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A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue Paperback – January 24, 2000

3.9 out of 5 stars 203 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

The 23-year-old author first heard of "modestyniks"--Orthodox Jewish women who withhold physical contact from men until marriage--while a freshman at Williams College. She was initially fascinated by the way in which they cleave to old ideals, especially amid a sexually saturated contemporary world. But more so, Wendy Shalit was aghast at how modestyniks are dismissed as sick, delusional, or repressed by the secular community. "Why," asks the author, "is sexual modesty so threatening to some that they can only respond to it with charges of abuse or delusion?"

In her thoughtful three-part essay, the author reveals an impressive reading list as she probes the cultural history of sexual modesty for women and considers whether this virtue may be beneficial in today's world--if not an antidote to misogyny. In an age when women are embarrassed by sexual inexperience, when sex education is introduced as early as primary school, and when women suffer more than ever from eating disorders, stalking, sexual harassment, and date rape, Shalit believes a return to modesty may place women on equal footing with men. She yearns for a time when conservatives can believe the claims of feminists and feminists can differentiate between patriarchy and misogyny and share in the dialectic of female sexuality.

While the young author's argument is often limited by naiveté and her own lack of experience, her profound intelligence and daring are undeniable. A Return to Modesty is a thought-provoking debut that introduces an original and exciting new feminist thinker. --Kera Bolonik --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Kirkus Reviews

A heartfelt (and controversial) plea, insisting that the power to heal the American female's ills lies in the reinstatement of sexual restraint, resurrection of romantic ideals, and simple good manners. Twenty-three-year-old Williams College graduate Shalit, whose 15 minutes of fame arrived when her red-faced critique of co-ed bathrooms on campus reached the pages of Reader's Digest, has produced a daring book aimed at the core of contemporary gender theory. Shalit demonstrates familiarity with both conservative and feminist explanations of women's problems such as eating disorders, teen pregnancy, date rape, and stalking, but presents what she terms a ``middle path'' to elucidating and curing these problems. It is natural for women to be modest, she argues, and low self-esteem and disrespect from men were natural consequences of the promotion of sexual promiscuity among young people of both sexes. There is true compassion for womens sense of self in her critique of premarital sexual practices, and she insists that while male behavior is often unacceptable and degrading to women, men are only acting rationally within the constraints of popular expectations. She finds that despite the stigma placed on modesty today some traces remain, pointing towards the primordial defenses that once protected women by placing them out of reach of men who were not prepared to commit and treat them with respect. Orthodox Jewish rules of modesty and Islamic dress provide Shalit with material to show the benefits of restraint in male-female relations: it puts women in control of access to their bodies, allows them to preserve the beauty of their romantic aspirations, compels men to invest themselves in relationships, and enhances the erotic potential of eventual intimacy, she says. The message of this book is rarely heard, it is audacious, and it should not be dismissed out of handdespite Shalit's occasional reliance on women's magazines such as Mademoiselle and Elle as a source of information on the state of the American female soul. -- Copyright ©1998, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Touchstone; New Ed edition (January 24, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0684863170
  • ISBN-13: 978-0684863177
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.8 x 8.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (203 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,012,972 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Wendy Shalit was born and raised in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She began writing "A Return to Modesty" as an undergrad at Williams College, where she received her B.A. in Philosophy in 1997.

Shalit's essays on literary and cultural topics have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Slate, and other publications. Her second book, "The Good Girl Revolution" (Random House) came out in 2008, and her work has been translated into several languages.

