Culture > Books

Books: A modest proposal

Books | A young woman confounds the cultural elite with her defense of modesty

Issue: "Surviving the Y2K panic," April 3, 1999

Sexual violence, eating disorders, and clinical depression affect a growing number of women, and Wendy Shalit, in A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue, claims that these "are all expressions of a society which has lost its respect for female modesty." Miss Shalit, fresh out of college where she caused a stir by protesting co-ed bathrooms, is now causing a stir on talk shows, mainline book review pages, and the bestseller charts with a forceful, cogently argued defense of modesty. From grade school sex-ed classes to co-ed bathrooms in college, she points out, young people today are taught, above all, to have a "healthy attitude" toward sex, to lose their natural embarrassment. The goal is seemingly to divest sexuality of its mystique, thereby "freeing" women from the "repression" of cultural conventions that prevent them from expressing themselves as freely and naturally as do men. However, this sexual liberation has in reality made women less free, as Miss Shalit shows. Where once women could expect respectful treatment in virtually any situation, today simply walking down the street without a male companion seems to be an invitation to harassment or even violence. And the woman who wishes to wait for sex until marriage is considered abnormal, subject to the ridicule of men and women alike. Add to this the expectation that a woman should be independent, not a "clinging vine" trying to find security in a man, and the recipe for confusion and unhappiness may be complete. Modesty, Miss Shalit reminds us, results from a woman's desire for romance and faithfulness, for love and marriage, not for independence and casual sex. "Modesty is a reflex," she writes, "arising naturally to help a woman protect her hopes and guide their fulfillment-specifically, this hope for one man." Miss Shalit compellingly traces the consequences of sexual liberation (the repression of modesty) and explores the concept of modesty through history. She finds, for one thing, that modesty has always been considered a protection for women and a means of encouraging men to settle down to marriage and family. It is, in other words, a civilizing force, causing men and women to work together for the preservation of family and society. In the final section of the book, Miss Shalit examines the lives of young women who have chosen to practice modesty today, in defiance of the "liberated" culture surrounding them, and finds they are secure and content. Modesty is powerful, they tell her, because it allows a woman to wait and to choose; it creates anticipation and excitement and mystery. "It's high time sexual modesty came out of the closet," she concludes. "Not only can you not get AIDS from it, not only is it morally right, but ... modesty is really much more exciting than promiscuity." Miss Shalit, who is Jewish, has written a vitally important book, which has become a catalyst for debate in the public square about the very assumptions of feminism, the sexual revolution, and today's relationships between men and women. Although not for children-her examples of today's immodesty are necessarily immodest-it is a valuable resource for parents and for the church, because it describes the world our children are trying to grow up in. They need to know what it means to be men and women in a culture that has lost its moorings. Female modesty, Miss Shalit tells us, invites men to consider an idea: What is the ideal relationship between men and women? If we don't pose the question, we can hardly be surprised when the answer turns out wrong. A Return to Modesty challenges us to return to the basics, to ask the right questions and find the answers that will lead to a sane society and to greater fulfillment for both men and women.

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