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A Return to Modesty

Discovering the Lost Virtue
By Wendy Shalit

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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 waited in anticipation. Mrs. Nelson opened the top of her box and pulled out a long slip of white paper. Then she read it, cheerily, as if she had just cracked open a fortune cookie: "And the first question is...'What is 69?'" She looked up from the white slip and faced us buoyantly: "What is 69, class?"

Well, that was a good question, because I certainly didn't know the answer. If she had asked what is 69 plus something, that would have been easy, but 69 all by itself was pretty philosophical. Some boys in the corner giggled. I immediately shot a glance at our teacher, who was standing up in the back of the classroom with his arms folded across his chest. Usually when the boys giggled, that meant something wrong was going on, and somebody was going to get into trouble. But this time our teacher didn't say a thing; he just looked straight ahead attentively at Mrs. Nelson. This confused me, but before I could try to make anything of it, Mrs. Nelson was speaking again.

"Now remember, boys and girls, there is absolutely nothing to giggle about! The first thing we're going to learn in Human Growth and Development is that no question is off limits!"

The outburst died down. Mrs. Nelson began again: "69 is...more giggles. Then "69 is, um..." I looked back at my teacher, who by now had turned bright red. This was a really strange math lesson.

Finally, after what seemed like 69 attempts to explain the number 69, I raised my hand and piped up, "May I please go to the bathroom?" As I left I could hear Mrs. Nelson was still quizzing: "Doesn't anyone know what 69 is? Well...these questions were put in by the fifth-grade class. You'll have the chance to fill the Question Box with your own questions."

When I came home I told my mother about my day, about this mysterious number that was very important and shouldn't be off limits. My mother wasn't so enthusiastic. She had me bring a note to school asking for a description of what we would be learning in our special math lessons. I brought it home, and when my mom opened it she was even less enthusiastic. She was also angry, and so was I -- but not for the same reason. I was annoyed because she wouldn't let me see the letter. She seemed to be under the impression that what was going on at our special math sessions was not math at all, but something else entirely. But what? She wouldn't let me see.

"If I knew you weren't going to let me see, I would have opened it before I walked home," I said petulantly.

But my mom wasn't paying attention. She was pacing around the kitchen, fuming. "I can't believe they're planning on teaching you how to masturbate in fourth grade. I can't believe it!"

What was she talking about?

"In fourth grade! Where is your father?" Then to me: "Go find your father."

That was when my mom called Mrs. Nelson. I had a feeling she was going to, so I ignored the directive to find my father. I remember, a few minutes later, my mom putting her hand over the phone and saying to me, in a high, extra polite voice, "Mrs. Nelson would like to know if I want you to be whispering in the locker room." Then she asked me, very gravely, "Do you want to be whispering in the locker room?" I thought about it, and said yes. I liked whispering. Whispering about stuff is exciting.

"Yes," my mom had returned the phone to her ear. "Yes, I've asked her, and she says she does want to whisper in the locker room." I found this terrifically funny, that adults could disagree over whispers. "I get to whisper in the locker room!" I called, jumping up and down.

"Yes, I'll have her bring another note. Goodbye."

From that day forward, I sat out sex education in the library. I always felt bad for the girls who didn't have this escape because after each sex ed session, as the lockers slammed and everyone prepared for the next class, the boys would pick on them, in a strange, new kind of teasing.

"Erica, do you masturbate?" one boy would say to one poor pigtailed victim as she struggled to remove her books as fast as she could. Then another boy would say, closing in on her from the other side, "It's really natural, you know." Or sometimes just "why aren't you masturbating now, Erica? It's normal, you know."

Then, "Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!"

"Why aren't you developing, Erica?"

"It's time for you to be developing, didn't you hear? Weren't you taking notes in class?"

"Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!"

"Well, I was paying attention, and you're really behind your proper growth and development!"

"Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!"

"You may be a treasure, Erica, but you ain't got no chest!"

