Prim. Proper. Proud of it

Is casual sex damaging young women? One American's call for celibacy is making everyone sit up and listen. TESSA SOUTER reports

Wendy Shalit, the youthful author of A Return To Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue - a Generation X-er's critique of the post-sexual revolution, post-Aids culture - arrives at the French Roast Cafe on New York's Upper West Side five minutes late for our interview. "I'm so sorry for being five minutes late," she says, cleverly pointing out that it is only five minutes. "Before we begin I would love it if you would tell me about England," she says. "I have always wanted to go there." She then proceeds to ask questions about me. I'd prefer to start the interview. "I was only doing that to be nice to you so you won't attack me," she laughs.

She's kidding. But not entirely. Her book, an impassioned plea against premarital sex and a call for a return to the values of female modesty, has been written about in every major newspaper and magazine in America. It has caused such controversy that she's probably used to journalists attacking her. Certainly she seems practised at fielding them off. I am effectively tamed. Much of her book is full of irritatingly wild and unsubstantiated statements but, despite that, she is extremely charming in person, typically answering any criticisms with: "What a brilliant point!", "That is such an interesting idea, I never thought of it like that", "That is an important question"or "I absolutely agree with you" (prior to coming back at me with an opposite view). If she ever decides to give up writing she could have a great future in politics.

Her book draws upon the philosophical writing of Rousseau and Stendahl, Orthodox Judaism, Muslimism, and outdated etiquette guides, in order to support her call for a "cartel of virtue" to counter the idea that it is "cool" to have premarital sex. At a time when the American public seems happy to support its philandering President, she goes against the popular mood by blaming many of our problems on society's laissez faire attitude towards sex. Our obsession with sex is to blame for anorexia, depression, self- mutilation, stalking and rape (to name just a few examples.) Further, she is against sex education in schools, the Pill, revealing clothes, co-ed dormitories in universities, and girls acting like boys.

The reaction to her book has been extreme, with people either loving or hating her. Ruth R Wisse, writing in the Wall Street Journal, compared Shalit to the child in The Emperor's New Clothes, who recognises that the emperor is naked. Others, such as fellow Generation-X writer Katie Roiphe, dismiss the "simplicity of [her] arguments [as] proof of her age": in other words, she's too young to know any better.

Shalit grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the daughter of a right-wing Professor of Economics at the University of Wisconsin. She moved east to attend university where she first broke into journalism in a piece arguing against co-ed bathrooms. She looks like any other hip 23-year- old, in her vintage coat, and soft hat pulled over gamine hair. However, underneath the coat she is wearing an unstylish, even "boring" (to use another of her favourite words), plain, long-sleeved dress which is incongruously middle-aged in comparison to her outerwear, let alone her flawless, elfin face.

Perhaps the dress reflects the tone of her book, which argues that sex education should not be taught in schools ("The first thing you learn in sex education is not to be embarrassed about anything. But I think there is a lot to be embarrassed

about," she tells me, "I mean, look at Clinton, he is not embarrassed about anything!") and that there is now as much pressure on young women to be sexually experienced when they may not want to be as there was previously to be virginal and pure.

Modesty, she contends, is no longer a free choice but is looked upon as something "weird". It is a valid point and one worth making. Many young women feel as though they're pressurised into having sex. They would find it easier to say no if they felt that society backed them up. "All these virgin girls and boys are angry at their parents for leaving them alone. The support for modesty gave them an excuse not to have sex. Without that support it is as if there is something wrong with you," she says.

The trouble is that she's selective in the way she argues. For example, she cites The Kiss, Kathryn Harrison's well-publicised memoir about her sexual relationship with her father, which was published last year. "The culture wonders, is incest sexy?" says Shalit. Yet every review I read of the book indicated that people were clearly repulsed and disturbed by the story.

However, it was reading Kathryn Harrison's book that made Shalit want to go public about the way society pressures young women into sex. "After reading the revelation that she had had sex with her father I realised how upside down things had become. Here she was sleeping with her father, for God's sake, with few qualms , and here I was ashamed of my sexual inexperience, devoting all my energy to keeping up appearances and worrying that someone would find out what I had not done." And yet, to most readers, it seemed that Harrison suffered numerous qualms about having sex with her father. By the end of the book, she is left feeling abused. Bullied into succumbing to her father's sexual advances, she suffers stress-induced narcolepsy and eventually decides to cut off relations with him altogether.

On the subject of anorexia she is equally misguided. According to Shalit: "We just wordlessly toss our girls to the wind, and when the wind blows them home, we are surprised to find that they are anorexic or have cut or burned various parts of their body." Everybody acts as though this is normal, she says. Yet, quite obviously, no one thinks this kind of behaviour is "normal" at all.

Of Yale University's recent attempt to insist that students live in co- ed dorms, she says, "Universities used to be the ones telling you you had to be good and now they are telling you to be promiscuous!" I suggest that perhaps they are just saying you have to have co-ed bathrooms, but this is ignored. "They're saying that co-ed dorms are part of what a Yale education is. But why is a libertine arrangement crucial to a Yale education? So, we don't have a core curriculum we have hardcore sex!"

Shalit believes that sexual harassment, stalking, rape, Prozac use and anorexia are all "expressions of a society which has lost its respect for female modesty". Modesty, she insists, was "a woman's natural bodyguard, invisible and free of charge" which, if true, would imply that rape never occurred in those Muslim cultures where women are swathed from head to toe in black cloth. She argues that nudity is "boring" and that modesty is more sexy than promiscuity, without any sense that this contradicts her idea that less sexiness leads to more respect for women in society.

In spite of the many contradictions, however, the book has succeeded in her intention to "evoke a discussion" about morality and modesty. She is thrilled at all the attention but, she says, she "won't be entirely satisfied until [she has made] a dent in the culture and changed sex education programmes". And, unlike the women whose natural modesty she defends, she doesn't care if people make fun of her.

"The idea that one should tailor one's views depending on what one should think is so foreign to me. I was brought up to speak my mind," she says firmly. "Not to be morbid or anything but we are only here for so much time. To not say what you think and believe in is a waste of life."

After an hour and a half of philosophical wrangling, I am ashamed to confess that my last question is: "So, have you got a boyfriend?" We both laugh. "Oh, I would never discuss that," she says in a mock-British accent. "For reasons of modesty!"

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