Women of the younger, liberated generation have been raised to believe that being equal to men means being the same as men. Thus, they try hard to convince themselves that casual sex is harmless “fun” as long as they “play it safe.” In A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue, Wendy Shalit presents the radical notion that men and women are, yes, different. Men can engage in sexual activity without becoming emotionally attached. Women, Miss Shalit observes, generally cannot.

A young woman surrounded by casual sexuality all her life—from safe sex lessons (which she boycotted) in grade school to young men and women “hooking-up” serially and meaninglessly throughout college—Miss Shalit fails to observe the suppression of anyone’s wish for promiscuous sex. She is concerned that society ignores the fact that most women simply do not want as much random sex as possible. Consequently, she argues, women must often suppress their hopes and dreams and pretend not to be what they really are: women.

The reason women have to try so hard to be like men is because it does not come naturally, and women most often get hurt by giving their bodies to men who do not care about their souls. How unfair that men should have all the fun when the sexual revolution promised women that they could, too! But there is method in Mother Nature’s madness. Women are, by nature, equipped with a protection mechanism against such hurt: modesty. Modesty is what makes a woman instinctively pull back from sleeping with a man of whose lasting affections she is not sure. But a woman who refuses premarital sex today is usually counseled to overcome her “hangups”: Society no longer sanctions female modesty. “Before,” as Miss Shalit points out, “it was a woman’s prerogative to say no—she didn’t have to join some political rally to enjoy this right—while now it is a man’s prerogative to expect sex.” The reason most men used to respect physical rejection was that “female modesty gave men a frame of reference for a woman’s ‘no.'” Today, “taught from day one 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,” leading. Miss Shalit thinks, to the increase of “date rape” and violence against women.

Obsessive sex education in public schools and, to a lesser extent, pornography carry much of the blame for the devaluing of female modesty, says Miss Shalit. When, from early childhood, children are beaten over the head with the message that sexual activity is “healthy” and “normal” —outside any moral context of when and with whom it is appropriate—they feel that not engaging in such activity is unhealthy and abnormal. So the liberal agenda of freeing everyone of hang-ups and liberating women has resulted in women trying to act like “unpaid prostitutes” and in men treating them as such, to the horror of women besieged by predatory males. Like many conservatives before her. Miss Shalit correctly lays blame at the feet of feminists: “They want the men to be gentlemen without having to be ladies.” But she also hits conservatives with her insistence on some long-overdue responsibility of their own: “Conservatives, mostly men, for their part, want the women to be ladies, while still getting to do whatever they want, and clucking ‘boys will be boys.'”

Miss Shalit has another bone to pick with conservatives: the belittling of girls’ self-esteem problems, which often result in severe eating disorders and other forms of self-destruction. She presents case after case of girls as young as 13 who unhappily succumb to the social pressures of their peers and sleep with boys they hardly know, so they will not have to be ashamed of their sexual inexperience. Not too long ago, grown women had to hide any premarital sexual experience; today, schoolgirls have to conceal the fact that they are still virgins. This makes young girls so miserable. Miss Shalit argues, that more and more physically harm themselves, often through anorexia and bulimia. She has an interesting theory about eating disorders (one no less plausible than the feminists’ insistence that “the patriarchy makes them do it”): “In a culture that permits food hang-ups but not sex hang-ups, it’s become the new way for a girl to express her modesty, to restore distance between men and herself”

Despite its sad anecdotes, A Return to Modesty—unlike many feminist plaints—is not a sob story. Indeed it is not even a complaint, but a recognition of what has gone wrong—and how a bad situation can be fixed. “Any return to male courtesy must begin with a change in women.” From saying “no” to casual sex to saying “yes” to men opening doors for them, women should be “equal to men as women.” They must also rebuild the “cartel of virtue”—if women stop slamming doors on men’s fingers, men will not have to think twice before opening them, and if women stop engaging in casual sex, men will have to think twice before making crude advances.

But A Return to Modesty is not merely a utilitarian strategy to make men behave; nor is it prudish. It is above all romantic. Men do fall in love and want to be committed to one woman—if they have the chance to love her soul before they love her body. (And, yes, women enjoy sex too; they just prefer great sex with one man to bad sex with many.) Miss Shalit writes not to accuse, but to celebrate the very real and lasting romantic (and erotic) love that has existed between men and women, and still can today. With true charm, wit, and grace, she stands unabashedly by her insights into human nature and, at only 23, seems much wiser than the gaggle of feminists screeching that “sexism” is to blame for all of women’s troubles. Miss Shalit, in fact, advocates “a good dose of sexist upbringing” for children, because it is precisely the sexist recognition of differences between men and women that creates respect. Believing that women should be men is what makes a society misogynistic.

As succinctly as anyone could. Miss Shalit explains that

modesty is the proof that morality is sexy. It may even be the proof of God, because it means that we have been designed in such a way that when we humans act like animals, without any restraint and without any rules, we just don’t have as much fun.

And for any woman who ever felt there was something unnatural about our society’s “natural” preoccupation with sex, this book is the intimate confirmation that she is right.


[A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue, by Wendy Shalit (New York: The Free Press) 304 pp., $24.00]