And so on. Invariably just before the moment when the girl would burst into tears, I noticed that she would always say the same thing: "Mrs. Nelson says that if you tease us about what we learn in class, then you haven't understood the principle of respect." Respect is a very important doctrine in sex education class. Sex ed instructors often use Respect, a puppet turtle, to teach elementary school children about their "private places." As it happened, Mrs. Nelson was usually gone by the time the teasing began, so no one really cared about what they had learned from Respect the Turtle.

My public school wasn't unique. In 1993 more than 4,200 school-age girls reported to Seventeen magazine that "they have been pinched, fondled or subjected to sexually suggestive remarks at school, most of them...both frequently and publicly." Researchers from Wellesley College, following up on the magazine's survey, found "that nearly two-fifths of the girls reported being sexually harassed daily and another 29 percent said they were harassed weekly. More than two-thirds said the harassment occurred in view of other people. Almost 90 percent were the target of unwanted sexual comments or gestures." School officials do very little about this, the study also found. One 13-year-old girl from Pennsylvania told them: "I have told teachers about this a number of times; each time nothing was done about it."

More recently, psychologist Mary Pipher reports in Reviving Ophelia that she is seeing an increasing number of girls who are "school refusers," girls who "tell me they simply cannot face what happens to them at school." One client, Pipher says, "complained that boys slapped her behind and grabbed her breasts when she walked to her locker." Then "another wouldn't ride the school bus because boys teased her about oral sex." Pipher concludes that the harassment that girls experience in the 1990s is "much different in both quality and intensity" from the teasing she received as a girl in the late fifties.

When I was in college, a mother who owned the local deli persistently brought up in conversation how much her daughter was being sexually taunted by the boys at her school. The girl couldn't even concentrate on her homework when she was at home: all she did was dread returning to school. The mother was visibly distraught. She grew up in the fifties, she told me, and "this kind of thing never happened to us. Sure, the boys would flirt and tease us, but they were shy and nervous about it. They never ganged up on the girls like this. I'd never heard of a bunch of guys assaulting a girl verbally and physically."

For some reason, no one connects this kind of harassment and early sex education. But to me the connection was obvious from the start, because the boys never teased me -- they assumed I didn't know what they were referring to. Whenever they would start to tease me, they always stopped when I gave them a confused look and said, "I have no idea what you guys are talking about. I was in the library." Even though I usually did know what they were talking about, the line still worked, and they would be almost apologetic: "Oh, right -- you're the weirdo who always goes to the library." And they would pass me by and begin to torture the next girl, who they knew had been in class with them and could appreciate all the new put-downs they had learned.

All across North America, sex educators are doling out such ammunition under the banner of enlightenment.

Sex education instructors in Massachusetts, New York, and Toronto teach the kids "Condom Line-Up," where boys and girls are given pieces of cardboard to describe sex with a condom, such as "sexual arousal," "erection," "leave room at tip," and then all the kids have to arrange themselves in the proper sequence.

New Jersey's Family Life program begins its instruction about birth control, masturbation, abortion, and puberty in kindergarten. Ten years ago, when the program was first instituted, there was some discomfort because according to the coordinator of the program, Claire Scholz, "some of our kindergarten teachers were shy -- they didn't like talking about scrotums and vulvas." But in time, she reports, "they tell me it's no different from talking about an elbow." In another sex-ed class in Colorado, all the girls were told to pick a boy in the class and practice putting a condom on his finger. Schools in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, get a head start on AIDS instruction, teaching it in second grade, four years earlier than state requirements. In Orange Country, Florida, second graders are taught about birth, death and drug abuse, and sixth graders role-play appropriate ways of showing affection. "I think that's too young," said one parent, Steve Smith. He would prefer his kids to "be learning about reading and writing." New York City Board of Education guidelines instruct that kindergartners are to be taught "the difference between transmissible and nontransmissible diseases; the terms HIV and AIDS; [and] that AIDS is hard to get." This, we are informed, fulfills "New York State Learner Outcomes: 1,2."

