A Return to Modesty (1999) and Girls Gone Mild, by Wendy Shalit (2007)

By Laura Clark

Laura Clark is a freelance writer based in Front Royal, Virginia.

Wendy Shalit, daughter of film critic Gene Shalit, exploded onto the book scene in 1999 with what was considered by conservatives and liberals alike to be a ground-breaking work on the modern sexual scene:   A Return to Modesty.  Even the name, unlike Female Chauvinist Pigs; Unhooked; Pornified boldly states the solution instead of the problem.  But Shalit herself is from a fairly liberal family:  a strong family, where she learned self respect, but a family which expected her to experiment sexually before she was married.  Nevertheless, Wendy’s Mom had a lot of common sense and confidence.  When the “parental notification notice” was sent home to the parents of Wendy’s fourth grade class stating that the children were going to be taught, among other things, about masturbation, the Shalits wanted none of it.  Mrs. Shalit took her out, even after being asked by the teacher, Mrs. Nelson, if she wanted Wendy “whispering” in the locker room.  Mrs. Shalit decided that both whispering and using her own judgment in teaching Wendy about sex were preferable to a bold frontal classroom presentation on a very delicate mysterious human issue.   Since when anyway did sex education classes stop kids who knew about it from whispering about sex?  Mrs. Nelson, the sex-ed teacher, must have forgotten what it was like to be a kid:  kids whisper about everything.  Did she miss the point that the class would likely give them something else to whisper about?  As Wendy points out elsewhere in her book, it is the people who are often the most comfortable talking about sex who are also the most naïve concerning its power or even other simple basics of human nature.  In fact, it could be argued that the more “open” one is on the subject, the less observant one becomes of what sex is and how it affects us.  So Wendy went to the library, and the other children sat in class.

Wendy started to notice something odd about those children.  The little girls would come out of that class, trying to mind their own business, and the little boys would chase them down saying endearing things like:  “Are you masturbating yet?  It’s natural, you know.”  And, “You may be a treasure, but you ain’t got no chest.”  Wendy witnessed little girls in tears (as I almost was in reading her account) telling these boys:  “Mrs. Nelson says that if you tease us about what we learned in class, then you haven’t learned the principle of respect.”  Then Wendy noticed another odd thing:  when a boy started to tease her about what had transpired in class, she could stop him dead in his tracks by simply stating that she hadn’t been there.  She describes them as being “almost apologetic.”  Wendy was getting more respect from the boys just because she wasn’t in the class.  What was going on here?  The boys’ reaction was actually very predictable, but also mysterious.  Somehow, sitting in the class with those little girls, listening to the litany of sexual information, those little boys’ natural reserves had been torn down; they no longer saw the girls as apart from such information:  the boys neatly incorporated the girls right into it; they sexualized them.  When they found out that Wendy was not in the class, their guard went right back up, even to the point that they were “almost apologetic.”  Wendy’s story, insightful and honest, is an amazing encapsulation of how sex education classes all across the country break down the natural boundaries of respect between boys and girls.

What Shalit observed and experienced is one argument against the proposal, made by Levy, Stepp, and Paul, that better and more sex education is part of the solution in refining respect between the sexes.  Mrs. Nelson had told the boys and girls to respect one another:  she had made the point that they were treasures.  Cutting right down archetypal stereotypical lines, the girls got the respect part, but the boys didn’t.  Mrs. Nelson, the sex-ed teacher, was treading where angels fear to:  she was breaking down the boundary of reserve that is natural between the sexes, which is governed not by (at least before the age of eighteen) intellectual constructs such as “respect” and “treasure” (worthy as these concepts are) but by subtle boundaries taught in families and enforced at schools:  separate girls’ and boys’ bathrooms; girls keeping their knees together; boys getting in lots of trouble for sneaking in the girls’ bathroom even if it is empty, etc. etc.  In the end, all the “whys” and “wherefores” of how boys and girls are different and how they should relate to one another cannot be “taught” like Math, Reading, Grammar, Science.  That they can is the lie of sex-education.  Math, Reading, Grammar, History, and Science are taught to be mastered, conquered, and understood.  Sex cannot be taught that way.   Sex is meant to be and stay fairly mysterious, because it is mysterious.  Sex education tries to eradicate that mystery.  The result is that boys and girls get the idea that sex is something they can “work with” just like they would any other subject.  They find out, sometimes after much pain, that sex is very different from learning another subject:  it emotionally affects them in a way that Math never could.   The reality of sex is so profound, emotional, and life-altering that it simply does not “fit” into a classroom setting far from Mom and Dad.  Shalit’s story is one story which proves this, but there are many others.
Wendy Shalit’s A Return to Modesty confidently plows through the most important of the questions Levy, Stepp, and Paul raise.  Shalit too noticed and analyzed the peculiar phenomenon that Levy did (six years later) of women attempting to make themselves as raunchy and unfazed in sexual areas as men.  Shalit listened to the Howard Stern show, where women could not begin to feel comfortable and compete with Stern’s vulgarity:  and they were often porn stars and prostitutes!  But the real question is not why they couldn’t compete:  the real question is why did they feel the need to?  What is it about our society that demands this of women?  It seems so, it is . . . anti-woman.  The behavior of Stern, and other men like him, was what men a century ago couldn’t dream of indulging in ( assuming some men would want to)  and still be considered worthy of a woman’s (or a decent man’s) attention.  Now these guys have highly rated radio shows!  Why is turning that situation around pro-woman?  (Is it even pro-man?)  Why is it pro-woman for women to prove to men and other women that they can be just as “dirty” as the guys?  As Wendy Shalilt documents, the overwhelming majority of women naturally value their sexual inner core in a manner that is profoundly different from the way men value theirs.  Why are we trying to change that, and then being dishonest enough to say we are changing it out of concern for women?  Levy wrote about these same incongruities years after Shalit did, but she noticed them from a decidedly more feminist point of view than Shalit.  Thus Levy displays astute powers of observation, and an ability to draw some objective conclusions from her observations.

