‘In Disney’s animated feature Frozen, princess Elsa’s magical snow-making powers are unfurled as her dress melts into a tight evening gown — flashing her thigh and emphasizing her breasts — as she sashays into her new ice castle and belts out her ballad of empowerment, ‘Let It Go.’”
This is but one example Wendy Shalit points to of how “the expectation to look sexy” is “foisted on children” before anyone ever has the chance to explain sex “as a powerful force and something to look forward to.”
Her A Return to Modesty: Rediscovering the Lost Virtue was rereleased in a 15th-anniversary edition this year. Shalit wrote the book after experiencing firsthand the hookup culture revving up in college in the mid 1990s. In her new preface, she recalls that she had become “distracted by all the unhappiness” she saw around her and “to be quite blunt, I was pretty miserable myself,” she writes. “I didn’t like how guys were treating me, and I didn’t accept that becoming increasingly desensitized was the solution, either.
Things have improved in the years since. She writes that:
Today, the teen pregnancy rate is at an all-time low, the Duchess of Cambridge is widely admired for her classy fashion choices, and the very newspapers that attacked me in 1999 are now spinning glowing tributes to “the sweet poetry in clothes that are womanly without being sexually provocative” and declaring that “modesty . . . requires a good dustoff.” Surprisingly, the latest national study of sex on campus suggests that contemporary college students are actually having sex less frequently than their predecessors, and widespread discontent with the hook-up scene was no longer a theory, but a fact.
At the same time, though, “When I made dumb mistakes as a teenager, there was no one recording them for posterity,” Shalit reflects. Today “moments of questionable value can be captured permanently, and the rise of new technology makes self-exploitation as easy as pressing a button.”
Shalit talks about what’s changed for the better and worse and why modesty is a virtue worth discovering, anyway, in an interview with National Review Online. — KJL
Kathryn Jean Lopez: Did you ever think A Return to Modesty would still be relevant 15 years later?
Wendy Shalit: I had such a strong feeling of needing to write the book at the time, I pulled it together in the space of a few months, without looking over my shoulder. When I finally submitted the manuscript, I remember feeling a little bit as if I were falling off a cliff, because I knew I would get into huge trouble for it. So I wasn’t thinking about the book’s future, to be honest — just getting up the nerve to say what I felt needed to be said. But I think that in a strange way my book is more relevant now than when I originally wrote it. With social media changing the way that we communicate, with sexting and Internet porn becoming such a presence in the lives of pre-teens, parents are desperately scrambling to teach modesty, but of course without calling it that. It’s socially acceptable to talk vaguely about setting “boundaries,” but modesty answers why we need to set those boundaries. The thing is, in a society that pressures kids — “If you’ve got it, flaunt it” — you won’t succeed at setting a boundary and challenging conventional wisdom unless you really have clarity about why you want to set that boundary in the first place.
Lopez: Did your “argument in defense of romantic idealism . . . make a difference in the world” as you had hoped when you set out to write it?
Shalit: Well, it means a lot to me when people tell me that reading my book had an impact. Girls who got up the nerve to end abusive relationships, and both young men and women who decided to be true to their ideals — not buying into the lie that jadedness or cruelty to others makes them somehow more mature — this is a common thread in the e-mails sent to me. Today everyone likes to be in favor of “choice,” but when there’s not a viable alternative way to look at relationships, it’s hard to argue that there really is much choice. It’s more like Putin’s government employees who were not-so-gently urged to vote the “right way” if they wanted to keep their jobs.
Lopez: Is modesty still “lost”?
Shalit: As long as we’re human and we have emotions, I believe that the impulse toward modesty can never be lost. You can see from the annual uproar over sexualized Halloween costumes for little girls that people still do care about innocence and boundaries. But when people fear being stigmatized as “prudes,” they get intimidated and generally don’t speak up.
Lopez: Why is it such an important virtue? And how is understanding what you describe as two types of modesty so important?
Shalit: Modesty at its essence is about concealing what has value. We think about the virtue of modesty in terms of dress, but really, it’s about developing an internal definition of self. Once you have that definition, yes, you don’t usually feel a need to show your private parts to your Instagram followers, but it goes much deeper than a modesty of self. There is also a modesty in relating to others’ vulnerabilities. It’s about the boy who receives a photo of a girl who would not be happy about it being circulated, and he courageously decides not to pass it on. People who are sympathetic often ask me: “Why talk about modesty? Why not talk about respect?” Because respect is a much more socially acceptable word. Well, aside from the fact that for me, this evokes — unpleasantly — a Turtle named Respect who was unsuccessfully used in sex-education curricula for many years, there is never anything about sexual vulnerability in these vague conversations about respect. Whereas sexual modesty is intrinsically tied to our sexual vulnerability — having the right to say “no” to the wrong people and the wrong situations so that you can eventually say “yes” to the right person. I think that’s a really important message, and it’s why teaching kids about modesty actually makes them more resilient.
Lopez: At this point, who is your intended audience for the new edition?
