The modesty debate

Wendy Shalit: Stop pressuring young women to have sex!
Leora Tanenbaum: Every girl is a potential "slut."

Published July 21, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Virgin/whore. Good girl/bad girl. Femme fatale/inginue. You'd think by now we'd have a more expansive vocabulary to describe women in all their sexual complexity. Yet two recent books suggest that we are still defined by whom we sleep with. With hopelessly inadequate labels like these continuing to saddle us, it's no wonder young women are so confused.

Beyond agreeing that young women are troubled about sex, however, authors Wendy Shalit and Leora Tanenbaum have a lot to tangle about. Shalit's "Return to Modesty" is a manifesto for reinstating female virtue and male honor. Tanenbaum's "Slut! Growing up Female With a Bad Reputation" is a feminist dissection of sexual double standards. Shalit believes that a host of female pathologies -- eating disorders, self-mutilation, low self-esteem -- are the result of a hypersexualized culture gone awry. Tanenbaum sees women as the victims of double standards that stigmatize promiscuous women as "sluts" and flatter promiscuous men with labels like "stud."

In fact, "Slut!" opens with a list of slang terms for sexually active women and men. I remembered this exercise from the intro to women's studies class I took in college in 1990 -- even then, it had seemed rather obvious. What American female doesn't know that if she acts "loose," there will be repercussions? While I admit to being more sympathetic to Tanenbaum's ideas than those of Shalit, I found Tanenbaum's sincere and well-researched book dry and not particularly revelatory. Shalit's book, though maddening in its grand pronouncements (ballroom dancing is back, therefore women are returning to modesty!), was a lively, provocative read.

Shalit, 24, writes for the Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the National Review and the City Journal, a publication of the Manhattan Institute. Tanenbaum, 30, is a contributor to Ms., the Women's Review of Books and the Nation.

While both women claim to have tapped into what young women are thinking, their theories were clearly shaped by personal experience as well. While Shalit was a student at Williams College, she wrote a column for Commentary called "A Ladies Room of One's Own," about the indignity of having to live in a dorm with coed bathrooms. Instantly, she became a conservative darling. When the piece was later published in Reader's Digest, Shalit says she received hundreds of letters from young women who said they shared the same embarrassment, but had been too intimidated to express it.

Six years ago, when Tanenbaum read about a poll by the American Association of University Women, which found that two out of five girls nationwide had rumors spread about them, she was prompted to write an article for Seventeen about the trauma she endured as a high school "slut." The magazine received hundreds of letters from young women who said they had been scandalized, taunted and harassed because of their actual or perceived sexual experience. "Slut bashing" as Tanenbaum calls it, is thriving.

I proposed a dialogue with the two women in the hope that between the three of us, we could visualize some practical middle ground between "slut" and "modestynik," Shalit's term for women who wear long skirts and don't have sexual relationships before marriage. Aren't there safe, healthy ways for a young woman to be sexually curious and satisfied without having to either remain chaste or be ostracized?

Apparently not -- at least not if you go by our conversation on a recent Sunday afternoon in Tanenbaum's Manhattan apartment. Although there was no hair-pulling, screeching or cat-fighting, the two women firmly stood their ground. Still, there was something alarmingly ladylike about the interaction. They were even dressed similarly, in sweater sets, although Tanenbaum's black skirt was short while Shalit's was long. As we politely nibbled strawberries and sipped iced coffee, the two deferred to each other more often than not.

Of course, this was partly because Shalit dominated the conversation and stayed conscientiously on message. Like a high school debate team president, she skillfully molded each question to suit her convictions. Tanenbaum tried hard not to interrupt her; when she did grab the floor, she was armed with statistics and reasoned arguments. But she was cut off for good when Shalit's friend arrived after an hour to pick her up, bringing our brief dialogue to a halt. It wasn't until we picked up the conversation later, online, that it turned a bit testy.

Our dialogue began, however, with Shalit praising Tanenbaum for writing about sexual double standards.

Wendy Shalit: For the past 30 years we've said to women, "You have to be more
like men." Since we value male promiscuity and not female promiscuity, the solution has been to value female promiscuity and then there will be parity!

Instead of competition about how vulgar we can be, I'd like to see a competition of how kind and civilized we can be. We should say to women, "You're right to be sensitive, you're right to have emotions when you have sex. It's pathological not to." We need to tell men to value modesty too. It wasn't this way 100 years ago. The reason Don Juan was such a big deal was because he was not the norm, he was an aberration. Back then, being a real man meant sticking by one woman. We need to revive that notion of honor.

How do you propose we instill "honor" in men?

