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February 19 2008

Women Who Make the World Better: Wendy Shalit

Wendy Shalit is IWF's latest member of that courageous band of women we call Women Who Make the World Better. Ms. Shalit had the courage to stand up and say some important things about the effects of the sexual revolution on young women. She knew a lot of people would think this wasn't cool. But she did it anyway. Her bestselling new book, Girls Gone Mild: Young Women Reclaim Self-Respect and Find It's Not Bad to Be Good, has been as controversial as her first, A Return to Modesty.  As a result of being fearless, Wendy is one of the coolest Women Who Makes the World Better we've ever met. She sat down with IWF at the Caribou Coffee near our office and talked about her new book, her website (ModestlyYours.net) and what inspired her, before flying home to Canada, where she now lives. We thank her for her public advocacy of a more humane attitude towards sexual behavior on campus.


IWF: Our culture seems to encourage girls to be sexually active, whether they really want to or not. What has changed in our culture that makes it the norm for girls to behave in a fashion that once would have been considered "bad"?  

SHALIT:Well, you know, in the '60s it was rebellious to be bad. There were always those who were "bad," and it was kind of counter-cultural. But now, these rebels of the '60s are in positions of authority, so the "badness" has become institutionalized, and it's coming from a lot of different places. It's coming from the college administrators, it's coming from the media, and it's coming, often, from parents who mean very well, but they associate happiness and maturity with racking up sexual experience and unfortunately, that's not usually the case.

IWF: In your new book, you talk about cuddle parties. What are they? Are they good for young women?

SHALIT: The cuddle party was one of the more interesting investigative things I did for the book. A cuddle party is a non-sexual environment where people can supposedly form bonds with others in a non-sexual way, and people pay admission to cuddle with strangers. And I was very suspicious that it was a non-sexual environment, but it really is not. I was expecting everyone to be very weird, to be honest, so what shocked me was how completely normal everyone was-with the exception of one guy I call "creepy married guy." Creepy married guy was just trying to cuddle everyone in ways that were perhaps more than friendly.

But all the people there seemed like nice people who just were not finding emotional connection in their own life; they were not finding real friendship, and I found that tremendously sad. We formed a circle at the end where we were told that emotions might surface after this event. Well, we're never going to see any of these people again, so to hug them and then leave-I experienced it as a very alienating and my friend who came with me said the same thing.

But to me the cuddle party represented something larger.   On the one hand, casual sexual relationships are the popular thing and it's fashionable to pretend we don't have feelings, but clearly, we still do and we've got to deal with them. What I propose in my book is instead of advocating the bitch as the ideal and this pose of "being mean to other women is cool" and "committing adultery is a feminist act because we're not oppressed by these rules anymore," instead of advocating all of this nonsense which alienates women from one another, let's bring back female solidarity. Let's bring back the idea that, out of respect for you, I'm not going to flirt with your boyfriend or with your husband because he's taken

I just got an email from someone whose marriage of many years has been shattered because her best friend is now sleeping with her husband. And it happens, unfortunately, a lot. This is not a feminist thing, this is a tragedy. So we've taken off the scarlet A and put up the scarlet M for modesty, and the girls who have more traditional values are now stigmatized. But it has not helped us, it's caused tremendous pain. I'm not advocating going back to the scarlet A, but certainly, let's end the scarlet M and the stigma against reticence.  It makes a lot of sense to wait until you get to know someone before jumping into bed with him-and thinking twice before committing adultery for that matter. 

IWF: Let's talk about repression. If you never repress anything sexually, don't you end up having to repress your emotions?

SHALIT: Absolutely. That's a whole chapter in my book because I'm extremely concerned. We talk about sexual repression, but no one talks about emotional repression, and that's what's being advocated by a lot of these "positive sexuality" organizations. If you look at their literature, they often observe that if you don't care in the first place, then you can never be disappointed.  This is certainly true, and yet it's not a way to live life it seems to me-because it takes us away from our purpose as human beings. What they're advocating ends up becoming a jadedness contest, and for example they say that teens are "not ready" for sex until they've detached their emotions from sexuality.

You know, I've gotten a lot of flak for speaking out about it because these people are very organized, and of course the pornography industry is right there behind them. And there's no organization backing me; I'm just a lone voice. But I think it's really important to speak out because this advice is extremely damaging and girls should not take this advice. Actually, no one should: emotions are a wonderful part of us, that's what makes sex passionate-that you care-and emotionless sex is not good.

