Reviewed by Jennifer Howard
Sunday, August 5, 2007
GIRLS GONE MILD
Young Women Reclaim Self-Respect and Find It's Not Bad to Be Good
By Wendy Shalit
Random House. 316 pp. $25.95
A few years ago, Wendy Shalit graced us with A Return to Modesty, an invitation to indulge in what she called the "lost virtue." Conservatives hailed it as a much-needed antidote to the poisonous legacy of the sexual revolution. Liberals, not as kind, wrote it off as a neo-Victorian call for a return to the bad old days when ladies were supposed to behave themselves. It earned its author the contempt of such feminist stalwarts as Katha Pollitt, who sniffed in the pages of the New York Times that Shalit "cites her experience in fourth-grade sex ed to argue that feminism and liberal sexual mores have encouraged men to degrade women. The solution: women should stay virgins, and arm themselves, as Shalit implies she has done, with blushes and long skirts to inspire chivalry in men."
Eight years have passed since then. Shalit now has a husband, a family and a Web site called Modesty Zone, and continues to champion the cause of virgins everywhere.
There's no shame in that. "Whether you're a virgin waiting until marriage, or just against casual sex more generally, you can find a safe harbor here to share your ideals, interests, and goals for the future," Modesty Zone promises. "Join forces with other young women who are tired of power struggles between the sexes. Believe in the possibility of real intimacy."
There, tied up in a pretty pink ribbon, is the argument of Shalit's new book, Girls Gone Mild. Shalit believes that too many girls and women have been denied a happy ending because, post-sexual revolution, we now believe it's good to be bad. "The plain fact," she writes, "is that girls today have to be 'bad' to fit in, just as the baby boomers needed to be good. And we are finding that this new script may be more oppressive than the old one ever was." You can't meet Mr. Right when you're busy shagging a series of Mr. Wrongs.
To make her point, Shalit roves through the bordello of popular culture, sweeping up unpleasant bits of evidence. She begins with Bratz dolls, a scantily clad line of playthings aimed at young girls, and goes as far as the "Girls Gone Wild" phenomenon, in which young women who ought to know better get drunk and take off their clothes and make lots of money for ungentlemanly types who sell videotapes of them.
If you're the parent of a young daughter (I am), Girls Gone Mild does one heck of a job of playing off your worst fears. Shalit wants me to believe that my innocent darling will, by the age of 6, be so saturated in hyper-sexualized contemporary culture that it will take an act of God to keep her from baring her midriff and painting herself to look like the pop tartlet of the moment. She will, by the time she's 13, be greeting her friends with such empowering phrases as "Hey, slut!" And by the time she's in college, if she wants male company, she'll be forced to find it by "hooking up" with lads who want nothing more than to be "friends with benefits." Her social life, in short, will be about cheap sex, bought with cheap clothes and cheaper liquor, at the price of self-respect and the prospect of any serious romance.
And I thought that Disney princesses were all I had to worry about.
Shalit tells me to take heart, though, because there's a new sexual revolution a-brewing -- one in which sex is supposed to be a meaningful act between two people who actually care about each other. It's tempting to mock her, but what's so silly about the idea of self-respect and finding one's soul mate? Nothing, even if you're more the "Sex and the City" type than the virgin-till-marriage type.
She asks, "Why, in the year 2007, should women's focus be completely on pleasing young men?" (Is it?) And she wants us to take heart (and I do, I do) from the growing number of young women whom she describes as "rebellious good girls." These new avatars of girl power give abstinence talks to high-schoolers; they stage "Pure Fashion" shows in which fashion doesn't just mean flesh; they become "girlcotters" who lobby retailers such as Abercrombie & Fitch to pull tee-shirts emblazoned with sexist slogans. They don't sleep with the first, or second, or third boy who comes along. They don't become "people-pleasing bad girls" who will do anything, anything, to get a boy's attention.
More power to them. Behind Shalit's celebration of such girls, however, is some very dubious sociology.
I admit she had me scared for a while. I've encountered more than enough young women who have made questionable sartorial and sexual judgments. I'm not blind to the icky cultural messages that my children are subjected to every day. I worry about them, God knows, and the pressures they'll face as they grow into adults. But I worry about global warming, too, and terrorist attacks and paying the mortgage and whether my daughter will get paid as much as her male colleagues do for the same work.
How real is the sexed-out, I Am Charlotte Simmons world Shalit describes? There's plenty of sleaze everywhere you look, but Shalit's reporting leaves me unconvinced. She leans too hard on secondhand evidence, most of it grabbed from the Internet and readers' e-mails. She's promiscuous in her reliance on studies but does not give much detail about their methods; as long as they support her conclusions, they must be sound.
Even more detached from reality is Shalit's takedown of older feminists. These are the good ladies, second- and third-wavers, who run organizations such as NOW and who have fought for years to give women the same chances as men -- not, as Shalit would have it, just the chance to sleep around like men. She attacks them for "the concessions they made to pornography" and for being "so committed to the idea of casual sex as liberation" that they're baffled by younger, more restrained women.
"As the third-wavers continue to advocate a public, crude sexuality and younger girls feel oppressed by how public sexuality is, the two sets of women are on course for an inevitable collision," Shalit writes. This is bone-headed conservatism at its most offensive. Last time I checked my Feminist Manual, letting it all hang out in public didn't appear on the must-do list. Nor did making concessions to pornographers, but maybe I missed that section. Shalit would have us believe that feminism is not a dirty word in her vocabulary. Yet she seems surprised when a Wesleyan undergraduate "rejects sexual exhibitionism even though she identifies as a feminist."
Imagine that! A feminist who doesn't take her clothes off. What is this world coming to? ·
Jennifer Howard writes about the humanities for the Chronicle of Higher Education and is a contributor to the anthology "D.C. Noir."