And yet, as they confidently promote all this early sex education, our school officials are at a loss when it comes to dealing with the new problem of sodomy-on-the-playground. It's hard to keep up with all the sexual assault cases that plague our public schools in any given month. Take just one reported in the New York Daily News in 1997:

Four Bronx boys -- the oldest only 9 -- ganged up on a 9-year-old classmate and sexually assaulted her in a schoolyard, police charged yesterday...[The girl's mother] said she is furious with Principal Anthony Padilla, who yesterday told parents the attack never happened....The girl's parents and sisters are also outraged that when the traumatized third-grader told a teacher, she was merely advised to wash out her mouth and was given a towel wipe."

The associative link between the disenchanting of sex and increased sexual brutality among children works like this: if our children are raised to believe, in the words of that New Jersey kindergarten teacher, that talking about the most private things is "no different from talking about an elbow," then they are that much more likely to see nothing wrong in certain kinds of sexual violence. What's really so terrible, after all, in making someone touch or kiss your elbow?

I wanted to tell the other girls that they didn't have to put up with all this, that they could come to the library with me if they wanted. The library was cool and quiet, and there were old yearbooks with funny pictures of our teachers -- from when they were younger and still had hair. Sometimes there was even a bowl of pretzels. But I didn't say a word. I still feel kind of guilty about it. I was afraid if I spoke up I would get into trouble and that I wouldn't be allowed to escape to the library anymore.

However, now that I'm older and know that some things are more important than your fear of getting into trouble, I'm quite willing to share my views on sex education. But first I needed to confirm when it started. I called up my old elementary school and learned that when I was there, it actually started in kindergarten as part of the personal hygiene unit, but in fourth grade someone is brought in from the outside.

At my school sex education was given in kindergarten to ninth grade, but I was excused from fourth grade on. The first time I was conscious of any real sexual desire was the summer after ninth grade, about age fourteen or so. One shouldn't extrapolate from my own case, which may be abnormal, but generally speaking I'm struck by the way my generation's sex education ended around the time that natural desire usually begins. I guess the theory is that this way we know everything before we start, and can do it properly, but I think what happens instead is that we end up starting before we feel, because we think it's expected of us. Usually when adults start shoving condoms in our faces, we would much prefer to giggle.

A 23-year-old friend of mine recently reported the following story about his younger sister:

My 13-year-old sister went to the family doctor for a checkup. He's been our doctor for a good eight years. Not particularly bright, but good for a referral. At the end of the examination he says, "If you're sexually active, you should be using condoms." And he offers her some. Upon hearing the word "sexually," my sister burst out laughing. This annoyed the physician, who felt she wasn't taking her reproductive health seriously. He began chastising her, at which point my grandmother came in -- at which point all hell broke loose.


During the time in which I was excused from class, I was conducting my own education of sorts. Since I was always given a general directive to acquaint myself "with the mechanics" and not "to be embarrassed," I decided right away that I would strive to avoid the mechanics and be as embarrassed as possible about as many things as I wanted to be embarrassed about. I just didn't know where to begin, though. There was so much to be embarrassed about, and so little time.

Even though we live in an age that prides itself on being beyond gender role stereotyping, young girls are still the experts on embarrassment. Everyone tells us not to be self-conscious, but we always are. It's as if the world's embarrassment passed through us, from generation to generation. It's as if girls had some special responsibility to keep embarrassment alive and also to teach others how to diffuse it. A letter-to-the editor of American Girl reads, "Dear Help!, I'm SO embarrassed! At recess I was doing gymnastics near some boys. While I was landing a handspring, my shirt flew up! The boys began to laugh because I didn't have anything on underneath. Now they won't let me forget it." She is "Miserable in Virginia." The editors reply: "Dear Miserable: They'll forget it themselves eventually. The joke will get old, they'll tease you less often. In the meantime, be patient, ignore them, and tuck in your shirt."

"There's a blush for won't, and a blush for shan't and a blush for having done it," wrote Keats. There's also a blush for a million other things. American Girl magazine was fielding so many questions about embarrassment in 1997 that it eventually had to come out with a whole book on the subject, to advise girls on how to deal with it. Oops! the book was called, because "There are some things that make a girl cringe, and horribly humiliating moments are among them."

