Should Women Be More Modest?

Should Women Be More Modest?

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
Feb. 5 1999 10:30 PM

Should Women Be More Modest?

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Dear Wendy:

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Well, here we are at the end of our exchange (which I, for one, have certainly enjoyed). And we haven't even got into such topics as your admiration for Rousseau as a philosopher of sexual difference. (Does it matter that Rousseau took for granted male political, economic, and social dominance, and believed that the woman's leverage was to keep her legs together--before and, as much as possible, after marriage? Does it matter that he was a misogynist who had a very low opinion of women's minds, and forced his semiliterate wife Thérèse to give all six of their children away to an orphanage?)

Regarding the Glamour story: I am not enough of a Freudian to be convinced that forgetting the birth control pills is a telltale sign of changing one's mind. You mention that the girl "begins screaming" back at the hotel. Actually, according to the young man who penned this lovely story--the appearance of which in print is indeed a sign of civilization's decline--she screamed at the sight of his, ahem, prodigious manhood. (Now there's a man who could clearly use some lessons in modesty.) And it's also worth mentioning that because of the girl's nervousness, the defloration never did take place that night.

Since I get the last word, I don't want to take advantage of my position to score unanswered points (though I do wish you could explain why what you say on TV is irrelevant). Instead, I want to say a few words about the message of my book, Ceasefire. In one of your earlier posts, you said that I "don't make a positive case for anything." It is true that much of my book is a critique--of modern feminism, which I believe in its present form is an obstacle to equal partnership between the sexes, and of conservative anti-feminism, which often careens between good ol' male chauvinism and quasifeminist preoccupation with women's victimization. However, I conclude my book with a series of positive proposals, though many of them probably not to your liking--such as, "When making judgments that involve gender, try a mental exercise reversing the sexes." (For instance, would we cheer a movie about three ex-husbands taking revenge on the wives who dumped them?)

I also propose that we condemn women behaving badly as much as we condemn men behaving badly. Incidentally, this does not require blindness to general differences in male and female patterns of behavior. Men are more likely to dump a spouse who has lost her physical attractiveness; women, to dump a spouse who has lost his well-paying job. Different, but equally bad.

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A vision of men and women as human beings who don't have to be the same in every way--there's no need to be obsessed with having equal numbers of men and women engaged in every human activity--but are individuals first and foremost is, to me, very positive. If may sound simplistic; but I think it's far more challenging than to file people, with their unique personalities, under pink and blue labels. This is not "androgyny" (I don't see aggressive and competitive women as unwomanly, or warm and emotionally vulnerable men as unmanly). It is certainly not the strange feminist creed which simultaneously holds that men and women are exactly the same and than women are innocents and men are beasts. The world is not a "bleak, gray monotone" but a glorious palette of many colors, in which both women and men can have all kinds of emotions and responses. As I write in Ceasefire, "A world divided into pink and blue would be only marginally less oppressive than a world of khaki uniforms."

What can an individuality-based philosophy of gender tell us about sexual ethics? I think it can tell us that sex has the potential to generate powerful emotions and thus should not be trifled with. Male or female, we should, before becoming sexually involved with another person, consider that we or the other person can be hurt. What should a man do if a flighty female friend asks for his advice about dating a male friend of his whom he knows to be vulnerable to heartbreak? Should he--as a man I know did in such a situation--tell her to leave the guy alone unless she wants more than a casual fling? Or should he, as your principles would perhaps suggest, tell her that, being a woman, she couldn't possibly want only a short fling and is only deceiving herself if she thinks she does? Or maybe just explain that sexually nonchalant women and rejection-sensitive men are the exception that proves the rule?

It's hard to tell whether gender antagonism is greater today than before the sexual revolution; it may be that we are simply discussing these issues more. (Sociologist Eugene Kanin found fairly high rates of what we now call "date rape" on college campuses in the 1950s, and one can argue whether such assaults are due more to the "liberated" belief that a woman wants the same things out of a sexual encounter as a man or to the traditional belief that a woman who really wants sex will say no out of feminine modesty.)

I think one problem young people face today--in addition to the precocious sexualization that I agree is not good--is a dizzying shift in norms and expectations. Girls are caught between cultural messages that celebrate aggressive female sexuality and the lingering double standard (somehow, you never acknowledge that many teenage girls still dread being branded a slut). Boys are caught between macho notions of what it means to be a red-blooded male, and the feminist stigmatization of male sexuality as almost inherently abusive. No wonder many are dazed and confused. But I think we must go forward toward personal responsibility and mutual respect, not back to rigid and sex-specific rules of morality.

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On some things, of course, our advice to boys and girls must be sex-specific. Young men should be raised to understand that if they get a woman pregnant, they cannot walk away; young women, to understand that if they get pregnant, they cannot shut the father out of any decision they make. But basic decency and respect for others are not "gendered" virtues. While I have no problem with male gestures of gallantry such as opening doors for women, I do oppose chivalry when it goes beyond small ritual courtesies and results in women being held less accountable for their actions, or in women's problems being treated as more worthy of compassion than men's.

It is this kind of chivalry that, I argue in Ceasefire, is prevalent today on both sides of the political spectrum. (The Clinton scandals provide an amusing illustration: Republicans wring their hands over the violated rights of Paula Jones and portray more-than-willing Monica Lewinsky as a seduced maiden, Democrats wring their hands over Monica's mom and denounce Ken Starr for not being nice to his female targets.) The agenda of liberal feminism is almost entirely dominated by paternalistic concerns: sexual harassment (defined so as to include not only sexual extortion or coercion but basically any expression of male sexuality in the workplace or the academy), violence against women (funny how the same people who want to send women into combat are outraged by the notion that women can be aggressors as well as victims in domestic violence), protections for divorced mothers (despite ample evidence that it's mostly divorced fathers who get the shaft). And conservatives seem to have adopted the perverse strategy of arguing that every social trend they deplore, whether it's the sexual revolution or easy divorce, has harmed women--reinforcing the mentality that, as I put it in my book, "bad things matter more when they happen to good women."

Sexuality is not my book's primary focus, but I do mention an excellent 1983 article in Psychology Today by writer and psychotherapist Peter Marin--a critique of the sexual revolution that did not pit men against women but argued that the separation of sexuality from intimacy, and the stripping of mystery and privacy away from sex, had hurt men and women alike. The only difference he had noticed, wrote Marin, is that "men are less articulate, feel less justified than women in their public complaints." Your book, I think, provides additional proof of this. You talk about the complexity of emotion that people bring to sex, but ultimately you seem to recognize only female emotion. And this monocular vision greatly detracts from the good and valid points that you make. Maybe next time, I will be moved by your work--if your next book recognizes (and not just in a couple of throwaway lines) that men have feelings too.

Best wishes,

Cathy