By Lisa Ferguson
It may be the first time in history that a fight against coed bathrooms turned into a revolution.
In 1995, Wendy Shalit, then a college sophomore, wrote an anti-coed-bathroom article for Commentary magazine that was picked up by Readers' Digest. Soon, Shalit was hearing from students nationwide who, like her, believed they were the only ones uncomfortable with the lack of privacy in their dormitories. That outpouring led to her first book, "A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue" (The Free Press, $14), in which she speculates that a sexual "counterrevolution may be just around the corner." (Visit Wendy's web site: www.girlsgonemild.com)
Today, she describes this new modesty movement in "Girls Gone Mild: Young Women Reclaim Self-Respect and Find It's Not Bad to Be Good" (Random House, $25.95), which will be released in June.
Our Sunday Visitor sat down with Shalit after a recent lecture at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio.
Our Sunday Visitor: Modern culture equates modesty with shame and repression. Why do you call this idea a myth?
Wendy Shalit: It's actually one of three big myths about modesty. This one tells women that the only reason they won't follow the cultural ideal of promiscuity is because they're ashamed of their bodies or have "hang-ups" about sex. In fact, many women are binge drinking to suppress their real emotions and romantic hope. They have to numb themselves so they can engage in the casual promiscuous behavior they feel society expects of them.
Modesty is about valuing yourself as a person. Sexual intimacy is precious and needs to be protected with a lasting commitment first.
OSV: What are the two other modesty myths?
Shalit: The second myth says modesty upholds a sexual double standard, and it is true historically that there has been a special stigma on female promiscuity. But people who really believe in modesty uphold a single high standard for both men and women, instead of today's low standard of equal-opportunity promiscuity where men and women use and abuse each other.
I find that the biggest misconception today is that anyone trying to be a "good" girl must be obsessed with pleasing others. But the reality is that the so-called bad girls more often are engaging in premarital sex simply to please guys.
It's the good girls who are taking hard, unpopular stances. That's why in my new book, I call the good girl the real rebel today. She's rebelling by being good in the way girls used to rebel by being bad.
OSV: Tell us more about "Girls Gone Mild." Why did you write it?
Shalit: Well, when I wrote my first book, I was sure I was the only one who thought there was something wrong with the hook-up scene and our casual attitude toward sex. But I got thousands of letters of support from young people.
Later, I started seeing some of these young people in the news -- 11-year-old Ella Gunderson, for example, writing to ask Nordstrom to carry more modest clothing -- and I thought, wow, the young people really are leading this new modesty movement. So, "Girls Gone Mild" tells the story of why this is happening.
OSV: So your new book is basically documenting this sexual counterrevolution?
Shalit: Yes, but this isn't only a conservative religious revolution. It's also young liberal feminists, and for them, feminism is about dignity and respect, not more crudeness and promiscuity as some third-wave feminists seem to recommend.
Even at the University of California at Berkeley, where I was expecting a completely hostile audience, many feminist students told me, "You're right, the hook-up scene is going nowhere."
OSV: What about male modesty?
Shalit: Male modesty is as important as female modesty. Men can cultivate it by respecting all women, and obviously, by not pressuring women to be physically intimate.
That being said, men are in a particularly difficult situation in our pornographic culture. They need to remind themselves of what they're hoping for in a wife, the attributes that last.
OSV: You were raised in a secular Jewish home, but later found support for your modest lifestyle in a community of Orthodox Jews. What role does religion play in modesty?
Shalit: I'm seeing young people seeking out religious communities that are supportive of modesty. The more that we all emphasize developing ourselves spiritually and internally, the more we'll have a viable alternative to what the culture is offering.
OSV: How can parents raise children to value the virtue of modesty?
Shalit: Don't be afraid to say no -- to your kids or to other parents. Very often when they push the boundaries, kids are waiting to hear their parents say, "I love you and I care about you." And sometimes other parents are waiting for someone else to set a standard against things like coed sleepovers for their kids.
Lisa Ferguson writes from Ohio. Wendy Shalit's blog can be found at www.modestlyyours.net.
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