A Case For Modesty

Is it the answer to protecting a woman's sexual vulnerability?

Her New Book -

"A Return to Modesty" -

by Wendy Shalit .

(Would ye like to meet the modestyniks?)

Feb. 3 —Twenty-three-year-old Wendy Shalit is causing a stir among both feminists and conservatives. On the one hand she says feminists are right about the prevalance of date rape, eating disorders and sexual harrassment, but on the other hand, she refuses to put the blame on a patriarchal society. Instead she calls for a sexual counter-revolution in her new book, "A Return to Modesty: Discovering The Lost Virtue." Read an excerpt from the book.

"Modesty, which may be provisionally defined as an almost instinctive fear prompting to concealment and usually centering around the sexual processes, while common to both sexes is more peculiarly feminine, so that it may almost be regarded as the chief secondary sexual character of women on the psychical side."

— HAVELOCK ELLIS, 1899

 

My father is an economist, of the Chicago School variety, so my earliest memories concern Coase's theorem, Stigler's laws, and the importance of buying and selling rights to pollute. Other children played in bundles of blankets and were scared of monsters; I played with imaginary bundles of competing currencies which would float, but really be more stable, and had nightmares that the Federal Reserve Board would ruin the business cycle.

The fact that I was a girl never really came up. It was like having blue eyes, just a fact about me. On occasion, I would experience being a girl as a kind of special bonus: it meant getting to be a cheerleader and later, being taken to the prom. It would never even have occurred to me that my participation in these so-called "feminine" activities meant that I was somehow being oppressed, or that such activities precluded my thinking or doing anything else I wanted. When I returned home from the prom, after all, I could discuss anything I chose with my father. To be sure, I had heard of those who claimed that being a woman was not all fun and games, but those people were called feminists, and as every budding conservative knows, feminists exaggerate. Indeed, that is how you could tell that they were feminists — because they were the ones exaggerating all the time. Don't ask me how I was so sure of this, or what this had to do with any other part of my ideology. As anyone who has ever had an ideology knows, you do not ask; you just look for confirmation for a set of beliefs. That's what it means to have an ideology.

But life can have a rude way of intruding on theory. Sometimes you have to change your mind when things turn out to be more complicated than you initially thought. Coase's theorem may still be true but it also assumes zero transaction costs, and sometimes, you discover in life, there can be extremely high transaction costs.

Perhaps you can imagine my surprise, growing up as I did, to come to college and discover that in fact the feminists were not exaggerating. All around me, at the gym and in my classes, I saw stick-like women suffering from anorexia. Who could not feel for them? Or I would hop out to get a bagel at night and see a student I knew — who must have weighed all of 70 pounds — walk into our corner campus hangout, Colonial Pizza. Oh, good, I would think, she's finally going to eat. I would smile and try to give off see-isn't-eating-fun vibes. No, in fact she hadn't come to eat. Instead she mumbled weakly, looking like she was about to faint: "Do you have any Diet Mountain Dew, please? I'm so tired... I have a paper, and I can't stay up because I'm so, so tired... I have a paper... and it's due tomorrow... any Diet Mountain Dew?" Then in the dining halls I would observe women eating sometimes ten times as much as I and then suddenly cutting off our conversation. Suddenly, um, they had to go, suddenly, um, they couldn't talk anymore. Until that moment I hadn't actually realized that some women really did make themselves throw up after binging.

The bursting of my ideological bubble was complete when I began hearing stories of women raped, stories filled with much too much detail and sadness to be invented.

The bursting of my ideological bubble was complete when I began hearing stories of women raped, stories filled with much too much detail and sadness to be invented.

The feminists were not exaggerating. The feminists were right.

But what was going to happen to young women if the feminists were right? Was there a way out of this morass? I really couldn't see any.

Then I started to hear about the mysterious modestyniks.

A modestynik is my word for a modern single young woman raised in a secular home, who had hitherto seemed perfectly normal but who, inexplicably and without any prior notice, starts wearing very long skirts and issuing spontaneous announcements that she is now shomer negiah, which means that she isn't going to have physical contact with men before marriage, and that she is now dressing according to the standards of Jewish modesty.

