Eight years ago, 23-year-old virgin Wendy Shalit spoke for the moral minority when she wrote A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue, a book bemoaning the lack of innocence and chastity in oversexed America. Not surprisingly, Shalit’s call for long skirts and abstinence until marriage enraged a bevy of feminists, ex-hippies and sex columnists. Her book incited hate mail and even death threats; Shalit was compared to everything from the Nazis to the Taliban. Now she has penned a sequel, Girls Gone Mild: Young Women Reclaim Self-Respect and Find It’s Not Bad to Be Good, which tracks a purportedly growing movement of women who are fed up with our society’s hypersexualization of girls.
Since its release, Girls Gone Mild has been getting some interesting, and tentatively flattering, press. Maybe it’s because, at face value, Shalit has a few good points–there is something undeniably creepy about a 10-year-old girl in a thong. My stomach does sink a little when I see one of my peers woozily stripping her clothes off on a Girls Gone Wild commercial. And do I want Paris Hilton to be a future role model for my daughter? Hell no. The fact is, many young women are dissatisfied with casual sex, feel ambivalent about the fruits of the sex revolution and buckle under the unwanted pressure to be supersexual. But in searching for a happy sexual medium, is a goody-two-shoes like Shalit all we’ve got?
Shalit and other conservative authors, like Laura Sessions Stepp (Unhooked), Dawn Eden (The Thrill of the Chaste) and Lauren Winner (Real Sex: The Naked Truth About Chastity), are completely convinced that sex is never fulfilling unless it is within a loving, supportive marriage. Shalit faults the media and third-wave feminists for leading young women off the track and for presenting promiscuous, scantily clad women as confident and empowered. She claims that it is now the daughters, not the mothers, who are put off by these types of role models.
Shalit’s so-called “rebels” amid our “pornified” culture may be technically raging against the mainstream, but they are surely just repackaging age-old ideas as defiance. They appear in the form of 16-year-old rappers preaching abstinence, Orthodox Jewish women getting married before even touching their husbands and a teenager getting her knickers in a twist over reading the word “titties” in her assigned reading. Most retro about the call for modesty is that it once again implies that women’s actions are somehow responsible for men’s. Since men simply cannot control themselves, poor things, women should shroud their bodies in cloth and desperately guard their virginity so as to quash men’s dishonorable intentions. These are the strong, “empowered” women who will quell the supposedly adverse effects of our sex-saturated culture.
You have to be living under a rock not to notice that casual sex, once an expression of a subversive impulse, is now certifiably pop culture. Since the 1960s, sex–like everything from rock music to the psychedelic aesthetic–has been mainstreamed. But it’s a dubious claim that these images and ideals are really breeding mindless sex machines. “If we have to choose between emotional repression and sexual repression…then a better trade-off seems to be fewer partners and more intimacy,” concludes Shalit. But the idea that a woman who has lots of sexual partners forgoes her chance of finding “intimacy” and a “soul mate” is not only sanctimonious–it’s just not true. Ninety-five percent of Americans have sex before marriage, so chances are a good number of the bikini-clad women making out with strangers at Cancun foam parties will be married with kiddies at the age of 30. The hookup culture isn’t a sign of a loveless, commitment-free society–it doesn’t even provide an alternative to matrimony.