Thursday, August 26, 2010
Modesty Revisited By Wendy Shalit (part 1)
This was originally posted here. It is fairly long, so we are breaking it into two or three installments.
This afternoon I was reading a magazine for brides in which a woman had submitted the following question: "My fiancé wants us to move in together, but I want to wait until we're married. Am I doing our marriage an injustice?" The editor responded: "Your fiancé should understand why you want to wait to share a home. Maybe you're concerned about losing your identity as an individual. Or maybe you're concerned about space issues."
Space issues? Losing her identity? If this woman cared about those things she wouldn't want to get married in the first place. Her question was a moral one. She wanted to know what would be best for her marriage. And on this - however unbeknownst to the magazine's new-agey editor - the evidence is in: Couples who live together before marriage are much less likely to get married; and if they do marry, they're more likely to get divorced. Yet the vocabulary of modesty has largely dropped from our cultural consciousness; when a woman asks a question that necessarily implicates it, we can only mumble about "space issues."
I first became interested in the subject of modesty for a rather mundane reason - because I didn't like the bathrooms at Williams College. Like many enlightened colleges and universities these days, Williams houses boys next to girls in its dormitories and then has the students vote by floor on whether their common bathrooms should be coed. It's all very democratic, but the votes always seem to go in the coed direction because no one wants to be thought a prude. When I objected, I was told by my fellow students that I "must not be comfortable with my body." Frankly, I didn't get that, because I was fine with my body; it was their bodies in such close proximity to mine that I wasn't thrilled about.
I ended up writing about this experience in Commentary as a kind of therapeutic exercise. But when my article was reprinted in Reader's Digest, a weird thing happened: I got piles of letters from kids who said, "I thought I was the only one who couldn't stand these bathrooms." How could so many people feel they were the "only ones" who believed in privacy and modesty? It was troubling that they were afraid to speak up. When and why, I wondered, did modesty become such a taboo?
Modesty's Loss, Social Pathology's Gain
Many of the problems we hear about today - sexual harassment, date rape, young women who suffer from eating disorders and report feeling a lack of control over their bodies - are all connected, I believe, to our culture's attack on modesty. Listen, first, to the words we use to describe intimacy: what once was called "making love," and then "having sex," is now "hooking up" - like airplanes refueling in flight. In this context I was interested to learn, while researching for my book, that the early feminists actually praised modesty as ennobling to society. Here I'm not just talking about the temperance-movement feminists, who said, "Lips that touch liquor shall never touch mine." I'm talking about more recent feminists like Simone de Beauvoir, who warned in her book, The Second Sex, that if society trivializes modesty, violence against women would result. And she was right. Since the 1960s, when our cultural arbiters deemed this age-old virtue a "hang-up," men have grown to expect women to be casual about sex, and women for their part don't feel they have the right to say "no." This has brought us all more misery than joy. On MTV I have seen a 27-year-old woman say she was "sort of glad" that she had herpes, because now she has "an excuse to say 'no' to sex." For her, disease had replaced modesty as the justification for exercising free choice.
When I talk to college students, invariably one will say, "Well, if you want to be modest, be modest. If you want to be promiscuous, be promiscuous. We all have a choice, and that's the wonderful thing about this society." But the culture, I tell them, can't be neutral. Nor is it subtle in its influence on behavior. In fact, culture works more like a Sherman tank. In the end, if it's not going to value modesty, it will value promiscuity and adultery, and all our lives and marriages will suffer as a result.
to be continued...