Wendy Shalit on A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue

Cmtdarden: Welcome to our moderated chat with Wendy Shalit, author of A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue and discuss a new approach to sexuality. Can modesty be empowering? Talk about it here with Wendy Shalit and the Relationships community.
Wenshalit: Hi there--thanks for joining me!
ilanadonna1: Wendy Shalit, can you tell us a little bit about your book, A Return to Modesty?
Wenshalit: Well, I was made sad by the fact that so many women are put on the defensive about their sexuality. If, for instance, they don't want to sleep with a man by the third date they're thought to have "hang-ups." So I wanted to explain why modesty and reticence isn't a pathology, that mystery can also be an important component of sexuality. But modesty is also about raising men to respect female modesty, and appreciating boundaries. I was also fascinated by how bored people look in pictures of people on nude beaches.
rojan99: What do you mean by boundaries?
Wenshalit: Well, boundaries are about doing what you're comfortable with. If you want to wait to sleep with a man, get to know him first, you shouldn't have to feel like a weirdo. Society makes you out to be repressed if you want to postpone sexual intimacy.
Tamveg: I read the excerpt and found it insulting. The phrase "hook up" doesn't mean a casual relationship, it means a connection -- at least to us under 40. Sexual choices are as individual as you are. No one is concerned about whether you have hang-ups or not. Your book smacks of right-wing conservatism. Do you consider this entire generation to be a bunch of a "Monicas"? We do have sense. You serve no one when you generalize. Or don't you think so?
Wenshalit: Tamveg's response is very interesting. On the one hand, she says no one cares whether people have hang-ups, but in the very next response she says if you don't like hookups, you are a right-wing conservative. Why the labels? A hook-up, on college campuses, refers to a casual sexual encounter. That's the context I use the term in my book. Tam's completely right that the term is also used in other ways, but I am concerned in that particular chapter with how we talk about love, and so I focus on the use of hookup when it refers to casual encounters. "Yeah, I hooked up with her last night." And so on. Wenshalit: It's interesting that sex used to be called "making love," then it was demoted to "having sex," and now it's just often hooking up, like airplanes or something.
Kirsten50: Wendy, do you advocate postponing all types of sexual intimacy until one becomes married? Or is it a matter of waiting until one is comfortable and confident in his or her decision?
Wenshalit: There are no emotions at all. But sex tends to be more interesting when the emotions are integrated, and that's what modesty is about, protecting those emotions and sensuality for the right person.
Kirsten50: Wendy, why is the terminology different? Fear of intimacy?
Wenshalit: Yes, I think it is fear of intimacy. There's this perception in the culture that when you don't care about anything, then you're mature. If you care too much, you are immature. We're taught, I think, that the ideal is to be cool, calculating and detached. But I didn't answer the question of marriage. My book isn't really "advocacy" for anything; it's about exploring the history of modesty, how the idea can be valuable. But it does interest me that all studies show married women are the most sexually satisfied. And that if you live together before marriage, you're more likely to get divorced.
Kirsten50: Why do you think there is so much emphasis on sexual compatibility in relationships? Thirty years ago, emotional compatibility was more valued.
Wenshalit: Why so much emphasis on sexual compatibility? I think we have the sense that we have to "try people out" first, before we see if we want to stay with them, and I think that's kind of depressing. Because it smacks of using people as means to your ends, not treating them as other human beings, as ends in themselves.
Staciaragolia: Wendy, going back to your point about emotions and maturity. Do you not think that emotional control is a sign of maturity? That being in control of yourself is not a milestone of personal growth?
Wenshalit: That's an interesting question; definitely emotional control is a sign of personal growth, absolutely. But to feel passionately about someone is about your capacity to be profoundly moved. That capacity is what is uniquely human, and therefore *not* caring shouldn't be automatically equated with maturity. Ironically, when you're so obsessed with whether your partner is compatible, often the relationship won't work because the other person gets the sense that the other person only cares about performance in bed, not the deeper aspects of one's personality.
Kirsten50: Wendy, how would you suggest that we return to a more modest society? More importantly, is it possible at this stage of the game?
Wenshalit: How is it possible to have a more modest society? I think it all depends on the advice we give. Helen Gurley Brown, the editor of Cosmopolitan, says that young women should "keep married men as pets," not love them, just keep them as pets. I think that's bad advice, because -- what about the wives these men are married to? Shouldn't we care about them too?
TrendyBrat: Do you think modesty helps relationships move along or makes it more difficult to become involved?
Wenshalit: I think modesty, or getting to know someone before you are intimate, can only enhance a relationship. It leaves a lot to the imagination, which protects the erotic, and loving, more enduring relationships.
TrendyBrat: I feel that it's hindering me from moving forward. Is it possible to be too modest?
Wenshalit: Secondly, I think we will progress to a more modest society only when we're comfortable with the full range of women's choices. Nowadays, if you're modest, you're a weirdo. If this is really a paro-choice culture, then we shouldn't attack women who choose modesty.
Grodi: What if he won't give it a chance?
Wenshalit: Hmm, well, if he won't give modesty a chance, I think that says a lot about him. If someone really loves you, he'll wait for you to be comfortable. Anyone who rushes you doesn't really care about you. So that's a good illustration of how modesty screens out dishonorable men.
jbz99: What are your points on chastity?
Wenshalit: No, modesty is different from chastity. One of the reasons I got interested in modesty was because I thought it had been misunderstood. Nowadays it's associated with prudery or chastity. But really it's the opposite of prudery. Because prudery and chastity are about no men, ever! Which is very close to promiscuity, if you think about it. Whether you're sleeping with many men or none, both prudery and promiscuity are two sides to the same coin, the stance being: I can't be moved by anything!
jbz99: Define modesty if you would please.
