Should Women Be More Modest?

Dear Cathy,

I’m delighted to have this chance to trade e-mails, because clearly my book has struck a chord with you. Outdoing Mike Kinsley’s advice to young journalists to always sell every piece three times, you’ve slammed my work in no fewer than four different places (including two separate book reviews, in Newsday and in the Detroit News). In all four pieces, and in your new book Ceasefire, you accuse me of promoting victimology: As you put it in Reason, I am “the newest member of the woman-as-victim school of conservatism.”

I want to thank you for your interest in my writing. But I’d feel even more grateful if your five-pronged critique didn’t represent a significant distortion of my work. The main point of my book is that young women don’t have to be victims–that they wouldn’t be so unhappy if only we gave them, and the boys, better advice. My book is an argument for female erotic power, for a way precisely out of victimhood and passivity.

I think your misunderstanding of my argument is an intriguing one, for it highlights our two very different world views. It comes down to this: I believe that there are important differences between the sexes, and you don’t. Or, to put it another way, I believe that equality between the sexes doesn’t have to mean sameness. While I don’t think women are victims, I do think they are different from men, and I do think women have a special sexual vulnerability, which modesty protects. (Women generally don’t feel more liberated by being more sexually promiscuous.) Denying this vulnerability, pretending that women are the same as men–this is what has made women into victims. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

You seem to want to divide the world up into those who think women are victims (supposedly feminists and reactionaries) and those who think women aren’t victims. But isn’t the truth a bit more complex than this? Not all women are the victims of rape, or of sexual harassment, but that doesn’t mean, as you seem to imply, that we needn’t concern ourselves with these problems just because they don’t happen to all women. If somebody points out that small businesses are suffering from excessive taxation, that doesn’t mean that they believe that business owners are victims–rather, it means that they are interested in making life easier for them. But if we never acknowledge the heavy tax burden on small business to begin with, we can’t hope to make life easier for business owners. Similarly, because you never acknowledge any natural feminine vulnerability, I think your androgynous let’s-just-all-be-equal advice falls flat and ends up consigning more women to victimhood. We’ve tried your notion of avoiding talking about sexual difference, for the past thirty years in fact, and it hasn’t seemed to have helped relations between the sexes. That’s why I’m interested in talking about difference, and how boys could be raised to be honorable–to appreciate female modesty and romantic hope. After all, the only reason we have to rely on the heavy hand of the law to resolve harassment disputes–which I gather you don’t like–is because custom no longer supports modesty and a sense of reverence for each other’s vulnerability.

In one of your reviews of my book, by way of dismissing why harassment, rape, eating disorders, self-cutting, and other kinds of self-mutilation in girls need not concern us, you write that “overall, of course, if there’s a gender in trouble today, it’s boys.” But the point of scholarship is not to pick a sex, as if betting on a team, and then compete at the game of which sex is the most victimized. The sexes are different, and so it is not surprising that they should face unique problems. Girls are more likely to suffer from eating disorders, to be harassed or raped, and to harbor a distorted image of themselves, while boys are more likely to be held back a grade, to have discipline problems, and to drop out of school. I think conservatives and feminists are equally silly when they bicker over which sex is the more victimized. Ranking who has it worse is missing the point: it is simply hard being young, particularly in a culture that is so hostile to the idea of innocence. You point out that sexual teasing in school can be a two-way street and that many boys–though, you concede, not as many as the girls–wish they had waited longer for sex. But this only confirms my point that both girls and boys suffer from the early sexualization in our culture, and that both, therefore, would benefit from more social support for modesty.

For the sake of space, I’m zeroing in on where I think we differ the most, but I’m sure there is lots we could agree on.