes a compelling case for the idea that the sexual revolution hasn't been entirely good for either women or men...Social workers, health professionals and others who bemoan the loss of "boundaries" in the lives of troubled girls will find a hopeful message in the book"
Salon - Norah Vincent
"The first book of its kind...to blaze down the center of the postfeminist battleground between left and right."
The Washington Times - Suzanne Field
"[An] earnest and serious book....A fascinating subject [brought] to our attention in a fresh way."
Camille Paglia
"Wendy Shalit’s first book, A Return to Modesty. . . created a storm when it was published nine years ago…As a veteran of pro-sex feminism who still endorses pornography and prostitution, I say more power to all these chaste young women who are defending their individuality and defying groupthink and social convention. That is true feminism!"
Florence King
She imitates nothing and no one, and her roast of the sacred cow of female sexual freedom is going to stampede our nation of sheep.
The National Review
Wall Street Journal
Shalit marshals impressive evidence from philosophers as well as the tabloids to make her case for a return to modesty — as both a sexual ideal and a strategy for greater pleasure.
Elizabeth Powers
...[A] powerful and witty book that registers the changes in our social landscape in all their starkness while also illuminating many of the steps that brought us to where we are.
Commentary
Weekly Standard
Radical indeed....Should be given to every young woman to help them reconsider their basic assumptions about sexuality and gender.
Norah Vincent
The word "modesty" has a schoolmarmish ring to it. It's anathema to most women of the "third wave" generation. That's why we are likely to take one look at this title, snarl and move on to Elizabeth Wurtzel's more rage-filled Bitch, Katie Roiphe's more simpatico Last Night in Paradise or Naomi Wolf's hip Promiscuities. But, although the terminology in these latter books might suit us better superficially, their arguments, if they can be said to have arguments at all, will do nothing for us in the long run. We'll feel patted on the back for being bad girls, but the pain and loneliness we feel as young women won't have been assuaged in the least. Now, that's not to say that Wendy Shalit's book is the nostrum for what ails us either. It isn't. But it is the first book of its kind the first argument by a third-waver to blaze down the center of the postfeminist battleground between left and right.

"First," writes Shalit, "I want to invite conservatives to take the claims of the feminists seriously," i.e. date rape, anorexia, low self-esteem. "As for feminists," she continues, "I want to invite them to consider whether the cause of all this unhappiness might be something other than the patriarchy ... I propose that the woes besetting the modern young woman ... are all expressions of a society which has lost its respect for female modesty."

What does Shalit mean by "modesty"? She certainly doesn't mean that women should walk around with everything but their eyes covered in black robes, or that they should be seen and not heard. She merely wants to suggest that modesty is a kind of innocence, both physical and emotional, that exists naturally in women more than men. Preserving it means that women shouldn't be ashamed of their romantic hopes, their desires to be courted and loved and not just banged and left. It means they should feel encouraged to keep their virginity as long as it suits them, without incurring the ridicule of their peers. It means they shouldn't feel bad about what embarrasses them or makes them squeamish, whether it's being forced to learn about "69" in fourth grade, as Shalit and her classmates were, or as adults, enduring the sight of their boyfriend's Playboy lying around the house. (In Shalit's case, and as she quickly learned, in many of her female classmates' cases, it meant not sharing a bathroom with men in her dorm at Williams College.)

In short, says Shalit, from date-rape to stalking to anorexia, "This culture [meaning post-sexual revolution culture] has not been kind to women," and changing that means recognizing that women, on the whole, are less crass than men, perhaps even more fragile emotionally, sexually and physically, and that women should be proud of this and thereby inspire more honorable behavior in men.

You may find Shalit's tone too cloying, in places, but that may be less because Shalit is too earnest or too sheltered to be taken seriously (she is, in fact, a first-rate intellectual who has done her homework) and more because we are too cynical. Some of Shalit's more jaded readers will feel tempted to hurl her book against the proverbial wall. They should resist the temptation.

In part, they'll be annoyed for good reasons. Shalit has too much faith in her young intellect. She is long on brainpower, but short on experience. Her argument is almost too tidy to make sense in the real world. As she tells us from the start, she is the daughter of an economist "of the Chicago-school variety." She is enamored of theorems that work, like math problems, on their own hermetic terms. As such, Shalit's people can seem more like integers than fraught human beings. She feeds her sad girls into the modesty machine, and poof, the cured product plops out the other end. Shalit is sometimes too sure that a return to female modesty and male honor will make the world new again. But at least Shalit is offering us a course of action that we can try, which is more than we can say for the bulk of her carping peers.

But if the modesty package as a whole turns out not to be quite the new deal Shalit hopes it will be, what of lasting value can we take from A Return to Modesty? First, there's the fundamental truth that men and women are not the same, but that equality of the sexes can be achieved without making women into men. Oddly enough, as Shalit points out, the most unfortunate legacy of the sexual revolution has been more misogyny. "A young woman today has basically two options open to her: to pretend she's a man, or to be feminine in a desperate, victim-like way."

Both alternatives are misogynist. Either way, women are still left playing by men's rules, and they are not built for it. As Shalit insists, "the game isn't equal ... because men always win the game of vulgarity," and physical aggression, and casual sex, and no-fault divorce, and so on. Second, by teaching this generation's young men to be honorable, and its young women to protect themselves, we're likely to have more immediate success in righting our socio-sexual ills. This is a distinctly conservative argument for personal responsibility: "If there could be such a thing as a 'philosophy of modesty,' I think it would be more an argument from internal inspiration than an argument from external authority." In the end, governments and laws have less power over people than people have over themselves. Wendy Shalit is an original thinker who will be goosing us with her ideas for a long time to come. If, in the end, her prescription for a better society is too rosy and catch-all, it offers, nonetheless, some of the best observations anyone has made in recent years about the plight of young women.
-- Salon

Emily Eakin
[D]espite its limitations as historical or contemporary sociology, A Return to Modesty...[shows that] the Sturm and Drang of adolescence [is] far from benign. Most of us are grateful to have those painful years behind us....But that's no reason not to look back and try to make that treacherous passage a little easier to navigate. -- The New York Times Book Review
The Weekly Standard
Radical indeed....Should be given to every young woman to help them reconsider their basic assumptions about sexuality and gender.
Kirkus Reviews
A heartfelt (and controversial) plea, insisting that the power to heal the American female's ills lies in the reinstatement of sexual restraint, resurrection of romantic ideals, and simple good manners. Twenty-three-year-old Williams College graduate Shalit, whose 15 minutes of fame arrived when her red-faced critique of co-ed bathrooms on campus reached the pages of Reader's Digest, has produced a daring book aimed at the core of contemporary gender theory. Shalit demonstrates familiarity with both conservative and feminist explanations of women's problems such as eating disorders, teen pregnancy, date rape, and stalking, but presents what she terms a "middle path" to elucidating and curing these problems. It is natural for women to be modest, she argues, and low self-esteem and disrespect from men were natural consequences of the promotion of sexual promiscuity among young people of both sexes. There is true compassion for women's sense of self in her critique of premarital sexual practices, and she insists that while male behavior is often unacceptable and degrading to women, men are only acting rationally within the constraints of popular expectations. She finds that despite the stigma placed on modesty today some traces remain, pointing towards the primordial defenses that once protected women by placing them out of reach of men who were not prepared to commit and treat them with respect. Orthodox Jewish rules of modesty and Islamic dress provide Shalit with material to show the benefits of restraint in male-female relations: it puts women in control of access to their bodies, allows them to preserve the beauty of their romantic aspirations, compels men to investthemselves in relationships, and enhances the erotic potential of eventual intimacy, she says. The message of this book is rarely heard, it is audacious, and it should not be dismissed out of hand-despite Shalit's occasional reliance on women's magazines such as Mademoiselle and Elle as a source of information on the state of the American female soul.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781476756653
  • Publisher: Free Press
  • Publication date: 5/20/2014
  • Edition description: Anniversary Edition
  • Pages: 368
  • Sales rank: 627,712
  • Product dimensions: 8.20 (w) x 5.50 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Wendy Shalit began to write A Return to Modesty as an undergrad at Williams College, where she received her BA in philosophy. She is also the author of The Good Girl Revolution and her essays on literary and cultural topics have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and other publications. Now that she is the mother of three lively and opinionated children, she is more modest and humbled than ever before.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1: THE WAR ON EMBARRASSMENT

Every blush is a cause for new blushes.

— DAVID HUME, 1741

One day in fourth grade, a nice lady suddenly appeared in our Wisconsin public elementary school classroom. This lady's name was Mrs. Nelson — "Good morning, Mrs. Nelllllson!" — and she arrived carrying a Question Box. It was a brown, medium-sized box about the size of a hat, and it had black question marks all over it. The Question Box was our Learning Tool, she said.

I was very excited about the Question Box, because it interrupted, then completely substituted for, the whole math lesson that day.

The class waited in anticipation. Mrs. Nelson opened the top of her box and pulled out a long slip of white paper. Then she read it, cheerily, as if she had just cracked open a fortune cookie: "And the first question is...'What is 69?'" She looked up from the white slip and faced us buoyantly: "What is 69, class?"

Well, that was a good question, because I certainly didn't know the answer. If she had asked what is 69 plus something, that would have been easy, but 69 all by itself was pretty philosophical. Some boys in the corner giggled. I immediately shot a glance at our teacher, who was standing up in the back of the classroom with his arms folded across his chest. Usually when the boys giggled, that meant something wrong was going on, and somebody was going to get into trouble. But this time our teacher didn't say a thing; he just looked straight ahead attentively at Mrs. Nelson. This confused me, but before I could try to make anything of it, Mrs. Nelson was speaking again.

