Thought You'd Never Ask

Just mouthing off -- because I can.

Monday, January 29, 2007

After the dreary hook-ups, the next sexual revolution?

I've been reading a book that offers a researched and well-articulated viewpoint and I can only wish this book had been around when I was a teen back in the days before it was "hip to be square." The book is Wendy Shalit's A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue.

Though I found them fascinating and informative as an ignorant teen, I don't usually read sociological tomes anymore, as they are essentially long exercises in "begging the question," but this one's both substantial and entertaining, well worth the time, and ultimately important. And I'm especially pleased to see this book around at this juncture in my life, echoing a lot of things my mother once said to me and that I'm still saying to my children. I plan to recommend it to every high school senior I know, both boys and girls, who are headed off to college, as I'm pretty sure this book won't be included in any of the "diversity" or "sensitivity" training courses mandated for incoming freshmen on college campuses these days--and if anything should, this book should be. I think Ms. Shalit is on to something, and she's offering an important alternative for the current batch of upcoming Americans to consider.

Here's just one passage [pages 139-140]:

For the past forty years, all talk about sex has coalesced around two basic positions: either men are evil and should become more like women--the position often called "gynocentric"--or women are the bad ones and need to become more like men, the position first taken by the sexual revolutionists and later adopted by many antifeminists. After surveying the landscape of these experiments--from the misogyny of the sexual revolution, to the gynocentric response, and now back to misogyny again--one might be forgiven for wondering if we should stop switching roles and making ourselves miserable. Maybe we're fine the way we are.

The sexual revolution seems to have failed mostly because it ignored the differences between the sexes--specifically, the importance of female modesty. When it failed, when women began to discover that they were uniquely compromised by a sexual free-for-all, there was an attempt to restore order. Women's liberation may have been a valiant attempt to restore that order, but it, too, failed because it was reluctant to consider the importance of natural modesty, and held that all differences we observed were the result of oppression. Hence all their ways to restore order, such as through sexual harassment legislation, have been like trying to put a Band-Aid over an amputated limb.

The current antifeminist consensus recognizes that these feminist legislations have not worked, but never offers any positive vision of how the sexes can relate. And so we are caught up in a vicious circle, because today's antifeminists seem to want to return to the free-love heyday that caused many of these problems in the first place. The only thing standing in their way, it seems, is AIDS, and so we are at an impasse. But why do we have to spend all of world history repeating the same mistakes when we can learn from them?

Modesty is our way out. For women who are tired of being told they must be either men or victims, modesty offers a new choice. Its rich, but often ignored, cultural legacy offers women a positive content to womanhood. This is how a return to modesty could end the war between the sexes. Many young women today don't think their lives should be spoiled by their parents' mistakes, and we would want nothing more than to return, if we could, to the days before all of these experiments. Not only do we think there are differences between the sexes, but we think these differences can have a beautiful meaning--a meaning that isn't some irrelevant fact about us but one that can inform and guide our lives. That's why we're swooning over nineteenth-century dramas and clothing.

We want our dignity back, our "feminine mystique" back, and, along with it, the notion of male honor. Our mothers tell us we shouldn't want to give up all the hard-won "gains" they have bequeathed to us, and we think, what gains? Sexual harassment, date rape, stalking, eating disorders, all these dreary hook-ups? Or perhaps it's the great gain of divorce you had in mind? We look to a different, more romantic, generation for our role models.

Shalit makes her point by piling up the evidence that the ideas of male-female roles put up over the past forty years by feminism and the backlash haven't really worked for either sex, but especially not for women. Other topics explored in her book include a critique of postmodern sexual etiquette and prescribed societal roles for men and women, the nature and history of modesty (is it natural or an acquired characteristic?), male character and how female behavior can affect it, and the current "war on embarrassment" (modern society's determination to both deny and abolish the innocence of childhood and to deny that there can be any virtue or benefit from modesty at all). All worth examination, and incidentally topical in today's climate of debate about the larger significance of hijabs, burkas, and chadors.

I'm also looking forward to the forthcoming Girls Gone Mild by the same author.

UPDATE: This book looks essential for college-bound girls too: Unprotected by MD Anonymous.


  • At Tuesday, January 30, 2007 11:46:00 PM, Anonymous Bookworm said…

    That sounds like a very good book -- and a companion piece to Ariel Levy's depressing "Female Chauvinist Pigs : Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture," about women who have fallen into the degrading habit of being worse than the worst kinds of men. Both these books sound like good reading for an older teen -- one to give her a distaste for raunch culture; the other to give her an option.

  • At Thursday, February 01, 2007 8:47:00 AM, Blogger Zabrina said…

    Thanks for the recommendation; I just ordered "Female Chauvinist Pigs" from my library.

  • At Saturday, February 10, 2007 12:28:00 AM, Anonymous Nancy said…

    Your argument that modest will miraculously save us from misogyny is completely illogical. Sorry, but you're trying once to blame women for what men choose to do to them.

    Burqas haven't stopped the muslim women from being raped or stoned to death for being raped. In our own culture rape happens to nuns, babies, and whores alike.

    sarcasm: I guess those raped babies should have dressed more modestly. I know, blame the mother!

  • At Saturday, February 10, 2007 12:35:00 AM, Anonymous Nancy said…

    The thinking goes that if only misogyny really was the fault of women, then women would be able to prevent it from happening to them.

    It's terrifying to admit to oneself that one has zero control over whether someone else will choose to victimize them or not.

    You can mitigate risk by staying home all the time, but that doesn't help either since most women are hurt by someone they already know.

  • At Monday, February 12, 2007 3:13:00 PM, Blogger Zabrina said…

    Nancy, neither I nor Shalit argue that misogyny is caused or can be controlled by women or women's behavior. I would urge you to read her book, not just the small excerpt I've posted here, to see what exactly she is saying.

    None of us blames rape victims for causing rape. We know misogyny and abuse are not caused by the individual victim, no matter how they dress or act. But if I have understood Shalit correctly, one of her points is that if men were not encouraged to look at *all* young women as a class today in hopes that they can be induced or pressured into "Girls Gone Wild" behavior (encouraged by those who do "go wild" or exhibit other raunchy behaviors such as those described in Ariel Levy's "Female Chauvinist Pigs"), then there might not be so much rude and abusive behavior by men against women as a whole, on the societal level. I believe her point is that the raunchy behavior of some affects the culture as a whole, and affects the health of the ocean we all must swim in.

    We could as well say that if only men as a whole would start treating women and themselves more respectfully in our culture, there would be less fear and hatred of men (though there would always be individual cases to contradict the point).

    Perhaps the larger objection is: why do we think we can more plausibly appeal to the moral sense of women to attempt to raise and reform the culture from the gutter than to the moral sense of men? Or, in fact, do we?
    Are gender-based moral appeals inherently bigoted? Or perhaps do women stand to gain objectively more from a less abusive culture?


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