On Modesty

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I was disappointed by Karina Rollins' simplistic portrayal of sexual mores in her review of Wendy Shalit's book, A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue ("Natural Woman," May). Shalit's book should not have been embraced so uncritically. In fact, I doubt that anyone with mature sensibilities could get through it without shuddering at its schoolgirl moralism.

Shalit writes, "Before, it was a woman's prerogative to say no . . . while now it is a man's prerogative to expect sex." Since when? That may be her perception, but no women I know would agree. It's more like men today hope for sex, as they always have.

In the past, according to Shalit, "female modesty gave men a frame of reference for a woman's 'no.'" She maintains that the loss of that frame of reference has caused an increase in date rape and violence against women. Today, "taught from day one that women are always as ready to receive advances as they are eager to make them, the modern male always takes a 'no' as a personal rebuke." It sounds to me like Shalit has been hanging out with the wrong men—with men who ought to take "no" as a personal rebuke!

In reality, most perpetrators of date rape are immature, unformed characters who do not know how to conduct themselves with women. Some are frat boys with the very same ideals about women that Shalit holds, but who nevertheless act on other desires. I think we all know men who espouse lofty ideals for women but still want to take advantage when the opportunity presents itself. Then too, many victims are naive young women (like Shalit?) who do not recognize the situations in which they find themselves, and who do not know how to make decisions, communicate firmly, and take charge of situations. Mature women accept such responsibilities because they have learned to recognize the practical requirements for dealing with the male ego.

In short, Shalit and Rollins ignore the essential realism of sexual decorum. Encouraging young women not to be hapless in dealing with men would be more helpful than their cliche prescription for more "modesty." A woman must develop enough self-possession to make herself clear and to keep some measure of control over her own life, particularly in its most intimate aspects.

Of course, it would be nice if ours were a more decorous society, if social relations between men and women were conducted with maturity. However, a more decorous society would also be one in which people were accomplished at minding their own business in matters as private as sex. Since people tend to end up with partners who subscribe to sexual mores similar to their own, the sexual mores of everyone else are not particularly my business, nor yours.

If Shalit would attend more to her own business, she might show a little "modesty" in her pronouncements, rather than spinning her naive premises into grandiose sociological theory. For example, Shalit argues that embarrassment over virginity leads to anorexia and bulimia. "In a culture that permits food hang-ups but not sex hang-ups, it's become the new way for a girl to express her modesty, to restore distance between men and herself." Shalit clearly has not investigated the actual dynamics of eating disorders. Virgin anorexics? Please.

A Return to Modesty is not provocative; it is flippant, and at times downright vulgar. In spite of the book's title, Shalit's take on sexual relations is so crass as to be embarrassing to read. All of the quotations that I have used here are used by Rollins approvingly in her review. The courteous thing to do is to pull the veil of modesty over this sort of cliche exhibitionism, not pay uncritical homage to it. The book review, like the book, is just one more display of a moral exhibitionism that permeates American popular culture today, to the detriment of intellectual and personal integrity.

        —Amy Kieman
Denver, CO

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