"Now remember, boys and girls, there is absolutely nothing to giggle about! The first thing we're going to learn in Human Growth and Development is that no question is off limits!"

The outburst died down. Mrs. Nelson began again: "69 is...more giggles. Then "69 is, um..." I looked back at my teacher, who by now had turned bright red. This was a really strange math lesson.

Finally, after what seemed like 69 attempts to explain the number 69, I raised my hand and piped up, "May I please go to the bathroom?" As I left I could hear Mrs. Nelson was still quizzing: "Doesn't anyone know what 69 is? Well...these questions were put in by the fifth-grade class. You'll have the chance to fill the Question Box with your own questions."

When I came home I told my mother about my day, about this mysterious number that was very important and shouldn't be off limits. My mother wasn't so enthusiastic. She had me bring a note to school asking for a description of what we would be learning in our special math lessons. I brought it home, and when my mom opened it she was even less enthusiastic. She was also angry, and so was I — but not for the same reason. I was annoyed because she wouldn't let me see the letter. She seemed to be under the impression that what was going on at our special math sessions was not math at all, but something else entirely. But what? She wouldn't let me see.

"If I knew you weren't going to let me see, I would have opened it before I walked home," I said petulantly.

But my mom wasn't paying attention. She was pacing around the kitchen, fuming. "I can't believe they're planning on teaching you how to masturbate in fourth grade. I can't believe it!"

What was she talking about?

"In fourth grade! Where is your father?" Then to me: "Go find your father."

That was when my mom called Mrs. Nelson. I had a feeling she was going to, so I ignored the directive to find my father. I remember, a few minutes later, my mom putting her hand over the phone and saying to me, in a high, extra polite voice, "Mrs. Nelson would like to know if I want you to be whispering in the locker room." Then she asked me, very gravely, "Do you want to be whispering in the locker room?" I thought about it, and said yes. I liked whispering. Whispering about stuff is exciting.

"Yes," my mom had returned the phone to her ear. "Yes, I've asked her, and she says she does want to whisper in the locker room." I found this terrifically funny, that adults could disagree over whispers. "I get to whisper in the locker room!" I called, jumping up and down.

"Yes, I'll have her bring another note. Goodbye."

From that day forward, I sat out sex education in the library. I always felt bad for the girls who didn't have this escape because after each sex ed session, as the lockers slammed and everyone prepared for the next class, the boys would pick on them, in a strange, new kind of teasing.

"Erica, do you masturbate?" one boy would say to one poor pigtailed victim as she struggled to remove her books as fast as she could. Then another boy would say, closing in on her from the other side, "It's really natural, you know." Or sometimes just "why aren't you masturbating now, Erica? It's normal, you know."

Then, "Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!"

"Why aren't you developing, Erica?"

"It's time for you to be developing, didn't you hear? Weren't you taking notes in class?"

"Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!"

"Well, I was paying attention, and you're really behind your proper growth and development!"

"Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!"

"You may be a treasure, Erica, but you ain't got no chest!"

And so on. Invariably just before the moment when the girl would burst into tears, I noticed that she would always say the same thing: "Mrs. Nelson says that if you tease us about what we learn in class, then you haven't understood the principle of respect." Respect is a very important doctrine in sex education class. Sex ed instructors often use Respect, a puppet turtle, to teach elementary school children about their "private places." As it happened, Mrs. Nelson was usually gone by the time the teasing began, so no one really cared about what they had learned from Respect the Turtle.

My public school wasn't unique. In 1993 more than 4,200 school-age girls reported to Seventeen magazine that "they have been pinched, fondled or subjected to sexually suggestive remarks at school, most of them...both frequently and publicly." Researchers from Wellesley College, following up on the magazine's survey, found "that nearly two-fifths of the girls reported being sexually harassed daily and another 29 percent said they were harassed weekly. More than two-thirds said the harassment occurred in view of other people. Almost 90 percent were the target of unwanted sexual comments or gestures." School officials do very little about this, the study also found. One 13-year-old girl from Pennsylvania told them: "I have told teachers about this a number of times; each time nothing was done about it."

More recently, psychologist Mary Pipher reports in Reviving Ophelia that she is seeing an increasing number of girls who are "school refusers," girls who "tell me they simply cannot face what happens to them at school." One client, Pipher says, "complained that boys slapped her behind and grabbed her breasts when she walked to her locker." Then "another wouldn't ride the school bus because boys teased her about oral sex." Pipher concludes that the harassment that girls experience in the 1990s is "much different in both quality and intensity" from the teasing she received as a girl in the late fifties.

When I was in college, a mother who owned the local deli persistently brought up in conversation how much her daughter was being sexually taunted by the boys at her school. The girl couldn't even concentrate on her homework when she was at home: all she did was dread returning to school. The mother was visibly distraught. She grew up in the fifties, she told me, and "this kind of thing never happened to us. Sure, the boys would flirt and tease us, but they were shy and nervous about it. They never ganged up on the girls like this. I'd never heard of a bunch of guys assaulting a girl verbally and physically."

For some reason, no one connects this kind of harassment and early sex education. But to me the connection was obvious from the start, because the boys never teased me — they assumed I didn't know what they were referring to. Whenever they would start to tease me, they always stopped when I gave them a confused look and said, "I have no idea what you guys are talking about. I was in the library." Even though I usually did know what they were talking about, the line still worked, and they would be almost apologetic: "Oh, right — you're the weirdo who always goes to the library." And they would pass me by and begin to torture the next girl, who they knew had been in class with them and could appreciate all the new put-downs they had learned.

All across North America, sex educators are doling out such ammunition under the banner of enlightenment.

Sex education instructors in Massachusetts, New York, and Toronto teach the kids "Condom Line-Up," where boys and girls are given pieces of cardboard to describe sex with a condom, such as "sexual arousal," "erection," "leave room at tip," and then all the kids have to arrange themselves in the proper sequence.

New Jersey's Family Life program begins its instruction about birth control, masturbation, abortion, and puberty in kindergarten. Ten years ago, when the program was first instituted, there was some discomfort because according to the coordinator of the program, Claire Scholz, "some of our kindergarten teachers were shy — they didn't like talking about scrotums and vulvas." But in time, she reports, "they tell me it's no different from talking about an elbow." In another sex-ed class in Colorado, all the girls were told to pick a boy in the class and practice putting a condom on his finger. Schools in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, get a head start on AIDS instruction, teaching it in second grade, four years earlier than state requirements. In Orange Country, Florida, second graders are taught about birth, death and drug abuse, and sixth graders role-play appropriate ways of showing affection. "I think that's too young," said one parent, Steve Smith. He would prefer his kids to "be learning about reading and writing." New York City Board of Education guidelines instruct that kindergartners are to be taught "the difference between transmissible and nontransmissible diseases; the terms HIV and AIDS; [and] that AIDS is hard to get." This, we are informed, fulfills "New York State Learner Outcomes: 1,2."

And yet, as they confidently promote all this early sex education, our school officials are at a loss when it comes to dealing with the new problem of sodomy-on-the-playground. It's hard to keep up with all the sexual assault cases that plague our public schools in any given month. Take just one reported in the New York Daily News in 1997:

Four Bronx boys — the oldest only 9 — ganged up on a 9-year-old classmate and sexually assaulted her in a schoolyard, police charged yesterday...[The girl's mother] said she is furious with Principal Anthony Padilla, who yesterday told parents the attack never happened....The girl's parents and sisters are also outraged that when the traumatized third-grader told a teacher, she was merely advised to wash out her mouth and was given a towel wipe."

The associative link between the disenchanting of sex and increased sexual brutality among children works like this: if our children are raised to believe, in the words of that New Jersey kindergarten teacher, that talking about the most private things is "no different from talking about an elbow," then they are that much more likely to see nothing wrong in certain kinds of sexual violence. What's really so terrible, after all, in making someone touch or kiss your elbow?

I wanted to tell the other girls that they didn't have to put up with all this, that they could come to the library with me if they wanted. The library was cool and quiet, and there were old yearbooks with funny pictures of our teachers — from when they were younger and still had hair. Sometimes there was even a bowl of pretzels. But I didn't say a word. I still feel kind of guilty about it. I was afraid if I spoke up I would get into trouble and that I wouldn't be allowed to escape to the library anymore.

However, now that I'm older and know that some things are more important than your fear of getting into trouble, I'm quite willing to share my views on sex education. But first I needed to confirm when it started. I called up my old elementary school and learned that when I was there, it actually started in kindergarten as part of the personal hygiene unit, but in fourth grade someone is brought in from the outside.

At my school sex education was given in kindergarten to ninth grade, but I was excused from fourth grade on. The first time I was conscious of any real sexual desire was the summer after ninth grade, about age fourteen or so. One shouldn't extrapolate from my own case, which may be abnormal, but generally speaking I'm struck by the way my generation's sex education ended around the time that natural desire usually begins. I guess the theory is that this way we know everything before we start, and can do it properly, but I think what happens instead is that we end up starting before we feel, because we think it's expected of us. Usually when adults start shoving condoms in our faces, we would much prefer to giggle.

A 23-year-old friend of mine recently reported the following story about his younger sister:

My 13-year-old sister went to the family doctor for a checkup. He's been our doctor for a good eight years. Not particularly bright, but good for a referral. At the end of the examination he says, "If you're sexually active, you should be using condoms." And he offers her some. Upon hearing the word "sexually," my sister burst out laughing. This annoyed the physician, who felt she wasn't taking her reproductive health seriously. He began chastising her, at which point my grandmother came in — at which point all hell broke loose.

