Copyright (c) 1999 First Things 91 (March 1999): 43-46.
A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue. By Wendy Shalit. Free Press. 304 pp. $24.
Reviewed by Sarah E. Hinlicky
Despite its modest title, this book is a bombshell. In a manner both courageous and passionate, Wendy Shalit challenges the bored, desensitized masses of American women to use their female intuition in finding a way out of the emotional wilderness created by the sexual revolution. And Shalit leaves the reader with no doubts: they need to find a way out.
Exhibit A of this need is Shalit’s description of end–of–the–century American mating rituals. First there’s the hook–up. That’s where young men and women gather in some communal territory, like a frat house or bar, medicate themselves with liquor, and then engage in any range of sexual activities, oblivious to all factors beyond momentary attraction. The next stage is the dumping: the male disentangles himself from the perceived "clinginess" of the female’s attempt at emotional involvement. The final stage is the check–up, in which the thoughtful male makes sure that the dumped female is still in fairly good health and, if he is especially enlightened, offers her the chance to talk about "what went wrong." This three–tiered process is what is known as "having a relationship." Get used to it or get out.
The problem is, not surprisingly, that women are miserable. Shalit has little use for the contingent of conservatives who claim that the misery is a big female hoax and remind us that, after all, "boys will be boys." At the same time, she is equally dismissive of feminists, many of whose ideas, she believes, are responsible for the unhappiness of female lives. The plain truth of the matter is that somewhere along the line this romance thing went terribly awry, and it’s making a train wreck of young women’s lives. Appalling numbers of girls today are starving themselves, bingeing and purging, mutilating their bodies, throwing their hearts away on careless cads, suppressing their natural desire for romance, and denying their need for family and children. And when they can’t cope with the rotten regime, they dope themselves up on Prozac. Women have become the world’s greatest woman–haters, having learned to shun all things feminine.
Shalit wants women to be women again. She sees the deep perversity of the "androgyny project" of the past thirty years that demands manhood of women and a diminution of manhood among men, but refuses to tolerate womanhood in women. It is anything but a liberation from old shackles: instead, it is a suppression of femininity, a direct assault on the oft–touted blessing of diversity. But now a counterrevolution has begun, not one that chains women to the stove and takes away their right to vote, but one that allows and even encourages the natural and complementary differences between the sexes.
This is a handbook for the counterrevolution, and every woman who wants to be herself again needs to get her hands on it. Shalit’s solution is modesty, the much–maligned virtue that was ditched years ago along with corsets and girdles. Her playful, engaging exploration of the richly nuanced concept of modesty is extensively researched and amply supported by evidence drawn from sources as diverse as last year’s Glamour and last millennium’s Talmud. What she finds is not stuffy puritanism that wants to spoil everybody’s good fun, but in fact just the opposite: a subtle, exciting, sexy social arrangement in which men are men, women are women, and both get the maximal benefit from it.
Modesty is a quality inherent in girls, Shalit argues. It is their infinite capacity for embarrassment, for blushing, for shyness, for refusing praise. The fact is, it’s so natural that it has to be deliberately bred out of girls—bred out by the sorts of adults who are compelled to destroy the mysteries against which their own immorality has innoculated them—by the debased tactics of sex ed, fashion slavery, and Melrose Place. Girls without modesty are not gleefully liberated sex kittens, however. They are women who have no idea how to protect their own undeniable womanliness. The destruction of modesty is a hateful project: "[I]t is precisely denying a woman’s special vulnerability and stripping her of her natural way of compensating for it that is the height of true misogyny," Shalit observes.
Modesty is woman’s natural defense when it is respected by society. In fact, grumpy–feminist types will be shocked to learn, it once served as the great equalizer between men and women, not as the backbone of domination. (Shalit presents convincing evidence that modesty was encouraged in part because it was believed that women liked sex too much, and they would get themselves into endless trouble if they didn’t learn early on to exercise some restraint.) Modesty gave women the right to withhold themselves from men with dishonorable intentions, and in turn forced men to make themselves worthy of the women they desired. True modesty wisely takes account of the inescapable differences between men and women in order to protect them both. "Encouraged to act immodestly," Shalit notes by contrast, "a woman exposes her vulnerability and she then becomes, in fact, the weaker sex." In that case, women are victimized while men become predators, as our current disastrous state of gender wars demonstrates.
In a nutshell, modesty brings out the best in everyone. Modest women, Shalit says, "live in a way that makes womanliness more a transcendent, implicit quality than a crude, explicit quality." Womanliness enhanced by modesty becomes as intriguing as the Sphinx, in which a Mona Lisa smile far outshines a silicone–enhanced D–cup. In turn, this has serious—and positive—implications for male character. Female modesty elicits a reciprocal response from men, enticing them to become gentlemen, behave honorably, and develop the manly virtues deserving of a woman’s body and soul, especially chastity, protectiveness, and gentleness.
All of this talk of modesty may sound unhelpfully vague, and Shalit never hones in on one strict definition of it. But rather than being a flaw, this is the great strength of her argument, one that permits all kinds of women in all kinds of situations to appreciate the value of what she is saying. Shalit herself is quite taken with religious expressions of modesty, especially the Jewish modesty laws. Altogether, though, her advocacy of external modesty—especially in dress—is the logical corollary of an internalized ethic of sexual restraint. Hence the very sensible connection between sexual modesty as a social virtue and sexual morality as a religious one.
Her powerful insight is that modesty is ultimately more erotic than licentiousness. Men are more excited, she suggests, by the twinkling eyes behind the veil and the slender ankle peeking out from the long skirt than they are by casually exposed body parts and effortless conquests in the sack. The most telling example of this is her comparison (complete with photographs) of turn–of–the–century women lounging on the beach in their terribly demure bathing suits and positively wicked grins, with the dull, distracted expressions of dutifully unrepressed nudists on their beach. Mischievous and modest; bored and bare. Something more than meets the eye is at work here. Shalit wants the rules back because, without the rules, the unruly, the scandalous, the exciting, and the erotic all disappear into thin air.
There have been some modest heroines and heroes, of course, who have maintained the ideals of chastity even through the sexual revolution, but that is not enough anymore, Shalit argues. It is impossible for society to be indifferent to the varying choices of women, and it is always going to prefer one kind of choice to another. At the present time, the "survival value," as she calls it, of immodesty and sexual immorality is so high that few women have the strength—or even the option—to combat it. And so her answer is to become a counterrevolutionary, to reinstate the "cartel of virtue" among women. That is the only way to bring the gentleman back on the scene in society—when it is only through honor, decency, a flair for romance, and a commitment to everlasting love that men can earn the right to share a woman’s bed. Call it unfair, but the initiative belongs with women once again. Shalit has no illusions: "If women want the men to be good, they have to want to be good too."
Let the prudes and the libertines step aside, then. Shalit has hit upon the most exciting truth to come out of the whole sexual revolution: "Modesty is the proof that morality is sexy."
Sarah E. Hinlicky is an Editorial Assistant at First Things.