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.
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What the hookup culture does reveal is an unconscious impulse to somehow redefine sex for our current cultural climate. To say that the stars of Girls Gone Wild and the fifth graders looking up to Britney Spears are simply victims of media saturation or feminists gone crazy is insulting. Regardless of the (sometimes harmful) results of one-night stands or sex before high school, these women are looking to experiment, to find a contrast to immediate, eternal companionship. Maybe these sexually precocious girls who fervently imitate sexualized twentysomething role models are picking up on the element of fun that sexiness can bring to everyday life.
How do feminists fit into the modesty debate? Well, awkwardly. Second-wave feminists, who made it possible for women to take control of their own sex lives, are at a loss for words when asked to comment on young women’s early, sometimes ill-fated, forays into sex. As Ariel Levy points out in her book Female Chauvinist Pigs, the “new feminism”–pole-dancing and breast implants as empowerment–can often obscure how far we haven’t come. The culture has not yet carved out a space for women to indulge their own fantasies rather than to fulfill those of men. Feminism has not finished its job; a version of nonmushy, nonmarital sex that makes women feel good about themselves is still hard to achieve.
Yet as a feminist, it’s hard for me to concede these things to Shalit, who glorifies the chivalry and comforting gender roles of the 1950s. The disturbing, almost automatic dichotomy of “bad girl” and “good girl” in Shalit’s prose–and in the cultural conversation about women and sex–seems to assert that one can’t reject the wild without embracing the mild, that there’s nobody who lies between born-again virgins and Lolitas. Give us a little credit–plenty of young women walk the tightrope between the two extremes. They bounce between thrilling flings, masochistic indefinable affairs and long-term fulfilling relationships without, as modesty advocates claim, sacrificing their self-respect. It takes maturity and self-awareness, but many women take sexual mistakes in stride while still feeling ultimately satisfied with their sex (and, yes, love) lives.
Forced expectations, whether the pressure to be sexual or the pressure to be chaste, always hurt. Some women do feel a burden to be too sexual too early, and they should not be shunned for choosing otherwise. But just because feminists should acknowledge unhappy teen girls doesn’t mean they should have to denounce the gains of the sexual revolution. Sexual liberation forever expanded the definition of “good sex,” which is precisely the legacy in danger of being reversed by sexual conservatives.
The question remains after all these years: Why should sex have an everlasting warranty of love attached to it? Sex is the ultimate risk, a risk that makes human relationships complicated, intoxicating and wonderful. It is a risk that women are finally allowed to take without being chastised for it. And if young women choose to keep their sexuality under wraps, fine. Girls deserve the space to figure out a sexual reality that makes them happy, rather than dwelling on the difference between “Madonna” and “whore”–and deciding which is worse.