BECOMING EMBARRASSED

During the time in which I was excused from class, I was conducting my own education of sorts. Since I was always given a general directive to acquaint myself "with the mechanics" and not "to be embarrassed," I decided right away that I would strive to avoid the mechanics and be as embarrassed as possible about as many things as I wanted to be embarrassed about. I just didn't know where to begin, though. There was so much to be embarrassed about, and so little time.

Even though we live in an age that prides itself on being beyond gender role stereotyping, young girls are still the experts on embarrassment. Everyone tells us not to be self-conscious, but we always are. It's as if the world's embarrassment passed through us, from generation to generation. It's as if girls had some special responsibility to keep embarrassment alive and also to teach others how to diffuse it. A letter-to-the editor of American Girl reads, "Dear Help!, I'm SO embarrassed! At recess I was doing gymnastics near some boys. While I was landing a handspring, my shirt flew up! The boys began to laugh because I didn't have anything on underneath. Now they won't let me forget it." She is "Miserable in Virginia." The editors reply: "Dear Miserable: They'll forget it themselves eventually. The joke will get old, they'll tease you less often. In the meantime, be patient, ignore them, and tuck in your shirt."

"There's a blush for won't, and a blush for shan't and a blush for having done it," wrote Keats. There's also a blush for a million other things. American Girl magazine was fielding so many questions about embarrassment in 1997 that it eventually had to come out with a whole book on the subject, to advise girls on how to deal with it. Oops! the book was called, because "There are some things that make a girl cringe, and horribly humiliating moments are among them."

American Girl considers the plight of a girl who forgets to go to her friend's birthday party, and then a girl who wets her pants in public. "What do you do when you're so embarrassed you could die?" asks American Girl. It's a very important question in the life of a girl. Today, embarrassment is something to "overcome," but maybe if so many girls are still embarrassed, even in an age when we're not supposed to be, maybe we have our embarrassment for a reason.

The natural embarrassment sex education seeks so prissily to erode — "Now remember, boys and girls, there is absolutely nothing to giggle about!" — may point to a far richer understanding of sex than do our most explicit sex manuals. Children now are urged to overcome their "inhibitions" before they have a clue what an inhibition means. Yet embarrassment is actually a wonderful thing, signaling that something very strange or very significant is going on, that some boundary is being threatened — either by you or by others. Without embarrassment, kids are weaker: more vulnerable to pregnancy, disease, and heartbreak.

FAILING TO TAKE RESPONSIBILITY FOR YOUR SEXUALITY

If "overcoming your embarrassment" is the first mantra of sex education, "taking responsibility for your sexuality" is the second. The health guidelines for the ninth grade in the Newton, Massachusetts, public schools, printed in the Student Workbook for Sexuality and Health, inform us that not only do "Sexually Healthy Adolescents...decide what is personally 'right' and act on these values," but also they "take responsibility for their own behavior." Grown-ups get the same advice. "What does undermine feminism is women...refusing to take responsibility for their sexuality," says Karen Lehrman. "Every woman must take personal responsibility for her sexuality," warns Camille Paglia.

Fine, but if you're a child, you're not sure what taking responsibility for your sexuality entails. I certainly didn't want not to be taking responsibility for something, whatever it was. I thought I knew what they meant. It's like when you steal a cookie from the cookie jar, and then you've got to face up to it, take responsibility for it. I got the impression that somehow I had done something wrong, that the reckoning was going to come soon and so I would have to know what to apologize for. Well, then, I determined, I was going to figure out what all the fuss was, and then — I was no coward — I would take responsibility for it.

So I kept up with the material, even though I was excused from "Human Growth and Development." The teachers gave me weekly worksheets so I could see what my peers were learning. I looked them over dutifully, tried to understand them on my own. I only remember two of these worksheets, the two that confused me the most. One said that an "orgasm is like when you have to sneeze, and then you sneeze." I remember thinking — Why would I want to sneeze more than I already sneeze? I hate sneezing! Then I learned that an orgasm was a positive sneeze. That still baffled me. A few months later, my class was on to more advanced conceptualizing: "Try to imagine that an orgasm is like an extended tickle. You like being tickled, don't you? Well, adults like to tickle each other too, to share warm feelings." I don't know which text this came from, but Planned Parenthood's book It's Perfectly Normal, by Robie H. Harris (Penguin Books), recommended for kids age 10 and up, reminds me of ours: It features illustrations of nude, playful boys and girls as they masturbate on beds and heterosexual and homosexual couples as they have intercourse in different positions.

Yes, it's perfectly normal. But what was perfectly normal? I still felt that I was missing something. Sometimes when things aren't comprehensible to children, there's a very good reason. Mostly I just skimmed these worksheets. Thanks to my mother's note, I wasn't going to be tested on the material. They basically set me loose in the library. The only requirement was that I periodically turn in book reports to "demonstrate proficiency" on the subject matter. I had to show them, essentially, that I knew what was going on. Of course, before I could do that, I had to find out what was going on.

It was a daunting subject for a nine-year-old, particularly since the books they had at our grade school library were so disappointing. After thumbing through six Sweet Valley High books, I decided right away that I was going to have to go to the public library if I was going to do the thing properly. My teachers were beginning to get worried that I was missing out on so many important sex-ed sessions and, specifically, that I wouldn't "know what to do" as a result. To tell you the truth, I was starting to get worried, too. I "had to take responsibility for [my] sexuality," they said.

It was there where I first opened the encyclopedia and peered under the "Sex" entry.

I read about three lines, glanced behind me, then shut the book quickly. How embarrassing.

I had higher hopes for the next book I came across. It was a pale blue book with a nice cover of a hugging couple — the tide was Choosing a Sex Ethic, and, if memory serves, it was written by a rabbi named Borowitz. This seemed appropriate for me, being Jewish, and also the title was very intriguing since I would have thought that ethics were precisely the things you couldn't choose. But, apparently, you could. Well, then, I would just have to choose the best one. The sweet-looking guy on the blue cover was hugging a smiling woman in such a tight, affable way that I was thinking a) she certainly looks happy and b) maybe if I choose the right ethic, someone nice will hug me, too.

rd

I opened to the table of contents and my eye immediately leaped to something called "the ethics of orgasm." I turned to that chapter first, because that looked like the most interesting one — containing that mysterious sneezing and tickling concept — but after that one I was just too embarrassed to read on. I think that time I must have gotten it.

This was going to be harder than I thought.

But somehow I ended up figuring out the facts anyway. Could it have been the condoms and dental dams all the adults were dangling in my face everywhere I turned?

In 1997 Alexander Sanger, president of Planned Parenthood of New York City, penned an Op-Ed in the New York Daily News, "Sex Ed Is More Than Just Saying No: Teens Need All the Facts." Contends Sanger, "In a perfect world, teenagers would wait until they're older and wiser to have sex. But the fact is, 75% of American teens have sex before high school graduation. In New York, more than 54,000 teens, ages 15 to 19, become pregnant each year ."Therefore, he concludes, "teens need all the facts."

Where does he think all this high school sex and all these pregnancies are suddenly coming from? Doesn't he find it even a bit curious that the more we do what he prescribes, the more such behavior goes on? Most studies find that knowledge about AIDS or HIV does not decrease risky behavior. A 1988 study in the American Journal of Public Health, which examined exactly the year when public health information about AIDS grew, found that no increased condom use among San Francisco's sexually active adolescents resulted. A 1992 study in Pediatrics conducted a broader investigation and ended up warning, "It is time to stop kidding ourselves into thinking that our information-based preventative actions are enough or are effective." This shouldn't be so surprising. The few studies that show that instruction on condom use changes the behavior of students conclude it is only likely to make them more sexually active. This cult of taking responsibility for your sexuality is essentially a call to action.

But beyond this, how does Alexander Sanger imagine he was born, if his parents were never given "the facts"? I am sure he intends no harm, but the ground in dispute was never whether we would get the facts — the question is how and when. Do we get the opportunity to seek out the facts when we are ready? Furtively? Or do we have them forced upon us when we're not ready, when we're inclined to yawn about the whole thing and conclude it's no big deal? It's really not very complicated why so many kids are getting pregnant these days, now that we have so much sex education on top of a wholly sexualized culture. It's because sex is not a big deal to them and because they think this is what they are expected to do. They are just trying to be normal kids, to please people like Alexander Sanger and prove that they are "sexually healthy."

We're not flocking to Jane Austen movies because we want the facts, but because we're sick of having the facts shoved in our faces all the time. One is entitled to imagine that there might be something more to hope for than all this dreary crudeness — this view of sex as something autonomous and cut off from obligation, whether familial obligation or obligation to one's "sex partner" (as the locution has it).

So in a funny way, the facts about sex conceal the truth.

Or so I conclude, in hindsight. Actually, I hadn't given my fourth-grade flight to the library much thought until around ten years later, when I began to detect a difference in the way I dated, compared to how other kids my age "hooked up," and in a million other things that just seemed foreign to me, and didn't to them, and then I started to put some of the pieces together. In retrospect I can see that, more than anything else, it is the fact that I escaped sex education which separates me most from other kids my age. It doesn't matter whether they're liberal or conservative — if they're around my age and they've had my generation's sex education, it's very hard for us to understand each other in some fundamental way. I'll never forget the president of my college's Republican club, who told me that of course he was in favor of sex education since, unlike me, he had "a healthy attitude towards sex."

The mindset that concerns me is not political but cultural. Anyone who's been through the mill of my generation's sex education has trouble understanding why I'm concerned about the things I'm concerned with — indeed, to have my kind of concerns, I'm told, is "unhealthy" — and I for my part cannot understand how they can be so unconcerned, so cavalier. When I hear the words that they use, "hang-ups," "hook-ups," "check-ups," for example, it's as if we lived in different worlds.

