Book World Live

Wendy Shalit
Author, "Girls Gone Mild: Young Women Claim Self-Respect and Find It's Not Bad to Be Good."
Tuesday, August 7, 2007; 3:00 PM

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. (Review: How to Be Good, Aug. 5, 2007)

Wendy Shalit, author of "Girls Gone Mild: Young Women Claim Self-Respect and Find It's Not Bad to Be Good," fields questions and comments about her new book and the state of gender politics.

Wendy Shalit is the founder of Modestyzone.net. She is also the author of "A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue."

Join Book World Live each Tuesday at 3 p.m. ET for a discussion based on a story or review in each Sunday's Book World section.

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Wendy Shalit: Hi everyone! Thanks for joining me. I'm Wendy Shalit and I'm here typing away to answer your questions. I wrote Girls Gone Mild to get people talking about a new set of female role models, so everything you always wanted to know about role models for girls or growing up female today, please ask away, and I'll do my best to answer.

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Stamford, Conn: Wendy, as a mother of girls I'm finding myself very intrigued by the discussion about your book but I have to admit, I don't like the use of the words "good" and "bad." Why can't we discuss this without such value-laden language?

Wendy Shalit: I would never call some girls "good" and others "bad." My point is that the "good girl" has become bad--there are all sorts of negative terms we use to refer to more modest girls today: people insult her by calling her a "prude" or "repressed." So the value judgments are already happening. I'm trying to get society to transcend its negative perception of the girls who want to wait for one special person. (There's also the stigma on girls who don't want to present themselves as publicly sexual: "What do you, have hang-ups about your body?") Instead of always rushing to make fun of these girls, let's appreciate that wanting to keep sex private and meaningful is a valid option.

One last word about value-judgments and girls: Adults always have expectations of young people whether they will admit it or not. I think it's better for parents to strive to protect their children's innocence rather than to expect them to be experienced. Parents mean well but with all the pressure to have sex surrounding teens today, hearing "You're liberated, so get going!" from a parent, well, it doesn't always translate into an "I care" message.

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Los Angeles, Calif: Ms. Shalit: I'm halfway through your book which I'm really enjoying but my only disagreement so far is that I don't think the Gossip Girls novels are as bad as you make them out to be. I've looked through one, because my 13-year-old daughter reads the series, and we've discussed the messages in them. I think they're pretty ridiculous and harmless. Didn't you read trash when you were a teen?

Wendy Shalit: Hey how do you know I read trash as a teen? :-) Actually, I did but I read *romantic* trash which I would submit is not as bad as today's YA novels.

The problem I have with the girls in Gossip Girls is not what the girls wear-- "Her pink tube top was riding dangerously low and her denim miniskirt promisingly high"--and it's not even the f-word every other page. It's that everyone is so jaded about relationships. ("Blair draped the sheets over her body and lit a cigarette, striking a pose that said, I'm on my honeymoon and worn out from doing it, but what the hell, let's do it again." --"Only in My Dreams.")

The ideal that's presented to teens today is to disconnect sex from emotions. This is what they see on TV and shockingly, it is what is even advocated on some sex-education websites for teens. But being jaded and disconnecting sex from emotion is more of a pathology than an ideal. Studies have indicated that young people who disconnect sexuality from emotion are not happy. We need our emotions to connect and bond with others. So I wouldn't say these novels are harmless; I think they prop up a very false ideal at a vulnerable time when girls are just trying to develop their own identities.

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St. Mary's City, Md.: Why is the notion of "modesty" regarded as exclusive to females?  Implicit in this discussion is the notion that casual sex, or even any sex before marriage, is more wrong for females than it is for males. That double standard leaves men both out of the picture and off the hook. Even the Post review invokes the old myth that an unmarried woman can be either a virgin or a whore, with the latter group being unattractive as potential brides.

Meghan O'Rourke at Slate describes it best: "From at least the 1920s (when everyone thought flappers were destroying manners) on through the 1980s (when teen pregnancy rates had everyone alarmed), girls have been hearing that THEIR sex lives are the symbol of generational decadence." When we tell young women (and not young men) that self-respect requires keeping their virginity, I believe we do a disservice to both genders.

Wendy Shalit: I actually advocate a single high standard for both men and women, instead of this competition of how crude we can be. And I also write that just as women need to get over thinking of themselves as prey, men need to get beyond thinking of themselves as predators.

I say explicitly when I'm discussing feminists who think adultery is liberating for women (now we too can be equal-opportunity cheaters, yay!) that cheating is not liberating for women or men.

I'd like to see us get back to a single high standard instead of this low standard of how adolescent we can be.

At the same time, we must realize that young men today are permitted more freedom in choosing to be more sexually conservative, whereas with girls we're forever reacting against the old double standard in a way that's now extremely unhealthy. If a girl doesn't want to hookup or present herself as publicly sexual, she'll be surrounded by critics: "Are you a prude? Repressed? Do you have hang-ups" Whereas the boys will more often be respected: "Oh you're waiting until you're married, isn't that nice!"

