Wendy Shalit’s Return to Modesty

3 08 2010

When I’m reading non-fiction, I often come across titles that are referenced as representative as “the other side” and end up curious about those books.  Wendy Shalit’s 1999 book, A Return to Modesty, was one of these, and when I found it on the bookshelf at work I decided to give it a read.

I don’t disagree with every single thing Shalit says, but I do think she’s missing a lot.  Two major “gaps” were evident to me in her argument, which is about things like modest dress and the the hookup culture.  One is that she quotes a few feminists who mention the heterosexism inherent in a “traditional” gendered view of female modesty, waiting till marriage, etc., and she never addresses this argument.  Queer women are completely erased in her book.  Perhaps, not identifying with the conservative movement herself, Shalit would just apply her argument to same-sex marriage and say that gay women should be modest to preserve their sexual allure before marriage, but she is so into gender roles that I’m not sure how that would work.

Second, Shalit talks a lot about modesty vs. prudery, framing modesty as being erotic in its sense of mystery and using that to make the no-sex-before-marriage argument, but she never talks about what happens after marriage.  She seems to me to lose a little credibility because she was, as far as I can tell, a 24-year-old unmarried virgin writing advocating abstinence before marriage.  Since Shalit had no experience at the time of writing of the glorious post-marriage sex she seems to be hyping, one has to wonder.

Certainly, there is some allure to be found in mystery.  Covering up can be sexy, I actually agree with that.  I also agree that if everyone runs around naked, nudity isn’t very erotic.  On the other hand, even beyond the “try before you buy” argument about having sex before marriage to determine compatibility, I just don’t see what happens to her argument about mystery when a couple marries.  So you have all the sexy anticipation, you get married, and… then what?  Mature sexual relationships, including those between married people, require some comfort with our bodies once they are naked, ability to communicate about sex, ability to explore desire, etc.  I’m not saying you can’t have these things if you haven’t had sex before marriage, but I think you need to consider them.

She talks about how nudity often turns people off because it shows people all the body types that exist, all the blemishes and fat and whatever else Shalit considers unattractive.  But those things exist, and it seems to me that Shalit’s argument basically encourages shame about any perceived bodily imperfections, rather than encouraging communication and openness about sex.

I also find Shalit’s argument about androgyny kind of funny.  She seems to think that modern sexualized society encourages women to be sexual and therefore “like men.”  It reminds me a little bit of websites and communities that advertise as “genderqueer” and rather cater exclusively to trans people.  Androgyny is not the same thing as masculinity.  Some of us do have a fairly androgynous approach to sexuality, and that approach isn’t to “have sex like men,” but rather to de-gender sexuality and focus on its elements on their own terms.  And, big surprise, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.  When I encounter “womanly shame” or embarassment about sex, I don’t think, like Shalit does, oh, this is a sign that I should embrace female modesty and avoid sex.  I think hmm, this particular practice or partner isn’t something I’m ready for.  It’s time to be honest about that and proceed with caution–a fairly non-gendered response.





Blogging “Yes” Day 26: A Culture Gone Wild

1 05 2010

Note: I wrote this post last night, April 30, but for some reason it didn’t go through. Here’s take two.

It’s day twenty-seven of the Blogging “Yes” project, the final day.  Thank you to everyone who dropped by to read the posts, and to everyone who picked up the book and read along with me.  You can see all the project posts by using the Blogging “Yes” tag.  So, today I read Jaclyn Friedman’s essay, “In Defense of Going Wild or: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Pleasure (and How You Can, Too).” Not everything in this essay sat well with me, but what I do want to focus on is the correlation between male drinking and rape, and how a particular male-focused culture is partly to blame for our stigmas about girls “going wild.”

Read the rest of this entry »





Blogging “Yes” Day 25: Real Sex Education

30 04 2010

For day twenty five of the Blogging “Yes” project, I read “Real Sex Education” by Cara Kulwicki.  Cara is one of my favorite bloggers because she keeps everyone updated on all the crappy victim-blaming stuff that goes on, but sex education is also one of her big topics.  I remember reading this essay for the first time and being really intrigued because I knew I was for comprehensive sex education, but I had no way of picturing what that would look like.  If you think about what Cara’s proposing, it really could be revolutionary.

Read the rest of this entry »





Blogging “Yes” Day 24: The Link Between Rape and Purity

29 04 2010

We’re coming into the home stretch of the Blogging “Yes” project.  It’s day twenty four, and I read Jessica Valenti’s “Purely Rape: The Myth of Sexual Purity and How it Reinforces Rape Culture.”  This essay is basically a very bite-sized version of the argument in Valenti’s book, The Purity Myth, but what really stuck with my is an example from my own state, Maryland, of a law (no longer in force) that made rape impossible if a woman said no after penetration.

Read the rest of this entry »





Blogging “Yes” Day 23: Defining Virginity

28 04 2010

For day twenty-three of the Blogging “Yes” project, I read “The Process-Oriented Virgin” by Hanne Blank, author of Virgin: The Untouched History (and apparently a fellow Baltimorean!)  I’ve blogged here before about my personal virginity definitions, so I may be rehashing a bit, but I think Blank does a good job of making a point that comes up again and again in feminist circles: there really is no such thing as a virgin.

Read the rest of this entry »





Blogging “Yes” Day 22: Control in Sex Work and BDSM

27 04 2010

For day twenty two of the Blogging “Yes” project, I read a conversation entitled “Who’re You Calling a Whore?: A Conversation with Three Sex Workers on Sexuality, Empowerment, and the Industry.”  The sex workers in question are Susan Lopez, Saundra, and Mariko Passion, and the conversation focuses on various issues of power, control, and empowerment in sex work.  As I was reading, I found myself drawing a lot of parallels with BDSM, especially when it comes to female control and empowerment, and I thought I’d comment on those here.

Read the rest of this entry »





Blogging “Yes” Day 21: The Flip Side of Pro-Choice

25 04 2010

For day twenty-one of the Blogging “Yes” project, I read “When Pregnancy Is Outlawed, Only Outlaws Will Be Pregnant” by Tioloma Jayasinghe.  This essay was something of a revelation when I first read it, because like most (white, middle class) people I tended to have a knee-jerk reaction when I heard about “crack babies” and pregnant women drinking or doing drugs.  How dare the mother?  How sad for the child.  Jayasinghe does a good job of pointing out the problems with this reaction, which include ignorance of the roots of the problem in racism and poverty, studies that show hard drugs actually aren’t proven to harm babies, and the lack of available treatment options for mothers who do want help with a drug problem.  This is an issue that is in fact just as important to the pro-choice movement as the right to a legal and affordable abortion, but much less talked-about.

Read the rest of this entry »