• Eight years ago, Wendy Shalit published A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue and became the Nice Girl Aging Feminists Love to Loathe. Then she got married, became a mother and launched a Web site, ModestyZone.net, that allows young women who feel ill at ease with the postmodern regime of casual sex to meet in cyberspace, put their hair up and blog about their discontents. Now she’s back in bookstores with a sequel to A Return to Modesty, and I have little doubt that Girls Gone Mild: Young Women Reclaim Self-Respect and Find It’s Not Bad to Be Good (Random House, 352 pp., $25.95) will make at least as many people as mad as did its predecessor.
The puzzling thing about this anger is that Shalit sounds nothing like the baby Savonarola of her critics’ nightmares. Not only is her style even-tempered, sweetly reasonable, and full of pleasing glints of dry wit, but she is no zealot, at least not in the usual sense of the word. Nowhere in her writings, for instance, does she suggest that sexually active teenagers should be arrested, or strapped into electroshock units and zapped until they agree to stop sleeping around. So why did Katha Pollitt feel moved to propose that the good-humored author of A Return to Modesty be put in charge of designing “new spandex chadors for female olympians?”
The answer, of course, is that a great many contemporary women have come to feel deeply equivocal about the fruits of the sexual revolution. Nothing scares an ideologue quite so much as heresy—especially if she’s been harboring secret doubts of her own. Shalit puts it neatly in her new book: “Although we live in a supposedly liberated age, our hysterical witch-hunting of those who question our ideal of recreational sex suggests something else: that our liberation does not extend quite as far as we imagine.”
As for Girls Gone Mild, it contains more than enough horror stories about the immodest way we live now to sew considerable additional doubt on the part of anyone not actively inclined to pedophilia:
Bratz Babyz makes a “Babyz Nite Out” doll garbed in fishnet stockings, a hot-pink micromini, and a black leather belt. To look “funkalish” (whatever that means), the baby also sports a tummy-flaunting black tank paired with a hot-pink cap. Dare one ask what is planned for “Babyz Nite Out” and what, exactly, she is carrying in her metal-studded purse? Is it pacifiers, or condoms? It might be both: “These Babyz demand to be lookin’ good on the street, at the beach, or chillin’ in the crib!” The dolls are officially for ages “four-plus,” but they are very popular among two- and three-year-old girls as well.
But Girls Gone Mild is not a Roger Kimball-style tour d’horizon of the approaching apocalypse. Instead, Shalit has drawn on the considerable body of e-mail she has received at ModestyZone.net since its launch in 1999 to write an intelligent, illuminating, and unexpectedly optimistic book about those young women who have chosen to opt out of the revolution. They are looking, she says, for “a new set of role models,” and so Girls Gone Mild also contains profiles of several young women, most of whom are black, who have publicly broken ranks with the hookup culture.
I like a good cultural horror story as much as the next Cassandra, but it is these profiles that turn out to be the most provocative part of Girls Gone Mild. Why are young black women playing such prominent roles in the abstinence movement? One of the few people willing to talk to Shalit about this fact was a “prominent sociologist” who insisted, not surprisingly, on remaining safely nameless:
The fact is, black women have paid the heaviest price from the sexual revolution in the United States. There are many socioeconomic reasons for this, but both as individuals and in their communities as a whole, they now see the value of abstinence as a way to renew family life.
A teacher at Spelman College, one of America’s best-known historically black colleges, put it more bluntly—and on the record:
African American women are the largest racial group of single mothers in America. Add the STD [sexually transmitted disease] and HIV/AIDS epidemics and it just makes sense. Marriage in the African American community is at an all-time low.
All good to know, though the question begs itself: is Wendy Shalit describing a counter-revolution in the making, or merely indulging in anecdote-driven wishful thinking? It happens that I know quite a few under-40 single women, most of whom are unwilling to curtail their premarital philandering even though they admit that the sexual revolution gave men the upper hand.
On the other hand, I don’t know any teenagers of either sex, and it surprised me to read in Girls Gone Mild that “the rate of virginity among teenagers has risen for the tenth straight year,” and that “a number of high school kids . . . haven’t had sex (estimates are typically around half).” Might it be that a significant number of teenage girls, unlike their older sisters, have changed their minds about the advantages of becoming, in the current euphemism, “friends with benefits”?
Shalit herself makes no exaggerated claims about the size or reach of the abstinence movement. Her properly modest purpose in writing Girls Gone Mild was simply “to expand the range of options for young people, who I believe are suffering because of the limited range of choices available to them.” But the point of view from which she writes has changed not at all since 1999:
History has taught us a surprising lesson: Intimacy flourishes where there is also restraint. Having sex for its own sake, without waiting to integrate our deepest emotions and hopes, at best becomes boring, fast. At worst, men and women end up competing over how cruelly they can use one another. And in between, there is much confusion.
To “the ancien régime of the 1960’s” (Shalit’s phrase) those are fighting words. It will be interesting to see whether their grandchildren feel the same way.