Should Women Be More Modest?

Should Women Be More Modest?

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
Feb. 5 1999 10:00 PM

Should Women Be More Modest?

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Dear Cathy,

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Of course I am perfectly aware of who Gilda Radner is. I just found it telling that what occurred to you first when confronted with women who are on Prozac was her "Never mind!" The character you're talking about, I think, was Emily Litella, who was actually deaf (referring to "violins on television," the problem of "Soviet jewelry," and "eagle rights"). She was always misunderstanding and focusing on the irrelevant detail. In fact, re-reading our exchange, while I wouldn't go as far as to call you the Emily Litella of postfeminism, I do think you continually misunderstand me and focus on irrelevancies. (Melodramatically calling upon me to apologize to all men, for instance, or by invoking my appearance on TV.)

Perhaps in attempting to educate me about the '70s you are alluding to the real source of our differences: our generation gap. I grew up with early sex education, with the let-it-all-hang out philosophy in full swing. With Helen Gurley Brown telling me to keep a married man or two as a pet, and with Naomi Wolf advising me I should liberate my "shadow slut." To me that's just boring, and I've grown sick of all the adults telling me to be bad all the time. That's why I became interested in modesty, because I thought it provided a wonderful alternative to the terrible advice young women get nowadays. I think because you grew up in a different time, maybe you're just not as familiar with--and hence not as bothered by--the institutionalized legacy of the '60s.

You are absolutely right that the 18-year-old daughter in the Glamour story called her boyfriend and said that she wanted to consummate their relationship. Nobody is claiming that her boyfriend raped her. But this is precisely what made the story so interesting to me, for on the way to the hotel, the same daughter whose idea this was begins to change her mind. First she tells her dad that she forgot her birth control pills--hinting that she wants to go back home--and after the father takes her home to pick up the pills, and deposits her at the hotel, she begins screaming. That's what makes this story such a perfect illustration of what I'm talking about: Sex for young women is ambivalent, driven by emotion, guilt, obligations, insecurities, and lots of peer pressure. It is, to be sure, for boys too, but for girls even more so because of female modesty. The role of the parent, therefore, is to assert authority and distinguish right from wrong, not just to unctuously enable the daughter to do whatever she thinks she wants.

Of course there are options other than virginity and promiscuity. Modesty is not about mere virginity, as anyone who takes the time to read my book would know. (Married women can carry themselves with a lot of dignity, and virgins can be immodest.) Modesty is a much richer notion. It's about protecting sexual vulnerability, privacy, mystery, and the possibility of enduring love. You write as if my book were some bitter rant, when in fact it's about the beauty of modesty across art and culture. Yes, I do think that the postmodern sexual landscape littered with dreary "hookups" has left young women disappointed, but that is just the beginning of the story. If we tell them, for instance, that embarrassment and romantic hope and sensitivity are all valuable emotions, instead of things to be ashamed of, their problems needn't be permanent ones. Today sexual reticence is often associated with repression instead of mystery, but in my book I argue that modesty is an erotic virtue, that without any concealment there is nothing to surrender. I trace the debate between Rousseau and David Hume on whether sexual modesty is natural or socially constructed, I analyze men's and women's modest bathing suits on turn-of-the-century Coney Island, I talk about contemporary young men and women who are having a great time ballroom dancing and trekking to Jane Austen movies, and embracing the very codes of conduct that their parents rejected. I also discuss male honor and modesty and how this ideal was related to female modesty (today we compete at the game of vulgarity, but we used to compete at how dignified we could be).

