About a month ago, I picked up a copy of Wendy Shalit’s A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue (New York: Touchstone, 1999) on one of the $1.00 used book carts Hanna and I haunt here in Boston. I’d been hearing about the book since its release a dozen years ago: Shalit was one of the first, and youngest, writers to publish a polemic against “hook up” culture and its supposed negative effect on young people — young women particularly. “Here it is for a dollar,” I thought, “I should really sit down and read the thing so I know what I’m talking about if I ever need to discuss it.” (Thus the inherent danger of dollar carts in relation to bookshelf space.)
It took me only a couple of days to read (and heavily annotate — at one point Hanna actually physically removed it from my hands after I read her a passage and threatened to hide it from me) but I’ve been sitting on my notes for a month, uncertain how to write it up. It would be easy to spend the review making fun of Shalit’s caricature of feminism, or her gloss of historical concept(s) of modesty. Or to be angry at her judgmental attitude toward people whose experience of sexuality is different from her own. Or her desire to control a whole culture to suit her own ends. It would also be fairly simple to dismiss Modesty as an out-dated debut polemic by an aspiring writer in her early twenties, something calculated to ignite debates about the harm feminism and/or the sexual revolution has or hasn’t caused young women (it’s always young women …). Not that Shalit, now in her mid-thirties, seems to have changed her tune much. But I really didn’t want to write any of those reviews. Or rather, in the moment I did. I totally did. My marginalia toward the end devolved into such insightful comments as “I…what?” and “um…suck it up?” and “who has a shitty view of men now?” But I also felt that such a shredding of Shalit-as-author would fail to address the questions that Shalit-as-person was raising in Modesty. Even though Shalit and I have vastly different experiences and perspectives (though less different than perhaps one would assume … more on that below), one of the tenets of feminism, at least as I subscribe to it, is that each person’s individual experience and voice has value. I might strongly disagree with Shalit’s approach (and I will so disagree with her below), but I still felt I owed the book a review that acknowledged the problem that Shalit identified for herself, and the solution she came up with to solve that problem.
The fact that Shalit herself anticipated a callous response from from sexual liberals and feminists — describing in the text how her own desire for sexual privacy was labeled pathological and/or laughable by her college classmates and faculty — also made me stubbornly resistant to confirming Shalit’s beliefs about how people who disagreed with her would react to her words.
So what was the central problem that Shalit identified, and what was the solution she proposed? And what were the problems that I had with the text?
The central argument of Return to Modesty is that the post-1960s openness about sexuality has ruined sexual pleasure. It begins with a very personal account of Shalit’s experience as a teenager who opted out of sexual education in middle school and felt pressured to be more sexually open, available, and experienced, throughout her adolescence and college years than Shalit felt comfortable being.
I want to stop right here and affirm that no one should feel pressured to engage in sexual activity they do not feel comfortable engaging in. And while certain choices may put you in the statistical minority (i.e. being in a same-sex partnership, or remaining celibate until marriage) those personal decisions should not negatively affect you on a structural/cultural level. That is, just as I have a right not to be harassed by police on the street for holding hands with my lover, Shalit has a right not to be punished with a bad grade or bullied for refusing to wear a bikini or short-shorts. I’m skeptical that such culturally-sanctioned harassment and discrimination happens to those who choose “modesty,” but for the sake of argument lets assume they do: whether you’re getting harassed for being “too” sexy or not sexy “enough,” it’s still harassment and therefore not cool.
Having identified her own discomfort with public displays or discussion of sexuality, and having discovered that her peers were not (at least overtly) expressing a similar discomfort, Shalit did what any young bluestocking worth her salt would do … she started doing research. She also, though she does not explicitly credit feminist activism for this, seeks to politicize her personal experience after the manner of mid-twentieth-century women’s movement theorists who sought to draw parallels between their own barely-articulated dissatisfactions and the unhappiness of other women who shared similar feelings. Also like mid-twentieth-century feminists she resists interpretations of her personal experience that seek to pathologize her self-knowledge: to locate the problem within her rather than within the broader culture.
Again, I want to stop and point out that there is nothing inherently problematic about such an approach. In many ways, Shalit’s descriptions of her experience as a teenager and college student fit in with what feminist activists and authors have been saying for years: that our culture is obsessed with (a certain kind of) sexual objectification and performance; that girls and young women (and increasingly boys and young men) are sexualized in ways they do not consent to and subjected to street harassment, unwanted sexual advances, etc.; that our mainstream assumptions about what sexual “liberation” consists of are poor substitutes for a deep exploration and understanding of human sexuality in all its varied potentiality.
The weaknesses in Shalit’s argument, I would argue, appear in two places: the assumptions she starts with about gender and generalizability and the proposal she makes for society to rectify the situation.
Weakness #1: her assumption that her personal experience — as a white, straight, upper-middle-class urban, East coast, Jewish woman who attended a fairly elite private, politically-liberal college — can reasonably stand in for the prototypical American girl’s experience with coming-of-age, sexual awakening, etc. This is not to say her own personal story is without merit. It is hers. Her discomfort, her embarrassment, her anger, her feelings of cultural marginalization, all of these things happened to her, and deserve a place at the table. However, they only have one place, or a small portion of the places at the table. For every girl like Shalit who felt ostracized because she sat out the sexuality education classes in the library, there was a girl who never had the opportunity to take sex ed (however bare-bones and abstinence-focused it might have been ) at all. For every college student like Shalit who was laughed out of a philosophy class for advocating gender essentialism, there was a college student who was marginalized by her fellow students for pushing back against the gender binary. For every young woman who was dumped for not being sexually available to a boyfriend (or girlfriend), there was a young woman who was raped because her assailant assumed her status as campus “slut” meant she could never say “no.” Or a young woman scared she was abnormal because she felt horny. Yet Shalit’s thesis depends on the reader believing that Shalit can meaningfully speak not only for herself but for all women.
