Should Women Be More Modest?

Should Women Be More Modest?

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
Feb. 3 1999 11:30 PM

Should Women Be More Modest?


Dear Cathy,


Your dismissive "Never mind" says it all, as does bragging that you didn't cry when you read the advice Pamela's parents gave her.

What is this, a jadedness contest? If so, I'll gladly declare you the winner. I'd much rather brag that I was moved by something.

You continue to maintain that my similarity to feminists undermines my argument, because "some associations are at least highly compromising."

Let's just settle this right now, so we don't waste any more time on this. Maybe I'm not being direct enough. Your "critique" is not an argument. In fact, it's not even a matter of opinion as to whether it's an argument. It's a question of simple logic. In both your two e-mails so far you manage to perform the logical version of the daily double: In one argument you commit two fallacies. The first fallacy you commit (traditionally called the illicit minor in philosophy circles) has to do with the form of your argument, which is:


Feminists say, "X."

Wendy says, "X."

Therefore Wendy is a feminist (or just as bad as the feminists).

That the form is fallacious can be seen by comparing it to the following argument, which has the same logical form:


All liberals eat lunch.

Cathy Young eats lunch.

Therefore Cathy Young is a liberal.

Or this one:


Liberals say Wendy is wrong.

Cathy Young says Wendy is wrong.

Therefore, Cathy Young is a liberal.

You then tack on to the fallaciously derived conclusion "Wendy is as bad as the feminists," another classic fallacy with the equally wonderful traditional name: argumentum ad hominem (literally: against the man). There are many versions of this kind of argument, but all have in common that they attack the arguer--in this case, me by association, and for supposedly thinking "feelings matter more than facts"--instead of the argument.


Although I believe there are differences between men and women, I would hope that the capacity for rational argument is not one of those differences!

I have to be honest, Cathy. I'm beginning to wonder whether you've even read my book. It sounds like you just flipped through it. You write that I "wax nostalgic for laws that banned the sale of contraceptives to unmarried women," when I specifically write on Page 208 that "I'm not advocating that Eisenstadt v. Baird was decided wrongly. I'm just suggesting that things are more complicated than we will perhaps admit even to ourselves." And again on page Page 210, I write, "Some will say that I'm trying to 'oppress' women by suggesting that going on the Pill is not as easy and painless as our culture makes it out to be. Others will be irate and say that I am trying to restrict women's contraceptive options, even though I haven't said a word about legality or illegality." This chapter, and in fact, my whole book, is about the moral questions that are prior to the thin question of legality. I address the predicament of the individual girl who asks herself for the first time, should I go on the Pill? And, how do I know that this person is right for me? Everything in the culture says that preventing pregnancy makes everything "OK," but there are emotional risks to going on the Pill which no one talks about.

Then you write triumphantly that not many women are on Prozac, as if my point about Prozac was that all women were on the drug. The thrust of my chapter on Prozac, called the "Curing of Womanhood," is to question how having "rejection sensitivity" became a pathological category. All studies (even the one you quoted) show that more women than men are on Prozac, and that they are on it for different reasons. I examine these reasons, and argue that it's good to be sensitive when you're rejected--because it means you were capable of being moved by someone. If we're not sensitive to rejection, it also means that we're incapable of profound attachment. You seem fixated on numbers and percentages and totally uninterested in the larger philosophical questions.

I marshal lots of evidence in my book to prove my point that for middle-class women, "food-hang-ups" have replaced "sex-hang-ups," and I'm not going to retype a whole chapter in this dialogue. Anyone who is interested in why young women who feel a loss of control in the sexual realm turn to controlling their relationship with food will find all the evidence in Chapter 4 of my book, "New Perversions." You are certainly right that inner city girls have it worse, both when it comes to sexual harassment and rape. I'm not sure I understand your dig that those are not part of my "pet afflictions"; in the first part of my book I discuss all these problems--and the increase in stalking too--and make the point that the attack on modesty has hurt poor women even more. Abandoning the every-woman-a-lady philosophy has amounted to a regressive emotional tax on poor women, because rich women were always treated well. You're certainly right that eating disorders are an affliction of the affluent: Those who can barely afford to eat usually don't have this problem. Also, in the inner city, the welfare state complicates everything. It gives poor young women a temporary sense of control over the sexual realm--a guaranteed income per baby--but ultimately a very specious one.

If your point about Michael Wallis is that it's inconceivable to me that a man would ask a woman to marry him and that she would reject him, that's absurd. Yes, I am aware that men ask women to marry them, and the woman sometimes says no. Women have the right to say no to marriage without being slapped with a lawsuit, and modesty protected that no--it was a female prerogative.

In all our exchanges so far, you have made only one genuine point that was not just a caricature of my position: You expressed a concern that a culture which supported modesty would restrict woman's sexual options. This is actually a very interesting question. The problem--and the joy--of living in a society is that your behavior affects the choices open to others. When you're hunting and you shoot a gun, you can't just shoot it anywhere. There are rules. A culture that respected modesty was actually the most pro-choice toward women's sexual options. Example: When dorms were sex-separated and not coed, women could and did sneak in to have sex and sometimes this was more exciting. But now that dorms are coed, you can't sneak in and be modest. Or, to put it differently, you can't sneak out. There is no "right of exit" from an immodest culture. Women who have wanted to have sex have always been able to do it anyway. The difference is that a girl who wants to say no now has no social support. In a society where adultery is no big deal, and where there is no stigma attached to living together outside of marriage, a woman who wants to wait until marriage will find it hard to find a guy who will marry her without "trying her out" first. It's easy enough to say "everyone should do what they want," but the reality doesn't work that way. Today the culture stigmatizes virgins instead of adulteresses. What we value in women and men does matter, and it's a far deeper question than whether birth control should be legal.