She has also debated her views on NPR, at the Oxford Union, and most recently, with her three lively and opinionated children.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
I actually took the time to peruse all the 115 reviews written on the book before I wrote this review and one thing is VERY clear to me: most of the naysayers aren't young women. And I think I know why. It's because the average young woman is afraid to read this book. After I finished it, I was seized by the urge to buy it for all my girlfriends, and then I realized most of them wouldn't appreciate it, probably would never even open it. Why? Because then they would have to listen to the little voice inside that says something is amiss in today's sexual politics and it's the women that are getting screwed. And then they'd have to deal with it, and that's hard. What Wendy Shalit has done is HARD. You have to be a young woman to appreciate the enormity of it. If you're fifty, or a man, or live in Smalltown USA, I support your right to an opinion, but at least admit that without experiencing what Shalit's talking about, you don't have a real foundation for calling what she says hogwash.
Are some of the criticisms valid? Most assuredly. Her writing leaves much to be desired, and the book often reads like a college paper. And so the research wasn't particularly outstanding, and (as all people making an argument do) she puts her own spin on the quotes on to make her point. I don't even know if I believe modesty is the answer to today's ills, and I definitely don’t support paternalism and a return to the patriarchy. (And, yes her references to her economist father irritate me too; I don't know what that has to do with anything)
BUT, what Wendy Shalit is saying about how today's sexual culture is eating young women alive is DEAD ON.
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I bought this book on a recommendation so I wasn't too sure what to expect. Some of Ms. Shalit's experiences growing up in the public school system mirrored some of my own. Looking back, sex education, at least the way it was done in my school system, encouraged promiscuity through experimentation and left girls open to harassment. Sexuality became a contest for many at my school. It was a competition. Those who chose to not be sexually active were often pressured and made fun of due to their decision. I agree that our culture "sexualizes" our children far too early.

Reading this book resolved any question I had about how my daughter would be guided. Modesty in behavior and dress is not something to be ridiculed. When you have mothers dressing their own children in a provocative manner just because other teenagers are dressing that way, you just have to wonder. I am not advocating that women be subordinate or be treated badly. Dignity and respect are what I expect for all women. When a woman is valued, even by herself, for her sexuality above all else, some deep thought needs to take place.

I applaud Ms. Shalit for being brave and honest with herself in order to write this book.
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Format: Paperback
A person who knows the thought of only his own time and country is like the frog in the Chinese proverb who looks at the sky from a well. Shalit makes good use of Jane Austen and other voices of sanity from eras bygone, including Jewish tradition, to launch a revolution against one of the most provincial and demeaning errors of our day: the "boys (and girls) will be boys" view of sexuality, that the only problems with promiscuity are STDs and unwanted pregancies, and those can be solved. She could have found a more holistic and human view of sex in other cultures as well as other eras, that aren't so nutty as our own in this particular way.

Admittedly, critics get in a few good licks below. Shalit repeats herself too much: the book should have been shortened by 20 pages. She portrays men as tending towards rudeness, filth, and animimalism as pigs tend towards mud; which seems a bit over the top.

But Shalit writes well and boldly. Her stories are fascinating; and frankly, American adults deserve the scolding she gives. Having unearthed strong supporting evidence that monogamy leads to better health, happiness, and even sexual fulfillment (for my book, Jesus and the Religions of Man), I also think the evidence is on Shalit's side. If I could, I might give a copy of this book to every high school girl in the country. (As a teacher, I am often faced with displays of student immodesty. Maybe I'd lose my job, but sometimes I would like to tell some of the girls, "You come to class dressed that way, and sure, you'll attract attention. But I also hear you saying, 'I don't think much of myself, and don't expect you to respect me, either.
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Format: Paperback
Okay, the author is young. Fine. Sure, she's inexperienced. Fine. And this book began life as a college paper. Frankly, if any college paper deserved to be published and mass-marketed, this is the one.
We're not talking erudition here, but a refreshing, daring, nearly-in-your-face look at a heretofore unseen culture -- ours. What would happen, people wondered many, many years ago, if sex were free? If sexual relationships didn't have to be legitimized by church or state to exist without public scorn? Wouldn't it be wonderful? These were not just male writers, understand, but also well-educated women who yearned for what seemed impossible, different, liberating.
Fast-forward a few decades, and the impossible has become all too possible. Here we are, folks, and guess what? It's not different, it's the same old banal same old. It's not liberating, to feel stuck in a culture that benefits some while treating others as disposable wipes. And it's for sure not free. The costs of the devaluation of modesty, as Shalit makes clear, have been enormous.
Societal costs range from the spread of AIDS to increasing rape to pre-pubertal girls being hit on by boys whose testosterone has only begun to flower, leaving their brains well behind. The personal costs, though, accompany all this, as every statistic is the sum of personal stories, the kind women tell women and men rarely believe.
I've been very lucky. I was divorced several years ago, and until recently was too heartsore and terribly busy for even dating. Thus I avoided sexual pressure. Was it lonely? Frustrating? You betcha. But the benefits of being forced to wait, I see now, outweighed any fleeting pleasure I might have attained.
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