Copyright © 1999 by Wendy Shalit

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First Chapter

Chapter 1: THE WAR ON EMBARRASSMENT

Every blush is a cause for new blushes.
-- DAVID HUME, 1741

One day in fourth grade, a nice lady suddenly appeared in our Wisconsin public elementary school classroom. This lady's name was Mrs. Nelson -- "Good morning, Mrs. Nelllllson!" -- and she arrived carrying a Question Box. It was a brown, medium-sized box about the size of a hat, and it had black question marks all over it. The Question Box was our Learning Tool, she said.

I was very excited about the Question Box, because it interrupted, then completely substituted for, the whole math lesson that day.

The class waited in anticipation. Mrs. Nelson opened the top of her box and pulled out a long slip of white paper. Then she read it, cheerily, as if she had just cracked open a fortune cookie: "And the first question is...'What is 69?'" She looked up from the white slip and faced us buoyantly: "What is 69, class?"

Well, that was a good question, because I certainly didn't know the answer. If she had asked what is 69 plus something, that would have been easy, but 69 all by itself was pretty philosophical. Some boys in the corner giggled. I immediately shot a glance at our teacher, who was standing up in the back of the classroom with his arms folded across his chest. Usually when the boys giggled, that meant something wrong was going on, and somebody was going to get into trouble. But this time our teacher didn't say a thing; he just looked straight ahead attentively at Mrs. Nelson. This confused me, but before I could try to make anything of it, Mrs. Nelson was speaking again.

"Now remember, boys and girls, there is absolutely nothing to giggle about! The first thing we're going to learn in Human Growth and Development is that no question is off limits!"

The outburst died down. Mrs. Nelson began again: "69 is...more giggles. Then "69 is, um..." I looked back at my teacher, who by now had turned bright red. This was a really strange math lesson.

Finally, after what seemed like 69 attempts to explain the number 69, I raised my hand and piped up, "May I please go to the bathroom?" As I left I could hear Mrs. Nelson was still quizzing: "Doesn't anyone know what 69 is? Well...these questions were put in by the fifth-grade class. You'll have the chance to fill the Question Box with your own questions."

When I came home I told my mother about my day, about this mysterious number that was very important and shouldn't be off limits. My mother wasn't so enthusiastic. She had me bring a note to school asking for a description of what we would be learning in our special math lessons. I brought it home, and when my mom opened it she was even less enthusiastic. She was also angry, and so was I -- but not for the same reason. I was annoyed because she wouldn't let me see the letter. She seemed to be under the impression that what was going on at our special math sessions was not math at all, but something else entirely. But what? She wouldn't let me see.

"If I knew you weren't going to let me see, I would have opened it before I walked home," I said petulantly.

But my mom wasn't paying attention. She was pacing around the kitchen, fuming. "I can't believe they're planning on teaching you how to masturbate in fourth grade. I can't believe it!"

What was she talking about?

"In fourth grade! Where is your father?" Then to me: "Go find your father."

That was when my mom called Mrs. Nelson. I had a feeling she was going to, so I ignored the directive to find my father. I remember, a few minutes later, my mom putting her hand over the phone and saying to me, in a high, extra polite voice, "Mrs. Nelson would like to know if I want you to be whispering in the locker room." Then she asked me, very gravely, "Do you want to be whispering in the locker room?" I thought about it, and said yes. I liked whispering. Whispering about stuff is exciting.

"Yes," my mom had returned the phone to her ear. "Yes, I've asked her, and she says she does want to whisper in the locker room." I found this terrifically funny, that adults could disagree over whispers. "I get to whisper in the locker room!" I called, jumping up and down.

"Yes, I'll have her bring another note. Goodbye."

From that day forward, I sat out sex education in the library. I always felt bad for the girls who didn't have this escape because after each sex ed session, as the lockers slammed and everyone prepared for the next class, the boys would pick on them, in a strange, new kind of teasing.

"Erica, do you masturbate?" one boy would say to one poor pigtailed victim as she struggled to remove her books as fast as she could. Then another boy would say, closing in on her from the other side, "It's really natural, you know." Or sometimes just "why aren't you masturbating now, Erica? It's normal, you know."

Then, "Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!"

"Why aren't you developing, Erica?"

"It's time for you to be developing, didn't you hear? Weren't you taking notes in class?"

"Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!"

"Well, I was paying attention, and you're really behind your proper growth and development!"

"Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!"

"You may be a treasure, Erica, but you ain't got no chest!"

And so on. Invariably just before the moment when the girl would burst into tears, I noticed that she would always say the same thing: "Mrs. Nelson says that if you tease us about what we learn in class, then you haven't understood the principle of respect." Respect is a very important doctrine in sex education class. Sex ed instructors often use Respect, a puppet turtle, to teach elementary school children about their "private places." As it happened, Mrs. Nelson was usually gone by the time the teasing began, so no one really cared about what they had learned from Respect the Turtle.

My public school wasn't unique. In 1993 more than 4,200 school-age girls reported to Seventeen magazine that "they have been pinched, fondled or subjected to sexually suggestive remarks at school, most of them...both frequently and publicly." Researchers from Wellesley College, following up on the magazine's survey, found "that nearly two-fifths of the girls reported being sexually harassed daily and another 29 percent said they were harassed weekly. More than two-thirds said the harassment occurred in view of other people. Almost 90 percent were the target of unwanted sexual comments or gestures." School officials do very little about this, the study also found. One 13-year-old girl from Pennsylvania told them: "I have told teachers about this a number of times; each time nothing was done about it."

More recently, psychologist Mary Pipher reports in Reviving Ophelia that she is seeing an increasing number of girls who are "school refusers," girls who "tell me they simply cannot face what happens to them at school." One client, Pipher says, "complained that boys slapped her behind and grabbed her breasts when she walked to her locker." Then "another wouldn't ride the school bus because boys teased her about oral sex." Pipher concludes that the harassment that girls experience in the 1990s is "much different in both quality and intensity" from the teasing she received as a girl in the late fifties.

When I was in college, a mother who owned the local deli persistently brought up in conversation how much her daughter was being sexually taunted by the boys at her school. The girl couldn't even concentrate on her homework when she was at home: all she did was dread returning to school. The mother was visibly distraught. She grew up in the fifties, she told me, and "this kind of thing never happened to us. Sure, the boys would flirt and tease us, but they were shy and nervous about it. They never ganged up on the girls like this. I'd never heard of a bunch of guys assaulting a girl verbally and physically."

For some reason, no one connects this kind of harassment and early sex education. But to me the connection was obvious from the start, because the boys never teased me -- they assumed I didn't know what they were referring to. Whenever they would start to tease me, they always stopped when I gave them a confused look and said, "I have no idea what you guys are talking about. I was in the library." Even though I usually did know what they were talking about, the line still worked, and they would be almost apologetic: "Oh, right -- you're the weirdo who always goes to the library." And they would pass me by and begin to torture the next girl, who they knew had been in class with them and could appreciate all the new put-downs they had learned.

All across North America, sex educators are doling out such ammunition under the banner of enlightenment.

Sex education instructors in Massachusetts, New York, and Toronto teach the kids "Condom Line-Up," where boys and girls are given pieces of cardboard to describe sex with a condom, such as "sexual arousal," "erection," "leave room at tip," and then all the kids have to arrange themselves in the proper sequence.

New Jersey's Family Life program begins its instruction about birth control, masturbation, abortion, and puberty in kindergarten. Ten years ago, when the program was first instituted, there was some discomfort because according to the coordinator of the program, Claire Scholz, "some of our kindergarten teachers were shy -- they didn't like talking about scrotums and vulvas." But in time, she reports, "they tell me it's no different from talking about an elbow." In another sex-ed class in Colorado, all the girls were told to pick a boy in the class and practice putting a condom on his finger. Schools in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, get a head start on AIDS instruction, teaching it in second grade, four years earlier than state requirements. In Orange Country, Florida, second graders are taught about birth, death and drug abuse, and sixth graders role-play appropriate ways of showing affection. "I think that's too young," said one parent, Steve Smith. He would prefer his kids to "be learning about reading and writing." New York City Board of Education guidelines instruct that kindergartners are to be taught "the difference between transmissible and nontransmissible diseases; the terms HIV and AIDS; [and] that AIDS is hard to get." This, we are informed, fulfills "New York State Learner Outcomes: 1,2."

And yet, as they confidently promote all this early sex education, our school officials are at a loss when it comes to dealing with the new problem of sodomy-on-the-playground. It's hard to keep up with all the sexual assault cases that plague our public schools in any given month. Take just one reported in the New York Daily News in 1997:


Four Bronx boys -- the oldest only 9 -- ganged up on a 9-year-old classmate and sexually assaulted her in a schoolyard, police charged yesterday...[The girl's mother] said she is furious with Principal Anthony Padilla, who yesterday told parents the attack never happened....The girl's parents and sisters are also outraged that when the traumatized third-grader told a teacher, she was merely advised to wash out her mouth and was given a towel wipe."


The associative link between the disenchanting of sex and increased sexual brutality among children works like this: if our children are raised to believe, in the words of that New Jersey kindergarten teacher, that talking about the most private things is "no different from talking about an elbow," then they are that much more likely to see nothing wrong in certain kinds of sexual violence. What's really so terrible, after all, in making someone touch or kiss your elbow?

I wanted to tell the other girls that they didn't have to put up with all this, that they could come to the library with me if they wanted. The library was cool and quiet, and there were old yearbooks with funny pictures of our teachers -- from when they were younger and still had hair. Sometimes there was even a bowl of pretzels. But I didn't say a word. I still feel kind of guilty about it. I was afraid if I spoke up I would get into trouble and that I wouldn't be allowed to escape to the library anymore.

