Sunday, July 27, 2008

Modesty, then and now

I'm sure I'm not alone in being a bit tired of reading about the 'hook-up culture.' This could be because most people I know (UChicago or otherwise) spent college either fully single or in relationships (some consummated, some not), not randomly sleeping with whomever, so I tend to think the whole thing is, to use a word that sounds odd in this context, overblown. But I had to cut Wendy Shalit some slack: the book of hers I just read, A Return to Modesty, is a product of the late 1990s. It's an era I remember reasonably well, but it's also an age when I divided my weeks between track practice, "Designing Women," and discussing boys with my female friends. In other words, I was in high school at the time, so I really don't know whether the college hook-up culture existed in 1995 in a way it did not in 2005, nor do I know if Shalit was original in bringing up the subject when she did. Clearly she was not the first to make an argument along those lines, but today, the moment many of us see "hook-up culture" in an article, we stop reading. Was that true in 1999 as well?

The main problem with the book being out-of-date is that I can't tell if some of the terminology she uses is her own invention or a relic of the 1990s. When I got to the part when she discusses the apparently standard procedure called the "post hook-up check-up," I assumed she meant getting tested for STDs. Apparently the "check-up" is part of hook-up etiquette--post-hook-up, it was considered polite to check in on your not-quite-ex every so often, just to say hello. Not only have I never heard of this term, but the phenomenon sounds bizarre. People may stay friends with exes, but that's because there was once a meaningful relationship, something Shalit says college students no longer have. (Where, one wonders, does all the cohabitation Shalit complains about come from, if young people today cannot commit for longer than an evening? But I digress.) I realize the "check-up" is not central to her argument, but she did devote a good number of pages to it, early on, and I'll admit that I got bogged down.

But now, onto the book's less dated, substantive points.

Shalit is a good example of what Adam Gopnik calls "conversion sickness." (The New Yorker article is not available, but the relevant excerpt is here.) Her blindness to the dangers of communally- or governmentally-enforced sexual restraint comes from her having not grown up with such restrictions--those who have often see things quite differently. She assumes that premarital abstinence leads always to bliss, never to regret of paths not taken. She takes one line from Tocqueville, in which the 19th century French observer of American life remarks that women in America are raped less frequently than their French counterparts, and uses this as evidence that rape was practically unheard of in 19th century America. (I seem not to be the only one who found the Tocqueville-out-of-context jarring.) I guess this helps if you want to get a polemical book published, and that Shalit does not claim this book is a scholarly work of history, but the constantly-repeated about how everything pre-1960 (or better yet, pre-1900) was a chivalrous utopia grow less convincing each time they're repeated. I know this is a problem I have in my own writing, so I'm sympathetic, but, to repeat, this book was on the repetitive side. The 50th time I learned that men she dated told young Wendy that she should "lose her 'hang-ups,'" I started to side with the men; by the 100th time, I stopped caring either way.

As is often the case in polemics, all social ills can be blamed on a single culprit, in this case a culture of casual sex. Shalit's choice of anorexia as a stand-in for the damage this culture does to young women is messed up in too many ways to count. She attributes eating disorders to premarital sexual activity, conveniently ignoring the prevalence of eating disorders among observant Jewish women (a recent link, I realize, but the phenomenon did not begin in 2008), not to mention among girls of under, say, 13, at an age when sex, even in this "postmodern" era, is rarely an issue. She asks, rhetorically, why none of her grandmothers' friends were anorexic, and answers that this is surely because they were raised in more chivalrous times. Anything's possible, but how does Shalit miss the fact that being very thin only became associated with wealth and (consequently) beauty very recently? No, anorexia is not just about wanting to look like a model, but it's a safe bet that when thinness was equated with poverty, there weren't as many upper-middle-class women starving themselves. It would be one thing if anorexia were just one example that failed among many that rang true, but references to the eating disorder come up again and again (see here), as though if we only hear it enough times, we'll all agree that there's a zero-sum choice young women must make between chastity and starvation.

Finally, Shalit argues that it's a feminist myth that what women really want is sex, in the way that men want sex. What we really desire, she explains, is marriage, romance, a meaningful experience, and only once those conditions are met are we interested in sexual activity. She argues furiously against the idea that women who are modest-by-choice simply don't like sex as much as other women. Why is this necessary? Why can't she just admit that there is variation in sex drive, among men and women alike? Why not just say that some people are more turned on by religiously-motivated restraint than by sex, whereas others have no use for that song-and-dance? Here's why not: because polemics and nuance don't mix. But that's only part of the story.

Shalit's not content to accept a world in which some women lust and others fantasize about their future weddings. Unfortunately for women today (or a decade ago) bent in 'saving themselves,' there are other women without those inclinations. Women who have sex are typically looking forward to the experience--not 'giving in' to keep a man interested--but the effect is, alas, that sex keeps men (and women, but the point here is about men) wanting a relationship to continue. Shalit decides that because she wants premarital virginity, and her success in this path requires other women doing the same, it must conveniently follow that all women want to follow the same path. She urges young women to join forces and refuse to give in to those horrid young men who ask for sex, because then and only then will the marriages for which Shalit and those like her are saving themselves finally take place. Shalit first seems to be asking to be tolerated as a woman with traditional values; it's when she reveals her own refusal to tolerate women with different outlooks that her argument goes too far.

As I mentioned before, the book I've just discussed is nearly a decade old. Shalit, I see, has succeeded in finding a husband, despite all the women who give away their milk for free. If any of the above response to the book seems especially bitter, you can attribute this to the fact that the author's bio I found online while still reading it makes reference to how she owns (and "enjoys") a dishwasher. This is her way of joking about not being a total reactionary, but for me, it's about really, really wanting a dishwasher and not having one. Shalit might say that this is God's way of punishing me for cohabitation. If so, it's a cruel punishment indeed.

1 comment:

frum single female said...

actually, i read weny shalit's book when it came out. it caused a big stir. personally, i think that people thought she was a bit nuts. my take is that she became an orthodox jew and wanted to promote "modesty" as a way of getting people to go back to their (jewish ) roots. she quotes several teachers from the women's yeshiva she had gone to which had educated her in ortodox judaism and the laws of modesty. the one teacher i remember her quoting is mrs heller.
what i actually found funny about her book, is with all of her good intentions, i heard that there were those who found her book "too risque" .although those who said that obviosly must not have read the book