American Girl considers the plight of a girl who forgets to go to her friend's birthday party, and then a girl who wets her pants in public. "What do you do when you're so embarrassed you could die?" asks American Girl. It's a very important question in the life of a girl. Today, embarrassment is something to "overcome," but maybe if so many girls are still embarrassed, even in an age when we're not supposed to be, maybe we have our embarrassment for a reason.

The natural embarrassment sex education seeks so prissily to erode -- "Now remember, boys and girls, there is absolutely nothing to giggle about!" -- may point to a far richer understanding of sex than do our most explicit sex manuals. Children now are urged to overcome their "inhibitions" before they have a clue what an inhibition means. Yet embarrassment is actually a wonderful thing, signaling that something very strange or very significant is going on, that some boundary is being threatened -- either by you or by others. Without embarrassment, kids are weaker: more vulnerable to pregnancy, disease, and heartbreak.


If "overcoming your embarrassment" is the first mantra of sex education, "taking responsibility for your sexuality" is the second. The health guidelines for the ninth grade in the Newton, Massachusetts, public schools, printed in the Student Workbook for Sexuality and Health, inform us that not only do "Sexually Healthy Adolescents...decide what is personally 'right' and act on these values," but also they "take responsibility for their own behavior." Grown-ups get the same advice. "What does undermine feminism is women...refusing to take responsibility for their sexuality," says Karen Lehrman. "Every woman must take personal responsibility for her sexuality," warns Camille Paglia.

Fine, but if you're a child, you're not sure what taking responsibility for your sexuality entails. I certainly didn't want not to be taking responsibility for something, whatever it was. I thought I knew what they meant. It's like when you steal a cookie from the cookie jar, and then you've got to face up to it, take responsibility for it. I got the impression that somehow I had done something wrong, that the reckoning was going to come soon and so I would have to know what to apologize for. Well, then, I determined, I was going to figure out what all the fuss was, and then -- I was no coward -- I would take responsibility for it.

So I kept up with the material, even though I was excused from "Human Growth and Development." The teachers gave me weekly worksheets so I could see what my peers were learning. I looked them over dutifully, tried to understand them on my own. I only remember two of these worksheets, the two that confused me the most. One said that an "orgasm is like when you have to sneeze, and then you sneeze." I remember thinking -- Why would I want to sneeze more than I already sneeze? I hate sneezing! Then I learned that an orgasm was a positive sneeze. That still baffled me. A few months later, my class was on to more advanced conceptualizing: "Try to imagine that an orgasm is like an extended tickle. You like being tickled, don't you? Well, adults like to tickle each other too, to share warm feelings." I don't know which text this came from, but Planned Parenthood's book It's Perfectly Normal, by Robie H. Harris (Penguin Books), recommended for kids age 10 and up, reminds me of ours: It features illustrations of nude, playful boys and girls as they masturbate on beds and heterosexual and homosexual couples as they have intercourse in different positions.

Yes, it's perfectly normal. But what was perfectly normal? I still felt that I was missing something. Sometimes when things aren't comprehensible to children, there's a very good reason. Mostly I just skimmed these worksheets. Thanks to my mother's note, I wasn't going to be tested on the material. They basically set me loose in the library. The only requirement was that I periodically turn in book reports to "demonstrate proficiency" on the subject matter. I had to show them, essentially, that I knew what was going on. Of course, before I could do that, I had to find out what was going on.

It was a daunting subject for a nine-year-old, particularly since the books they had at our grade school library were so disappointing. After thumbing through six Sweet Valley High books, I decided right away that I was going to have to go to the public library if I was going to do the thing properly. My teachers were beginning to get worried that I was missing out on so many important sex-ed sessions and, specifically, that I wouldn't "know what to do" as a result. To tell you the truth, I was starting to get worried, too. I "had to take responsibility for [my] sexuality," they said.

It was there where I first opened the encyclopedia and peered under the "Sex" entry.

I read about three lines, glanced behind me, then shut the book quickly. How embarrassing.