However, now that I'm older and know that some things are more important than your fear of getting into trouble, I'm quite willing to share my views on sex education. But first I needed to confirm when it started. I called up my old elementary school and learned that when I was there, it actually started in kindergarten as part of the personal hygiene unit, but in fourth grade someone is brought in from the outside.

At my school sex education was given in kindergarten to ninth grade, but I was excused from fourth grade on. The first time I was conscious of any real sexual desire was the summer after ninth grade, about age fourteen or so. One shouldn't extrapolate from my own case, which may be abnormal, but generally speaking I'm struck by the way my generation's sex education ended around the time that natural desire usually begins. I guess the theory is that this way we know everything before we start, and can do it properly, but I think what happens instead is that we end up starting before we feel, because we think it's expected of us. Usually when adults start shoving condoms in our faces, we would much prefer to giggle.

A 23-year-old friend of mine recently reported the following story about his younger sister:


My 13-year-old sister went to the family doctor for a checkup. He's been our doctor for a good eight years. Not particularly bright, but good for a referral. At the end of the examination he says, "If you're sexually active, you should be using condoms." And he offers her some. Upon hearing the word "sexually," my sister burst out laughing. This annoyed the physician, who felt she wasn't taking her reproductive health seriously. He began chastising her, at which point my grandmother came in -- at which point all hell broke loose.


BECOMING EMBARRASSED

During the time in which I was excused from class, I was conducting my own education of sorts. Since I was always given a general directive to acquaint myself "with the mechanics" and not "to be embarrassed," I decided right away that I would strive to avoid the mechanics and be as embarrassed as possible about as many things as I wanted to be embarrassed about. I just didn't know where to begin, though. There was so much to be embarrassed about, and so little time.

Even though we live in an age that prides itself on being beyond gender role stereotyping, young girls are still the experts on embarrassment. Everyone tells us not to be self-conscious, but we always are. It's as if the world's embarrassment passed through us, from generation to generation. It's as if girls had some special responsibility to keep embarrassment alive and also to teach others how to diffuse it. A letter-to-the editor of American Girl reads, "Dear Help!, I'm SO embarrassed! At recess I was doing gymnastics near some boys. While I was landing a handspring, my shirt flew up! The boys began to laugh because I didn't have anything on underneath. Now they won't let me forget it." She is "Miserable in Virginia." The editors reply: "Dear Miserable: They'll forget it themselves eventually. The joke will get old, they'll tease you less often. In the meantime, be patient, ignore them, and tuck in your shirt."

"There's a blush for won't, and a blush for shan't and a blush for having done it," wrote Keats. There's also a blush for a million other things. American Girl magazine was fielding so many questions about embarrassment in 1997 that it eventually had to come out with a whole book on the subject, to advise girls on how to deal with it. Oops! the book was called, because "There are some things that make a girl cringe, and horribly humiliating moments are among them."

American Girl considers the plight of a girl who forgets to go to her friend's birthday party, and then a girl who wets her pants in public. "What do you do when you're so embarrassed you could die?" asks American Girl. It's a very important question in the life of a girl. Today, embarrassment is something to "overcome," but maybe if so many girls are still embarrassed, even in an age when we're not supposed to be, maybe we have our embarrassment for a reason.

The natural embarrassment sex education seeks so prissily to erode -- "Now remember, boys and girls, there is absolutely nothing to giggle about!" -- may point to a far richer understanding of sex than do our most explicit sex manuals. Children now are urged to overcome their "inhibitions" before they have a clue what an inhibition means. Yet embarrassment is actually a wonderful thing, signaling that something very strange or very significant is going on, that some boundary is being threatened -- either by you or by others. Without embarrassment, kids are weaker: more vulnerable to pregnancy, disease, and heartbreak.


FAILING TO TAKE RESPONSIBILITY FOR YOUR SEXUALITY

If "overcoming your embarrassment" is the first mantra of sex education, "taking responsibility for your sexuality" is the second. The health guidelines for the ninth grade in the Newton, Massachusetts, public schools, printed in the Student Workbook for Sexuality and Health, inform us that not only do "Sexually Healthy Adolescents...decide what is personally 'right' and act on these values," but also they "take responsibility for their own behavior." Grown-ups get the same advice. "What does undermine feminism is women...refusing to take responsibility for their sexuality," says Karen Lehrman. "Every woman must take personal responsibility for her sexuality," warns Camille Paglia.

Fine, but if you're a child, you're not sure what taking responsibility for your sexuality entails. I certainly didn't want not to be taking responsibility for something, whatever it was. I thought I knew what they meant. It's like when you steal a cookie from the cookie jar, and then you've got to face up to it, take responsibility for it. I got the impression that somehow I had done something wrong, that the reckoning was going to come soon and so I would have to know what to apologize for. Well, then, I determined, I was going to figure out what all the fuss was, and then -- I was no coward -- I would take responsibility for it.

So I kept up with the material, even though I was excused from "Human Growth and Development." The teachers gave me weekly worksheets so I could see what my peers were learning. I looked them over dutifully, tried to understand them on my own. I only remember two of these worksheets, the two that confused me the most. One said that an "orgasm is like when you have to sneeze, and then you sneeze." I remember thinking -- Why would I want to sneeze more than I already sneeze? I hate sneezing! Then I learned that an orgasm was a positive sneeze. That still baffled me. A few months later, my class was on to more advanced conceptualizing: "Try to imagine that an orgasm is like an extended tickle. You like being tickled, don't you? Well, adults like to tickle each other too, to share warm feelings." I don't know which text this came from, but Planned Parenthood's book It's Perfectly Normal, by Robie H. Harris (Penguin Books), recommended for kids age 10 and up, reminds me of ours: It features illustrations of nude, playful boys and girls as they masturbate on beds and heterosexual and homosexual couples as they have intercourse in different positions.

Yes, it's perfectly normal. But what was perfectly normal? I still felt that I was missing something. Sometimes when things aren't comprehensible to children, there's a very good reason. Mostly I just skimmed these worksheets. Thanks to my mother's note, I wasn't going to be tested on the material. They basically set me loose in the library. The only requirement was that I periodically turn in book reports to "demonstrate proficiency" on the subject matter. I had to show them, essentially, that I knew what was going on. Of course, before I could do that, I had to find out what was going on.

It was a daunting subject for a nine-year-old, particularly since the books they had at our grade school library were so disappointing. After thumbing through six Sweet Valley High books, I decided right away that I was going to have to go to the public library if I was going to do the thing properly. My teachers were beginning to get worried that I was missing out on so many important sex-ed sessions and, specifically, that I wouldn't "know what to do" as a result. To tell you the truth, I was starting to get worried, too. I "had to take responsibility for [my] sexuality," they said.

It was there where I first opened the encyclopedia and peered under the "Sex" entry.

I read about three lines, glanced behind me, then shut the book quickly. How embarrassing.

I had higher hopes for the next book I came across. It was a pale blue book with a nice cover of a hugging couple -- the tide was Choosing a Sex Ethic, and, if memory serves, it was written by a rabbi named Borowitz. This seemed appropriate for me, being Jewish, and also the title was very intriguing since I would have thought that ethics were precisely the things you couldn't choose. But, apparently, you could. Well, then, I would just have to choose the best one. The sweet-looking guy on the blue cover was hugging a smiling woman in such a tight, affable way that I was thinking a) she certainly looks happy and b) maybe if I choose the right ethic, someone nice will hug me, too.

I opened to the table of contents and my eye immediately leaped to something called "the ethics of orgasm." I turned to that chapter first, because that looked like the most interesting one -- containing that mysterious sneezing and tickling concept -- but after that one I was just too embarrassed to read on. I think that time I must have gotten it.

This was going to be harder than I thought.

But somehow I ended up figuring out the facts anyway. Could it have been the condoms and dental dams all the adults were dangling in my face everywhere I turned?

In 1997 Alexander Sanger, president of Planned Parenthood of New York City, penned an Op-Ed in the New York Daily News, "Sex Ed Is More Than Just Saying No: Teens Need All the Facts." Contends Sanger, "In a perfect world, teenagers would wait until they're older and wiser to have sex. But the fact is, 75% of American teens have sex before high school graduation. In New York, more than 54,000 teens, ages 15 to 19, become pregnant each year ."Therefore, he concludes, "teens need all the facts."

Where does he think all this high school sex and all these pregnancies are suddenly coming from? Doesn't he find it even a bit curious that the more we do what he prescribes, the more such behavior goes on? Most studies find that knowledge about AIDS or HIV does not decrease risky behavior. A 1988 study in the American Journal of Public Health, which examined exactly the year when public health information about AIDS grew, found that no increased condom use among San Francisco's sexually active adolescents resulted. A 1992 study in Pediatrics conducted a broader investigation and ended up warning, "It is time to stop kidding ourselves into thinking that our information-based preventative actions are enough or are effective." This shouldn't be so surprising. The few studies that show that instruction on condom use changes the behavior of students conclude it is only likely to make them more sexually active. This cult of taking responsibility for your sexuality is essentially a call to action.

But beyond this, how does Alexander Sanger imagine he was born, if his parents were never given "the facts"? I am sure he intends no harm, but the ground in dispute was never whether we would get the facts -- the question is how and when. Do we get the opportunity to seek out the facts when we are ready? Furtively? Or do we have them forced upon us when we're not ready, when we're inclined to yawn about the whole thing and conclude it's no big deal? It's really not very complicated why so many kids are getting pregnant these days, now that we have so much sex education on top of a wholly sexualized culture. It's because sex is not a big deal to them and because they think this is what they are expected to do. They are just trying to be normal kids, to please people like Alexander Sanger and prove that they are "sexually healthy."

