Wendy Shalit has spent all of her 23 years ashamed of her sexual inexperience--pressured to overcome embarrassment, romantic hopes and body image “hang-ups” in favor of meaningless “hookups.”
In her new book, “A Return to Modesty” (Free Press, 1999), the young author calls for a return to restraint and virginity. Citing evidence from Stendhal, Rousseau, Beauvoir and Orthodox Judaism, as well as from women’s magazines and her own personal experiences, Shalit explores the forgotten ideal. “We must decide as women to look upon sex out of wedlock as not such a cool thing after all, and recreate a cartel of virtue,” she says.
Shalit, who graduated from Williams in 1997, believes it is society’s casual attitude toward sex that has ruined women’s lives and caused them to be anorexic and depressed. We asked Shalit to expand on her proposed modesty movement.
Q: Your book laments the state of women’s happiness today. What’s so wrong with us?
A: Our culture gives women bad advice by encouraging promiscuity. Women are told that is the road to equality, but that’s a lie. Usually what happens is the opposite. Women become more insecure. Modesty is a wonderful impulse that protects us. I think that’s really the point of the whole book: If women are conditioned to suppress their natural longings for loyalty and love and are encouraged to be cold, calculating and detached, it leads to unhappiness. It’s not good to be cold and calculating. These are the emotions that lead to date rape and sexual harassment.
Q: Aren’t you placing the responsibility solely on women? Why not insist that men change their behavior?
A: What fascinates me about modesty is that it invites male honor. Today, manliness has to do with scoring. Where adulterers used to be stigmatized in the past, now it’s virgins. Men have responsibility too. Just because a woman is alone with a man, he has no right to rape her. Men need to understand vulnerability and the differences between the sexes.
Q: You take to task both feminists and conservatives for their views about the state of women. Why?
A: A lot of feminist writing has been valuable. I just disagree with their assessment of the cause of the problem. They put the blame on patriarchy. But we’ve been moving away from patriarchal rules, and we have more misogyny. The conservatives’ response--that female concerns are exaggerated--also misses the boat.
Q: So what’s the answer? Waiting for a single partner so you can marry, lose your virginity and be in love for the rest of your life?
A: Yes. That is where modesty is different from prudery. Prudery is more like promiscuity, because you are saying ‘I can’t be touched or moved by sex.’ But modesty is very much about waiting for the right man.
Q: So modesty is sexy?
A: It’s definitely an erotic virtue. Today’s youth are interested in Jane Austen and ballroom dancing because they want to experience some mystery. It’s more interesting than promiscuity. When everything hangs out, it’s boring.
Q: Should men have to abstain too?
A: Yes, and modest women do inspire men in that way.
Q: It sounds like you believe modesty can be a woman’s secret weapon, that it can be empowering?
A: I think that’s a fair characterization. Equality for women does not mean sameness. I was surprised to find that Simone de Beauvoir, who was one of the most radical feminists, thought a society that did not respect modesty would include violence against women.
Q: How will you respond to critics who say you’re too young and inexperienced to know that waiting for “the one” is the answer?
A: The book isn’t about me, it’s about an idea. It’s my intention to get people talking about the idea of modesty, not to say, “My way is the right way.”