Shalit: I’m grateful that my book has always had a strong following among college students, but I also think that my peers who are now parents, in their mid to late 30s, maybe they were suspicious of the idea of modesty when my book first appeared — but now that they’re raising kids of their own, I’m hoping that they’ll take a second look. When they actually read the book, they might be surprised by where they agree.
Lopez: How much worse has porn made things?
Shalit: It’s worse, but there’s also much more clarity now. When I was in university, pornography was still a bit outré. In the women’s magazines there was the idea that it could “spice up your relationship,” but even those who advocated the spice never pretended that it was the main course. This was the era when pornography was largely rented on tapes; it was something on the fringe that you could choose to explore if you wished, as an adult — it wasn’t all around the children. But with the mainstreaming of Internet porn, with pre-teen boys getting their sex education from pornography — often violent pornography, at that — even liberal sex therapists are now saying, “Wait a minute; we’re raising a generation of boys who fundamentally misunderstand female sexuality.” It’s hard to argue convincingly now that porn has led to a full flowering of sexuality. Quite the contrary.
Lopez: You recall the unhappiness you saw around you as a college student living in a hookup-culture world. Have those same college kids grown up set in ways that have made them miserable? What do you see when you look at your peers and the world today, happiness-wise?
Shalit: Well, studies have shown that college students participate in the hookup scene not because it’s particularly gratifying, but they imagine they are the only ones with qualms about it. It’s a phenomenon known as pluralistic ignorance, which is a wonderful term coined by Floyd Allport, referring to people who privately reject a norm but yet go along with it because they wrongly assume that others embrace it. I would never make any assumptions about anyone who participated, that they were lacking in romantic idealism or some such thing, because college students are particularly susceptible to this pressure — especially when you consider, what was the alternative? Today there is Off the Hook, the Love and Fidelity Network, the Anscombe Society, and others, but in my day if you didn’t participate, you were a weirdo. I would say that a better indicator of happiness now is how much are we enjoying our private experiences or, alternatively, how much we give in to the push to externalize them. I notice among my peers that those who are constantly on their phones, continually tweeting or YouTubing videos of their kids, seem much more harried and unhappy than people who set clear limits and really throw themselves into their private lives.
Lopez: Is that what you meant by “the biggest virtue of modesty is the way it enables us to be our best selves in private”?
Shalit: Exactly. Today we have the idea that if there are more eyes on something, it’s somehow more valuable. Even the conservative Duggars tweet pictures of themselves passionately kissing, both the parents and the married kids. They seem to be wonderful people, but let’s not lose sight of the fact that the reality-show experience has its downsides. Publicizing experiences can also change the nature of those experiences, and I worry that we’re losing our ability to do things for their intrinsic value. There is a preciousness and an intimacy that’s lost when everything goes public.
Lopez: “For decades, we have acted as if modesty is the worst possible thing that we could expect of a girl.” Is it really that bad?
Shalit: Salon recently ran a thoughtful essay by 26-year-old Ellen Burkhardt, “When Guys Find Out I’m a Virgin,” after which a transgender man commented that waiting until marriage was “completely sad” and “so far outside of the norm (even more so than being trans).” That pretty much captures the general sentiment. The executive director of the California NOW chapter defended the Girls Gone Wild videos because, she said, “Flashing your breasts on Daytona Beach says, ‘I’m not a good girl.’” Since these videos exploit young women to such a degree, this statement was a bit surprising, but the thinking was, “At least these girls weren’t covering up and being modest!” In their minds, that would have been the bigger crime. We now have a whole generation of parents who are literally scared to tell their pre-teen daughters not to wear something that’s inappropriate to a family gathering, but they’re happy to teach their sons how to dress appropriately. It’s bizarre. The attack on modesty has been so successful, parents are now joining their daughters to battle school dress codes. Apparently, they can’t find a better common enemy. Why don’t they object to the word feminist being flashed up in lights next to Beyoncé’s spread-eagle moves and her backup-dancers’ naked-glitter tushies at the VMAs? Nope, because that pressure — show your glittering behind, ladies, and if you don’t want to, you must be ashamed — is considered “empowerment.” I guess it’s not surprising, then, that I was called “A Man’s Worst Nightmare” by Playboy for writing a book on modesty, or that Hustler attached a caricature of me to the rear-end of a donkey and distributed it when my book came out. I’ve gotten death threats from strangers as well as e-mail offers from men to chop off some pretty important parts of my body. So, yes, I really do think it is that bad.
Lopez: What is it like to be on the front lines in this debate?
Shalit: Every time I get attacked, I imagine that I’m making it a bit easier for the next young woman who comes along. I don’t know if that’s really true, or just something that I tell myself, but I hope it is true, and it makes me glad. When I see women who grew up reading my book and now are a positive force in society — young women like the editors of Verily and Darling magazines, for example, who have told me that they were inspired by my book and now they’re doing amazing things — it’s totally worth it.
