A Return To Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue

A Return To Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue

4.6 8
by Wendy Shalit

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Where once a young woman had to be ashamed of her sexual experience, today she is ashamed of her sexual inexperience. Where not long ago an unmarried woman was ashamed to give public evidence of sexual desire by living with someone, today she must be ashamed to give evidence of romantic desire. From sex education in grade school to coed bathrooms in college,


Where once a young woman had to be ashamed of her sexual experience, today she is ashamed of her sexual inexperience. Where not long ago an unmarried woman was ashamed to give public evidence of sexual desire by living with someone, today she must be ashamed to give evidence of romantic desire. From sex education in grade school to coed bathrooms in college, today's young woman is being pressured relentlessly to overcome her embarrassment, her "hang-ups," and especially her romantic hopes.
Meanwhile, the problems young women struggle with grow steadily more extreme: from sexual harassment, stalking, and date rape to anorexia and self-mutilation. Both men and women endlessly lament the loss of privacy and of real intimacy. What is it all about?
Beholden neither to conservatives who discount as exaggeration the dangers facing young women, nor to feminists who steadfastly affix blame on the patriarchy, Wendy Shalit proposes that, in fact, we have lost our respect for an important classical virtue — that of sexual modesty. A Return to Modesty is a deeply personal account as well as a fascinating intellectual exploration. From seventeenth-century manners guides to Antonio Canova's sculpture, Venus Italico, to Frank Loesser's 1948 tune, "Baby, It's Cold Outside," A Return to Modesty unfolds like a detective's search for a lost idea as Shalit uncovers opinions about this lost virtue's importance, from Balzac to Simone de Beauvoir, that have not been aired for decades. Then she knocks down the accompanying myths one by one. Female modesty is not about a "sexual double standard," as is often thought, but is related to male virtue and honor. Modesty is not a social construct, but a natural response. And modesty is not prudery, but a way to preserve a sense of the erotic in our lives.
With humor and piercing insight, Shalit invites us to look beyond the blush and consider the new power to be found in an old ideal. She maintains that the sex education curriculum forced on those of her generation from an early age is fundamentally flawed, centered as it is on overcoming reticence — what we today call "hang-ups." Shalit surprisingly and persuasively argues that without these misnamed hang-ups there can be no true surrender, no richness and depth to relations between the sexes. The natural inclination toward modesty is not a hang-up that we should set out to cure, but rather a wonderful instinct that, if rediscovered and given the right social support, has the power to transform society.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
George F. Will Newsweek [Shalit is] a prodigy at cracking the codes of culture....A Return to Modesty is a call for women to wield their potential power to transform society.

Florence King National Review 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.

Tamala M. Edwards Time Her book has touched a nerve in a society overdosed on sex...Shalit defends...compellingly, shame, privacy, gallantry, and sexual reticence.

Ruth R. Wisse The Wall Street Journal 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.

Emily Eakin The New York Times Book Review 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.

Shari Roan Los Angeles Times 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.

Norah Vincent Salon The first book of its kind...to blaze down the center of the postfeminist battleground between left and right.

Katie Roiphe Harper's Bazaar Intriguing...[Shalit] writes about...how not going through with something can leave a deeper imprint on your imagination than going through with it, and how we have lost the playfulness and mystery of old-fashioned courtship.

Suzanne Fields The Washington Times [An] earnest and serious book....A fascinating subject [brought] to our attention in a fresh way.

Maggie Gallagher New York Post [An] important book that every thinking young woman (and her mother) should read.

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

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.
Weekly Standard
Radical indeed....Should be given to every young woman to help them reconsider their basic assumptions about sexuality and gender.
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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Read an Excerpt


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.


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.


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.

rdI 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

What People are saying about this

Wendy Shalit
From a barnesandnoble.com e-nnouncement

Should girls rush to lose their virginity? Do you have to be sexually promiscuous to be fully liberated? Does equality mean that men and women must behave the same? If you don't sleep with a guy by the third date, does that mean you have "hang-ups" about sex? Wendy Shalit answers all of these questions with a resounding no. Disappointed that so many young women are put on the defensive for their sexual shyness and romantic hopes, Shalit argues in her new book, A RETURN TO MODESTY: DISCOVERING THE LOST VIRTUE, that reticence is a virtue, something women should be proud of. Given Shalit's interest in the history and consequences of women's sexuality, we asked the author to discuss her ideas in the context of women's history month. She shares her views in this exclusive essay for barnesandnoble.com.

Women's History Month by Wendy Shalit

To me Women's History Month is about the richness and variety of women's voices, about the right to speak your mind even when you disagree with the conventional wisdom on things. I think true diversity offers up a diversity of ideas.

When I began researching the history of sexual modesty, for example, I was struck by how many women had different and surprising views on it. I expected radical Simone de Beauvoir to be against modesty, advocating as she does in THE SECOND SEX that women should liberate themselves from the roles of wife and mother, but in fact she thought that modesty was natural and valuable. According to de Beauvoir, modesty is one of the few feminine traits that really does have a biological basis, and it is one that protects women. As she put it in THE SECOND SEX, "There will always be certain differences between man and woman; her eroticism, and therefore her sexual world, have a special form of their own and therefore cannot fail to engender a sensuality, a sensitivity, of a special nature." Modesty's natural basis, according to de Beauvoir, is not the risk of pregnancy (that's what David Hume thought) but more a specifically feminine vulnerability that is inherent in the sex act itself: "Her modesty has deep roots.... One of the reasons why modesty paralyzes young men much less than women [is] because of their aggressive role, they are less exposed to being gazed at." Therefore it is most preferable, wrote de Beauvoir, that "the young girl slowly learns to overcome her modesty, to know her partner." She also predicted that in a society that trivializes this need, sex will be violent and young women will be left without recourse.

It was Mary Wollstonecraft who was opposed to sexual modesty. Before de Beauvoir praised it, Wollstonecraft criticized modesty on surprising grounds: that it was too erotic. Today we associate modesty with prudery, but in her time, the more mystery, the more exciting sex was. But that's what made it dangerous, in Wollstonecraft's view. In her VINDICATION she called modesty a "lascivious" philosophy of "refined licentiousness," one that "inflame[d]" children's "imaginations" and "prolong[ed]... ardor" in adults.

So who was right? In a way, I think both of them were. Modesty is an erotic virtue, but that's exactly why I think it's such a good thing to reconsider. Today men and women seem to be competing at how vulgar they can be, instead of how civilized they can be. If modesty inflames the imagination, so much the better. I think more could be left to the imagination these days. We live in tell-all, let-it-all-hang-out times, but without privacy, we are learning, we can't have real intimacy and trust either.

Robin West
A book for us all -- feminists, anti-feminists, conservatives, liberals. -- Proessor of Law, Georgetown University and author of Caring for Justice
David Horowitz
A poignant account of how America's daughters have been abandoned by the culture. -- Author of Radical Son and The Politics of Bad Faith
Gertrude Himmelfarb
A prescription for a new sexual revolution. -- Author of Marriage and Morals among the Victorians

Meet the Author

Wendy Shalit received her B.A. in philosophy from Williams College in 1997. A contributing editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal, she has written for The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, and other publications. She lives in New York City.

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A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue 4.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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!!