So there is still a double standard--it's just been reversed. That's what I'm trying to change with my book, in highlighting girls who are challenging these low expectations. Also, you don't see little boys sexualized in the way that little girls are now encouraged to be sexualized in their dress, which is another reason I felt it was necessary to question our current notion of female "empowerment."

If you don't like the idea of string bikinis for toddler girls, then we need to get beyond, "If you've got it, flaunt it" as the only way for girls to be empowered. We have to allow for there to be an alternative.

Some of the young women I profiled, it's true, are virgins, but that's not the main issue. The issue is showing girls that it's possible for them to be empowered without having to be casual about sex or show off their private parts to strangers.

The girls I profile are all young women who refuse to repress their individuality and their dreams. That's what I think makes them admirable.

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Arlington, Va: I just want to let you know that it's about time someone wrote this book (although I haven't read it, but am excited to). I am a VERY liberal person on most issues, but this is one that I am not. I think women do themselves a disservice at times when they engage in behaviors a la "Girls Gone Wild." I'm 24 years old and have a "tame" dating history, and was picked on by (girl)friends and pressured by (boy)friends. I agree that girls need more solid role models growing up than Bratz and Barbie, which seem to focus on physical attributes. I don't think this issue is about repressing a woman's sexuality -- it's about allowing a woman to express her sexuality while still showing people that she deserves respect for things other than her body. My husband fell in love with ME, especially my brain and personality, not just my body.

Wendy Shalit: Thank you! Your story shows that the more modest girl is wrongly perceived to be "mild"--repressed, quiet, people-pleasing--when in fact you were the real rebel! You got attacked from both girls and guys, but you stayed true to your hopes, and it paid off. I would only encourage you to speak out and tell other young people your story. The more they see an alternative, the more they choose that alternative; they then see that it's possible to rebel.

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Northeast: Do you really find modern feminism and sexual modesty

to be mutually exclusive, as the author of the book

review implies? Isn't it possible that a woman can be

exposed to life in the post-sexual revolution, including all

the pornography, mid-riff baring, and Bratz dolls, but still

be intelligent enough to not sleep with every man she

meets? I hope you don't think all women/girls are so

stupid or have such low self-esteem they rely on

promiscuity and exhibitionism to define themselves.

I haven't read your book, but I think blaming the women

who paved the way for younger generations of girls to

have more choices in life, get better a education and

better jobs, and not depend financially on a husband to

get through life is the wrong way to go about proving your

point.

Wendy Shalit: No I don't believe that, and I didn't write that. You sound like an intelligent person so I'm sure you realize that reviewers often twist an author's position instead of saying where and why they disagree.

What I do say is that there is a very interesting debate happening right now within feminism. Many feminists have taken a staunch anti-modesty position; this is a whole chapter in my book but just to give three examples:

-- Jennifer Baumgardner has written that "dancing at a strip club" can "radicalize" women.

-- Helen Grieco the executive director of California's NOW, has said "Flashing your breasts on Daytona Beach says, 'I'm not a good girl. I think it's sexy to be a bad girl."

--Salon's feminist blog Broadsheet posted a countdown to when Daniel Radcliffe (actor who plays Harry Potter) becomes "legal." ("Finally, a legal-age countdown clock for the ladies!")

This casual attitude towards sex is what you might call established (3rd wave) feminism. But fortunately, it's changing. The younger teen feminists I interviewed for my book all wanted a return to dignity and to the idea that sex is significant. I call them 4th wavers in the book.

One girl I was very impressed with was Léa Clermont- Dion from Montreal. She's a 14-year-old girl who gives talks to hundreds of college students about reclaiming intimacy instead of having casual sexual encounters. In March of 2006, she addressed over 400 college students at the University of Quebec and protested how girls are addressing one another, 'Hi, Slut!' (in French salope). Then she said, "We have to speak to young people about intimacy and love, not just performance."

What's amazing is that this message is coming from a 14-year-old secular, feminist girl--and not a 50-year-old priest. So the old categories no longer apply. I think we're on the cusp of a real paradigm shift, and it's an exciting time.

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Boston, Mass: Wendy, I'm enjoying reading your book! Your idea of this generation's young women adopting a "bad girl script" is compelling...(Script = I picture a facade or set in the movies that looks real, but is only propped up to be seen; nothing real lies behind it.)

You write about girls being peer and parent pressured into being overly sexualized, not because it comes from who they genuinely Are, but rather is impressed upon them by society's expectations for women. Can you say more about what damage this script does?

-Erin P

Wendy Shalit: Yes it is a script. When you open a coloring book for girls like BRATZ Yasmin: The Princess Rules! and read, "When I want to look hot for an extra special occasion I'll put on _____" I think there's a bit of a problem. It's pretty well known that girls who believe in this script are more at risk for depression and suicide.

