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Laura Perrins: In praise of female modesty. The real source of a woman’s power over men


Are you a popular culture refugee? Are you a hook-up culture survivor? Do you, unlike the students at a recent Oxford Union debate, deny that promiscuity is a virtue? If you have answered yes to any of these questions then you should enjoy A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue by Wendy Shalit. In fact, you will rejoice that there is someone out there willing to say the unsayable.

This book was printed in 1999 to much acclaim and my iBook Store tells me it is to enjoy a fifteenth anniversary reprint (expected 20 May 2014) and update to make the case that we have lost respect for the essential virtue of modesty.

I am not sure how I came across this book and I read it after I was married. However as I read it I kept thinking – thank God I am not at university now – where the relationships between the sexes seems to be at an all time low. This does not stop people from having lots of meaningless empty sex with people they barely know, which, because of its emptiness, the students have to self-administer vast quantities of alcohol just to get though the experience, but still the relations seem at a low ebb. In fact chapters two and three which cover the college hook-up scene should just be called, “Fear and Loathing in the College Dorm”.

The great strength of the book, however, is not just how it systematically dismantles the hook-up scene and how deadening this is to the human soul, particularly the female soul.

It is the celebration of the virtue of modesty that really sets this book apart. Modesty’s close cousin – embarrassment – is also valued, with Shalit declaring “A Society that has declared war on embarrassment is one that is hostile to women.”

Shalit explains modesty thus: ‘a culture that respects specifically female type of modesty is one that regulates and informs the relations between the sexes in a nuanced – not, significantly, in a legislated – way.’ She continues, “women who dress and act modestly conduct themselves in ways that shroud their sexuality in mystery.” So, we are not talking twerking here.  As such modesty prevented women from being treated as sex objects by men.

This celebration of modesty in times past has a profound influence on men’s behaviour, Shalit argues. A woman’s sexual modesty put her as the ultimate arbiter of men’s worth – and they modified their behaviour accordingly. It was the winning of her heart by virtue of displaying a worthy character that was key.

This appealed to men’s own internal sanctions, and did not rely so heavily on outward sanctions, such as sexual harassment lawsuits. In fact in a society that celebrates modesty it would be pointless to take by force or trickery what a man wanted as this meant he was unworthy – you did not have what it takes to be given it by consent. This appeal to internal sanction is displayed in Dickens’ the Mystery of Edwin Drood when on being grabbed by John Jasper, Rosa says “you would take by force what would never be given by consent.’ He promptly stops.

The book is packed full of excerpts from women’s magazines from the causalities of the sexual revolution. There is also a part chapter on pornography but I doubt even Shalit envisaged just how insidious this would become. There are quite a few anecdotes but it does illustrate the challenges the next generation face.

So, if you think there is more to life than ‘all of the sex all of the time’ then this book is for you. I will certainly be bequeathing it to my daughter.

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