We're not flocking to Jane Austen movies because we want the facts, but because we're sick of having the facts shoved in our faces all the time. One is entitled to imagine that there might be something more to hope for than all this dreary crudeness -- this view of sex as something autonomous and cut off from obligation, whether familial obligation or obligation to one's "sex partner" (as the locution has it).

So in a funny way, the facts about sex conceal the truth.

Or so I conclude, in hindsight. Actually, I hadn't given my fourth-grade flight to the library much thought until around ten years later, when I began to detect a difference in the way I dated, compared to how other kids my age "hooked up," and in a million other things that just seemed foreign to me, and didn't to them, and then I started to put some of the pieces together. In retrospect I can see that, more than anything else, it is the fact that I escaped sex education which separates me most from other kids my age. It doesn't matter whether they're liberal or conservative -- if they're around my age and they've had my generation's sex education, it's very hard for us to understand each other in some fundamental way. I'll never forget the president of my college's Republican club, who told me that of course he was in favor of sex education since, unlike me, he had "a healthy attitude towards sex."

The mindset that concerns me is not political but cultural. Anyone who's been through the mill of my generation's sex education has trouble understanding why I'm concerned about the things I'm concerned with -- indeed, to have my kind of concerns, I'm told, is "unhealthy" -- and I for my part cannot understand how they can be so unconcerned, so cavalier. When I hear the words that they use, "hang-ups," "hook-ups," "check-ups," for example, it's as if we lived in different worlds.

Copyright © 1999 by Wendy Shalit

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Introduction

INTRODUCTION

Modesty, which may be provisionally defined as an almost instinctive fear prompting to concealment and usually centering around the sexual processes, while common to both sexes is more peculiarly feminine, so that it may almost be regarded as the chief secondary sexual character of women on the psychical side.
-- HAVELOCK ELLIS, 1899

My father is an economist, of the Chicago-school variety, so my earliest memories concern Coase's theorem, Stigler's laws, and the importance of buying and selling rights to pollute. Other children played in bundles of blankets and were scared of monsters; I played with imaginary bundles of competing currencies which would float, but really be more stable, and had nightmares that the Federal Reserve Board would ruin the business cycle. The fact that I was a girl never really came up. It was like having blue eyes, just a fact about me. On occasion, I would experience being a girl as a kind of special bonus: it meant getting to be a cheerleader and later, being taken to the prom. It would never even have occurred to me that my participation in these so-called "feminine" activities meant that I was somehow being oppressed, or that such activities precluded my thinking or doing anything else I wanted. When I returned home from the prom, after all, I could discuss anything I chose with my father. To be sure, I had heard of those who claimed that being a woman was not all fun and games, but those people were called feminists, and as every budding conservative knows, feminists exaggerate. Indeed, that is how you could tell that they were feminists -- because they were the ones exaggerating all the time.

Don't ask me how I was so sure of this, or what this had to do with any other part of my ideology. As anyone who has ever had an ideology knows, you do not ask; you just look for confirmation for a set of beliefs. That's what it means to have an ideology.

But life can have a rude way of intruding on theory. Sometimes you have to change your mind when things turn out to be more complicated than you initially thought. Coase's theorem may still be true but it also assumes zero transaction costs, and sometimes, you discover in life, there can be extremely high transaction costs.

Perhaps you can imagine my surprise, growing up as I did, to come to college and discover that in fact the feminists were not exaggerating. All around me, at the gym and in my classes, I saw stick-like women suffering from anorexia. Who could not feel for them? Or I would hop out to get a bagel at night and see a student I knew -- who must have weighed all of 70 pounds -- walk into our corner campus hangout, Colonial Pizza. Oh, good, I would think, she's finally going to eat. I would smile and try to give off see-isn't-eating-fun vibes. No, in fact she hadn't come to eat. Instead she mumbled weakly, looking like she was about to faint: "Do you have any Diet Mountain Dew, please? I'm so tired...I have a paper, and I can't stay up because I'm so, so tired...I have a paper...and it's due tomorrow...any Diet Mountain Dew?" Then in the dining halls I would observe women eating sometimes ten times as much as I and then suddenly cutting off our conversation. Suddenly, um, they had to go, suddenly, um, they couldn't talk anymore. Until that moment I hadn't actually realized that some women really did make themselves throw up after binging.

The bursting of my ideological bubble was complete when I began hearing stories of women raped, stories filled with much too much detail and sadness to be invented.

The feminists were not exaggerating. The feminists were right.

But what was going to happen to young women if the feminists were right? Was there a way out of this morass? I really couldn't see any.

Then I started to hear about the mysterious modestyniks.

A modestynik is my word for a modern single young woman raised in a secular home, who had hitherto seemed perfectly normal but who, inexplicably and without any prior notice, starts wearing very long skirts and issuing spontaneous announcements that she is now shomer negiah, which means that she isn't going to have physical contact with men before marriage, and that she is now dressing according to the standards of Jewish modesty. She is the type of woman who, when you hear about how she is living her life, might cause you to exclaim: "Yikes! What's her problem?!" Hence, among those who do not know her, she is usually known as an abusenik, a woman you know has been abused, even though she insists she hasn't been. Otherwise, you figure, why would she be so weird?

I first heard about these modestyniks from grandparents' pictures and hushed voices in the backseats of cars. In my freshman year I became friends with an elderly couple who had retired in our college town. It turned out that they knew my grandpa and grandma from way back, so I saw a lot of them between classes, when I would hear many funny stories about my grandparents. One night after dinner they brought out some pictures of one of their granddaughters, and this turned out to be my formal introduction to the modestyniks. She and her husband were Orthodox Jews, they explained. Then they offered me the first picture -- of the granddaughter 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. Indeed, if you looked at the picture closely, you could trace a thin blue line of sky between the two of them. 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."

"Oh," I said, a bit offended. For I was Jewish and I certainly didn't know about there being any Jewish modesty laws. I was a bit of a know-it-all, but about Judaism, I figured my parents were Jewish, I was Jewish, and I could recite a few blessings, if pressed. I even insisted on becoming a Bat-Mitzvah (subject to the commandments), in a ceremony at the Reform temple my parents belonged to, so there were official people who had actually seen me be Jewish once, and they had already given me their seal of authenticity. But no one had ever told me about any modesty laws.

The second picture was of the wedding. This time the young couple weren't looking at the camera but at each other. Specifically, he was gazing down at her and she up at him. Now they were embracing each other very tightly. Upon seeing this particular picture, I felt tears float up to my eyes. I hoped the next photo would arrive soon enough to distract me, but unfortunately it didn't quite, and I was left blubbering for an excruciating eight seconds. "I don't know why I'm crying, I'm so embarrassed! I don't even know your granddaughter!" Somebody handed me a tissue, and then I was ready for the third and final picture.

In this one the granddaughter was on the beach holding a little baby boy -- only now her modestynik smile was twinkling under the brim of a black straw hat. "That's for the head covering" her grandma piped up proudly over my shoulder. "A married woman cannot leave her hair uncovered."

That's how I learned that there are different stages in the life cycle of a modestynik. No Touching, Touching, then Hat. Okay, I figured, I could remember that. I made a mental picture, like that second-grade diagram which helps you remember how a caterpillar becomes a butterfly, and then I knew that I would never forget it. No Touching, Touching, Hat. Got it.

Once I learned how to identify one modestynik, I started to see them all over the place. It seemed every Jewish family had one. And even if a person didn't happen to have a modestynik in his or her family, then at least they knew of one -- and more often than not, two or three.

I picked up New York magazine, and they were writing about the modestyniks, too:


"A teacher of mine told me that if you touch before you're married, a curse is put on your children. But a blessing is given if you're careful," says Chavie Moskowitz, a 20-year-old Touro College student from Borough Park, who with her straight red hair, chocolate-brown suit, and matching brown suede pumps looks more like a young Wall Street executive than like a God fearing bride-to-be. But on this moonlit Saturday night, standing on the outdoor esplanade of the Winter Garden, Chaim Singer, a 24-year-old yeshiva student from Kew Gardens Hills, proposes to Moskowitz, who, bouncing on her toes, gleefully accepts. Instead of embracing her fiancé, she blows him a kiss.


All around me I started to hear, and read, about young women who were observing Jewish modesty law, not touching their boyfriends and suddenly sporting hats. And all with the same blue line of sky between them and their fiancés. All with the same modestynik twinkle at the end. It was like an epidemic.

I was fascinated. First, because although I had certainly been touching my boyfriends, I wasn't -- how I wish there were a more elusive way of putting this -- having sexual intercourse with them.

Though boyfriends would occasionally grumble about my "hangups," I never gave much thought to what I would come to know as my sexual repression. I just assumed it was my peculiar problem, something to be sorted through privately, something of which one is ashamed. When I began to hear about these women, though, I started to think that maybe my "problem," such as it was, was not a problem at all but about something else entirely, something that could even be valued. Could I have been a modestynik all along and not known it?

Alas, I had to conclude that no, I couldn't be. I certainly wasn't shy or quiet, and that's what modesty really means, right? The whole women-should-be-seen-and-not-heard philosophy? That's what I associated it with. Furthermore, I didn't have any hats back in my dorm room. There were only two non-weather-related hats I had ever owned: a purple cone hat, from when I went trick-or-treating as a purple crayon, and a black cap with horns from when I sang the part of a little devil in a Lukas Foss opera. Somehow I didn't think those hats would count with whoever was in charge of the modestyniks.

Nevertheless I was still fascinated, particularly with the way others would react to them. People around me were saying that these modestyniks were really abuseniks: This one was "obviously very troubled," and that one seemed to have a "creepy" relationship with her father. Or the more poetic version, whispered in a sorrowful tone: "She is turning herself into the kind of woman her father could never touch." Or "Maybe she just had a Bad Experience." Either way, whatever her problem is, "why doesn't the poor girl just get some counseling already, and then she won't take it all so seriously?"

