Should Women Be More Modest?

Dear Wendy:

I, too, am delighted to have this exchange. It’s true that I have “slammed” your work several times, though I’m not quite the literary stalker you make me out to be: I’ve counted two full pieces and one paragraph in a long Reason article. Nor, to be frank, has your book “struck a chord” with me; I am not, as you speculate about Katie Roiphe, sniping at you in an attempt to deny my stifled “romantic hopes.” What concerns me is the direction in which you are taking conservative discourse on gender.

We do agree on some important points. I am in many ways a strong proponent of modesty (such as avoiding revelations about one’s personal life in books about ideas). I share your distaste for classes that promote “healthy” casual attitudes toward sex, and your belief that demystified sex loses much spice.

On to our differences. You deny seeing women and girls as victims; so, of course, do the “victim feminists,” who argue that they want to stop female victimization and even eschew the word “victim” for the positive “survivor.” Still, in your account of modern sexual mores, it’s always the males who behave badly and always the females who suffer. Boys tease girls (in fact, a 1994 survey by the American Association of University Women found that almost as many boys as girls, 76 percent vs. 85 percent, had been “sexually harassed” in school); guys dump their girlfriends (in fact, studies find that it’s more often the other way round).

It is, indeed, remarkable how much you echo the feminists. Like them, you produce a long screed about the woes of girls–and then, if someone brings up boys’ problems, deplore the bickering over which sex is more victimized. (The “boy troubles” you list are fairly mild: Boys are also much more likely to be victims of violence and to commit suicide.) But if you had made the point that both sexes suffer from precocious sexualization instead of pitting boys against girls, we wouldn’t be bickering.

Also like the radical feminists, and the cultural left in general, you seem to believe that feelings matter more than facts. In your book, you urge conservatives to stop quibbling with exaggerated feminist claims about rape, eating disorders, or low self-esteem and to focus on the fact that “young women are trying to tell us that they are very unhappy.” But where’s the evidence that these miseries are so rampant or that they are linked to sexual liberation? A couple of stories from Mary Pipher’s Reviving Ophelia don’t qualify (as I heard a scientist say on television, the plural of “anecdote” is not “data”). In a 1997 Commonwealth Fund survey, 12 percent of high school girls–and 8 percent of boys–reported that pressure to have sex caused them “a lot of stress.” This is not good, but hardly a catastrophe: Other stress factors, from schoolwork to family problems, ranked far higher.

Does equality means “sameness”? In Ceasefire, I argue that our culture is trapped in a false dichotomy: Either women and men are exactly the same, or men are from Mars and women from Venus. While some traits are more common in men and others in women, individual variations generally exceed sex differences. More young men than women may enjoy casual sex. But to suggest, as you do, that being like a man means moving blithely from partner to partner without suffering from rejection is a crude and nasty caricature.

Speaking of false dichotomies, surely we have other options besides virginity or promiscuity. Of course, one should be free to abstain from premarital sex. But you don’t really trust young women with that choice; like children, they must be protected from themselves by external prohibitions. (It must warm your heart to read about Arab women whose male relatives kill them for sexual transgressions: Now, there’s a way to reinforce a girl’s resolve to say no!)

The praise lavished on you by conservatives and by some feminists (including lunatic fringe queen Andrea Dworkin) underscores a central point of my book: Today, both feminist and conservative rhetoric about women is steeped in paternalism. Innocent women must be protected from bad men; women’s suffering is more important. I believe we must move beyond this polarizing and infantilizing view to look at men and women as individuals. Women’s personal grievances against men are not political, as the feminists believe; nor do they warrant more social concern than men’s personal grievances against women, as you believe.

But then, you think we don’t pay nearly enough attention to female grievances. Indeed, you assert that in our culture, “it is no longer acceptable to say that a man has caused or in any way contributed to a woman’s suffering.” I don’t know about Mars and Venus, but maybe you and I do live on different planets after all.

Best regards,

Cathy Young