In an era when it's possible to turn on the television on any given night and see a clutch of bikini-clad women crawling over their male prey (ABC's The Bachelor), a sex-toy demonstration (HBO's Real Sex), or a 9-year-old showing off her moves on her parents' personal stripper pole (E!'s Keeping Up with the Kardashians), Wendy Shalit's assertion that modesty has made a comeback seems a little, well, optimistic. Shalit has been beating the drum for women to reclaim their maidenly ways since 1999, when she published the screed A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue. Among other things, the book argued that social phenomena like coed college dorms and comprehensive sex education stripped women of their modesty, leaving them vulnerable to casual sex, not to mention rape and depression. Shalit's latest book, Girls Gone Mild, returns to the subject matter bearing a new accusation: namely, that feminism—particularly its youth-focused third wave—has confused sexual promiscuity with political freedom, leading to an epidemic of plummeting self-esteem in young women. But today, she argues, there are moral heroines to be found in a new generation of young women who reject pole dancing, stripping, and other "bad girl" antics as being liberating.
According to Shalit, this emerging group of "modest young gals" wants nothing to do with third wave shagging and snogging because, they say, revealing clothes and premarital sex are actually disempowering. These young women who'd rather wear turtleneck sweaters than low-rise jeans are the real revolutionaries, Shalit claims. And she calls these so-called sex radicals the fourth wave.
That women are bombarded with messages telling us, "Take off your clothes and have casual sex; it's empowering!" is old news. What's different this time around is that Shalit adds feminists to the pop-culture mix. She blames third wavers for corrupting the notion of "girl power" to mean "young women [should] sleep around for the sake of feminism and 'positive sexuality.'" But feminists aren't the only ones at fault for our slutty state of the union: Shalit also accuses misguided professors, progressive teachers, and permissive parents of steering girls wrong. (Shalit puts Bitch on the hot seat, too, for what she calls the magazine's predictably unwavering support for the sexually aggressive girl.)
By contrast, Shalit sees herself at the helm of a nascent Britney backlash, an emerging trend encouraging decorum in dress and demeanor. Along with cohorts like Dawn Eden (author of The Thrill of the Chaste: Finding Fulfillment While Keeping Your Clothes On) and Laura Sessions Stepp (who wrote Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love, and Lose at Both), Shalit's new-modesty boosterism tells women that sexual freedom should not be linked to equality—and that casual sex, risqué wardrobes, and even cursing are serious social problems.
The modesty movement makes some good points about the effect a hypersexual culture can have on women's well-being and sense of self. And it's hard to argue that corporations and pop-culture products that reduce women and girls to consumers of constructed sexuality—from Bratz and Club Libby Lu to The Bachelor and Age of Love—are deeply problematic. But by claiming that modesty is the only solution, and by overlooking long-term feminist efforts to expand both women's access to sexual pleasure and the right to say no, the new-modesty hucksters are doing women no favors.
Simply put, Shalit and her pals keep the onus on women and their behavior, while giving men a pass—something that won't surprise anyone who read A Return to Modesty, in which Shalit demurred that, gosh, if women weren't so immodest, men wouldn't rape them, would they? These binary arguments are really just gussied-up versions of the double standard that judges women differently from men. They are exclusively about female modesty, and say nothing about the male entitlement that has brought, say, strip clubs and porn into the mainstream. It seems crucial to note that modesty, now as in the past, is considered only a women's issue: Girls and women are charged with being the gatekeepers of what's sexually appropriate, but what's judged inappropriate is measured by the effect it has on men. Scratch the surface of the modesty movement's claims, and what shines through is the moralizing and shaming of women's sexuality.
And that raises the question of whether there can be a mainstream movement toward modesty that doesn't hew to a slut-prude binary. Without addressing this larger feminist issue—which Shalit, Eden, and Sessions Stepp utterly fail to do—it doesn't seem like there can be. If we refuse to acknowledge that judgments about women and modesty come from an extremely narrow-minded, controlling view that has more to do with punishing female sexual agency than with modesty itself, all we're doing is restating that good girls don't, bad girls do, and each gets what's coming to her.
To wit: In July 2007, 23-year-old Kyla Ebbert was told by a Southwest Airlines flight attendant that she wouldn't be allowed to travel unless she first changed out of her miniskirt, tank top, and sweater. A second Southwest passenger, Setara Qassim, also came forward with her story of being told in June 2007 to either fix her racy outfit or get off the plane. In the end, both Ebbert and Qassim were allowed to fly the sartorially judgmental skies only after covering themselves with blankets. The modesty authorities were all over the story; on her blog, Dawn Patrol, Eden wrote that Ebbert "was no doubt weaned on the V-Monologues brand of feminism" and advised the Hooters waitress that, rather than suing Southwest, she "should be paying them out of gratitude for showing you the truth of what you are doing every day—treating yourself as a walking commodity, and others as consumers."