Lopez: You write about something I have long felt so heartbreaking: Miley Cyrus — and not just Miley Cyrus. You write: “Miley is not the first young woman we have effectively pushed off a cliff with our terrible advice and then, when she finally hits bottom, made fun of because she looks unappealing sprawled out on the ground. The problem is not just Miley’s recent crass antics — it’s that we have made being publicly sexual the only legitimate way for a girl to attain maturity, and whenever a girl tries desperately to live down to our low standards, we are forced to confront the consequences.” Do you see any signs or opportunities for turning this cultural disaster around?
Shalit: It’s not just a pop-star thing. Even well-meaning parents will do this: “You can wear that when you’re older,” subtly equating immodesty with maturity. I think that’s a problematic message. Then when teenagers say, “Okay, I’m taking all my clothes off now, because I’m totally grown up,” we say, “Wait a minute — that’s taking it a bit too far.” But the equation was wrong from the start. The only way to turn things around is to equate maturity with real things, like the ability to give and to think of others. There is really no substitute to good role-modeling, and I’m not just talking about what the parents wear. I mean where your focus is: Are you more focused on making a difference in the world, or on what others think of you? Kids are so smart; they pick up on what’s unsaid.
Lopez: “When sexuality is made public, when it’s ‘no big deal’ and treated just like any other commodity, it doesn’t seem to lead to human flourishing in the same way sexuality does when it is saved for private delectation,” you write. Earlier, writing about parenting and the best of intentions that parents have in not wanting “to impose too much on their children,” you observe that “in the absence of a normative standard, something else always fills the vacuum.” In this day and age, who decides what’s normative or even what human flourishing is?
Shalit: Well, today the lowest common denominator decides what’s normative. The drama created by modesty used to be: What could a man do to demonstrate that he was worthy, whether his character traits or promises of love, what would he actively do to persuade a woman that he was worthy of intimacy? Now with Internet pornography having such an influence, the tables have been turned, and girls are pressured to provide pictures — even the beautiful and fabulously successful Jennifer Lawrence recently told Vanity Fair that she feels the same pressure to compete with pornography. So now young men are put in this position where instead of being givers, they’re sitting around passively collecting pictures. It’s a terrible dynamic that promotes selfishness. We can pretend that we don’t have a normative standard anymore, but we do — it’s just a profoundly unhealthy one. That’s why I write, to try to encourage people to integrate their emotions and ideals into their personal life instead of feeling ashamed of them. No girl should ever feel like, “I have to send naked pics to this guy, even though I’m not comfortable with it, because that’s something society expects of me.”
Lopez: While standing in front of the Supreme Court building recently, a friend commented with both sarcasm and sadness: “Standing on the steps of the Supreme Court, talking about contraception and ovaries. We’ve come a long way, baby.” Is there a modesty our politics could afford to recover or insist on?
Shalit: I hope it’s still there. Maybe it’s hiding somewhere in the penumbras of the Constitution?
Lopez: “Boundaries don’t stifle us — they actually enable growth.” How does that work with freedom?
Shalit: We have the freedom to live with boundaries and grow — both personally and in terms of our relationships — or to try to live without them, but that tends to cause damage. Lena Dunham has said, “From an early age I found the concept of secrecy really destructive,” so she outed her younger sister to their parents, despite her sister’s pleas not to do so. Not so nice. Lena also says, “Shame was an idea I didn’t want to live with,” and so she put “biker chick” makeup on her five-year-old sister, fake breasts, and called her “Hell’s Angels’ sex property.” One person’s freedom can easily become another person’s abuse, without boundaries.
Lopez: Is there one insight you wish you could offer to every young woman and man – and to adults who are suffering from immodest mistakes?
Shalit: I think it’s a huge temptation, whenever you’ve made a mistake, to continue to make bad choices and just despair, but we have to try to resist this and see every day as a new opportunity to make better choices (trite as that may sound). I would say that an even bigger challenge is when people try so hard to make good choices, they’ve been true to their ideals, yet they’re having trouble meeting that one great person. Worse still, they’re attacked continually for their high standards. My heart just goes out to them. It’s particularly difficult for individuals who don’t have support, whether from a parent or within their community. Even though I’m sometimes terrible with responding to my e-mail because I’m so wrapped up with my kids, when someone like this writes to me, I always try my best to respond to them that day and encourage them. Next I connect them with people nearby who might be able to lend some support, because the thing is, modesty was never intended to be a private virtue. Sometimes I actually succeed in connecting men and women who sound similar to one another, and it makes me think: Maybe this is a natural evolution for me to become a matchmaker, being Jewish, after all!
Lopez: In response to your books A Return to Modesty and The Good Girl Revolution, you’ve heard many stories, some of which you share in the new preface. What inspires you most?
Shalit: I’m continually inspired when someone has the courage to confront his oer her own parent who is adding to the pressure. For instance, if someone has a mom who says, “If you don’t sleep with him, you’re gonna lose him!” — or a dad who squirrels away condoms in his kids’ backpacks — and yet they’re able to stay true to their hopes and their idealism. I always think that’s just amazing.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute, editor-at-large of National Review Online, and founding director of Catholic Voices USA.