Posted by: Nathan | July 18, 2007

A Return to Modesty

returntomodesty.jpgWe live in an overly-sexed culture. Sex is ubiquitous in America; it’s on TV all the time, from Sex and the City to anything on MTV* to network programming to ABC Family’s new show Greek (yeah, nothing says family programming like college co-eds having casual sex). Sex is in magazines, movies, books, and conversation. Even the Academy has thrown its support behind promiscuity, arguing that it’s natural and that casual sex means freedom. I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve heard the following line in a move: “I haven’t had sex for (insert reasonable amount of time)!” So we are bombarded with the messages: “Have more sex with everyone!”; “Don’t get attached!”; “There aren’t any consequences!”.

Into this fray walks Wendy Shalit and her small book A Return to Modesty, which undoes and undermines just about all of the above. Shalit is the small voice that our culture would like to ignore but cannot because…well…she’s right.

I usually don’t read non-fiction, but Modesty came recommended from one of my Bethel profs, so I picked it up the other week and tore through it. Every page finds Shalit speaking against the hurricane of sexuality and being more convincing. She is comprehensive in her approach, citing history, philosophy, literature, magazines, and TV shows. She addresses so many issues relating to the storm of sex: early sex ed, condoms in school, revealing clothes, the role of men, feminist thought, co-ed dorms, lack of parental concern, fear of loneliness, faithfulness, egalitarianism vs. equality, et al. I’m being far too broad, so I’ll just quote some passages.

“And so I think many young women now have a vastly inaccurate picture of what is normal for them to think or to feel. They have been trained to accept that to be equal to men, they must be the same in every respect; and they, and the men, are worse off for it” (11).

“The best protection against rape, stalking, and domestic violence is to raise men who both understand that women are different, and would never dare take advantage of this difference” (44).

“Why, if our girls are so liberated, are we telling them that they don’t really know their own minds? If they tell us they don’t like casual sex, why do we tell them that they need to be having more of it?” (66).

“[…] I came to feel that there was a certain misogyny behind the sexual revolution. Yes, dear, you can be a bitch**, you can be a slut, you can sleep around as much as you want, and you can pretend to be a man, but you’re not allowed to be this [modest]” (88).

“[In the 19th Century] A man who did not respect female modesty wasn’t more manly–he was less of a man. A man who had intercourse with a woman without being absolutely sure of her consent (what now goes by ‘date rape’) wasn’t displaying his masculinity, only his immaturity. He was announcing, in effect, that he didn’t understand what it meant to be a man” (150).

“Modesty damps down crudeness, it doesn’t dampen dwon Eros. In fact, it is more likely in enkindle it” (173). ***

“‘If it feels good, do it,’ was the motto of of the sixties, and after we did it, we found it no longer felt good. We thought that giving up extra-erotic considerations would liberate the erotic, but in fact it spoiled it entirely” (191).

“This unrelenting stream of injunctions to be independent seems to be a defense mechanism, furiously trying to mask, but not concealing, the sad truth that even if we want to depend on someone else we would be hard-pressed to find some to really depend on” (214).

Really, I feel as if most of the book is worthy of quoting. Shalit is almost always spot on. The only place where she and I diverge is on the role of men and modesty. She posits that if women become modest first, men will be inspired and follow. While I’m sure this is true, it does not put enough onus on the men. Guys need to start out respecting their female counterparts and saving themselves for marriage as well. If both genders seek modesty at once, the change will be much faster and more effective.

Some final notes. Shalit’s book is directed toward women, but not in such a way that I felt like an interloper. Really, if I could implement this book in public schools, I would. I’m certainly going to have my kids read it some day. Secondly, the author really directs this book to women who are dissatisfied with the pro-sex and anti-romance culture in which they live; I suppose there will be women who strongly disagree with Shalit’s point of view, but I’m unsure if they are being honest with themselves.

In sum, A Return to Modesty is a tour-de-force of counter-cultural truth (yes, I said the “T-word”). Shalit gives voice to a generation of young people who don’t know why the life they lead is meaningless or knew but couldn’t express it. Be bold! Be courageous! Save sex until marriage! This book is an A, 9.4/10.

*Is it my imagination, or does the “M” in MTV stand for “music?” I admit that finding real music is no easy task today, but every time I flip past “M”TV, there’s another disgusting reality show on. Can we find some music, please?

**I might have to edit this quote if I get more of those obscene comments.

***Shalit cites a U of Chicago survey: monogamous married couples had the highest sexual satisfaction, while unmarrieds and those with multiple partners had the lowest. She also quotes Redbook, which found that “the most strongly religious women were ‘more responsive sexually’ than all other women” (171). Hmm. It’s almost enough to make you think God knows what he’s talking about.


  1. Thanks for your the suggestion on the book and the comments. I will be looking further into the book. We are presently talking as elders how to approach the topic in the realm of dress without drawing legalistic lines because it is an issue of the heart — as you indicated. Thank you for a resource for us to access. As usual, I enjoy reading what you write.

  2. Sounds interesting. I wonder what she means by “egalitarianism vs. equality”. I might just have to pick up a copy at the library today.

  3. Uncle Lynn, I actually thought of you and Aunt L when I read this. You guys would love this book.

    The egalitarianism vs. equality was my wording not Shalit’s, but what I’m referring to is the difference between saying both genders are exactly the same (“the androgeny project” as Shalit calls it) and that both genders are different but equally valuable.

    The author discusses a class in philosophy when she discovered that she was an essentialist, i.e. one who believes that men and women have inherent differences; naturally, she was frowned upon for having such a sexist viewpoint. Ridiculous.

  4. This sounds like a good (and, in many ways, timely) book. Thanks for the review. I can always count on AQ to hook me up phat.

  5. Very good comments on our Overly-Sexed Culture. It is good to hear about a book that takes us back to the basics and also to the way God intended relationships between man and woman to be.

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