To make sure we're behaving properly, the modesty sexperts say, we should keep it in our pants and act like we mean it. Otherwise, we risk giving away our power, explains Sessions Stepp. But this view means we get the same two labels to choose from when it comes to what we wear, how we love, and the ways we express our libido: sluts or prick teases. Player-haters or hos. What about exploration, learning from our successes and mistakes, and finding our own way to the sexual liberation that lies beyond the binary?
A brief history of modern modesty: At the turn of the 20th century, "bad girls" could be arrested and institutionalized on the basis of reputation alone. These bad reputations came from hanging out with a tough crowd, staying out all night, frequenting the dance halls, or getting caught in a hotel room with a man. New ideas in science, law, and medicine were viewed through the lens of the moral fervor that was then sweeping the country. Conventional wisdom held that women should be the models of wholesome and righteous good living, and that everyone else would follow this lead. Women were thus put on a pedestal, charged with responsibility for taming men's passions and maintaining the purity of the home. When, in the early 1900s, young women—in particular, working-class women—started partying in public with men, some people saw the mingling of the sexes as leading to long-overdue personal fulfillment. Others saw in these loosening relations an impending social breakdown. Sound familiar?
We have a long history of trying to manage and organize our sexual fears and desires. The messages about modesty that were historically spread via churches, schools, and local communities are today also spread over the Internet. But the messages themselves have changed little—and each exhortation to women to lengthen their skirts, cross their legs, and keep their eyes down has nothing to do with curbing men's assumed access to women's bodies, and everything to do with controlling women's freedom and sexuality.
A quick Google search these days yields evidence of an interest in rejecting short-shorts and tiny tops that cuts across religion, fashion, and commerce. Pure Fashion "is a faith-based program that encourages teen girls to live, act, and dress in accordance with their dignity as children of God" (purefashion.com). The program, sponsored by Regnum Christi, an evangelical, apostolic Catholic movement, invites young women ages 14 to 18 to learn how to become confident leaders and messengers of purity and virtue. Pure Fashion's eight-month Model Training Program promises to teach teens the modest arts of public speaking, manners and social graces, hair and makeup, and personal presentation, in ways that are "trendy but still tasteful."
Then there's Ladies Against Feminism, a conservative Christian organization (tagline: "Promoting Beautiful Womanhood!") that sells "Modesty Rocks" T-shirts on its eponymous website. And ELIZA, a slick, beautifully designed fashion magazine for teens and 20-somethings, was "created for women who want to be stylish, sexy, and engaged in the world while retaining high standards in dress, entertainment, and lifestyle." The magazine's MySpace page features links to hundreds of model-pretty, ostensibly modest young women and their fans, and its editors have appeared on the likes of Good Morning America and Fox News to discuss how parents and tweens might buck the tide of skimpiness and embrace modest fashion.
David Feingold, a Modern Orthodox Jew, points out that for religious girls and women—whether they're Jewish, Mormon, Muslim, or any other denomination—having more fashion options is a blessing. "Until recently, if you wanted to buy modest clothes it was really a challenge. My neighbors were buying their daughters Amish clothes online. Which is fine unless you're not Amish. Then it just looks weird." Feingold and his neighbors can now go to Funky Frum, a site that caters to observant-but-still-fashionable Jews and whose appeal extends to nonreligious women. There's also Marabo, a chic, fresh clothing line for Muslim women, and Modest by Design, which bills itself as "clothing your father would approve of." Shade, a Mormon-based clothing company founded in 2004 by 32-year-old Chelsea Rippy, has already seen its sales top $8 million.
But to hold these companies up as signaling a new guard, as Shalit and her cohorts do, is really creating a false sense of how ascendant the modesty movement is—and the degree to which rampant immodesty has brought it about. Shalit, in a move that seems to contradict the thesis of her own two books, situates the value of a woman squarely in her sexual mores: She equates virginity with virtue and assumes that a woman who has sex doesn't respect herself. Given that that's her starting point, she seems entirely too quick to assume that everyone who dresses modestly does it for the same reason, and, likewise, that everyone who doesn't is morally poisoned. It's not exactly a nuanced approach, but it's one that she's stubbornly grasping for dear life. In fact, there are plenty of reasons that women embrace modest clothing. Religious codes. Sun sensitivity. Fashion subcultures. And—though Shalit and company seem to think it doesn't exist—personal inclination. What's most wrongheaded about the mod squad's polemic on who does and doesn't need modesty is their sweeping equation of modest clothing with moral purity—to say nothing of their generalizations about where immodesty comes from.