She is the type of woman who, when you hear about how she is living her life, might cause you to exclaim: "Yikes! What's her problem?!" Hence, among those who do not know her, she is usually known as an abusenik, a woman you know has been abused, even though she insists she hasn't been. Otherwise, you figure, why would she be so weird?

I first heard about these modestyniks from grandparents' pictures and hushed voices in the backseats of cars. In my freshman year I became friends with an elderly couple who had retired in our college town. It turned out that they knew my grandpa and grandma from way back, so I saw a lot of them between classes, when I would hear many funny stories about my grandparents.

One night after dinner they brought out some pictures of one of their granddaughters, and this turned out to be my formal introduction to the modestyniks. She and her husband were Orthodox Jews, they explained. Then they offered me the first picture — of the granddaughter with her then-fianc้.

What a curious picture. Although the blissfully betrothed were grinning very widely, unlike most engaged couples they didn't have their arms around each other. Here were a young, beautiful brunette and a tall and handsome man standing extremely close together, but they weren't touching each other at all.

Indeed, if you looked at the picture closely, you could trace a thin blue line of sky between the two of them. How strange, I thought: If they didn't really like each other, then why in the world did they get married?

Fortunately my friends spoke up. "See," said the grandfather, pointing at the photo, "they observe the laws of tzniut." I said, "God bless you!" He said, "No, I didn't sneeze: tzniut means modesty, They observe the Jewish laws of sexual modesty."

"Oh," I said, a bit offended. For I was Jewish and I certainly didn't know about there being any Jewish modesty laws. I was a bit of a know-it-all, but about Judaism, I figured my parents were Jewish, I was Jewish, and I could recite a few blessings, if pressed. I even insisted on becoming a Bat-Mitzvah (subject to the commandments), in a ceremony at the Reform temple my parents belonged to, so there were official people who had actually seen me be Jewish once, and they had already given me their seal of authenticity. But no one had ever told me about any modesty laws.

The second picture was of the wedding. This time the young couple weren't looking at the camera but at each other. Specifically, he was gazing down at her and she up at him. Now they were embracing each other very tightly. Upon seeing this particular picture, I felt tears float up to my eyes. I hoped the next photo would arrive soon enough to distract me, but unfortunately it didn't quite, and I was left blubbering for an excruciating eight seconds. "I don't know why I'm crying, I'm so embarrassed! I don't even know your granddaughter!" Somebody handed me a tissue, and then I was ready for the third and final picture.

In this one the granddaughter was on the beach holding a little baby boy — only now her modestynik smile was twinkling under the brim of a black straw hat. "That's for the head covering" her grandma piped up proudly over my shoulder. "A married woman cannot leave her hair uncovered."

That's how I learned that there are different stages in the life cycle of a modestynik. No Touching, Touching, then Hat. Okay, I figured, I could remember that. I made a mental picture, like that second-grade diagram which helps you remember how a caterpillar becomes a butterfly, and then I knew that I would never forget it. No Touching, Touching, Hat. Got it.

Once I learned how to identify one modestynik, I started to see them all over the place. It seemed every Jewish family had one. And even if a person didn't happen to have a modestynik in his or her family, then at least they knew of one — and more often than not, two or three.

I picked up New York magazine, and they were writing about the modestyniks, too:

"A teacher of mine told me that if you touch before you're married, a curse is put on your children. But a blessing is given if you're careful," says Chavie Moskowitz, a 20-year-old Touro College student from Borough Park, who with her straight red hair, chocolate-brown suit, and matching brown suede pumps looks more like a young Wall Street executive than like a God fearing bride-to-be.

But on this moonlit Saturday night, standing on the outdoor esplanade of the Winter Garden, Chaim Singer, a 24-year-old yeshiva student from Kew Gardens Hills, proposes to Moskowitz, who, bouncing on her toes, gleefully accepts. Instead of embracing her fianc้, she blows him a kiss.