Shalit: Sexual harassment legislation has not been successful. That's why codes of conduct are so important.

Leora Tanenbaum: I want to address the idea that girls are raised to be as
promiscuous as boys. I think girls are getting mixed, contradictory
sexual messages -- on the one hand, as you say, that they should be
sexually active, sexually curious. At the same time they are told that they shouldn't have sexual desire, that it is slutty. Those messages are coming from the same places.

Shalit: The options are so narrow for women. You are expected to be a slut, or you're expected to have no desire at all. What I like about modesty is that it's the opposite of prudery. Prudery implies you can't be moved by anything. Promiscuity is the flip side of that -- another kind of denial of feelings. But modesty suggests that you have sexual feelings and emotional feelings, and you have hope. Modesty ensures that you're with the right person before you expose something vulnerable.

You shouldn't have to prove you have desire by having early sexual
relationships. All studies show that girls who do that have low
self-esteem. Not being sexual doesn't mean you don't have desire; it means you set and respect your own boundaries.

Tanenbaum: That is a message girls and boys should be getting -- that sexual desire is a natural part of adolescence and if you choose to act on your desires, you're best off waiting to harness that within a loving relationship.

Shalit: Now that we agree on the message, where do you think that message should come from? Parents, sex educators?

Tanenbaum: Both. Reading your account of having sex education in fourth grade made me angry -- not because you were having sex ed in fourth grade, but because it wasn't age-appropriate.

Shalit: Well, I'm challenging the whole basis of sex ed because of the
discomfort it causes. We're taught by the culture that discomfort
about sex is something we have to get over. I think the discomfort
kids feel is instinctive and it protects them. And in the absence of
sex ed, they will figure it out. Our parents didn't have sex education and they were perfectly capable of having us. I figured it out on my own -- the stork brings you!

Tanenbaum: But historically, women were not experienced in sexual pleasure
and weren't having orgasms. That's not something you necessarily learn on your own.

Shalit: I don't think you need to learn about orgasms in fourth grade.

Tanenbaum: You shouldn't necessarily be learning about "69," but I don't have a problem with fourth-graders learning about masturbation.

Shalit: But pleasure is a different issue from sexual brutality and
protecting children's innocence. If sex is not a sacred thing, if it's something you can talk about and not have any hang-ups about, I think you're going to have a very difficult time civilizing boys. Part of what civilizes them is the sense of mystery, of reverence and respect. When you give them these words at such an early age, the teasing is going to be of a much more ferocious nature.

Girls are then more vulnerable because they don't have this
embarrassment to protect them. If they're not sleeping with somebody, they are told they have a problem, they're not comfortable with their bodies. This makes them more vulnerable to sexual brutality and date rape because boys are taught that any reticence is incomprehensible. A course about honor and respect and what not to talk about would be better than having them yell, "Penis! Penis! Vagina! Vagina!" as they do.

Tanenbaum: I have a big problem with the fact that people feel uncomfortable about sex. We should be teaching sex ed from birth.

Compare the sexual activity and pregnancy rates of American
and European teenagers. In France, nine out of 1,000 teenage girls give birth; in the Netherlands, it's seven. But in the U.S., it's 54. It's not that there are more abortions in Europe, because in fact there are more abortions here. Why is there so much more sexual activity and pregnancy here? My theory is that in Europe, sex is considered a normal part of adolescent development. Here people are very uncomfortable with it.

Shalit: But if what you said is true, then 30 years ago we should have had more unwed mothers and more teenage pregnancy because that's when we were more uncomfortable talking about sex.

Tanenbaum: I don't think we're that comfortable with sex now.

Shalit: We're certainly more comfortable talking about it in schools! What we've posited is that with sex education we were going to become more comfortable and reduce teenage pregnancy because people would know about sex. Instead, the opposite has happened. Why?

In my book, I tell the story of a 15-year-old girl who is mad that her parents are letting her be alone with her boyfriend because it's making it very hard for her to say "no." She ends up saying she has her period, but that only delays him for a week. Finally she ends up having sex and she asks the boy if she can keep her sweat shirt on. I think this is very sad. The social support for modesty has dropped out from under her. All the excuses that a girl used to give are gone. It leaves her with no outs.

Parents don't give positive advice anymore to boys or girls --
everyone is just on their own. For kids, the talking and rumors are an attempt to find order in this landscape; they're sort of inventing their own moral universe. If we really want to do something about girls who feel pressured to have sex at an early age, we can't tell them that modesty and embarrassment is a sign of being uncomfortable with your body. It's not -- it's a sign of self-respect.

