Thursday, November 11, 2004

A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue, by Wendy Shalit. (Elle)

Thinking Culture

Book Review #2
Elle Wolterbeek
October 11, 2004

The book I read is A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue, published by Simon and Schuster in 1999, written by Wendy Shalit. Shalit proposes that the major problems in our society stem from the sexual revolution and the change that has resulted from a healthy, socially acceptable point of modesty to sexual experience and the embarrassment now predominant in women who have little sexual experience- a change which she proposes happened as a result of the “gender equality” that now exists in our society.

Shalit argues against a culture which she views as riding “girls of their romantic hopes and natural embarrassments” and suggests that our society was more respectful of women when it was the norm to wait until marriage to become sexually active. Shalit has three sections of the book, with the middle section being the most scholarly and, in my opinion, backed by any evidence.

One of Shalit’s main points is the role of pornography in our society and it’s “normalization” which, Shalit suggests, gives society an abnormal view of the female body and that, in turn, even strippers have become “a kind of cultural wallpaper, and are present to such an extent that they are no longer shocking”. With this review of pornography and the historical changes leading from modesty to a more modern time of immodesty Shalit also reviews the role of co-ed dormitories and how this, as well, objectifies women.

While the book is not anti-male, it does openly embrace patriarchy as something that was inherently good for women (regardless of their stance on modesty). Shalit provides evidence such as higher rates against violence towards women over the past thirty years and continues by suggesting that women’s clothing objectifies women, “inviting” the objectification which greatly detracts from value of modesty which, in her opinion, was protecting women through a patriarchal society. Shalit also suggests that as men no longer have to marry a girl to sleep with her, a greater hostility towards the institution of marriage exists now more prominently than ever before in the past.

The most interesting question Shalit asks is “Why is sexual modesty so threatening to some that they can only respond to it with charges of abuse or delusion?” She never answered her question. While Shalit has interesting research and it is, in my opinion, well presented, the book lacked any response to the actual question she posed in her introduction- the question, she said, that made her write the book to begin with. Her commentary, while interesting and insightful at times, also seems (again, this is just my opinion) to be rather one sided. She states clearly that she believes women should wait until marriage to have sex and that this is what she is doing, and while that is fine and interesting, I would like to know more about the research she has done that proves that a return to modesty would actually improve our society for women, which is her main claim. She does not discuss why it is more acceptable in our society for a girl to have lost her virginity than to be waiting for marriage, which is what her opening questions suggest. Shalit does believe that a return to modesty might place women on equal footing with men, and while she has interesting research that builds a unique case based on the cultural history of sexual modesty for women and if this virtue would or would not be beneficial for women in today’s world, she does not answer her original question which was why I chose to read the book to begin with.

Using the book in my research:
Hmmm. I am not so sure that I will be able to use much of this reading in my thesis although my thesis does deal with women in the 18-24-year range. I mostly just read the book because I felt that Shalit’s original question was valid and interesting, and something that I wondered about in high school myself. I did learn quite a bit in regards to the history of modesty and have a more clear idea about how women have permitted-if not furthered-the objectivity of their gender. All reading is interesting, but if you don’t think the history of modesty and sexuality (particularly over the last 40 years) is interesting, than I would not recommend this book. I started Modernity and Self-Identity by Anthony Giddens last week also (I wasn’t sure which one I wanted to present, but I finished Shalit’s book first, so I am sharing that one) and I think that overall the members of this class would be more interested in that book. So far I am really enjoying it and I think Giddens provided the best definition of modernity that I have read so far… So if you needed help understanding precisely what modernity is, you might want to look at this book. He also has some great discussion on self-identity, social inequalities and intimacy, so this book does sort of relate to Shalits’. So far if I were going to suggest one of the two, I would say Giddens’, although Shalit wasn’t so bad. I will post a review of Modernity and Self-Identity in a few days as well, just in case anyone was interested in that.


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