All around me I started to hear, and read, about young women who were observing Jewish modesty law, not touching their boyfriends and suddenly sporting hats. And all with the same blue line of sky between them and their fianc้s. All with the same modestynik twinkle at the end. It was like an epidemic.

I was fascinated. First, because although I had certainly been touching my boyfriends, I wasn't — how I wish there were a more elusive way of putting this — having sexual intercourse with them.

I just assumed it was my peculiar problem, something to be sorted through privately, something of which one is ashamed.

Though boyfriends would occasionally grumble about my "hangups," I never gave much thought to what I would come to know as my sexual repression. When I began to hear about these women, though, I started to think that maybe my "problem," such as it was, was not a problem at all but about something else entirely, something that could even be valued.

Could I have been a modestynik all along and not known it?

Alas, I had to conclude that no, I couldn't be.

I certainly wasn't shy or quiet, and that's what modesty really means, right? The whole women-should-be-seen-and-not-heard philosophy? That's what I associated it with. Furthermore, I didn't have any hats back in my dorm room. There were only two non-weather-related hats I had ever owned: a purple cone hat, from when I went trick-or-treating as a purple crayon, and a black cap with horns from when I sang the part of a little devil in a Lukas Foss opera. Somehow I didn't think those hats would count with whoever was in charge of the modestyniks.

Nevertheless I was still fascinated, particularly with the way others would react to them.

People around me were saying that these modestyniks were really abuseniks: This one was "obviously very troubled," and that one seemed to have a "creepy" relationship with her father. Or the more poetic version, whispered in a sorrowful tone: "She is turning herself into the kind of woman her father could never touch." Or "Maybe she just had a bad experience." Either way, whatever her problem is, "why doesn't the poor girl just get some counseling already, and then she won't take it all so seriously?"

Now that I knew what was really going on with these modestyniks, I started to worry about them. All these women, and all sexually abused by their fathers! But that's also when I began to get suspicious.

If all modestyniks were really abuseniks, I asked myself, then why were they so twinkly? Why did they seem so contented? Why were their wedding pictures so viscerally and mysteriously moving?

I really became intrigued when I offhandedly mentioned my interest in the modestyniks to a middle-aged man at a cocktail party, and he screamed at me, turning almost blue: "They're sick, I'm telling you! I've heard of them with their not-touching, and they're sick, sick, sick!" Someone later informed me that this man had been divorced three times.

I began to perceive a direct relationship between how much one was floundering, sex-wise, and how irritated one was by the modestyniks. After all, if the modestynik is just one more abusenik, she is less threatening, clearly, and isn't that rather convenient, if the poor thing can only be pitied?

There is a certain note of wistfulness in the resentment directed against the modestyniks.

By now I have met many women, Jewish and non-Jewish, who grew up in fairly secular homes and have come to find modesty a compelling female ideal.

Surely not all of them have been abused? They're all such different women. Some are daughters of divorce, others daughters of loving and stable families; some are liberal, others conservative; some are shy and clever, others not so shy or not so clever.

So does the fact that such different personalities are drawn to one idea prove some common childhood trauma, or reflect the truth of the idea? I suppose it could be a childhood trauma, but do these women then have that undeniable glow about them that is absent, for instance, in our modern anorexic?

Fundamentally, they do not seem to be missing anything for not having had a series of miserable romances under their belts. They seem happy. Is this, perhaps, what annoys people most?

In her book Last Night in Paradise, Katie Roiphe devotes her final chapter to Beverly LaHaye, founder of the Christian group, Concerned Women for America. After interviewing Beverly LaHaye's press secretary, a young woman who has sworn off sex until marriage, Roiphe allows that she "does have a certain glow," one that "resembles happiness," but she concludes that really it owes to "something more like delusion." As for herself, she writes, she is "infuriated" by this woman: "I suddenly want to convert her more desperately than she wants to convert me."

Why? If one may freely cohabit these days, why can't one postpone sex?

Why is sexual modesty so threatening to some that they can only respond to it with charges of abuse or delusion?

