A Return to Modesty

Discovering the Lost Virtue

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Where once a young woman had to be ashamed of her sexual experience, today she is ashamed of her sexual inexperience. Where not long ago an unmarried woman was ashamed to give public evidence of sexual desire by living with someone, today she must be ashamed to give evidence of romantic desire. From sex education in grade school to coed bathrooms in college, today's young woman is being pressured relentlessly to overcome her embarrassment, her "hang-ups," and especially her romantic hopes.
Meanwhile, the problems young women struggle with grow steadily more extreme: from sexual harassment, stalking, and date rape to anorexia and self-mutilation. Both men and women endlessly lament the loss of privacy and of real intimacy. What is it all about?
Beholden neither to conservatives who discount as exaggeration the dangers facing young women, nor to feminists who steadfastly affix blame on the patriarchy, Wendy Shalit proposes that, in fact, we have lost our respect for an important classical virtue -- that of sexual modesty. A Return to Modesty is a deeply personal account as well as a fascinating intellectual exploration. From seventeenth-century manners guides to Antonio Canova's sculpture, Venus Italico, to Frank Loesser's 1948 tune, "Baby, It's Cold Outside," A Return to Modesty unfolds like a detective's search for a lost idea as Shalit uncovers opinions about this lost virtue's importance, from Balzac to Simone de Beauvoir, that have not been aired for decades. Then she knocks down the accompanying myths one by one. Female modesty is not about a "sexual double standard," as is often thought, but is related to male virtue and honor. Modesty is not a social construct, but a natural response. And modesty is not prudery, but a way to preserve a sense of the erotic in our lives.
With humor and piercing insight, Shalit invites us to look beyond the blush and consider the new power to be found in an old ideal. She maintains that the sex education curriculum forced on those of her generation from an early age is fundamentally flawed, centered as it is on overcoming reticence -- what we today call "hang-ups." Shalit surprisingly and persuasively argues that without these misnamed hang-ups there can be no true surrender, no richness and depth to relations between the sexes. The natural inclination toward modesty is not a hang-up that we should set out to cure, but rather a wonderful instinct that, if rediscovered and given the right social support, has the power to transform society.
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  • Free Press | 
  • 304 pages | 
  • ISBN 9780684863177 | 
  • January 2000
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1: THE WAR ON EMBARRASSMENT

Every blush is a cause for new blushes.

-- DAVID HUME, 1741


One day in fourth grade, a nice lady suddenly appeared in our Wisconsin public elementary school classroom. This lady's name was Mrs. Nelson -- "Good morning, Mrs. Nelllllson!" -- and she arrived carrying a Question Box. It was a brown, medium-sized box about the size of a hat, and it had black question marks all over it. The Question Box was our Learning Tool, she said.

I was very excited about the Question Box, because it interrupted, then completely substituted for, the whole math lesson that day.

The class... see more

Reading Group Guide

A Return To Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue by Wendy Shalit is a fascinating and provocative exploration of the flip side of the sexual revolution, a world in which young women are forced to feel shame for their sexual inexperience and romantic longings. Shalit is a fresh new voice who courageously challenges many of the basic assumptions of modern American society and the relations between men and women.
Discussion Questions
1. How does Wendy Shalit define modesty? Do you agree or disagree with her definition? How is modesty different from prudery? What does modesty mean to you?
2. Do you think our society values modesty? What about civility?
3. The author links early sex education with the increased demystification of sex. At what age do you think children should be introduced to the topic of sex? Should parents supply their children with birth control options when they reach puberty? What, if any, effect has sex education had on your own views about sex?
4. Do you agree with David Hume that the risk of pregnancy makes women sexually more vulnerable? If so, wouldn't the Pill take care of that vulnerability? Or are women more sexually vulnerable for other reasons?
5. Does one have to be sexually adventurous to be fully liberated? To be mature?
6. What is the role of imagination and mystery in love and desire?
7. Wendy Shalit states that "in a society that respected the power of female modesty, the men were motivated see more

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