Wendy Shalit’s Return to Modesty
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.