Tanenbaum: We should be conveying that message to girls and boys. I agree that it was much easier to say, "I have to say 'no'
because people will talk." It's easier because you're not personally
offending the boy and he doesn't feel rejected. However, within that
milieu, there was also slut-bashing against girls just because of their physique or their socioeconomic status, or because a boy was angry that she said "no" and he wanted to get revenge. So while I agree that excuses made life easier in many ways, they also made things difficult.

Shalit: On college campuses we have these boring, dreary "hook-ups." People are just like airplanes -- refueling, hooking up. It's totally inanimate and there's nothing really sexy about it. It's depressing! Then the next day, the date-rape charges fly and nobody knows how to behave. On the other hand, a new UCLA study says that more women than ever are against casual sex and are sort of reacting against the '60s ethic. You have a return to ballroom dancing. We've gone so far in this "let it all hang out" direction that there is nowhere else to go.

Tanenbaum: I want to step back a bit to address the issue of the girl in your
book who wanted a reason not to have sex. A large part of why girls
feel like they can't say "no" is tied to the fact that they can't say "yes." If you say "yes," you're a slut. If you say "no," you're a prude or a loser. Maybe she has some desire, maybe she doesn't know what she's feeling. What does she do? A lot of girls just remain silent -- they don't know what to say. Because they feel so paralyzed, a lot of boys mistakenly think that "no" means "yes." It's a feminist clichi: "No always means no." But sometimes "no" does mean "yes" -- if you don't feel empowered to say "yes."

Shalit: That's what I like about modesty -- it's all about female
prerogative. The solution to the Catch-22 you describe isn't to say
that girls need to say "yes" more or "no" more, but to give them a
general framework: "You're going to be saying 'no' to a lot of people until you find the right person."

But if you're continually saying "no," how do you know when you've found the "right" person? Isn't there any value in experimentation -- both physically and emotionally?

Shalit: I don't believe that to have a happy sex life you have to have had lots of experience. Statistically, married couples have the best sex lives and single women who are sexually active have the worst. Researchers who are promoting Viagra and other things to solve sexual "dysfunction" never thought that maybe these single women shouldn't be having all this sex with men who aren't committed to them. People make modesty into a pathology where you need all these pills to help you get over it.

Another study shows that when you live together before marriage -- and obviously there are exceptions -- you're less likely to get married. The idea that having more experience means you're more knowledgeable just doesn't play out in reality. Sometimes you're just more cynical.

Tanenbaum: The ideal of modesty is great in theory, but my concern is that it very easily slips into a sexual double standard. There are young women who perhaps ideally would like to wait and initiate their first sexual encounter in a loving relationship, but for whatever reason, they have desire and they want to act on it before they've met the "right" person. I'm worried that they are going to feel guilty and ashamed of their own sexual desire. I'm also concerned they are going to make bad choices about who their mate is going to be, perhaps marrying too young.

Shalit: We have more of a double standard today in our immodest society. Remember the Spur posse that got points for raping girls? That kind of thing would never have happened 100 years ago. If you touched a woman the wrong way, you were stigmatized.

Tanenbaum: Rape happened in the '50s.

Shalit: I don't idealize the '50s because already too many things were
going wrong. One of the myths I debunk is that modesty is about Victorianism. It's not, it dates back to the Bible.

Tanenbaum: In the Talmud, modesty was an ideal for both genders. But it's
become narrowed.

Shalit: From "Reviving Ophelia" and other studies of young
girls, we're hearing about the girl who doesn't know how to set boundaries, who wants to set them, who is in sexual relationships, who is exposed to pornography and other sexually explicit materials, who is unhappy and is cutting herself or is starving herself. She has this whole host of problems because she does not think her romantic hopes mean anything. We have to tell her, "You're not weird for having romantic hopes."

Tanenbaum: But I also don't want a girl to think she's weird if she doesn't
have those hopes.

If a young woman shouldn't be engaging in premarital sex, what's the appropriate way for her to fulfill her sexual desires? Masturbation?

Shalit: I don't think we need to add masturbation to the chorus of
explicit sexuality here. Kids don't want to be told by their parents how to do it. They want to be told how not to do it.

Tanenbaum: I don't think parents or educators should be telling you how to
masturbate or use a vibrator, but I think the information should be available.

Shalit: When do you think kids should be taught about masturbation?

Tanenbaum: They should be taught at a very young age that there's nothing wrong with it.

Shalit: Don't you think that's kind of weird coming from an adult?

Tanenbaum: No, I think it's very good. In the media, there is a lot of
attention paid to male sexual desire and very little paid to female sexual desire. For females, there is more of an emphasis on romance. Ideally, I think sex should be harnessed within a romantic relationship, but that ideal isn't possible or desirable for everybody. The emphasis on romance is almost always put on girls.