In fact, even the sex therapists are speaking out about this and they're admitting that if somebody doesn't give a hoot about you, they're not going to be giving you much attention in private either. Think about it, and it makes sense that casual sex should be so bad. That's why there's so much alcohol involved, because people are numbing their feelings. Show me a girl who says she's very happy with the hook-up scene; I challenge her to try it without alcohol and then get back to me.

IWF: One of the most charming things in your new book is how to tell your boomer parents you've decided to remain a virgin. Talk a little about that and boomer parents in general.

SHALIT: I think like all parents, they want the best for their daughters, and they've observed that those who are experienced "fit in more" since that's what's being promoted as our ideal of womanhood. They want their daughters to fit in, but unfortunately when parents say, "it's good to try the shoes on before you buy them," or they ask a daughter if she's a lesbian because she's still a virgin as a freshman in college-that's a lot of pressure. And the parents don't mean it that way, but that's unfortunately how the daughters experience it, that's what the daughters are telling me. 

So there's a very interesting tension now, where the older generation, they're the ones organizing the co-ed sleepovers; they're the ones renting the hotel rooms for the prom; they're the ones buying the skanky clothing for their "prostitots."

And increasingly it's the younger generation that's saying: You know what? No, we don't want this; this is too much, and we want something more than this. I think that's encouraging; it's really encouraging.

IWF: Well, the name of your book is Girls Gone Mild. Is this because you detect that the tide is turning with the upcoming generation? 

SHALIT: Oh, definitely.  But the problem is the most outspoken people are always the exhibitionists, the ones who say the only way to be a feminist is to be crude about sexuality. There is a feminist slogan on T-shirts that goes, "My cooking sucks but fortunately so do I." So this idea of being casual about sex, swearing, being crude "just like a guy"- we run into it everywhere, but is it actually advancing any women in real life? I don't think so.

The first problem is: there are a lot of wonderful guys out there who are not like this. So really, we're only imitating the most adolescent male. And a lot of young women are saying, "This doesn't appeal to me," so they don't identify as feminists because they don't want to be like that. In my interviews with younger feminists-I mean the ones who do identify as feminists-they want to bring dignity back, not pile on the gross slogans. 

That is what the Abercrombie controversy [when young women protested crude T-shirts sold by the apparel company] was about; the young women who didn't like the T-shirts wanted to bring the concept of self-respect back. And the company told them, "these shirts are ironic," and the girls retorted, "Well, you know what, it's not being taken that way in school." I was so encouraged in talking with these young women, because they are so much smarter-or maybe they're more intellectually honest-than all the ideologues combined.

IWF: Wendy, how did you get involved in these issues? It's not a crusade a young woman on a college campus who wants to be "cool" is going to embrace, so how did this happen back then?

SHALIT:  Well, actually most of my support comes from high school and college students.  A high school girl from Los Angeles started a Facebook group for Girls Gone Mild and we keep it a closed group so the discussions are productive but we have 400 active members.  I think it's really important to remember that not everyone involved in promiscuous behaviors is necessarily thrilled-very often they're participating because everyone else is. They're just waiting to know that an alternative is viable.

In terms of myself,  I regard myself as pretty fortunate because I had great friends in high school-and I grew up in the Midwest where you didn't necessarily have to drink to be cool, and I had a very nice social life, and I came to college pretty confident in who I was. And-no one talks about this-but I noticed when I got to Williams that it was actually the ones who didn't have as many social skills, the kids who were the most insecure in high school, who were the quickest to blend in with the hook-up scene and to agree to everything that the college and the most ridiculous groups on campus were promoting.

So when I saw situations that didn't seem right to me, I spoke up right away. I didn't understand the implications of doing this. I didn't understand that I would eventually have people who didn't know me following me and giving me "the finger"; I didn't know that I'd eventually have to move off-campus because I became such a pariah.  I didn't care because I had been used to being myself and speaking out, so that's what I continued to do. But nowadays I think there is more support for the traditional-minded student-that wasn't the case when I was in college.

IWF:  How do you take the vitriol your book has unleashed?