Wendy Shalit was one of the very first to identify the poisonous “hook-up” culture on college campuses, eight years before Laura Stepp did.  She analyzes with verve and humor and sadness all of the lengths to which girls will go to engage in these heartless encounters and still keep their self respect, and she asks, again why, if young women are happy with the quality of these “hook-up” encounters, which are not in the context of commitment, are they making so much effort to put them into a better framework, namely a more feminine framework?  And why, if women are so liberated by the sexual revolution, do they feel the need to apologize for attempting to do this?  She recounts all the lousy, condescending responses the popular women’s magazines dole out to the young women who write to them wondering why they are so unhappy.  Again and again, these women are told:  do not have expectations; be happy; be free; be independent; and above all, do not have expectations.  The magazines get a lot of these questions, and they keep giving the same answers, ignoring the obvious underlying frustration, even heart-break, these women are expressing in their letters.  But, as Shalit also points out, women are not supposed to get broken hearts any more.

Yes, Shalit also takes on pornography.  Here, she is closer to Paul’s position that censorship is a bad thing, but in the pages she devotes to the subject her scope is broader, mainly because she is not nearly as concerned about making sure that nobody would dream of equating what is merely erotic art with pornography.  Often, she knows, there is no difference between the two.  Unlike Paul, Wendy Shalit would consider the idea of “masturbating” using “pretty pictures” as stimulation to be a very repulsive act.  My guess is Paul does too, deep inside, but she is not willing to express that kind of disgust.  Wendy Shalit is.

What sets Wendy Shalit apart from almost all of her counterparts is that she is completely fearless in taking on all of the underlying assumptions of the sexual revolution.  She goes where her tremendous powers of observation and logic lead her:  even if she has to challenge her own previously held assumptions, which she does many times.  She was raised, after all, as a liberal.  In fact, she still is a liberal in many ways.  She attributes some of her self-awareness to the fact that she missed what Levy, Stepp, and Paul prescribe: sex education.  Wendy Shalit produced a new book this year, 2007, Girls Gone Mild.  She documents many hopeful trends which indicate that women, while they are grateful for the opportunity to be doctors, lawyers, or whatever, want to be just as respected for the decision to stay home and raise a family if that’s what they want to do.  There are increasing signs that this is becoming, once again, a respected option for women, along with being modest and even remaining a virgin until married.  Another important trend Shalit noted is the increasing desire many modern girls have for clothes that are beautiful but do not leave them exposed.  Many of the girls in the book report that being a “bad girl” just isn’t all it’s been cracked up to be.  They want to try being “good girls” for a change.  When they try it, they find they are happier.    Girls Gone Mild is a well written, welcome work.  For sheer spunk, it does not compare to A Return to Modesty, nor does it attempt to.  The phenomena it documents indicate an encouraging sea-change in the culture.


In reading these five books, I am struck by how much women search for integrity and respect, from themselves and from their potential lovers.  Women have accepted raunch, for example, in part because they figure if they can join the men in their derision of women who are completely sexually available, then they will be better able to put some distance between themselves and the degradation those women experience.  Thus they may be able to maintain their own sense of self respect and maybe even the men’s respect too.  Levy documents women’s attempt to do this in her work. It is a self-serving attitude (what indeed of the women who are scorned by all?) but an understandable one.  In accepting the hook-up culture which Stepp researched, women display that they would rather give only a part of themselves rather than their whole self if the men are really unwilling to commit, as so many men have shown themselves to be.  It’s much easier if the man leaves quickly rather than lingeringly if he’s not going to be around for long anyway.  Gone are the days when women are willing to lower themselves to begging men, along with Diana Ross, not to leave them in the “warmth of the night” but in the “cold morning light.”  When women realized the leaving was inevitable, they accepted a system by which they would not be as hurt.  But then something else happened:  by accommodating themselves to relationships that were increasingly less emotionally meaningful, women began asking themselves a question which Diana Ross and company, raised with older and higher expectations, were understandably not as likely to get to:  why are we doing this?  Sometimes things have to get really bad before people will take the trouble to search for a lasting solution.  Paul’s book, which clearly condemns pornography, is also part of the new honesty with which women are starting to confront old issues.

Whatever solutions women will act on in this new day, rest assured, men will go right along.  That’s always what many men do when a significant number of women lay out the same expectations.  Which leads me to my final point:  we really are a sisterhood (as the feminists recognized).  If women, as a group, begin insisting that men respect them as whole persons, men will do just that.  If it means women have to start wearing less revealing clothes, many more women are now willing to make that “trade off.”  Modesty is one of the things that “doesn’t have to threaten us anymore”, [it never did, but for the sake of argument . . .] unlike systematized laughing at other women (think The Man Show) which should threaten any woman ever who cherishes her sex.  The producers, female and male, of The Man Show are the ones who don’t get it.  If women, as a group, as the astounding cultural force they have always been, begin to have high expectations of themselves and the men in their lives, they will almost certainly start to wonder how they could have ever settled for so little. We already know what happens when women take off their clothes, not for the one man of their choice who has proved and committed himself to her, but for anyone.  We already know what happens when women no longer expect men to be good:  they won’t be.  Women become unhappy, and so do men.  Isn’t it time to get back to what has always worked for everyone?

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