But the problem is that the alternative has become political; the moment you suggest that there's more to being a girl than just being a boy toy, people start getting very upset. I just want to add that there is a big difference between feeling like you must "please" boys, even strangers, vs. pleasing someone you are in a committed relationship with. Girls who feel like they must please everyone find it much harder, eventually, to meet someone they can bond with and go through live with.

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Reston, VA: Personally, I've lost a lot of respect for parents today, with the clothing that they will allow their children to wear. For years, it seemed that the mall was full of prostitutes-in-training. And if that's how you appear, that's how you will be perceived.

What's so wrong with telling children that they can chose NOT to devalue themselves? A girl's worth isn't based on her sexuality - why buy into a culture that teaches her that that is the only currency that she has?

Wendy Shalit: People are very invested in the opposite view. It's become ideological, unfortunately. But the young woman who just wrote me--saying her mom asked her if she was a lesbian because she was still a virgin at 19--trust me, she's going to be giving different advice to her daughter someday!

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St. Louis, Mo: Why does it have to be one extreme or the other? According to you, women are either a virgin or a sexually permiscuous. I have not read the book, but from the review it doesn't look like you did any real research other than watching Sex and the City and The OC and deciding that little girls are damned. Did you even talk to real women?

Wendy Shalit: Well, never judge a book based on a reviewer with an agenda! My entire book is about the stories of real women who don't want to be Paris Hilton or Britney Spears. I spoke with over 3,000 people in the past 5 years and profiled over 100 young women in depth to find out what it takes to challenge today's media messages. And my findings were the opposite as what you attribute to me: I'm actually very optimistic.

Young people are bored with these injunctions to be jaded, and they want something more.

I personally have very little interest in judging people or putting them into categories as you say. I'm just trying to present an alternative with my book, so that young people can have more options. Here's what I mean. A popular blogger and father who planned to advise his daughter to have premarital sex--"I think not having pre-marital sex is pretty idiotic," was what he wrote, earned this remark from a commentator, "Emily": "My mom told me when I was a teenager that she hoped her daughters would try shoes on before they bought them. It was a little confusing at the time."

I've heard this a lot: mothers and fathers who say, "gotta test drive the car" or "gotta try the shoes on." Again, clearly well-intentioned parents but when combined with pressure from the media and peers, it can indeed be confusing to have a parent adding to the chorus of voices to have sex.

Unfortunately, it makes many young people feel that's the only viable path. Therefore, I think that letting kids know that they don't have to "test drive"--and that they might even be happier if they don't--is not "the other extreme," but rather, giving them more information so that they can make better choices. The middle ground is what people decide is right for them, based on having all the information.

Fortunately, increasing numbers of young people are rebelling against the low expectations coming from the media and many parents today, and that's the positive story I tell in my book. The rebellion is already underway!

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Alexandria VA: Yay for this book! I applaud the return of modesty and the parents who refuse to buy their young pre-teen daughters "'ho clothes" with sexy sayings and bared midriffs. The snarky tone of the review, particularly in the last paragraph, well illustrates the problem. It's way more hip to be sexy and sneer at those who think porn is degrading.

Thank you for speaking out for the other side.

Wendy Shalit: Thank you for your kind words! The fascinating thing is that it's actually young people who are boycotting the clothes with sexy sayings; it's not the parents. And if you think about it, it makes sense--who's designing these clothes? It's not the girls themselves. It's the adults forcing this version of "empowerment" on them and many girls are getting sick of it. It's also young people who are saying that they want more wholesome role models. They're bored of all the exhibitionism. And it's young people who find virginity much more appealing than their parents, who are twice as likely to find it "embarrassing" for a teen to be a virgin.

So I think despite the snarky tone with which this issue is usually approached in the media, things really are changing and I'm optimistic.

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Washington, DC: Whenever I read on online discussion about your latest book, I notice that there's a lot of anger directed at you for challenging the status quo. Have you been seeing any of this? Who or what do you believe might be the source?

Wendy Shalit: I think for obvious reasons, the exhibitionists and people who profit from them are always the loudest voices. They rule by intimidation, by making girls feel that if they don't want to take off their clothes for strangers, or if they don't want to be casual about sex, then they are the ONLY ones. As a result, many girls feel very isolated and have an inaccurate picture of what's normal for them to think and to feel.

With Girls Gone Mild, I'm saying to these young women, no, you're not alone; there are all these girls out there who are challenging the status quo and they have found a different vision of empowerment. That's a very threatening message to people who are used to having a monopoly on our public discourse about sexuality.

They are afraid that people will take these girls seriously, and that society might actually change. Abercrombie & Fitch had to pull some of their worst "attitude tees" because teen girls objected, and Nordstrom now has a "Modern and Modest" clothing category because of 11-year-old Ella Gunderson.

Yes the smirkers are out in full force, but they're already too late, because fortunately, society is already changing.

Thanks to the Washington Post for providing this very interesting forum, and to everyone who didn't get his or her question answered today, I hope you will visit me at girlsgonemild.com. Have a great rest of your summer!

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