Modestyzone.net, a website Shalit created in 2005, is for young women who are "tired of power struggles between the sexes," a place they can come to "believe in the possibility of real intimacy." Like Shalit's books, the site's implied message is that modesty is a direct result of moral virtue, and is therefore the only path to intimacy and fulfilling relations. Modestyzone brims with huffy (and inaccurate) accusations like, "The unspoken message of Our Bodies, Ourselves is clear enough: As long as [a girl] remains a virgin, she remains completely asexual." But, as in A Return to Modesty, most of Shalit's misgivings about crotch-flashing starlets and tween-sized thongs are placed on an ideology that has little to do with creating these things—call it the "feminists made me pole dance!" argument. Over and over, feminism—rather than a larger culture with a long history of both objectifying women and commodifying sex—is blamed for pressuring girls and young women into short skirts, casual sex, stripping, and general promiscuity.
Among those singled out by Shalit are Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards, longtime campus speakers and authors of the books Manifesta and Grassroots. In Girls Gone Mild, Shalit plays fast and loose with her characterizations of the activists' message, misquoting the two as equating "'dancing at a strip club' with 'volunteering at a women's shelter' in its potential to 'radicalize women in a positive way.'"
"What we actually said," clarifies Baumgardner, "is that whenever women are together alone it can be a radical space. I certainly never equated strip clubs with a rape crisis center. But the fact is that they are both women-only spaces and women do organize and help each other in both places."
Both feminism and the pro-modesty movement share common goals—among them, the insistence that women should be free from sexual objectification. You're as likely to hear a critique of Girls Gone Wild in a women's studies class as you are in a Christian home-school setting. Both feminist websites (like http://Feministing.com) and modesty blogs (like http://fearlesslyfeminine.blogspot.com) link to a video from Dove's Real Beauty campaign called "Evolution," which uses fast-forwarding and time-lapse techniques to demonstrate how much work goes into transforming a model from a regular girl to an ad-ready stunner. And both feminists and modesty boosters have applauded girls like the ones who organized a "girlcott" of Abercrombie & Fitch's "Who Needs Brains When You Have These?" t-shirts. The big difference is that, unlike the modesty movement, feminists are interested in both critiquing the hypersexualization of women and in positing that women's sexual agency, whether inside of or beyond heterosexual marriage, can be positive. Feminists like Ariel Levy have pointed out quite convincingly that girls are sold a vision of empowerment that's more about a commercial version of sexuality than an authentic one. But Levy's Female Chauvinist Pigs didn't argue for more female modesty, but for more sexual options—and not just options that make somebody else a buck.
There's a lot to like about the idea that a few more yards of fabric might give us a wee illusion of privacy in our tell-all world. But the answers to our questions about sexual agency don't lie in silencing feminists or forcing modesty on young women who don't want it. Nor does the modesty movement really represent a greater number of options. At its core, it still leaves women with the same old tired twosome: Check Box 1 for Madonna; Box 2 for Whore. What's more, as Anne K. Ream wrote in a recent article on modesty in the Los Angeles Times, it creates a disturbing new spectrum of ways women can be blamed for things like sexual harassment and abuse. "It's not a lack of female modesty but a sense of male entitlement that leads to sexual violence," Ream points out. "And the idea that women can change men's behavior by changing our clothes is not only disconcerting, it has been debunked. As millions of women know all too well, no one ever avoided a rape by wearing a longer skirt."
Indeed, expecting women to be responsible for tending to both their own and an entire country's worth of men's sexual mores seems an awful lot to ask, but it's exactly what Shalit wants. The modesty movement is at its heart an essentialist one: Men are sexual brutes, and women must keep them in line with crossed legs and high necklines. (Not surprisingly, Girls Gone Mild and Modestyzone don't bother to ask what effect the mod/slut binary has on young lesbians.) Its justifications keep women's bodies and women's sexuality—especially young women's sexuality—at the core of female identity. Forget about focusing on achievement, dreams, and education (although the modesty movement claims that by removing pressure to hook up, they are providing this opportunity for young women). When it comes to the modesty movement, women are primarily the sum total of their sexual bodies. These arguments let people "innocently" talk about modesty and still think about women with their clothes off.
Encouraging modesty and policing women's physical presence and sexual expression are very different things. And, in the end, neither Shalit nor Eden nor Sessions Stepp are offering a critique that differentiates the two. There's nothing wrong with giving a shout-out to a clothing company that acknowledges that not every teen girl wants to look like an escapee from the Playboy Mansion, but to ascribe "goodness" to a turtleneck and moral turpitude to a miniskirt is to ignore the multiple sources from which girls and women draw identity, sexuality, and agency. The modesty movement can cover up their moralism with simplistic reasoning, but all that ensures is that it'll be just another trend.