SHALIT:  Well it's always someone who represents a special-interest group of some kind, and whenever such a person attacks me personally or feels the need to create a caricature and then attack me for something I never said, I just take it as a compliment and an admission of defeat.  They don't have a counter-argument.  And certainly if they didn't feel I was making a difference they wouldn't feel the need to vilify me. So I accept the compliment, and then I also keep a log and write the attack down-whether it's a death threat or some "prude" silliness.  You'd be surprised how often it comes in handy when the same people start blathering on about how tolerant and liberal they are.  It doesn't faze me anymore, but sometimes it's worth pointing out the limits of their type of "tolerance."  I've been dealing with this type of reaction for a long time-ever since I opposed the coed bathrooms in college.

IWF: Wasn't that kind of the beginning of it all? 

SHALIT: Most definitely.  I wrote about that because I felt there was a connection between the lack of a dating scene, which many students complained about, and the lack of mystery, for example, in the bathrooms. I was told I was "not comfortable with [my] body" when I opposed the coed bathrooms.  But when I wrote about it and Reader's Digest reprinted my piece [which originally appeared in Commentary] I got a ton of positive letters in response-from students on campus too-and that's really when my perspective began to change.  I realized that there were so many people who actually did value the things that I valued, but they were afraid to speak up. They were intimidated because of what happens when someone stands up for modesty or privacy; they are always attacked, personally and viciously. People know that and so they decide it's not worth it.

But the funny thing is that after I graduated, I was invited back by a group of Williams students, about 200 students turned up, and many of them thanked me for changing the situation on campus. So I really wish that people would be less concerned with what other people think. You only have one life after all, and if more people would speak up about these situations that don't seem right for them instead of just going along with the herd, we would have a changed society.

There will always be smirkers, but if you realize that you can transcend them and have a hopeful message, you can reach so many people. What means more to me is the letters I get from girls who say that they were about to commit suicide, literally, and they read my book or they came to the website and they realized that they weren't alone. And why were they ready to end it? Because all the people attacking me are also attacking them for stepping outside the socially-acceptable bad-girl ideal.

So that's what motivates me to take the heat, because I feel like maybe I'm taking a bit of the heat off of them.

IWF: I understand you have launched a website to help young women who might need help navigating the sexual seas. Tell us about it.

SHALIT: Well, what motivated me was getting all these letters from girls saying that they felt so isolated at their schools and they thought there was something wrong with them because they just wanted to meet the right person and they didn't want to hook up. And I thought: Wouldn't it be great to organize these girls and have them form alliances and exchange ideas and know that they're not alone?

Way back in 1999, iVillage hosted a forum for me.  I was really enjoying hearing from people, but then all of a sudden, this one person started writing all in capital letters and attacking a particular girl and saying that they were "outraged" that iVillage would even host this discussion on modesty. And eventually, because participants were being attacked, the discussion petered out; and finally iVillage had to take it down because it became just so unpleasant.

And I thought it was such a shame because these smirkers and exhibitionists are not even in the majority, yet they always dominate the conversation. And I thought: Wouldn't it be cool to have a space online that would be safe, where girls and women could come and exchange ideas, and we just won't publish the death threats and the attacks, and therefore they'll feel that they can come back and feel encouraged in their high standards?

And so that's the idea behind our group blog [ModestlyYours.Net] because unlike the herds of people who have nothing better to do than attack people all day, most people who believe in modesty and love, I find, have very full lives. So this way, busy moms & busy students can every once in awhile write a thoughtful blog and it's certainly been a very interesting conversation.  

 IWF: How has it affected your writing?

SHALIT:Well, my new book is about how the real rebels today are the good girls.  And someone asked me why I quote so much material from the girls' lives instead of philosophers like Rousseau and Hume-whom they had preferred reading about in my first book.  They regarded the philosophers as more "important."  Well, when you become a mother you have such little time. And so you really have to ask yourself where you're going to devote your efforts. When I was younger, I was more concerned about seeming smart, and I guess that's just not important to me anymore. As a stay-at-home mom who writes during nap-time, I'm not really interested in impressing anyone; I'm just trying to use the time I have to help people in some way. 

Sure, there is a certain type of person who cares about Rousseau's views on modesty and that's fine-I was a philosophy major so obviously I care about that stuff too.  But in general, when a girl reads about another girl who stood up to her friends who were making fun of her, and she just went her own way, that has a much bigger impact.  So that's what my second book is about: talking to these role models in person and finding out where they got that courage.

Independent Women's Forum is an educational 501(c)(3) dedicated to developing and advancing policies that aren’t just well intended, but actually enhance people’s freedom, choices, and opportunities. IWF is the sister organization of the Independent Women’s Voice.​
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