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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
For the eighth day of the Blogging “Yes” project, I read one of my favorite essays in the book. It’s called “A Love Letter from an Anti-Rape Activist to Her Feminist Sex-Toy Store” and it’s written by Lee Jacobs Riggs. The piece is fairly autobiographical, focusing on Riggs’ experiences working both with a rape crisis center and at Early to Bed, a feminist sex shop. What’s amazing about this piece is how Riggs articulates the importance of giving people the sex-positive language to enthusiastically consent to sex as an alternative to just teaching people about the bad stuff that happens and how to say no. In this post, I’m just going to highlight some of my favorite parts of the essay.
For day seven of the Blogging “Yes” project, I read an essay by Sri Lankan writer and activist Leah Lakshmi Piepezna-Samarasinha entitled “What It Feels Like When It Finally Comes: Surviving Incest in Real Life.” I found this essay particularly powerful because Piepezna-Samarasinha really gets into the different ways she went through the healing process after child sexual abuse, and in so doing provides an alternative to the Oprah model of survivor memoir that focuses on the event itself and the immediate aftermath only. I think all kinds of survivors could learn some lessons about healing and about activism from Piepezna-Samarasinha’s experience, and I especially like how she focuses on intersectionality.