After all, empirically speaking, one woman we know of who has had sex with her father is Kathryn Harrison, and she's not exactly observing Orthodox modesty law. (In a 1997 Elle profile she wore a lovely, but nonetheless notably short, skirt.)

When I talk to women my age and hear some of the things they're going through, the kind of treatment they put up with from these boyfriends of theirs, the first thing I ask them is, "Does your father know about this?" They look at me as if I'm from another planet. Of course their fathers don't know.

The Marquis of Halifax considered his daughter a "tender plant," requiring the sort of pruning and shelter only fatherly rules could provide: ones "written out of kindness rather than authority." This was in 1688, but when I read that passage I immediately thought of my own father.

I'm a much stronger person for having a "paternalistic" father who is always telling me what to do. I know he's that way because he loves me.

Also, when a man gives up on me because I won't sleep with him, because he "needs to know if we're compatible," it's easy to doubt myself, and at such times there's really no substitute for a booming male voice at the other end of the line.

But today it is even thought to be sexist for a father to give away his daughter on her wedding day. That, we are told, is a concession to the view that "women are property." Wedding ceremonies, as the scholar Ann Ferguson puts it, can "perpetuate the public symbolic meaning of heterosexism and women as legal possessions of men."

Yet what is really so terrible about "belonging" to someone who loves you? This radical notion that girls shouldn't be too attached to their fathers, because that's the source of all evil, is ironically very similar to Freud's view that girls don't develop an advanced superego because they remain too long in the Oedipus situation. Yet it is typically the girl without a strong relationship with her father who is too insecure to develop a superego.

In a sexual landscape without any rules, girls lacking male approval are more often taken advantage of.

After hearing hundreds of stories of self-mutilation from her adolescent-girl clients, psychologist Mary Pipher concludes that "girls are having more trouble now than they had thirty years ago, when I was a girl, and more trouble than even ten years ago." Indeed, "Girls today are much more oppressed.

They are coming of age in a more dangerous, sexualized and media-saturated culture." And "as they navigate a more dangerous world, girls are less protected." She is a staunch feminist, but cannot help noticing that "the sexual license of the 1990s inhibits some girls from having the appropriate sexual experiences they want and need."

Mary Pipher's only clients who have escaped the standard litany of self-mutilation and eating disorders are the girls who are not sexually active — usually the ones who come from strict families with "paternalistic" fathers.

"Jody," for instance, who is 16, comes from a tight-knit, fundamentalist family. Her mother stays home, and her father even insisted that Jody stop dating her boyfriend, Jeff, in tenth grade, fearing that she would have sex before marriage. Yet in spite of these restrictions which "psychologists would condemn," as Dr. Pipher puts it, Jody seems mysteriously happy. In fact, Jody is the happiest and most well adjusted of all her patients. Since Mary Pipher customarily assumes that paternalism is always oppressive, this observation causes her considerable cognitive dissonance:

I struggled with the questions this interview raised for me. Why would a girl raised in such an authoritarian, even sexist, family be so well liked, outgoing and self-confident? Why did she have less anger and more respect for adults? Why was she so relaxed when many girls are so angst-filled and angry?

Maybe it's not so terrible, after all, to have someone feel he has a stake in your upbringing. A young woman is lucky, I think, if she has a "paternalistic" father — it can only make her more self-confident.

To me the truly abusive fathers are the neglectful ones who seem to feel no emotional stake in how their daughters live their lives.

More than half of my friends have parents who are divorced, and some of them hardly see their fathers at all.

But divorce is the least of the problems that have beset most young women of my age and generation.

I was born in 1975, and from anorexia to date-rape, from our utter inability to feel safe on the streets to stories about stalking and stalkers, from teenage girls finding themselves miserably pregnant to women in their late 30s and early 40s finding procreation miserably difficult, this culture has not been kind to women. And it has not been kind to women at the very moment that it has directed an immense amount of social and political energy to "curing" their problems.

