Books: Petra Pan flies in the face of the facts

Any takers for patriarchy, chastity and obedience? Joan Smith won't be signing up for a future that returns women to the veil of tears; A Return to Modesty: discovering the lost virtue by Wendy Shalit Simon & Schuster, pounds 16.99, 291pp
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
IN THE last three decades, women have set about reclaiming their bodies, their sexuality, even the language which was once used to stigmatise them. Rejecting those aspects of the sexual revolution which provided men with an excuse to exploit women, they have struggled to come up with a new politics which, in effect, turns old vices into virtues. One American author, Elizabeth Wurtzel, looked behind the meaning of the word "bitch", arguing that it should be celebrated as a challenge to male authority. Another, Naomi Wolf, celebrated the joys of sexual freedom in a volume entitled Promiscuities.

Now we are presented with Wendy Shalit, a young American who wants to reclaim not a vice but a virtue. Fresh out of college - she graduated two years ago - Shalit argues that women need to rediscover their innate modesty. She believes that the sexual revolution and feminism have created a world in which young women are pressured to sleep with their boyfriends and suffer sexual harassment on the streets, cutting and starving themselves in a desperate reaction to forces they cannot control. She quotes a psychologist, Mary Pipher, who argues that "girls are having more trouble now than they had 30 years ago, when I was a girl, and more trouble than even ten years ago".

"A lot of young women," says Shalit, "are trying to tell us that they are very unhappy: unhappy with their bodies, with their sexual encounters, with the way men treat them on the street - unhappy with their lives." Some of this may be true, although it is only one element of a picture which also, in this country at least, shows adolescent girls outperforming boys in school. Nor is her evidence particularly convincing, drawn as it is from two main sources: anecdotes about Shalit and her college friends, and the American press.

She is certainly not a sociologist, relying heavily on the testimony of women identified only by their first names and ages - "Ellen, 29", say, who wishes she had had fewer sexual partners - and surveys conducted by glossy magazines. This does not deter her from drawing the broadest of conclusions. What women need, she claims, is a return to the old values: conservative dress, no sex before marriage, even periods of abstinence within marriage to keep both partners interested in each other. Like all good conservatives, she disapproves of mixed bathrooms and sex education; her first chapter consists mostly of a vainglorious account of her triumph in getting herself excused from sex education classes at school.

None of this would matter much, if Shalit simply applied her theories to herself. But she wants to live in a world where the lives of girls and women are ruled by their fathers: "I'm a much stronger person for having a `paternalistic' father who is always telling me what to do. I know he's that way because he loves me." She would like sexual conduct to be policed, literally, by officers who intervene when couples kiss in the street.

Shalit admires cultures, like Malaysia, where it is assumed - or so she claims - that a man and woman who are alone in a room for more than three seconds have had sex: "It must be interesting to be alone with someone in Malaysia."

She wants to meet Mr Right, an old-fashioned guy who will leave billets- doux in her apartment, like the New York fireman whose girlfriend found this vomit-inducing note under her pillow: "Lisa is the prettiest little napper in New York City". She wants romance, mystery, the return - literally and metaphorically - of the veil. She wants, in other words, to restore herself and other women to a state of invincible ignorance. And she desperately, passionately, wants to avoid growing up.

In order to sustain her argument, such as it is, Shalit has created a fantasy version of history. Divided into two periods, which we might call Before and After Wendy, it is a new version of The Fall in which Shalit looks back enviously on the golden period before her own birth.

Quoting de Tocqueville, she lingers over a vision of American society in which women could walk alone without fear, "so great was men's respect for their modesty" - and is apparently unaware that this courtesy was rarely extended to female slaves, working-class women or prostitutes.

Ahistorical, sentimental, badly written, Shalit's text is the product of a type of education which teaches students to look things up - the book is stuffed with quotations, whether appropriate or not - but not to think for themselves.

Failing to understand the link between modesty and shame, which imposed on women the responsibilty for men's sexual disgust, Shalit is living proof that some people long for a world with strict rules. This is not a book for grown-ups but the rambling outpourings of someone whose heart still belongs to Daddy.

Comments