Shalit’s proposed ‘Return to Modesty’ misunderstands gender

Although much lauded by the conservative press and well publicized in the mainstream media, A Return to Modesty: Recovering the Lost Virtue, the debut book from Wendy Shalit ’97, has also led such publications as Harper’s Bazaar and Salon to criticize the education Shalit seems to have received at Williams. In the reader reviews area of Amazon.com’s website, Jonathan Nitschke ’95 posts, “I went to college with this woman. Unfortunately, she learned nothing there.” Along a similar vein, a Salon reader tells Camille Paglia that he “came away with the impression she is one of those affluent children born out of the East Coast colleges. . .who have no idea of reality,” to which Paglia, who has a factual dispute with Shalit over a point raised in the book, responds, “I guess they don’t teach fact-checking at Williams College, Shalit’s pricey alma mater.”

Fact-checking, tuition rates and PR aside, though, the premise of A Return to Modesty is an interesting one. Joining with mainstream feminism in recognizing the reality and pain of issues such as acquaintance rape, eating disorders and sexual harassment, Shalit suggests that, in her terms, “the woes besetting the modern young woman. . .are all expressions of a society which has lost its respect for female modesty.” Unfortunately, after stating this thesis, Shalit does not make a clear argument that can be refuted through careful analysis. Instead she meanders through unverifiable anecdotes, applying “common sense” and occasionally dropping the name of a well-known intellect.

I say unfortunately because the contention that a society that fails to foster modesty – which can be read as respect for the self, respect for others, recognizing personal boundaries, et cetera – seemed to me a promising one. But by focusing on sexual difference exclusively, Shalit does a disservice to both women and men. It is when she writes, “Modesty acknowledged this special vulnerability (of women), and protected it. It made women equal to men as women. Encouraged to act immodestly, a woman exposes her vulnerability and she then becomes the weaker sex,” that she loses my support.

Even if her contention that most, if not all, women do not truly enjoy casual sexual encounters is correct, even if we agree that the women who have been pressured into thinking that they are like men in their sexual proclivities should be supported in backing off from this unwanted activity, the suggestions that Shalit makes with regard to how this support might be offered are suspect. They clearly preference her own choice not to be sexually active over any other choice.

In the college/university context, she argues that by going back to enforced single sex dorms, society would not be preventing those who really want to have sex from having sex, but would instead offer support to those who choose not to engage in sexual activity. Encouraged to act immodestly, a woman is weak; encouraged to be modest, she is strong. The implication, of course, is that women need to be propped up; they can’t say, “No, not you” (to use one of Shalit’s best phrases) without relying on outside authorities such as school administrators, parents and the law. What if the woman wanted sex? Well, then she’d find a way, Shalit argues. After all, that sort of woman always has.

Shalit does draw our attention to one very important point: Permissiveness is a choice. But it is a choice endorsed by the American tradition of focusing on individual and group freedoms and one particularly appropriate in the context of a liberal arts institution, where the focus is supposed to be on the broadening of horizons and encouraging individual analysis and decision-making. Permissiveness is indeed normative in that it puts forth inclusion and diversity as virtues (the favorite word of another famed alum), but it is not normative in the narrow way in which bedchecks at ten o’clock are.

In an interesting twist, Shalit actually calls for harder work on the part of men than from women. After all, her argument rests on the notion that women naturally want to be modest and that society has brainwashed them into acting and professing to feel otherwise. Men, on the other hand, naturally want sex, and a return to modesty would mean that they would have to get used to having to work harder and promise more to get it. Beyond the simple issue of sexual activity, men would again have to serve as the protectors of the women in their lives.

Shalit clearly sees this disparity as a virtue, but is it? Perhaps to Shalit, who writes, “Surely the egalitarians never intended to take away freedoms women already enjoyed,” but to this reader it is in the light of this disparity that the dangers of a return to modesty are most clear. Men are constrained by the duty to protect the women in their lives, meaning their spheres of individuality are proscribed, just as are those of the women who depend on them for their protection. Everyone, male or female, loses some liberty in exchange for the protections Shalit believes go along with increased codification of interaction between the sexes. To Shalit, that seems a fair price, but I’ll take the danger of having to stand up for myself on account of increased freedom instead of the enforced protection of men any day.