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    Quotables: A Return to Modesty

    July 29, 2011 by Brandy Vencel

    A Return to Modesty:
    Discovering the Lost Virtue
    by Wendy Shalit

    Since respect for her modesty gave her the freedom to withhold affection, so to speak, until a virtuous man came around, men were in turn inspired to become worthy of her. {p. 98}

    Today our society makes fun of modesty, and then we are surprised to find our men behaving abominably. {p. 104}

    Hume’s contemporary, Rousseau, recognized right away that defending modesty in utilitarian terms alone was just one step away from seeking its extinction. What happens to a notion founded on mere utility when it is someday deemed useless? {p. 109}

    Since a woman’s modesty made her so evidently different from men, if women were to strive to be the same as men, of course modesty would have to be the first to go. {p. 111}

    [M]odesty is so threatening to the egalitarians because whenever it emerges, it is evidence. It is evidence that woman’s experience of love and sex is fundamentally different from man’s, and as such it rebukes the androgynous project. {p. 112}

    [T]he reason for modesty is not that women have any less s*x drive than men, but that it is of a different kind. {p. 115}

    Could Rousseau have been right in saying that when the differences between the sexes are appreciated, each s*x needs the other, and when women pretend to be men, men tend to need them less? {p. 120}

    It’s natural. If modesty were not natural, but inculcated into women, then the older and more cultured a woman got, the more modest we could expect her to be. But instead, the opposite seems to be true. Girls seem to become instinctively modest around boys as soon as they hit puberty, and our culture teaches them that this is a problem. {p. 125}

    Kant thought that since modesty flows from the natural circumstances of women, and is not the result of any rational struggle, it couldn’t qualify as moral: “The girl is not so much virtuous as she has the capacity to make men virtuous.” {p. 127}

    Not only do we think there are differences between the sexes, but we think these differences can have a beautiful meaning–a meaning that isn’t some irrelevant fact about us but one that can inform and guide our lives. {p. 140}

    In order to court women men must, in some sense, need to court women. Do people imagine men courted women in the past because they simply found it more fun than casual s*x? No, it was because women’s modesty required it. {p. 146, emphasis mine}

    Surely the egalitarians never intended to take away freedoms women already enjoyed. But once an idea is in common currency, it doesn’t matter whether the consequences were intended or not; the idea drifts into the culture in ways no one anticipated, and the damage must be assessed. {p. 158}

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  • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts August 4, 2011 at 6:05 pm

    Good thoughts, those! Your response makes me realize how important context is.

    Here’s my thoughts, considering the context:

    (1) Here she is equating modesty with the idea that girls naturally become embarrassed around boys. I agree that we see this less and less–the book is now at least 10 years old. Later in the book she explains that this can in fact be trained out of girls, and she believes that this is what is happening in our culture.

    (2) Prior to these quotes, she makes it *very* clear that a woman is never ultimately to blame for a man’s bad behavior toward her. And you are right that the book isn’t addressing men at all. Within the chapter, though, she is trying to discuss the idea that good men are not mass-produced by the sort of culture we have created. It’s just not the way that it’s done. So though a particular woman is not to *blame* when a particular man has been ungentlemanly to her, Shalit does place blame on things like s*x education, immodesty in dress and behavior, treating the s*xes as if they are identical in every regard, and so on as contributing to an ungentlemanly–and ultimately violent and misogynistic culture.

    I don’t know that I agree with her on every single point, but her book is really quite fascinating, and she is putting some things together that make a lot of sense, though I’ve never thought about them this way before. Her treatment of eating disorders as being a component of all of this is particularly intriguing.

  • Reply sara July 29, 2011 at 11:40 pm

    Two thoughts:

    If girls naturally become modest around boys when they hit puberty, I haven’t seen it. In fact, they seem to purposely flaunt their bodies.

    Second, these quotes seem to put a lot of responsibility for men’s behavior on women. Maybe that’s just because it is a book speaking to women, so it isn’t addressing men at all.

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