Should Women Be More Modest?

Should Women Be More Modest?

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
Feb. 2 1999 10:00 PM

Should Women Be More Modest?

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Your problem with my book seems to be guilt by association: Again and again you say that I sound like "a victim feminist," plus I even quote feminists in my book; therefore my argument is troubling. But I quote lots of different thinkers in my book--so what if I quote some feminists? Some I disagree with, others I agree with. I've already made the point that sexual vulnerability is not the same as being a victim, but you never address this point. Your syllogism works like this: All feminists are wrong; Wendy agrees with feminists on some issues; therefore Wendy is wrong. But there's a fallacy here: Nothing follows from a premise one hasn't proved. The closest you come to engaging my argument is when you pull phrases out of my book out of context, as when you fault me for writing, "it is no longer acceptable to say that a man has caused or in any way contributed to a woman's suffering." Here I was referring to how we don't talk about men "defiling a virgin" anymore, and prefer to stigmatize the virgin for having any feelings at all. Instead of pulling half-sentences out of my book, why don't you engage my argument?

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You concede that "maybe" women are not as enthusiastic about casual sex as men, but conclude that "individual variations generally exceed sex differences." Oh, really? How many times do you notice these "individual variations" resulting in men becoming pregnant? How many times do you see a leathery 70-year-old woman strut into a party with a young male model on her arm? How many times do you see men tearfully commiserating over cappuccinos about how they waited by the phone, but she never called? Sure, there are female sexual aggressors, but they are the exception, and they only make the rule more obvious. To recognize that only women can get pregnant from the sexual encounter, to recognize biological clocks and a woman's special sexual vulnerability is not being a victim, it's reality. Brushing these differences under the rug doesn't make them disappear, it just increases social pathologies. And no, feminists are not the only ones who have documented the problems facing girls. The fact that the debate has been distorted by inflated rhetoric and advocacy statistics doesn't make these problems any less genuine.

As for your comment that it "must warm [my] heart to read about Arab women whose male relatives kill them for sexual transgressions"--well, Cathy, you smoked me out. My secret agenda is to promote bride burning in Istanbul. Please. This is exactly the kind of rhetorical overkill that you deplore when committed by feminists.

I guess the main problem I have with your book is that you don't make a positive case for anything. (Smearing Andrea Dworkin as a "lunatic" isn't an argument.) You just mush together the people you disagree with and say they're all "paternalistic." Well, you haven't even explained why paternalism is bad. I argue in A Return to Modesty that as all those supposedly evil paternalistic rules were expunged, misogyny has increased. One father I talk about in my book actually drives his daughter to a hotel because he thinks it's time for her to lose her virginity (her boyfriend agreed, penning a tribute to his enlightenment in Glamour). This father's certainly not paternalistic, but was the daughter happy about it? No. Patricia Hersch tells many such stories in her book A Tribe Apart, of young women who want their parents to be more paternalistic with regard to sex. Fourteen-year-old "Courtney" from Virginia, for instance, complains that her parents aren't helping her at all by giving her so much freedom: "They let me go over to my boyfriend's house when they know his parents aren't home. That is weird. I am surprised they let him come over all the time." After two and a half months of dating Nat, she had run out of excuses: "I just did it because he really kept bothering me about it." The next morning she "wakes up feeling totally humiliated."

Now, on to the neither Mars nor Venus business. Your battle cry, "men and women are neither the same, nor different!" leaves a lot to be desired. That's the kind of vacuous position that only could exist on the public policy lecture circuit. It's fake. It's a cramped position created for the purpose of finessing opponents' rhetoric, as opposed to helping people in the real world. It's not the kind of advice we could give our daughters or sons. "Well, Amy, I'm glad you asked for my advice as to whether you should sleep with Bobby. Remember, Amy, men and women are neither the same, nor are they different! That's what I brought you into this world to tell you. Good luck!"

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"Uh, thanks Mom."

I prefer the paternalistic advice Samuel Richardson's heroine, Pamela, got from her parents in 1740:

My dearest child, our hearts ache for you; and then you seem so full of joy at his goodness, so taken with his kind expressions ... that we fear you should be too grateful ... and reward him with that jewel, your virtue, which no riches, nor favour, nor any thing in this life, can make up to you ... Be sure don't let people's telling you you are pretty puff you up; for you did not make yourself. It is virtue and goodness only, that make true beauty. Remember that, Pamela--Your loving Father and Mother.

Paternalistic advice? Yes. But you must admit it's pretty good.

Best,

Wendy