Why? Naomi Wolf writes in her most recent book that "there are no good girls; we are all bad girls," and that we all should just admit it and "explore the shadow slut who walks alongside us." But for some of us, this is actually still an open question. We certainly feel the pressure and get the message that we are supposed to be bad — we, after all, started our sex education in elementary school — but when everyone is saying the same thing, it makes us wonder: isn't there anything more to life, to love?

No More "Nice Girl," as Rosemary Agonito put it in 1993. But don't I have anything higher to be proud of as a woman, other than my ability to be "bad"?

I thought again of the modestyniks, and about why they might be twinkling. Why would so many young women be adopting modesty as the new sexual virtue? I soon became inspired by the idea — not as some old-fashioned ideal that could hypothetically solve some of the problems of women, but as one that could really help me understand my life. It explained, among other things, why I never cared for the advice given in most women's magazines and why I was uncomfortable with the coed bathrooms I encountered at college.

During the spring of my senior year at Williams, in our main student center there was a display called "The Clothesline Project." It was a string of T-shirts designed by women on campus who had been victims of sexual harassment, stalking, or rape. "I HATE You!" announced one shirt, in thick black lettering. "NO doesn't mean try again in 5 minutes!" read another one, in a red banner. At the end of the clothesline, in plain blue lettering: "How could you TAKE that which she did not wish to GIVE?" The shirt next to it read, "Don't touch me again!" and, beside that: "Why does this keep happening to me? When will this end?"

I was struck, reading these T-shirts, with how polarized the debate about sex is today. Just like on the national level, there were the college Republicans who stopped to snicker and then moved on, tittering about "those crazy feminists," and then there were those who lingered, shook their heads in dismay, and could be heard whispering about the patriarchy.

I want to offer a new response. First, I want to invite conservatives to take the claims of the feminists seriously. That is, all of their claims, from the date-rape figures to anorexia to the shyness of teenage girls, even the number of women who say they feel "objectified" by the male gaze. I want them to stop saying that this or that study was flawed; or that young women are exaggerating; or that it has been proven that at this or that university such-and-such a charge was made up. Because ultimately, it seems to me, it doesn't really matter if one study is flawed or if one charge is false. When it comes down to it, the same vague yet unmistakable problem is still with us.

A lot of young women are trying to tell us that they are very unhappy: unhappy with their bodies, with their sexual encounters, with the way men treat them on the street — unhappy with their lives.

I want conservatives really to listen to these women, to stop saying boys will be boys, and to take what these women are saying seriously.

As for the feminists, I want to invite them to consider whether the cause of all this unhappiness might be something other than the patriarchy. For here is the paradox: at Williams, as on so many other modern college campuses, where there was such a concentration of unhappy women, everything was as nonsexist as could be. We had "Women's Pride Week," we had "Bisexual Visibility Week," we were all living in coed dorms, and many of us even used coed bathrooms.

We were as far from patriarchal rules as we could get. So if we were supposed to be living in nonsexist paradise, then why were many of us this miserable?

Perhaps there is a difference between patriarchy and misogyny. Now that we have wiped our society clean of all traces of patriarchal rules and codes of conduct, we are finding that the hatred of women may be all the more in evidence. But why, exactly?

I think we might have forgotten an important idea, lost our respect for a specific virtue.

I propose that the woes besetting the modern young woman — sexual harassment, stalking, rape, even "whirlpooling" (when a group of guys surround a girl who is swimming, and then sexually assault her) — are all expressions of a society which has lost its respect for female modesty.

My essay is divided into three parts: the first concerns our culture's view of sexual modesty and some of the problems that this view has created; the second is a survey of the intellectual battle which preceded this state of affairs, and an immodest attempt to reconstruct the lost philosophical case for modesty; and the final third is about women who are ignoring their culture's messages and, for new reasons, returning to a very old ideal.

A thread that runs through all three sections is the story of why this idea happened to captivate me.

I would have preferred to avoid this personal thread and hide behind the disinterested sociological, the speculative philosophical. Unfortunately, it didn't work. I simply found it impossible to clear up what I perceive to be some central misunderstandings about modesty without, in some cases, getting very specific. Since I want to recover the idea, to submit what a case for modesty looks like, I have needed to rely on my experience — as well as that of other young women — to fill in the gaps.

