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 18: What It Means to Be a Sexualized Woman

23 04 2010

For day eighteen of the Blogging “Yes” project, I read Julia Serano’s “Why Nice Guys Finish Last.”  I have to admit that I had a lot of trouble with most of Serano’s argument, specifically her points about men and about nice guys versus assholes, due to my own experiences with men.  So instead, I’m going to focus on what she says about the sexualization of women and the virgin/whore dichotomy.

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Blogging “Yes” Day 16: The Not-Rapes

20 04 2010

For day sixteen of the Blogging “Yes” project, I read Latoya Peterson’s essay, “The Not-Rape Epidemic.”  This was another of the most powerful in the book for me on first reading, and it’s informed a lot of how I think about rape culture and my own experiences.  Peterson, the editor of Racialicious, tells the story of her own “not-rape” and a later experience in finding herself at a later rape trial of her “not rapist.”  She also talks about the common experiences of young women with molestation, harassment, and statutory rape and the myth of the “cool older boyfriend.”

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Blogging “Yes” Day 15: Sex as a Competitive Sport

19 04 2010

For day fifteen of the Blogging “Yes” project I read “Hooking up with Healthy Sexuality: The Lessons Boys Learn (and Don’t Learn) About Sexuality and Why a Sex-Positive Rape Prevention Paradigm Can Benefit Everyone Involved” by Brad Perry, who works in sexual violence prevention.  Perry’s essay includes the story of his own first 13-year-old attempt to have sex and some information he’s learned in working in sexual violence prevention about how effective sex education works.  What I found most interesting about the essay, though, was the idea of sex as a “game” that boys can win or lose.

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Blogging “Yes” Day 14: Envisioning a World of Enthusiastic Consent

19 04 2010

This is day fourteen of the Blogging “Yes” project, and today I decided to read two essays back-to-back because they have a common theme.  One was “Reclaiming Touch: Rape Culture, Explicit Verbal Consent, and Body Sovereignty,” by trans feminist activist Hazel/Cedar Troost.  The other was “An Immodest Proposal” by Heather Corinna, the founder of Scarleteen.com.  I picked these two essays to blog together because they both carry the idea of enthusiastic consent out to a not-yet-commonly-realized conclusion and consider what a world with normalized enthusiastic consent might look like.

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Blogging “Yes” Day 13: Linking the Discourse on Female Sexuality and Date Rape

18 04 2010

Here we are at day thirteen of the Blogging “Yes” project, and Lisa Jervis’s essay “An Old Enemy in a New Outfit: How Date Rape Became Gray Rape and Why It Matters.”  Jervis is the founding editor of Bitch magazine and her essay is another that will contain concepts very familiar to most feminists.  It focuses on the idea of “gray” rape, which is an updated spin on the “date rape is not as serious” victim-blaming discourse that’s been around, well, probably as long as dating culture.  What I wanted to highlight here is the connection between the “gray” rape discourse and modern  messages about women’s sexuality.

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Blogging “Yes” Day 9: Submissive Sexuality and Fantasy

13 04 2010

Today, day nine of the Blogging “Yes” project, I read “The Fantasy of Acceptable “Non-Consent”: Why the Female Sexual Submissive Scares Us (and Why She Shouldn’t)” by Stacey May Fowles.  I had mixed feelings about this essay, because on the one hand I definitely agree with the main point that BDSM-style negotiation can be far more liberated, far more feminist, and far less contributory to rape culture than vanilla sex.  On the other hand, I felt that there was a confusion in the essay between submission generally and con non-con scenes or fantasies specifically and that the heterosexual perspective wasn’t really explicitly pointed out enough.

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