Should Women Be More Modest?

Dear Wendy:

It’s no fun having to explain one’s jokes, but Gilda Radner’s character was a ditsy TV commentator who would deliver a lengthy rant and then, after her co-anchor pointed out she was completely off target, would end with, “Never mind.”

For the second time, I do not argue that you’re wrong because you agree with feminists. (I prefer to use a qualifier such as Christina Hoff Sommers’ “gender feminists”; there are, after all, feminists who believe in gender equality rather than gender antagonism.) My argument goes more like this:

Wendy says “X.”

Gender feminists also say “X.”

Evidence shows “X” is not true.

Therefore, Wendy is wrong and has much in common with the gender feminists.

Eliminate feminists from this equation, and Wendy is still wrong. I brought up the feminists mainly to point out how ironic it is that the same conservatives who have so often lambasted feminists (deservedly and not) should now make you their poster girl.

Argumentum ad hominem is a sphere I gladly cede to you. To say that you elevate feelings over facts is hardly a personal attack; it is, I believe, a fair assessment of your plea to conservatives to “stop saying that this or that study was flawed [or] such-and-such charge was made up” and to look at the underlying truth of young women’s misery. (I look forward to your defense of I, Rigoberta Menchú.) And now you scoff at my supposed fixation on “numbers and percentages”–or, as they say in women’s studies, “male quantitative science.” No, I’m not saying that contempt for empirical evidence is wrong because it’s a feminist trait; it is wrong, period.

When you claim that the Prozac phenomenon is nothing less than an effort to cure women of their womanhood and to help them adjust to our culture’s unnatural demands, surely it matters that very few women–and only slightly fewer men–take the drug. I agree, by the way, that someone who is not hurt by rejection is incapable of true attachment. But I am puzzled by your apparent view that “rejection sensitivity” is primarily a female trait. Don’t you think you owe men an apology? (Of course, in our culture, any male emotion or behavior tends to be cast in the worst light: In Ceasefire, I quote a column by pop psychologist Dr. Joyce Brothers asserting that it takes men longer to recover from a breakup because “rejection shatters the male ego.”)

As for the “evidence” in your Chapter 4 showing a connection between eating disorders and the decline of sexual restrictions, I refer you to my earlier caveat: a couple of anecdotes from Mary Pipher’s best seller Reviving Ophelia (which has about as much scholarly value as Dr. Brothers’ column) do not qualify. That 16-year-old Heidi says she’d “rather binge than make out” does not prove a correlation between bulimia and sexual pressure, any more than Princess Di’s story proves a correlation between bulimia and premarital virginity. You cite Marya Hornbacher’s account of her promiscuity in the 1998 memoir of her struggles with anorexia and bulimia, Wasted. But Hornbacher reveals that her obsession with dieting started at the age of 5.

I’m afraid you completely misunderstood my reference to Michael Wallis, the man who is suing his ex-girlfriend for having his baby without his consent. You had cited Wallis as an example of men’s unwillingness to take responsibility for the children they fecklessly father; in fact, he had tried to do the responsible thing and marry the mother. I pointed this out to show that your judgments based on generalizations about men and women do not always match the facts in “the real world,” to use your own phrase. Of course women have a right to say no to marriage. Whether they have a right–legally and morally–to trick a man into fatherhood and then deny him the opportunity to be a real father is another matter.

Speaking of the distinction between legality and morality, I may indeed have somewhat overstated your enthusiasm for laws banning the sale of contraceptives to unmarried women. (You, I notice, make no such concession about your charge that I pulled “out of context” your comment about our culture’s inability to blame a man for a woman’s suffering. But then, this is obviously not a graciousness contest.) It would be more accurate to say that you are ambivalent about whether the repeal of these laws was a good thing. After all, in your view, “for an unmarried woman the Pill–all contraception, for that matter–is essentially a co-conspirator in her self-deception.” So maybe the government doesn’t know what’s good for her better than she does herself, but you certainly do.

I agree that our culture, especially on college campuses, accords too little respect to young people who embrace traditional sexual values. In fact, I have written in support of the Orthodox Jewish students at Yale–both men and women–who believe they should not be forced to live in coed dorms. And one needn’t be an ultratraditionalist to be put off by coed bathrooms.

But there is a logical flaw in your claim that traditional norms allowed women real sexual options. In your book, you argue that a young woman used to be able to invoke a host of reasons–strict father, vigilant brother, nasty-minded maiden aunt, gossipy neighbors, as in the 1948 song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” which you cite—-“if she wanted to say no” (italics yours). Yet for those reasons to be credible, those prohibitions and controls had to have teeth even if she wanted to say yes. You assert that “women who have wanted to have sex have always been able to do it anyway.” But even in 1948, one could end up with an illegitimate child and/or a reputation that made it near impossible to find a husband or a decent job. And in earlier days, the consequences could be far more severe. In Pride and Prejudice, Lydia Bennett’s running off with Wickham threatens to ruin her sisters’ prospects until Wickham is bribed into a hasty marriage. (“And for this we are to be thankful!” Elizabeth remarks. “That they should marry, small as is their chance of happiness, and wretched as is his character, we are forced to rejoice.”)

I don’t quite understand the argument that girls today find it hard to say no because it means “no, not with you,” rather than “no, I don’t do that.” In the past, when a woman said no to a date–or a marriage offer–she was clearly saying “no, not with you,” since women were not prohibited from dating or marrying! Yes, freedom makes life more difficult. But even today, quite a few young women–and young men as well–do choose to abstain from premarital sex, and many more avoid casual sex.

Believe it or not, I do sympathize with your desire for a more modesty-friendly culture. I would be much more sympathetic, however, if you could make your case without vilifying men, infantilizing women, or bending the facts. I checked the Glamour story about the enlightened father who drives his daughter and her boyfriend to a hotel because, as you put it, “he thinks it’s time for her to lose her virginity.” What you omit, from your posting and from your book, is that it was the 18-year-old daughter who called her boyfriend and said that she wanted to consummate their relationship. I still think, actually, that there is something odd and creepy about the father’s involvement (and I would feel the same way if it was a mother and her 18-year-old son). But wouldn’t you agree that your portrayal of the daughter as the passive puppet of two men who decide the fate of her virginity is not entirely accurate?

Best wishes,