Now that I knew what was really going on with these modestyniks, I started to worry about them. All these women, and all sexually abused by their fathers! But that's also when I began to get suspicious. If all modestyniks were really abuseniks, I asked myself, then why were they so twinkly? Why did they seem so contented? Why were their wedding pictures so viscerally and mysteriously moving?

I really became intrigued when I offhandedly mentioned my interest in the modestyniks to a middle-aged man at a cocktail party, and he screamed at me, turning almost blue: "They're sick, I'm telling you! I've heard of them with their not-touching, and they're sick, sick, sick!" Someone later informed me that this man had been divorced three times.

I began to perceive a direct relationship between how much one was floundering, sex-wise, and how irritated one was by the modestyniks. After all, if the modestynik is just one more abusenik, she is less threatening, clearly, and isn't that rather convenient, if the poor thing can only be pitied? There is a certain note of wistfulness in the resentment directed against the modestyniks.

By now I have met many women, Jewish and non-Jewish, who grew up in fairly secular homes and have come to find modesty a compelling female ideal. Surely not all of them have been abused? They're all such different women. Some are daughters of divorce, others daughters of loving and stable families; some are liberal, others conservative; some are shy and clever, others not so shy or not so clever.

So does the fact that such different personalities are drawn to one idea prove some common childhood trauma, or reflect the truth of the idea? I suppose it could be a childhood trauma, but do these women then have that undeniable glow about them that is absent, for instance, in our modern anorexic? Fundamentally, they do not seem to be missing anything for not having had a series of miserable romances under their belts. They seem happy. Is this, perhaps, what annoys people most?

In her book Last Night in Paradise, Katie Roiphe devotes her final chapter to Beverly LaHaye, founder of the Christian group, Concerned Women for America. After interviewing Beverly LaHaye's press secretary, a young woman who has sworn off sex until marriage, Roiphe allows that she "does have a certain glow," one that "resembles happiness," but she concludes that really it owes to "something more like delusion." As for herself, she writes, she is "infuriated" by this woman: "I suddenly want to convert her more desperately than she wants to convert me."

Why? If one may freely cohabit these days, why can't one postpone sex? Why is sexual modesty so threatening to some that they can only respond to it with charges of abuse or delusion? After all, empirically speaking, one woman we know of who has had sex with her father is Kathryn Harrison, and she's not exactly observing Orthodox modesty law. (In a 1997 Elle profile she wore a lovely, but nonetheless notably short, skirt.)

When I talk to women my age and hear some of the things they're going through, the kind of treatment they put up with from these boyfriends of theirs, the first thing I ask them is, "Does your father know about this?" They look at me as if I'm from another planet. Of course their fathers don't know.

The Marquis of Halifax considered his daughter a "tender plant," requiring the sort of pruning and shelter only fatherly rules could provide: ones "written out of kindness rather than authority." This was in 1688, but when I read that passage I immediately thought of my own father. I'm a much stronger person for having a "paternalistic" father who is always telling me what to do. I know he's that way because he loves me. Also, when a man gives up on me because I won't sleep with him, because he "needs to know if we're compatible," it's easy to doubt myself, and at such times there's really no substitute for a booming male voice at the other end of the line.

But today it is even thought to be sexist for a father to give away his daughter on her wedding day. That, we are told, is a concession to the view that "women are property." Wedding ceremonies, as the scholar Ann Ferguson puts it, can "perpetuate the public symbolic meaning of heterosexism and women as legal possessions of men."

Yet what is really so terrible about "belonging" to someone who loves you? This radical notion that girls shouldn't be too attached to their fathers, because that's the source of all evil, is ironically very similar to Freud's view that girls don't develop an advanced superego because they remain too long in the Oedipus situation. Yet it is typically the girl without a strong relationship with her father who is too insecure to develop a superego. In a sexual landscape without any rules, girls lacking male approval are more often taken advantage of.

After hearing hundreds of stories of self-mutilation from her adolescent-girl clients, psychologist Mary Pipher concludes that "girls are having more trouble now than they had thirty years ago, when I was a girl, and more trouble than even ten years ago." Indeed, "Girls today are much more oppressed. They are coming of age in a more dangerous, sexualized and media-saturated culture." And "as they navigate a more dangerous world, girls are less protected." She is a staunch feminist, but cannot help noticing that "the sexual license of the 1990s inhibits some girls from having the appropriate sexual experiences they want and need."

Mary Pipher's only clients who have escaped the standard litany of self-mutilation and eating disorders are the girls who are not sexually active -- usually the ones who come from strict families with "paternalistic" fathers. "Jody," for instance, who is 16, comes from a tight-knit, fundamentalist family. Her mother stays home, and her father even insisted that Jody stop dating her boyfriend, Jeff, in tenth grade, fearing that she would have sex before marriage. Yet in spite of these restrictions which "psychologists would condemn," as Dr. Pipher puts it, Jody seems mysteriously happy. In fact, Jody is the happiest and most well adjusted of all her patients. Since Mary Pipher customarily assumes that paternalism is always oppressive, this observation causes her considerable cognitive dissonance:


I struggled with the questions this interview raised for me. Why would a girl raised in such an authoritarian, even sexist, family be so well liked, outgoing and self-confident? My did she have less anger and more respect for adults? My was she so relaxed when many girls are so angst-filled and angry?


Maybe it's not so terrible, after all, to have someone feel he has a stake in your upbringing. A young woman is lucky, I think, if she has a "paternalistic" father -- it can only make her more self-confident. To me the truly abusive fathers are the neglectful ones who seem to feel no emotional stake in how their daughters live their lives. More than half of my friends have parents who are divorced, and some of them hardly see their fathers at all.

But divorce is the least of the problems that have beset most young women of my age and generation. I was born in 1975, and from anorexia to date-rape, from our utter inability to feel safe on the streets to stories about stalking and stalkers, from teenage girls finding themselves miserably pregnant to women in their late 30s and early 40s finding procreation miserably difficult, this culture has not been kind to women. And it has not been kind to women at the very moment that it has directed an immense amount of social and political energy to "curing" their problems.

Why? Naomi Wolf writes in her most recent book that "there are no good girls; we are all bad girls," and that we all should just admit it and "explore the shadow slut who walks alongside us." But for some of us, this is actually still an open question. We certainly feel the pressure and get the message that we are supposed to be bad -- we, after all, started our sex education in elementary school -- but when everyone is saying the same thing, it makes us wonder: isn't there anything more to life, to love? No More "Nice Girl," as Rosemary Agonito put it in 1993. But don't I have anything higher to be proud of as a woman, other than my ability to be "bad"?

I thought again of the modestyniks, and about why they might be twinkling. Why would so many young women be adopting modesty as the new sexual virtue? I soon became inspired by the idea -- not as some old-fashioned ideal that could hypothetically solve some of the problems of women, but as one that could really help me understand my life. It explained, among other things, why I never cared for the advice given in most women's magazines and why I was uncomfortable with the coed bathrooms I encountered at college.

During the spring of my senior year at Williams, in our main student center there was a display called "The Clothesline Project." It was a string of T-shirts designed by women on campus who had been victims of sexual harassment, stalking, or rape. "I HATE You!" announced one shirt, in thick black lettering. "NO doesn't mean try again in 5 minutes!" read another one, in a red banner. At the end of the clothesline, in plain blue lettering: "How could you TAKE that which she did not wish to GIVE?" The shirt next to it read, "Don't touch me again!" and, beside that: "Why does this keep happening to me? When will this end?"

I was struck, reading these T-shirts, with how polarized the debate about sex is today. Just like on the national level, there were the college Republicans who stopped to snicker and then moved on, tittering about "those crazy feminists," and then there were those who lingered, shook their heads in dismay, and could be heard whispering about the patriarchy.

I want to offer a new response. First, I want to invite conservatives to take the claims of the feminists seriously. That is, all of their claims, from the date-rape figures to anorexia to the shyness of teenage girls, even the number of women who say they feel "objectified" by the male gaze. I want them to stop saying that this or that study was flawed; or that young women are exaggerating; or that it has been proven that at this or that university such-and-such a charge was made up. Because ultimately, it seems to me, it doesn't really matter if one study is flawed or if one charge is false. When it comes down to it, the same vague yet unmistakable problem is still with us. A lot of young women are trying to tell us that they are very unhappy: unhappy with their bodies, with their sexual encounters, with the way men treat them on the street -- unhappy with their lives. I want conservatives really to listen to these women, to stop saying boys will be boys, and to take what these women are saying seriously.

As for the feminists, I want to invite them to consider whether the cause of all this unhappiness might be something other than the patriarchy. For here is the paradox: at Williams, as on so many other modern college campuses, where there was such a concentration of unhappy women, everything was as nonsexist as could be. We had "Women's Pride Week," we had "Bisexual Visibility Week," we were all living in coed dorms, and many of us even used coed bathrooms. We were as far from patriarchal rules as we could get. So if we were supposed to be living in nonsexist paradise, then why were many of us this miserable?

Perhaps there is a difference between patriarchy and misogyny. Now that we have wiped our society clean of all traces of patriarchal rules and codes of conduct, we are finding that the hatred of women may be all the more in evidence. But why, exactly? I think we might have forgotten an important idea, lost our respect for a specific virtue.

I propose that the woes besetting the modern young woman -- sexual harassment, stalking, rape, even "whirlpooling" (when a group of guys surround a girl who is swimming, and then sexually assault her) -- are all expressions of a society which has lost its respect for female modesty.