Stendhal admits in his short study of female modesty that he is just guessing about it since so much of his argument depends on certain sensations that are necessarily hidden from his male experience. His survey is too vague, he says, and not as good as if a woman had written it. Nevertheless, he predicts, a woman would never write about such things.

After all, for a woman to write sincerely about what she truly felt would be too embarrassing for her, "like going out not fully dressed" — and then everyone would point and laugh.

For a man, on the other hand, "nothing is more common than for him to write exactly as his imagination dictates, without worrying where it's going."

Outrageous as this may sound, it cannot be denied that for hundreds of years, it has held true.

Though there are many women who conduct themselves "modestly" in their personal lives, no woman has ever attempted a systematic defense of modesty. One has to admit there is a very good reason for this: a woman who is reticent about matters sexual is an unlikely candidate to step forward and squawk, "Hey, everybody, look at me! Boy, am I modest!"

Nonetheless, I think it's about time that a woman proved Stendhal wrong. First, many of the men who have written about sexual modesty have either attacked or defended it for reasons that strike me as false. Was it because they were sexist? Or do we accept the more charitable interpretation — that, as Stendhal says, men can only guess? I don't know. But I have a strong feeling that one of the reasons relations between the sexes have come to such a painful point is precisely that the embarrassed, secretive women usually do not come forward, only the exhibitionists do.

And so I think many young women now have a vastly inaccurate picture of what is normal for them to think or to feel. They have been trained to accept that to be equal to men, they must be the same in every respect; and they, and the men, are worse off for it.

It is for the next generation of young women that I am writing this book. Perhaps as Stendhal predicted, I will only end up making a fool of myself, but I think the stakes are now high enough to justify the risk.

A friend of mine had an affair with her professor when she was 21. She was in his class at the time and madly in love with him; he had no intention of doing anything other than using and summarily disposing of her. She was a virgin before the affair. As she related the story to me, ten years after it happened, I was struck, not that what had happened had deeply upset her, but that she felt she had to apologize for the fact that it had deeply upset her: "And, well, and it didn't mean the same thing to him, and um... this is going to sound really cheesy but, um... I mean, for God's sake, he took my virginity!" As she struggled to find the words to explain what had happened to her, it occurred to me that in an age where our virginity is supposed to mean nothing, and where male honor is also supposed to mean nothing, we literally cannot explain what has happened to us.

We can no longer talk in terms of someone, say, defiling a virgin, so instead we punish the virgin for having any feelings at all. Nevertheless, although our ideology can expunge words from our vocabulary, the feelings remain and still cry out for someone to make sense of them.

It is to restore this lost moral vocabulary of sex that I am writing this book. And then everyone can come out of the closet about how closeted he or she always wanted to be.

Today modesty is commonly associated with sexual repression, with pretending that you don't want sex though you really do. But this is a misunderstanding, a cultural myth spun by a society which vastly underrates sexual sublimation. If you stop and think about it, you realize that without sublimation, we would have very few footnotes and probably none of the greatest works of Western art.

Moreover, leaving aside the whole question of utility, when you haven't yet learned to separate your physical desires from your hopes and natural wonder at everything, the world is, in a very real sense, enchanted.

Every conversation, every mundane act is imbued with potential because everything is colored with erotic meaning. Today, this stage in one's life — when everything seems significant and you want to get it all "exactly right" — is thought to be childish, but is it really?

Maybe instead of learning to overcome repression, we should be prolonging it.

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.

The peculiar way our culture tries to prevent young women from seeking more than "just sex," the way it attempts to rid us of our romantic hopes or, variously, our embarrassment and our "hangups," is a very misguided effort. It is, I will argue, no less than an attempt to cure womanhood itself, and in many cases it has actually put us in danger.

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1. A Return to Modesty : Discovering the Lost Virtue
by Wendy Shalit (Paperback - January 2000)
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(Get the Book and read it for yourself, then for your own good, think just what it is that religion has been trying to tell all of us. V.M.)

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