Wenshalit: Modesty protects sexually vulnerability, which is what makes it erotic. You're not anti-sex, you're waiting for the right person to come along.
kitti45: Dumb question, but what does modesty really have to do with sex?
Wenshalit: The most erotic images in art and in literature are those which leave a lot to the imagination, which protect mystery.
Lizonmaui: I learned how to be modest through a strict Catholic upbringing. I became insecure. I have grown since then. I have learned through experience. Not necessarily sexually. How does modestly take play when one is sexually experienced?
Wenshalit: Well, there are two types of modesty. Intellectual modesty (of which I have zero, obviously, or I wouldn't have written a book). Then there is sexual modesty, which is what my book discusses. That's about self-respect, having the right to say "no" until the right match comes along. I want to make clear that modesty is not the same as virginity, which Lizon brings out very well in her question. There are married women who are modest and virgins who are immodest.
kitti45: Saying no is a right; modesty is an emotion or behavior. I don't think modesty allows me to say no to sex.
Wenshalit: So modesty is about a range of behaviors that make sexuality implicit rather than explicit. Self-esteem is also a crucial issue, because the culture says that you're not liberated until you sleep with a lot of men, yet all studies show that young girls have early intercourse as a result for insecurity. It takes a lot of self-confidence to rebel against the messages the culture is sending and insist on your right to wait for the right person.
Glamourgirl: I think I'm having difficulty with the word "modesty." Almost indicates prudishness.
ilanadonna1: Wendy is now addressing the topic of feminism and modesty.
Wenshalit: It's really important to understand the history of modesty. The early feminists actually loved modesty, because female virtue was the way they got the men to do what they wanted.
Lizonmaui: I agree, Wendy. I feel that there is a point at which one can eventually learn to say no. It took me some time; I learned a great deal of self-respect and self-confidence through experience.
Wenshalit: All social reform movements were "activated" by modesty. Nowadays, though, it's considered un-feminist to believe in the power of modesty to change society. This is sad, because I think we've lost what the feminist legacy was all about. Even Simone de Beauvoir (who was pretty radical) thought modesty was natural, and she predicted in "The Second Sex" that a society that didn't appreciate modesty would have more sexual violence against women.
kitti45: I guess when I think of modesty, I get a hint of the traditional values and not of the present. If I want to have sex or not have sex, that's our right, and being modest has nothing to do with that choice.
Staciaragolia: Wendy, a large part of the feminist movement, even early on, was about determining one's one sexual future. How can we have the right to say no if we don't also have the right to say yes?
Wenshalit: I want to move beyond discussions of "rights." No one is advocating that women have fewer rights. I'm proposing that the sexual options available to women today are actually quite narrow. Now the pressure from adults is to be "bad," rather than to be good, and young women find it very hard to choose modesty when the culture doesn't support it as a genuine option. Modesty is about saying yes! What's at issue is when do you say yes?
Staciaragolia: But when it was a "genuine option," previously, it was used to constrict women's choices.
Wenshalit: Should you feel bad or pressured to have sex right away just because the culture around you advocates explicitness, or is there value in mystery as well?
Glamourgirl: Does modesty apply only to women? It shouldn't.
Wenshalit: Glamourgirl asks if modesty applies only to women. Absolutely not. I have a whole chapter in my book addressing the subject of men and modesty, because I think modesty is often associated with a sexual double standard, when in fact it was about a single standard -- for men and for women. The men had to be honorable. Manners guides from hundreds of years ago say that promiscuous men are worse than infidels. Nowadays I think we have more of a sexual double standard, because men are considered men by "scoring" with women, instead of sticking by one woman. Modesty applies to men and women equally; it's just a matter of what we compete at ... today we compete with being vulgar (I can swear just as much as a man, and sleep around too!) instead of competing with how civilized and kind we can be to each other.
Jimjam: Wendy, reading your book, it seems that underlying it is a critique of an cultural ethos that values "options" regardless of any transcendental value, and so enshrining momentary appetites as cultural imperatives. Are you thinking about further books along these lines?
Wenshalit: I think that the issue of transcendental values is so important, because one of the reasons we are where we are at this point is that we don't believe in human nature any longer. We don't believe in anything beyond the self, which means we are rendered incapable of understanding the self. And if you discuss human nature -- whether male or female -- some people take that as a political thing and get very angry. And that's a loss, because if we can't discuss any universals, we can't give any advice either.
Jimjam: Kind of like the father who drives his daughter to her first sexual encounter?
Wenshalit: And so everyone thinks their own feelings are their own particular weirdness. Prozac is a good example of this, I think -- women cure themselves of "rejection sensitivity," but it's good to be sensitive to rejection; it means you are capable of love. Yes, the father drives his daughter to the hotel because she thinks she wants to lose her virginity, but she is really ambivalent about it, and it's sad that he goes back for her Pill rather than taking her aside and saying, "Are you sure about this?"
Lizonmaui: I am curious to know Wendy's view on women with HIV.
Wenshalit: I saw a recent a program on MTV about women with STDs, and one thing that struck me was that so many of them said they were almost glad to have an STD because now they had a reason to say no to sex when they didn't want to. How sad that it's come to this! Women should feel like they have the right to say no, and they don't have to get an STD to have this right.
Ilanadonna: Wendy, it was so great having you join us tonight.
Staciaragolia: Yes, thank you Wendy!
Wenshalit: Thanks so much for joining me in this chat. I want to answer more of them, so please post them on my board, and I'll get to them as soon as I can. Signing off for now ... Wendy

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