My essay is divided into three parts: the first concerns our culture's view of sexual modesty and some of the problems that this view has created; the second is a survey of the intellectual battle which preceded this state of affairs, and an immodest attempt to reconstruct the lost philosophical case for modesty; and the final third is about women who are ignoring their culture's messages and, for new reasons, returning to a very old ideal.

A thread that runs through all three sections is the story of why this idea happened to captivate me. I would have preferred to avoid this personal thread and hide behind the disinterested sociological, the speculative philosophical. Unfortunately, it didn't work. I simply found it impossible to clear up what I perceive to be some central misunderstandings about modesty without, in some cases, getting very specific. Since I want to recover the idea, to submit what a case for modesty looks like, I have needed to rely on my experience -- as well as that of other young women -- to fill in the gaps.

Stendhal admits in his short study of female modesty that he is just guessing about it since so much of his argument depends on certain sensations that are necessarily hidden from his male experience. His survey is too vague, he says, and not as good as if a woman had written it. Nevertheless, he predicts, a woman would never write about such things. After all, for a woman to write sincerely about what she truly felt would be too embarrassing for her, "like going out not fully dressed" -- and then everyone would point and laugh. For a man, on the other hand, "nothing is more common than for him to write exactly as his imagination dictates, without worrying where it's going."

Outrageous as this may sound, it cannot be denied that for hundreds of years, it has held true. Though there are many women who conduct themselves "modestly" in their personal lives, no woman has ever attempted a systematic defense of modesty. One has to admit there is a very good reason for this: a woman who is reticent about matters sexual is an unlikely candidate to step forward and squawk, "Hey, everybody, look at me! Boy, am I modest!"

Nonetheless, I think it's about time that a woman proved Stendhal wrong. First, many of the men who have written about sexual modesty have either attacked or defended it for reasons that strike me as false. Was it because they were sexist? Or do we accept the more charitable interpretation -- that, as Stendhal says, men can only guess? I don't know. But I have a strong feeling that one of the reasons relations between the sexes have come to such a painful point is precisely that the embarrassed, secretive women usually do not come forward, only the exhibitionists do. And so I think many young women now have a vastly inaccurate picture of what is normal for them to think or to feel. They have been trained to accept that to be equal to men, they must be the same in every respect; and they, and the men, are worse off for it. It is for the next generation of young women that I am writing this book. Perhaps as Stendhal predicted, I will only end up making a fool of myself, but I think the stakes are now high enough to justify the risk.

A friend of mine had an affair with her professor when she was 21. She was in his class at the time and madly in love with him; he had no intention of doing anything other than using and summarily disposing of her. She was a virgin before the affair. As she related the story to me, ten years after it happened, I was struck, not that what had happened had deeply upset her, but that she felt she had to apologize for the fact that it had deeply upset her: "And, well, and it didn't mean the same thing to him, and um...this is going to sound really cheesy but, um...I mean, for God's sake, he took my virginity!" As she struggled to find the words to explain what had happened to her, it occurred to me that in an age where our virginity is supposed to mean nothing, and where male honor is also supposed to mean nothing, we literally cannot explain what has happened to us. We can no longer talk in terms of someone, say, defiling a virgin, so instead we punish the virgin for having any feelings at all. Nevertheless, although our ideology can expunge words from our vocabulary, the feelings remain and still cry out for someone to make sense of them. It is to restore this lost moral vocabulary of sex that I am writing this book. And then everyone can come out of the closet about how closeted he or she always wanted to be.

Today modesty is commonly associated with sexual repression, with pretending that you don't want sex though you really do. But this is a misunderstanding, a cultural myth spun by a society which vastly underrates sexual sublimation. If you stop and think about it, you realize that without sublimation, we would have very few footnotes and probably none of the greatest works of Western art. Moreover, leaving aside the whole question of utility, when you haven't yet learned to separate your physical desires from your hopes and natural wonder at everything, the world is, in a very real sense, enchanted. Every conversation, every mundane act is imbued with potential because everything is colored with erotic meaning. Today, this stage in one's life -- when everything seems significant and you want to get it all "exactly right" -- is thought to be childish, but is it really? Maybe instead of learning to overcome repression, we should be prolonging it.

Many children these days know far too much too soon, and as a result they end up, in some fundamental way, not knowing -- stunted and cut off from all they could be. If you are not taught that you "really" want just sex, you end up seeking much more. The peculiar way our culture tries to prevent young women from seeking more than "just sex," the way it attempts to rid us of our romantic hopes or, variously, our embarrassment and our "hangups," is a very misguided effort. It is, I will argue, no less than an attempt to cure womanhood itself, and in many cases it has actually put us in danger.

Copyright © 1999 by Wendy Shalit

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Reading Group Guide

1. How does Wendy Shalit define modesty? Do you agree or disagree with her definition? How is modesty different from prudery? What does modesty mean to you?

2. Do you think our society values modesty? What about civility?

3. The author links early sex education with the increased demystification of sex. At what age do you think children should be introduced to the topic of sex? Should parents supply their children with birth control options when they reach puberty? What, if any, effect has sex education had on your own views about sex?

4. Do you agree with David Hume that the risk of pregnancy makes women sexually more vulnerable? If so, wouldn't the Pill take care of that vulnerability? Or are women more sexually vulnerable for other reasons?

5. Does one have to be sexually adventurous to be fully liberated? To be mature?

6. What is the role of imagination and mystery in love and desire?

7. Wendy Shalit states that "in a society that respected the power of female modesty, the men were motivated to do what women wanted." Do you agree or disagree with this statement? Why?

8. Do you think Simone de Beauvoir was right to predict that a society which doesn't appreciate modesty will be one with more violence against women?

9. Modesty in dress is an important issue in the book and the author gives evidence that women who dress modestly earn more respect from men. She also writes about a young Muslim woman who gave up her veil because men found it too alluring and provocative. What do these examples say about the origins of modesty? Do you believe modesty is natural or socially constructed?

10. The author frequently looks to the past -- from the 1950s to as far backas the 3rd century B.C. -- to define a standard of modesty for today. What historical trends and events come to mind when you think of the evolution of modesty?

11. Wendy Shalit says that she wrote this book in part because modesty cannot be a private virtue in an immodest world. What do you think she means by this? Do you agree or disagree?

12. Do men play a role in helping women maintain their modesty? How do women encourage modest behavior on the part of men? What do you think of the author's views about the relationship between the sexes?

13. Using her grandparents as an example, the author calls for a return to traditional courtship rituals. What would be the benefits and disadvantages of reintroducing these rituals into modern society? Which traditional and modern rituals do you feel strongly about?

14. Does equality mean that men and women must behave the same?

15. How do your personal experience relate to Wendy Shalit's argument? How do you feel about unisex bathrooms? The role of pornography in our society? The role of the media in the evolution of modesty?

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 9, 2010

    Revolutionary!!

    What an amazing look at a topic so many take for granted. Wendy Shalit reveals a side to modesty that is not only appealing but a far cry from the "shy, shut in stereotype." This book was recommended by my church, I honestly wasn't expecting much but after this quick and insightful read I shared it with my 16 yr old daughter who loved it just as much as I did, needless to say we have both taken Wendy's advice:) Its an enjoyable and highly visionary perspective on the topic, if it were up to me every teenage girl in the country would have a copy of this book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 27, 2010

    Innovative, thought-provoking as Shalit challenges to women to reclaim their femininity and modesty.

    Shalit covers social changes over the past several hundred years and asks such questions as what is modesty? Why do we find ourselves embarrassed in certain situations? Why have we seen an increase in eating disorders and self - mutilation and why weren't our grandmothers faced with these challenges? As the sexual revolution taught women they were no different from men, men seem to have a difficult time relating to women today. They don't know whether they should open the door or give up their seats for women - will their gesture be appreciated or scorned because as women, we don't need their help? As violence against women escalates, "equal right has become equal fight." Why do women feel that being sensitive or intense is wrong and why does it seem that men no longer know how to relate to us? To help answers these questions and more, read Shalit's book. I have read it twice now.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 1, 2005

    Empowering Young Women for the Future

    Shalit's book is intelligent, insightful, and intriguing. Recommended to me by a college friend, I assumed 'A Return to Modesty' was going to be another 'Wear your turtlenecks, girls...' type of book. I was completely wrong and became engrossed in Shalit's book after the first page and found myself nodding my head in agreement chapter after chapter. 'A Return...' is empowering for young women. This book is not an easy read--be prepared to think and be challenged! I have recommended 'A Return...' to my mom, my friends, and most women I run into. Thank you, Wendy, for writing such a powerful book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 11, 2003

    A gift for High School Graduates

    I recently submitted this title as a 'must read' for any high school graduate planning to attend college. Our sexually saturated entertainment industry has left many teens and/or young adults feeling confused and degraded in their sexual identity and concept of self respect. Reading this book restores logical thought. It challenges the minds of young readers and prepares them for life choices beyond parental supervision. The effect of which is a knowledge base grounded in confidence and behaviors of diginity in youth and young adults.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 1, 2002

    A Must Read!

    This is a great and insightful book. It's an easy read; I couldn't put it down! If everyone read this book i think world would be a better place, especially for women.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 17, 2001

    every young woman should read this book.

    I have read and re-read this book countless times, and it continues to inspire me and remind me of what is really important. I would recommend this book to any mother for her daughter. It is truly wonderful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 27, 2000

    this book is so true!!

    In short,a man will say 'been there,done that' if a woman is not immodest,since so many women in today's society reflect a trend toward immodesty and easy sex. You will keep a man's interest if you are a chaste modest woman,because a man has a competitive nature and always needs something to chase. If you give it to him,he has nothing to dream about and chase and he will lose interest. Read Wendy's book and give a man something to dream about,you!!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 29, 2008

    No text was provided for this review.

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