Shalit didn’t have to go there. She could have made an impassioned and powerful argument that our culture’s obsession with (one-dimensional, commodified) sex has pressured young women into performing sexuality in a way that feels unauthentic and compromising to them. Feminist activists likely would have stood up and cheered. However, she did go there. Why? Because Shalit is a firm believer in the gender binary and in gender essentialism — that is (in plain English), she believes that men and women comprise two wholly separate gender identities and roles which correspond innately with their biological sex, which in turn is assumed to break down perfectly into two camps. Because she subscribes to a theory of the world that hinges on binary gender essentialism and complementarity (the idea that men’s and women’s roles in society complement one anothers’), Shalit also ignores the existence of non-straight, gender-nonconforming folks in crafting her thesis. Thus, she grounds her solution to the problem of sexual openness in a theory of modesty that is tied directly to gender.
Which leads me to weakness #2: Shalit’s call for a return to “modesty” (read “sexual privacy”) that is both over-generalized and not generalized enough. Let me explain. On the one hand, Shalit argues that women as a class are innately modest (too general), but that it is only women whose modesty/privacy is culturally important (not general enough). If Shalit had wanted to argue that sexual openness leads to the commodification of sexuality and pressures people to expose areas of their lives they would otherwise wish to keep private to public scrutiny, I would have been willing to listen to her. I would likely have disagreed (she blurs the distinction between sexual exhibitionism and sexual communication, for example … when has lack of good communication ever been a bad thing in sexual relationships??), but I would have respected her perspective. But Shalit isn’t arguing that people need their privacy protected and/or respected — YES! THEY DO! — but that women need their privacy protected, specifically from men. So single-sex shower facilities are totally cool (the gaze of other women isn’t a breach of modesty), but nudist colonies destroy sexual desire because they leave nothing to the imagination (I suspect this assertion surprised any nudists who happened to read Modesty).
Claiming that “modesty” (never satisfactorily defined in the text) is an innate characteristic of women (assumed to be straight and gender-conforming) is what then leads Shalit to make the political-social argument that female modesty should not only be encouraged, but should actually be enforced through legal and social regulation. Why? Because lack of female modesty is what is leaving women and girls vulnerable to sexual predation and other forms of violence and marginalization. And that enforcement looks suspiciously like old-school patriarchy. Just sayin’. Throughout the narrative, for example, she equates parental involvement with heavy-handed parental control, claiming at one point that “Our mothers pined for liberation, and we are pining for interference” (202). She also fantasizes about a world in which policemen would feel free to stop her and her boyfriend kissing in public because “we don’t do that around here.” “For what’s the point of kissing someone in public,” she asks, somewhat rhetorically, “if it’s no longer even an indiscretion?” (196).
It was this passage that finally wound me up so badly that Hanna yanked the book away and threatened to hide it from me. Why? Because I would argue that while there’s nothing wrong with fantasizing about being policed for sexual expression (yes, dom/sub scenarios can be an incredible turn-on), it probably takes someone who has never feared actually being arrested for kissing their significant other in public to find real-world public punishment sexy. Shalit worries throughout her book that people will think she’s neurotic or sexually traumatized. I would argue almost precisely the opposite: that hers is the perspective of someone who has never been systematically marginalized and penalized for her sexual preferences (or preference for, more broadly speaking, social “modesty”). While I accept unconditionally that Shalit has felt marginalized and bullied and ridiculed for her sexual choices — and that people who made fun of or otherwise harassed her were in the wrong to do so — there is a meaningful difference between making a choice that puts you in the minority and being a person whose sexual expression exposes you to material, institutionalized discrimination (DOMA much?).
Shalit tries to argue, toward the end of Modesty, that the culture as a whole needs to “return” to her version of sexual modesty because if modest women are an ostracized minority, they won’t get laid (this argument contradicts an earlier section where she argues that modest women have the most fun in bed). Or at the very least, modest women will find it more difficult to get laid because, well, they’re weird. And the only way to ensure that modest women aren’t seen as weird (and therefore undesirable) is to require the rest of the world to conform to the modest women’s particular expression of sexuality and social propriety. To which I really wanted to say this: “Welcome to the club.” Most of us — yes! most of us! — have values or proclivities or life circumstances that shrink our pool of potential partners significantly. Try being bi. Try being a vocal feminist at a conservative college. Try being an advocate of unschooling, or committed to nonviolence, or not interested in being a parent. All of these things are personal decisions or deeply held principles that shape the sort of relationship one can thrive in. Yet the solution to being bisexual (for example) and feeling lonely is not to try and remake the world so that everyone is forced to be bisexual. The solution to feeling ostracized for not wanting to parent is not to advocate for a society that outlaws procreation!
The solution is to advocate for recognition and respect for the choices we all make as individuals about our sexual preferences and our life paths. Not to thrust your own choices upon everyone else, even if conformity would make you feel safer. That would just result in someone else being bullied in your stead. I don’t know about you, but that’s not a solution this feminist can stand behind.