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Issue No. 2 (March 1999) -- Mark Satin, Editor
Ed. note (02/12/2005): Even though this brief article has been buried at the bottom of our "Archives" section for years, it constantly ranks among our most frequently viewed items. I like to think its popularity says something good about Web viewers' willingness to absorb difficult lessons, crucial to any radical middle society.
And now I’m in my 50s and spend a lot of time wondering: What did it get me, really?
Was easy, uncommitted sex a means to intimacy -- or a cheap substitute for true intimacy, a ticket to a sort of “second-tier” intimacy?
Was it a way to celebrate my life and my partners’ lives -- or a way to smother what the radicals had convinced me were bourgeois longings for wife and family?
Those are some of the questions I can’t put out of my mind since reading Wendy Shalit’s just-published book A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue (Free Press, 291 pp., $24).
Shalit, if you haven’t caught her on cable TV, is a smart, funny, articulate, drop-dead-gorgeous 24-year-old graduate of Williams College.
Her parents are liberated Boomers.
She, however, was a virgin at graduation. And proud of it -- a “modestynik,” she calls it; a “refusenik.”
She got her book contract after writing an article for Commentary criticizing unisex bathrooms at Williams.
The real assault on women
Despite the Commentary connection and Shalit’s current role at the Manhattan Institute (see RAM #2, p. 4), the book isn’t Conservative Diatribe #35 against feminism. It begins by acknowledging that “the feminists were right” -- many young women really are suffering from anorexia or bulimia, and date rape is a lot more common than you think.
The book isn’t about chastity or unisex bathrooms, either.
Its true subject is how men and women should live together in a world that’s become almost unbearably cynical and crass.
Drawing effortlessly on philosophers like Hume and Rousseau, denizens of the Real World like Howard Stern and Cosmopolitan, and -- above all -- her own experiences, Shalit argues that women are different from men. And that our current “hip” refusal to recognize and respect those differences has powerfully contributed to the general social coarsening.
Women’s modesty, for example, may have less to do with a lack of self-confidence than with a gender difference in self-presentation.
“In the light of her natural modesty,” Shalit writes, “a woman’s [bashful or embarrassed reaction to praise] can be seen not as some problem to be ‘fixed,’ but as an important force directing us, perhaps, to what is truly important.”
But what girls and young women get, instead -- from parents, schools, peers -- is pressure to be as much like boys as possible.
To be as apparently self-confident as boys.
To be as apparently independent as boys.
To be as apparently unfeeling as boys.
To be as apparently casual about sex as boys.
“Today we want to pretend there are no differences between the sexes,” Shalit writes, “and so when they first emerge we give our little boys Ritalin to reduce their drive, and our little girls Prozac to reduce their sensitivity. We try to cure them of what is distinctive instead of cherishing these differences and directing them towards each other in a meaningful way.”
Toward an “adult masculinity”
If women were more modest, Shalit says, men would develop an “adult masculinity.”
She means we’d try to be kinder and less self-aggrandizing around women.
No more sidling up to girls in school and saying, “Erica, do you masturbate? Our sex ed teacher says it’s really natural, you know?”
No more telling women they’ve got “hang-ups” when they rebuff you sexually.
No more sex with girlfriends when all you want to do is play at being a man.
No more correcting your wife in public. No more bragging about your sex life. A man of honor is “he who guards the private . . . against the public.”
All over the planet, men and women of conscience are struggling with the issues Shalit raises here.
Ranged against her are all the forces of a global culture that wants instant gratification in all things.
But in her corner are what can, I think, fairly be called the forces of life. “Sexual modesty is a virtue . . . because it’s a way of affirming our essential innocence,” she writes. “Many children these days know far too much too soon, and as a result they end up, in some fundamental way, not knowing -- stunted and cut off from all they could be. If you are not taught that you ‘really’ want just sex, you end up seeking much more.”
I can remember very little about most of the women I slept with. Our feelings for each other must have been as substantial as cotton candy.
On the other hand, I still passionately treasure my memories of certain women I never managed to sleep with. Like the aspiring poet I used to know in Cambridge. Or the peace activist who had that tiny houseboat in Seattle.
How wise you are, Wendy Shalit.
What a fool you were, Mark Satin.
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