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
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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.
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