January 14, 2005

we should NOT return to modesty

I just finished Wendy Shalit's A Return to Modesty and nearly threw it into the Pacific Ocean, which was about ten feet in front of me.1 Holy shit, it's annoying. Her argument, as briefly as I can make it, is that women should be more sexually modest (i.e. not have sex or any significant sexual contact) because that's the best way for women to be happy, individually and as a class. She says a couple of things that strike me as both interesting and important, but none of them are about sexual modesty; the best I can say for her ideas about sex are that, yeah, fine, no one should harass her for having them. Other people who feel the same way should join with her to create a subculture in which they're all happy. Meanwhile, I'm annoyed. Why?

1. She's constantly talking about "now that we've gotten rid of the patriarchy..."2 Hey! The patriarchy is still here! I even have a picture of it. Alternatively, please look at any photo of the US Congress or a state legislature, or think about the fucking pay gap. The people who make decisions about women's reproductive rights (i.e. my body) are all old guys. That's patriarchy, folks.

2. She's advocating for a return to a "true" womanhood, which existed in relationship to a "true" manhood. It's interesting - everyone I've ever heard say this is a good idea fits fairly neatly into gender norms. I don't. I can do a passable imitation of femininity, but I'd rather be out in the woods not showering and kicking ass, and I'm certainly not interested in being quiet and sweet. Barry at Alas, a Blog and Kameron at Brutal Women occasionally write about growing up as a less than masculine boy and a less than feminine girl, respectively. It's hard and often miserable, and the more people like Shalit prop up those norms (even arguing that people who have abandoned them should go back), the worse it gets. Which brings me to the next problem.

3. Shalit romanticizes the past, when men were men and women were women and gender norms created courtesy and made everyone nice to everyone else. But you know what? Women couldn't own property. Women couldn't vote. Women weren't legally persons. Not only that, but the women of that time worked their butts off to make sure that things changed; Shalit doesn't seem to notice that the world she romanticizes created the feminist movement. She talks a lot about how happy her grandmother and her friends are, but they can't have been that satisfied with gender relations: they and their daughters moved heaven and earth to change them. It reminds me of Kameron's neat way of phrasing a big problem that feminist (or otherwise tough) women have: the simultaneous desire to be a real person and to be loved. Shalit comes down squarely on the side of trading personhood for her version of a satisfying romantic life. It seems like that isn't a trade-off in her life: the kind of person she is and wants to be is modest and feminine, and this book comes out of her frustration with not being able to find men who want to be chaste with her. It's about her struggle to be a real person and be loved, but at the same time she undercuts everyone who doesn't want to be the same kind of real person as her. There must be something wrong with us. We're not really women, because women, says Shalit, are naturally modest and embarrassed and want sex to be the same thing she wants it to be. The hell with that. I'm a real woman, and I like messing around in the woods and fighting and being strong, and having egalitarian buddy relationships with people. One major goal of the last, say, 40 years of feminism has been trying to convince people that women aren't all the same. Shalit apparently hasn't noticed.

4. She also never considers queer people. The words queer, homosexual, lesbian, and gay do not appear in the index. The only mention of queerness is in the context of virgins being teased that they may secretly be "lezzies," and it's in a quotation from someone else. This is a book about sexuality by a woman who went to a small liberal arts college in the late 90s. She must have known that queer people existed.

5. Feminism is about way more than romantic relationships, and all the behaviors Shalit recommends will keep us from those other goals. She doesn't even think of it. The pay gap? Female legislative representation? Women judges? Being modest, decorous, and following the gender rules will keep us from those goals, which, frankly, are a pretty big deal to me. It shows how little Shalit understands both feminism and gender that she doesn't consider this.

6. This is yet another book about gender that says, "you know, if women would just go back to their places and be more feminine, we wouldn't have all these uncivilized males running around being sexually violent." Shalit argues over and over that women's job is to be feminine and thus "civilize" men, and that it's therefore unsurprising that men are "rude"3 to women. I find this kind of logic insulting to men, who are presumed to be wild and uncivilized and in need of women to be human. It also places the major burden for sexual violence on women, and you know, that's just stupid. I may not be very inspirational to a man looking for civilizing influences, but that does not make me responsible for sexual violence. It just doesn't. And that kind of argument tends to restrict women's choices by predicting the downfall of civilization if they act like themselves instead of like a gender norm. It also helps justify blaming the victim: it's pretty easy to move from Shalit's argument to the argument that women who aren't modest, or aren't feminine, have no one but themselves to blame if they are sexually assaulted. After all, they didn't inspire proper masculinity in the men around them, and they didn't look for protection to the men in their lives. Shalit has a particularly stupid section in which she basically blames a woman's murder by her abusive boyfriend on her independence and her family's respect for it. What exactly was this woman supposed to do? Refuse to leave the house without a male relative for protection? Shalit never gives us anything specific.

I think what I find most frustrating is that, hidden in this incredibly irritating book, are a couple of really important insights. Our culture is, in fact, really fucked up about sex.4 Sexual violence is a huge problem. Most of the mainstream discussions of sex I've seen - primarily in Cosmo, Maxim, etc, but also in mainstream news media - talk about it in a transactional, exploitative, mechanistic way that makes me feel vaguely ill. I'm not promiscuous, and I doubt I ever will be: in friendships and romantic relationships both, I tend to want depth of attachment and understanding more than I want lots of casual interaction. I'm not particularly personally threatened by the idea of having fewer sexual partners. But that's me. And if others can have healthy, meaningful relationships casually, that's fine with me. What's not ok is the kind of 'how to get what you want from other people regardless of what they want' that appears in Cosmo, Maxim, etc, and that seems to be an integral part of some people's dating lives. It's manipulative, disrespectful, and gross, and I have no idea why anyone would want that kind of romantic life.

This isn't the same as saying that you shouldn't be friends with your exes, or shouldn't have casual relationships, or shouldn't go on dates: those things are all possible (and I have seen them and sometimes done them) without manipulative, disrespectful behavior.

The most interesting conclusion she comes to is something along the lines of, "liberalism has made us independent, but it has not made us free," coupled with the conclusion that some ways of life work only with enough social support. The cult of the individual - the idea of the unencumbered, rights-bearing self who enters into the social contract - is one of the founding elements of the modern American public philosophy, though Michael Sandel argues5 that it wasn't always so. I find the idea of myself as an unencumbered, rights-bearing individual absolutely inadequate in just about every circumstance: figuring out what kind of life I want to live, what kind of educator I want to be, what kind of government I want, who I am. Part of what makes us human is that we are encumbered, that we have relationships and obligations and that some of those obligations are to our society as a whole. We need social context for our lives, and we need the kind of narrative structure that Shalit constructs for herself as a modest woman. She is also right that social codes of decency and virtue (by which I mean honesty, compassion, courage, etc, rather than chastity) are important: we need guidance in conducting our daily lives and becoming better people that the law does not and should not offer. But our need for such rules doesn't mean we have to accept whatever ethos is handiest. Especially not when we've spent the last hundred years trying to get rid of all the ways it's sexist.

1. I'm just bragging here. Sorry.
2. Starting on page 10.
3. In quotation marks because I don't think rape and sexual harassment are about rudeness.
4. Please, pardon the pun.
5. in Democracy's Discontent, which is less brilliant than I used to think.

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