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In the introduction to my book, I am critical of some libertarians and conservatives who devote all their time to talking about how the feminists are exaggerating, but never present a positive case for how the sexes can relate to one another. Frankly, in this debate you have enacted exactly the phenomenon I was describing. Part 1 of my book is called "The Problem," Part 2 is "The Forgotten Ideal," and Part 3 is "The Return." Ninety-five percent of your argument is obsessed with saying no problems exist at all--or if they do exist, the boys have it worse. But even if we grant you all your numbers, and your boys, and grant that harassment, rape, eating disorders, self-mutilation, etc., burden just a small percentage of girls, I don't think, as you seem to, that this is the end of the story. I'd like to see a society where none of these problems exist. For every study you cite that implies everything is fine and dandy, I have a different study in my book showing why things are not fine, and that, moreover, a majority of women wish they had waited longer before rushing into sex. All studies show that women who have high self-respect generally have fewer sexual partners. Sure some boys wish they had waited longer too, but not as many. Why? At a certain point one must step back from the percentages and examine human nature.

Of course all women are not victims--in fact, most women are not victims. And all men are not rapists. However, all rapists are men, because women are more sexually vulnerable and can be overpowered. To acknowledge this is not to blame the men, but appreciate the importance of civilizing them.

The problem is that if we ignore sexual difference--as you recommend--then we can't teach boys how to relate to girls, how to respect their modesty. On the contrary, then we end up with more of these problems, with more gender antagonism. That's been the history of the last 30 years, for even you grant that however small is the percentage of these problems, there's been an increase over the past. Our pursuit of androgyny has not aided the task of socializing our males. If emphasizing difference is what has created gender antagonism, as you posit, then why has antagonism increased over the most androgynous 30 years in our history? Clearly it's androgyny which is causing the antagonism, and the reason is simple: it's rather difficult to turn around suddenly and try to teach men to be gentle around women, when we have been training them all along to assume that women are the same. If men are brought up, as today's boys are, believing that girls always want the same thing as they do from sexual encounters, then they are that much more likely to be impatient with a woman's "no." Modesty is simply about the right to say no. Without modesty as a frame of reference, but instead taught from Day 1 that women are always as ready to receive advances as they are eager to make them, the modern male always takes a "no" as a personal rebuke. No wonder date-rape is such a problem on college campuses. With our differences denied and suppressed, sex becomes "no big deal," and brutality increases.

At best, the world you posit is a bleak, gray monotone, it seems to me, without any of the texture and variation that makes sexual emotion such a complex human emotion.

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But I also suspect that there's a larger issue at stake here. The questions I talk about in my book all relate to human nature, the big questions such as, how should I live? When's the right time to sleep with my boyfriend or girlfriend? How do I know if I should go on the Pill? Your largely dismissive attitude towards these questions confirms my sense of some libertarians today. There are many I admire, and in fact I should admit that once I considered myself a libertarian in high school, but eventually I came to think that there were so many more fascinating questions in life other than should the government intervene? Of course, the early classical liberals were very much interested in questions of human nature--male and female nature, how one should live, etc. Even Ludwig von Mises writes in Socialism that "free love is the socialist's radical solution for sexual problems." And, "for the woman--her destiny is completely circumscribed by sex; in man's life it is but an incident." You may agree or disagree with Mises, but at least he took these questions seriously. He didn't just say, well, the government mustn't intervene, and the women mustn't complain.

If libertarians don't want the government to intervene, presumably they'd allow people to cultivate virtue or at the very least, be allowed to talk about it. After all, the only reason the government ends up intervening (as in sexual harassment law) is because the heavy hand of the government is attempting to substitute for the more supple cultural codes--but no. Even to talk about morality, human nature, women's nature, men's nature, seems to get some libertarians furious and hostile. Why? That's the broader question I'd like to leave you with.

Now for some housekeeping. I think we may be referring to different sections in my book when it comes to male honor and virgins (I was referring to Page 12). If I misunderstood what you were talking about, I certainly do apologize.

And to answer your other question, the fifth prong of your attack you were wondering about appeared in a 1996 Detroit News column. But I certainly don't consider you a "literary stalker," as you write in your first message. I'm thrilled by how closely you've been following my writing. Even if my book didn't strike a chord with you, who knows? Maybe next time!

All best,

Wendy