Unification News for January 1999

A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue

by Wendy Shalit, The Free Press, NYC
reviewed by Chris Seidel -- Red Hook, NY

I just finished reading a very intriguing book on a topic which has been all but shellacked in our culture, however, in a very misleading way. The book is entitled A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue. Much to my surprise and delight, this is what I found buried in the back flap of the hardcover:

"With humor and piercing insight, Shalit in -- ites us to look beyond the blush and consider the new power to be found in an old ideal. She maintains that the sex education curriculum forced on those of her generation from an early age is fundamentally flawed, centered as it is on overcoming reticence—what we today call ‘hang-ups.’ Shalit surprisingly and persuasively argues that without these misnamed hang-ups there can be no true surrender, no richness and depth to relations between the sexes. The natural inclination toward modesty is not a hang-up that we should set out to cure, but rather a wonderful instinct that, if rediscovered and given the right social support, has the power to transform society."

Author Wendy Shalit, 23, is a recent graduate of Williams College, and a current contributor to Manhattan Institute’s City Journal, who has also written in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary and other publications.

Shalit’s brisk and focused introduction immediately keys the reader to her intention and purpose of writing the book.

Where is our contemporary culture leading today’s youth? Why, if we live in such a liberated society, is everyone searching for a richer, more sublime reality? Why do we consider it necessary to "educated" our youth with subjects which have absolutely no bearing on their lives at the time they are educated? Where is respect? Where has romantic hope gone? Where is true love? Shalit poignantly and cogently argues that girls and young women are being thrust very unwillingly into a social environment which places unrealistic and irrational demands on their behavior and self-image. If they do not conform to the status quo, they are summarily expunged to the fringes of acceptability. In a "liberated" culture they have taken upon themselves the task to prove themselves "equal" to the opposite sex, but this ultimately demands them in the end since there are inherent differences. This is delineated in Part One, "The Problem."

In Part Two, "The Forgotten Ideal," a case for modesty is propounded, and is made clear by allusions to the fact that a very natural disposition for women has been slowly twisted by a society which now views it as prudish and even psychotic. Although unconsciously one of the reasons for her modern-day strife, Shalit convincingly illustrates why a return to female modesty just might be the answer today’s woman is looking for. That in the "anything goes" world which in countless ways subverts women into giving up their femininity, women can determine not to let their modesty go.

"Today modesty is commonly associated with sexual repression, with pretending that you don’t want sex though you really do. But this is a misunderstanding, a cultural myth spun by a society which vastly underrates sexual sublimation. If you -- top and think about it, you realize that without sublimation, we would have very few footnotes and probably none of the greatest works of Western art. Moreover, leaving aside the whole question of utility, when you haven’t yet learned to separate your physical desires from your hopes and natural wonder at everything, the world is, in a very real sense, enchanted. Every conversation, every mundane act is imbued with potential because everything is colored with erotic meaning. Today, this stage in one’s life—when everything seems significant and you want to get it all "exactly right"—is thought to be childish, but is it really? Maybe instead of learning to overcome repression, we should be prolonging it."

So in fact, sexual repression and sublimation is not in fact a handicap, but the key to unlocking the romantic mystery women still cling to, even though their society may misleadingly deem it illusory.

In Part Three, "The Return," Shalit states that in fact many women are looking for interference in their lives. That even in the very culture which considers independence a virtue, many young women are crying out for stricter rules and sterner fathers. For a father who disciplines his daughter is undoubtedly one who cares about her, who shows a vested interest in her future and upbringing.

She also insists that what is necessary is an interference in the modern demands of society: "by not having sex before marriage, you are insisting on your right to take these things seriously, when many around you do not seem to." She states the conditions of religious modesty, giving the reasons why many cultures have elevated sexual modesty to a virtue, and why "modesty is inextricably entwined with holiness." She implores us to see "beyond modernity," that perhaps sounder and more compelling reasons for modesty can be found in the enormous depth and breadth of historical development. That avenues to true happiness are waiting perhaps outside of the modern community, that current notions of wanting "the love of a good man and many children, that is considered déclassé," is societal brainwashing.

Shalit’s book is a poignant forerunner of a new genre which provocatively questions the ultimate direction of a liberated humanity. Although there are many salient, often startlingly controversial points made in the discussion, the conclusion elucidates her underlying intent and passion:

"So if you think our modesty projects should be called ‘An Outsider’s View,’ -- because you think we’re so provocative, but sometimes it’s just you, professor. Sometimes it’s really from the inside, and we really don’t mean to be provocative all the time. And sometimes we would prefer not to have learned about AIDS in kindergarten. You may think that because of Freud, or because of MTV, our virginity doesn’t mean anything, but some of us might surprise you. One of the most popular videos for months, after all, was called "A Return to Innocence." Sometimes it comes as a relief to think—when everyone else is telling me how provocative I am, or have to be, or how many men I have to have—maybe, at least in my own life, before God, I could be just a little innocent?

"And maybe then my children will be allowed to be children?

"Who knows? Might as well try it, and see what happens.

"After all, I don’t see why our parents should get to have a monopoly on sexual revolutions."

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