A Return to Modesty (Book Review)

Sometimes it helps for Christians to get out more.  Many of us who were raised in the Church and in Christian families were shielded from the harsh cultural and peer pressures that our neighbors must face.  Even if we had one foot in the secular culture and the other in the Church, it is unlikely that Christians had the same experiences growing up through their teen years and into early adulthood (20s and 30s) that the broader culture faced.

Back in 1999 Wendy Shalit, a twenty-something writer, sought to address what she saw as a major problem in American culture–the loss of modesty.  When her book, A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue, first hit the shelves it created quite a stir in the secular world regarding how recovering modesty is the key to what plagues women (and men) in our sex-charged society.  “Quite a stir” is probably an understatement.  The book was a bombshell.

Her thesis is that society’s attack on (especially female) modesty has created a culture of women ashamed of being women, indeed of women not really knowing what being a woman is all about.  Shalit asserts that when women decide to abandon womanhood for thinking and acting like men, the foundations of civilization begin to crumble particularly at the point of sexual morals:

Our pursuit of androgyny, though, has not aided the task of socializing our males.  It’s rather difficult to turn around suddenly and try to teach men to be gentle around women, when we have been training them all along to assume that women are the same as they.  If men are brought up , as today’s boys are, believing that girls always want the same thing they do from sexual encounters, and that it’s evil and sexist to assume otherwise, then they are that much more likely to be impatient and uncomprehending of a woman’s “no.”  Female modesty gave men a frame of reference for a woman’s “no.”  Without that frame of reference, but instead taught from day one that women are always as ready to receive advances as they are eager to make them, the modern male always takes a “no” as a personal rebuke.  That is why women today must link arms, charge down campus in their anti-date-rape rallies, screaming “No means no!”  Before, it was a woman’s prerogative to say no–she didn’t have to join some political rally to enjoy this right–while now it is a man’s prerogative  to expect sex. [p. 43]

From a Christian perspective, Shalit is merely making an argument for traditional sexual morality without appealing to God or divinely-inspired scriptures.  Her practical conclusions are not much different than what religious people have believed for centuries (although we are certainly guilty of being hypocrites by not practicing our beliefs consistently).  The motivation of the author’s call for a return to sexual modesty is not rooted in the command of God (or God’s design for living in such a way that exalts the true, good, and beautiful), but is instead rooted in a pragmatic plea to return to a kinder, more genteel civilization when women were respected as women and real men were respectable.  These are not what make the book important.  The immense value of Shalit’s book for the Christian is in her method.

Shalit’s book is a sociological tour-de-force that succeeds because it is an accessible read.  She quotes philosophers (both ancient and modern), feminists, popular women’s magazines, and folks off the street.  Her prose is often snarky which makes her both cute and intriguing.  She argues her points, backs them up with research from both liberal feminists and social conservatives, and frames the whole by telling her story of coming of age and becoming a woman.

As a Reformed and evangelical Christian, one of the things I found most interesting is that Shalit often employs the presuppositional method of “apologetics”.  In other words, she often dismantles both the feminist and conservative arguments against female modesty by taking them to their logical conclusions, thus revealing that at the end of the day everyone still believes that modesty is valuable and virtuous, but we sweep it under the rug because of social pressure to conform to a “liberated” standard of sexual ethics.  Shalit is at her most brilliant when she documents what the sexual liberation that our parents fought for has actually given us: unhappiness, rape, abortion, eating disorders, over-medicating our problems, self-mutilation, loss of innocence, loss of wonder, and loss of hope.

She concludes by issuing a call to a new kind of revolution–a return by her fellow modestyniks to the modesty of our grandparents:

So you may think our modesty projects should be called “An Outsider’s View,” because you think we’re so provocative, but sometimes it’s just you, professor.  Sometimes it’s really from the inside, and we really don’t mean to be provcative all the time.  And sometimes we would prefer not to have learned about AIDS in kindergarten.  You may think that because of Freud, or because of MTV, our virginity doesn’t mean anything, but some of us actually think Freud was wrong.  And sometimes MTV might surprise you.  One of the most popular videos for months, after all, was called “A Return to Innocence.”  Sometimes it comes as a relief to think–when everyone else is telling me how prvocative I am, or have to be, or how many men I have to have–maybe, at least in my own life, before God, I could be just a little bit innocent?  And maybe then my children will be allowed to be children?  Who knows?  Might as well try it, and see what happens.  After all, I don’t see why our parents should get to have a monopoly on sexual revolutions. [p. 244]

As a father of three daughters (all pre-teen), Shalit’s picture of the social pressures my daughters and their friends will be exposed to in the world is eye-popping.  While I will not use Shalit’s book to teach my children to follow Christ, I will use it to show them what the world offers if you reject modesty and biblical manhood and womanhood.

It’s a scary broken world we live in.  Thank God that Jesus saves us and is in the business of redeeming his creation!

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