I had higher hopes for the next book I came across. It was a pale blue book with a nice cover of a hugging couple -- the tide was Choosing a Sex Ethic, and, if memory serves, it was written by a rabbi named Borowitz. This seemed appropriate for me, being Jewish, and also the title was very intriguing since I would have thought that ethics were precisely the things you couldn't choose. But, apparently, you could. Well, then, I would just have to choose the best one. The sweet-looking guy on the blue cover was hugging a smiling woman in such a tight, affable way that I was thinking a) she certainly looks happy and b) maybe if I choose the right ethic, someone nice will hug me, too.

rdI opened to the table of contents and my eye immediately leaped to something called "the ethics of orgasm." I turned to that chapter first, because that looked like the most interesting one -- containing that mysterious sneezing and tickling concept -- but after that one I was just too embarrassed to read on. I think that time I must have gotten it.

This was going to be harder than I thought.

But somehow I ended up figuring out the facts anyway. Could it have been the condoms and dental dams all the adults were dangling in my face everywhere I turned?

In 1997 Alexander Sanger, president of Planned Parenthood of New York City, penned an Op-Ed in the New York Daily News, "Sex Ed Is More Than Just Saying No: Teens Need All the Facts." Contends Sanger, "In a perfect world, teenagers would wait until they're older and wiser to have sex. But the fact is, 75% of American teens have sex before high school graduation. In New York, more than 54,000 teens, ages 15 to 19, become pregnant each year ."Therefore, he concludes, "teens need all the facts."

Where does he think all this high school sex and all these pregnancies are suddenly coming from? Doesn't he find it even a bit curious that the more we do what he prescribes, the more such behavior goes on? Most studies find that knowledge about AIDS or HIV does not decrease risky behavior. A 1988 study in the American Journal of Public Health, which examined exactly the year when public health information about AIDS grew, found that no increased condom use among San Francisco's sexually active adolescents resulted. A 1992 study in Pediatrics conducted a broader investigation and ended up warning, "It is time to stop kidding ourselves into thinking that our information-based preventative actions are enough or are effective." This shouldn't be so surprising. The few studies that show that instruction on condom use changes the behavior of students conclude it is only likely to make them more sexually active. This cult of taking responsibility for your sexuality is essentially a call to action.

But beyond this, how does Alexander Sanger imagine he was born, if his parents were never given "the facts"? I am sure he intends no harm, but the ground in dispute was never whether we would get the facts -- the question is how and when. Do we get the opportunity to seek out the facts when we are ready? Furtively? Or do we have them forced upon us when we're not ready, when we're inclined to yawn about the whole thing and conclude it's no big deal? It's really not very complicated why so many kids are getting pregnant these days, now that we have so much sex education on top of a wholly sexualized culture. It's because sex is not a big deal to them and because they think this is what they are expected to do. They are just trying to be normal kids, to please people like Alexander Sanger and prove that they are "sexually healthy."

We're not flocking to Jane Austen movies because we want the facts, but because we're sick of having the facts shoved in our faces all the time. One is entitled to imagine that there might be something more to hope for than all this dreary crudeness -- this view of sex as something autonomous and cut off from obligation, whether familial obligation or obligation to one's "sex partner" (as the locution has it).

So in a funny way, the facts about sex conceal the truth.

Or so I conclude, in hindsight. Actually, I hadn't given my fourth-grade flight to the library much thought until around ten years later, when I began to detect a difference in the way I dated, compared to how other kids my age "hooked up," and in a million other things that just seemed foreign to me, and didn't to them, and then I started to put some of the pieces together. In retrospect I can see that, more than anything else, it is the fact that I escaped sex education which separates me most from other kids my age. It doesn't matter whether they're liberal or conservative -- if they're around my age and they've had my generation's sex education, it's very hard for us to understand each other in some fundamental way. I'll never forget the president of my college's Republican club, who told me that of course he was in favor of sex education since, unlike me, he had "a healthy attitude towards sex."

The mindset that concerns me is not political but cultural. Anyone who's been through the mill of my generation's sex education has trouble understanding why I'm concerned about the things I'm concerned with -- indeed, to have my kind of concerns, I'm told, is "unhealthy" -- and I for my part cannot understand how they can be so unconcerned, so cavalier. When I hear the words that they use, "hang-ups," "hook-ups," "check-ups," for example, it's as if we lived in different worlds.

Copyright © 1999 by Wendy Shalit



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