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A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue Paperback – Bargain Price, January 24, 2000
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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 an alternate Paperback 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 an alternate Paperback edition.
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I wish I'd had this book before starting college - not that I have any actions that I regret or that would make Ms. Shalit fret, but because I felt like something was so wrong with me for not wanting to participate in the bandage-dress, spendthrift, "DGAF" culture that values "hot messes". In 1997, she wrote about issues that affected me in college in 2011. Her prescience and sharp observations reveal some commonalities among women that could very well be argued (as she did) as universal traits.
Tank tops and short shorts, live-tweeting, viral videos of personal moments, and breathless-confession blogging make us promiscuous in ways that have nothing to do with sex, forget the pressure to numb ourselves for unfulfilling casual sex. Ayn Rand referred to this once; the "promiscuity of sharing," if I remember correctly; and I wished that she had written even more on it. Wendy Shalit takes that phrase and runs with it. She praises privacy and those who practice it. The book is a breath of cold, clean, fresh air and an instant of quiet in a humid, sticky, crowded locker room full of clamoring bodies.
However, the delivery is almost insufferable. I'm the same age she was when she wrote this, and while I agree with a good deal of what she says, she sounds so terribly pompous that I can't imagine how she sounds to someone coming from a completely different worldview. The really brilliant ideas are interrupted often by her pearl-clutching interjections and bitter quips about her soul-less, dejected, easy peers. It's intellectually very intelligent, but emotionally childish and self-congratulatory. She is also outright wrong or totally biased in a few places - saying that Kathryn Harrison slept with her father "without a qualm" is entirely overlooking a memoir (did she miss the part about Harrison feeling so paralyzed by one kiss that she sat in the same chair for days, missing her class registration at Stanford?) that had to have been painful to write. It is quite long-winded, occasionally repetitive, and a bit disorganized. It is also almost entirely written from a Judeo-Christian perspective, which is fine, but if I hadn't been raised in that kind of religion, I would have either missed out on or been somewhat annoyed by references like the Fall with a Capital F.
I had to put this one down a few times to get through it. But, I am glad to have gotten through it. I usually like to just take books for what they are, but this one is a bag of trail mix with M&Ms to pick out. This is one to annotate and have on hand to refer to the best ideas (they are indeed in there).
Once I picked it up, it was a quick read -- and that's the first clue that this is really not a significant piece of cultural criticism. While I agree completely with her assertion that the main beneficiaries of the sexual revolution have been men, I found her relentless use of women's magazines as her only source of material (except, of course, her own personal stories, which are also thrown in pell-mell as some kind of validation) less than convincing.
Her writing is articulate and entertaining, and I suspect that when she is a bit older she will do great things. This book, however, is pretty fluffy, and will probably only speak to those who already feel as she does. There's nothing here for anyone who needs to be convinced.