Shalit: Don't you think there have been a lot of books telling girls that they are too romantic? That romance is a patriarchal concept and we shouldn't buy into the whole Prince Charming thing? I think women want romance because it's natural. They long for a life-long partner.

Romance is marketed more than it's natural --

Shalit: Erotics are marketed. I don't think romantic sentiments are
social constructs.

Tanenbaum: But the marketing efforts of the people who publish romance novels influence young girls a lot more than academicians do.

A lot of teenagers are having intercourse. According to a recent
federal survey, 48 percent of teenage girls are having sex and 49 percent of boys are. Those are high numbers, but they're not that high. A lot of girls are remaining virgins.

Shalit: Yeah, and 70 percent of girls are disappointed with their casual
sex experiences.

Tanenbaum: Is that because they are more interested in romance?

I'm interested to know what you both think of the Supreme
Court decision that made schools liable for sexual harassment that takes place in school.

Shalit: Codes of conduct are more important than the heavy hand of the law because by the time the law becomes involved, it is too late. These codes of conduct are violated every time you have a sex educator saying, "Don't be embarrassed! Talk about your penis!" Boys are going to take that lesson and use it on the playground.

In his dissenting opinion, Justice Kennedy basically said that there is no such thing as sexual harassment among children, that it is an adult concept. But Leora, you outline plenty of situations in schools that seem like harassment to me.

Tanenbaum: Right, you're not dealing with harassment of the quid pro quo
variety, but you are dealing with severe, persistent sexual
objectification. Two-thirds of high school girls say they have been pinched or grabbed in an unwanted and sexual way.

Shalit: It's never too early to teach kids how to behave.

Is it ever too late to teach them about civility? What about
the teen abstinence movements that hold ceremonies where teens can
reinstate their virginity?

Tanenbaum: I worry about the sexual double standard. Even though they are
directed at girls and boys, the message to girls is different: "You were ruined -- so sign this celibacy pledge."

Shalit: My problem with the abstinence movement is that abstinence is about "No, no, no!" while modesty is about "Yes -- for the right person."

Again, if you're "modest" and feeling desire, what's the
appropriate way to express that?

Shalit: Sublimation!

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

The day after our meeting, I received an e-mail from Shalit, which I forwarded it to Tanenbaum for her response:

Shalit: One concluding thought: I think the main problem with promoting the let's-all-be-sluts philosophy is that we ignore the signals this attitude sends to men. It contributes to the vulgarity of the culture and in turn affects how men treat women. I've noticed that the women who advocate "let's all be sluts" are usually the same ones who turn around and complain when men sexually harass them or treat them in a coarse way. So essentially, they want the men to be gentlemen without the women having to be ladies. That will never happen. It is to women's advantage to take responsibility for the great civilizing influence they have in society. That, I think, is the key difference between Leora and me.

Tanenbaum: Who is saying anything about "let's all be sluts"? Far from it. The "slut" label is pernicious and a girl who is targeted as a slut is quite vulnerable. Many so-called sluts become promiscuous after they've been labeled, when they may not have been sexually active at all before. These girls are often rather unhappy, since they are having sex to prove a point and not necessarily because they find it pleasurable.

In addition, boys assume that the school slut is "easy" -- and therefore feel entitled to take what they get from her. Several of the girls and women I interviewed told me about groups of boys who either gang-raped them or tried to. As for other girls -- the ones who aren't called "sluts" and perhaps are even participating in the slut-bashing -- they too are hurt by the label. Fearful of being thought of as "slutty," these so-called good girls are not likely to carry or use contraceptives, leaving them vulnerable to pregnancy and disease.

As for the argument that girls have to be "good" in order for boys to behave properly, I worry about the implications of being a "good" girl. Once you start characterizing some females as "good," you inevitably label others as "bad." And once you start thinking of some girls as "bad," in essence you are saying that those girls don't deserve to be treated with respect. The irony, I have discovered, is that so many girls who are thought of as slutty aren't even particularly sexually active, and they are hardly ever more sexually active than their peers are. So the whole good girl/bad girl thing is a sham. Its purpose is to elevate some girls and to degrade others, and in the long run it hurts everyone.
Boys will treat girls with respect, and loveless, casual sexual encounters will decrease, when we have one sexual standard for both genders -- that is, when we have sexual equality.

By Lori Leibovich

Lori Leibovich is a contributing editor at Salon and the former editor of the Life section.

MORE FROM Lori Leibovich

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