Should Women Be More Modest?

Dear Wendy:

I do not favor guilt by association, though some associations are at least highly compromising. With the Rev. Louis Farrakhan, for instance–or with Andrea Dworkin, whose male-hating vitriol surpasses Farrakhan’s anti-Semitic outbursts. (I called Dworkin a “lunatic fringe queen,” not “a lunatic”; however, if you wish to debate her mental health, we can start with her description of the Caesarean section as “a surgical fuck” in which “the uterus [is] entered directly by the new rapist, the surgeon.”)

My point is not that you are wrong because you sometimes agree with, or quote, “victim feminists”; it’s that you share some of their less commendable traits, such as a highly one-sided view of male-female relations and a cavalier attitude toward evidence–including, perhaps, your own book: The passage from which I quoted your assertion that it’s no longer acceptable to blame a man for a woman’s suffering (Page 168) says nothing about defiled virgins.

Of course teenage girls’ problems are not a feminist invention. But, as you concede, boys have problems too (some researchers now believe that even eating disorders are more common among boys than was once thought; in the 1997 Commonwealth Fund survey, one-third of self-reported bulimics were boys). And your sad girls are hardly the norm. You seize on the popularity of Prozac as proof of the injuries our culture does to feminine sensibilities. Well, in the latest national freshman survey by the UCLA Higher Education Research Institute, 6.4 percent of women report taking prescribed anti-depressants in the past year–as do 5.3 percent of men. As Gilda Radner used to say on Saturday Night Live, “Never mind.”

Besides, once again, you have yet to produce a shred of real evidence linking girls’ problems to the sexual climate. This may get me in trouble, but if anyone today lives in a brutal sexual landscape, it’s urban black teens, who tend to have sex earlier and to have more partners than other groups. While this has had calamitous social consequences, your pet afflictions are not among them: African-American girls are less likely than whites to suffer from eating disorders or poor self-image.

No more persuasive is your attempt to connect an alleged rise in “misogyny” and violence toward women to the loss of respect for feminine modesty and for sexual difference. The increase in rape since the 1960s parallels the general increase in violent crime; in low-crime countries such as Sweden, sexual liberation has not made the streets unsafe for women. As for the claim in your book that the devaluation of chastity has made courts less friendly to rape victims, you have it backward: The reverence for chastity once made it very difficult to win a rape conviction if the woman did not resist “to the utmost” to defend her virtue or was of “unchaste character.” Here, I will gladly credit the feminists with important gains–though I think the pendulum has swung too far (as I show in Ceasefire, men can now be convicted for pressuring the “victim” into sex without force or threats, and exculpatory evidence can be suppressed because it is related to the woman’s sexual past).

Are women more sexually vulnerable? Obviously, they are the ones who must worry about getting pregnant and losing fertility; I don’t know anyone whose awareness of these facts has been erased by belief in “androgyny.” (Men have vulnerabilities of their own: Today, only a man can be forced into parenthood.) On the other hand, heartbreak is an equal opportunity risk, even if the circumstances may differ. I have commiserated, though not over cappuccinos, with male friends badly hurt in the dating game.

You find my assertion that women and men are neither the same nor (fundamentally) different to be “vacuous”; I think it reflects the complexity of real life. In real life, a man may be the one devastated to learn that what he thought was a relationship was just a casual fling to the woman–and it hardly matters to him that this is more typically a female predicament. What we should teach our children, in my view, is to respect others and learn something about them as individuals, instead of making snap judgments based on sex.

Here’s what happens when one puts people into presorted pink and blue categories. On the Judith Regan Show recently, you talked about Peter Wallis, the man who is suing his ex-girlfriend for bearing their child without his consent, as a typical example of male desire for sex without responsibility. In real life, before the baby was born, Wallis had asked the woman to marry him and she turned him down.

What’s wrong with paternalism? For 14-year-olds, nothing. What disturbs me is your constant refusal to distinguish grown women from children. When you argue that the birth control pill does not “make everything OK” (and wax nostalgic for laws that banned the sale of contraceptives to unmarried women), you cite the story of a clinic giving birth control to a 13-year-old brought in by her 37-year-old “boyfriend,” and never reporting the abuse. This is appalling all right, but it has nothing to do with adult women. (As for the weird story about the father who drove his daughter to a hotel for the virgin sacrifice, did the daughter really have no part in the decision?)

The passage from Pamela did not bring tears to my eyes, but it did remind me of another literary classic of that era. In Oliver Goldsmith’s 1766 novel The Vicar of Wakefield, one of the vicar’s daughters is abducted and raped; the rapist later agrees to marry her, which is supposed to be a happy ending. And there’s the seamy side of all those beatitudes about a woman’s irreplaceable “jewel.”