A Modest Rebellion

By Pia Catton
The Wall Street Journal, June 23, 2007


Edited by Andy Ross

Girls Gone Mild
By Wendy Shalit
Random House, 316 pages

It is by now almost impossible for anyone to deny some acquaintance with the phrase "girls gone wild." It is the unavoidable title of a video series in which college girls drink too much and go all kinds of wild for the cameras, usually during an artless attempt at vacation fun.

Here we are, decades after the feminist revolution, and yet crude self-display is considered something that a "normal" college girl might eagerly choose to do for a stranger. What is going on? "We continually malign the good girl as 'repressed,'" notes Wendy Shalit, "while the bad girl is (wrongly) perceived as intrinsically expressing her individuality and somehow proving her sexuality." And indeed the bad-girl image is strangely popular these days.

Luckily, Ms. Shalit argues, a rebellion is under way. In "Girls Gone Mild," she claims that more and more young women today, put off by our hypersexualized culture, are reverting to an earlier idea of femininity. A group of Pittsburgh girls, in 2005, boycotted their local Abercrombie & Fitch as a way of protesting the T-shirts on sale there, like the one with this charming message emblazoned on the chest: "Who Needs Brains When You Have These?" The group eventually induced Abercrombie to pull its coarsest designs.

Tellingly, the National Organization for Women invited the Pittsburgh girls to one of their conferences, to honor them for "taking action," but the girls themselves were put off by what they saw there. As one of them put it: "I support equality and would never like to be controlled by a man, but the NOW conference was more like a brainwashing feminist summit than anything else. They had this artistic performance that was so much about sex and how much all men suck; it made me feel sick."

Ms. Shalit has little patience for the thinking of the older generation of mainstream feminists. They are, she says, "so committed to the idea of casual sex as liberation that they can't appreciate or even quite understand these younger feminists." To them, modesty is a step back, even a betrayal of the liberationist spirit. "They don't understand," Ms. Shalit says, "that pursuing crudeness is the problem, not the solution."

What does this all add up to? One would like to believe that such protests are a groundswell of good. But it is hard to say. "Girls Gone Mild" loses some of its force when it moves from reportorial survey to advice and advocacy. At the end of every chapter are "how to" boxes, obviously aimed at young readers, on such subjects as taking back your college dorm room when your roommate, planning a tryst, wants to send you into exile.

One would certainly like to see a return to time-honored ideas of goodness. But something is needed beyond such self-help advice and spirited cheerleading.

The Virginity Mystique

By Nona Willis-Aronowitz
The Nation, July 19, 2007


Edited by Andy Ross

Eight years ago, 23-year-old virgin Wendy Shalit spoke for the moral minority when she wrote
A Return to Modesty, a book bemoaning the lack of innocence and chastity in oversexed America. Now she has penned a sequel, Girls Gone Mild.

Many young women are dissatisfied with casual sex, feel ambivalent about the fruits of the sex revolution and buckle under the unwanted pressure to be supersexual. But Shalit and other conservative authors are completely convinced that sex is never fulfilling unless it is within a loving, supportive marriage.

What the hookup culture does reveal is an unconscious impulse to somehow redefine sex for our current cultural climate. Maybe these sexually precocious girls who fervently imitate sexualized twenty-something role models are picking up on the element of fun that sexiness can bring to everyday life.

Shalit glorifies the chivalry and comforting gender roles of the 1950s. The disturbing, almost automatic dichotomy of "bad girl" and "good girl" in Shalit's prose seems to assert that one can't reject the wild without embracing the mild, that there's nobody who lies between born-again virgins and Lolitas.

Forced expectations, whether the pressure to be sexual or the pressure to be chaste, always hurt. Some women do feel a burden to be too sexual too early. But just because feminists should acknowledge unhappy teen girls doesn't mean they should have to denounce the gains of the sexual revolution.

AR  (2007) I think the feminists of a generation ago overhyped the merits of sexual liberation, and girls gone wild are now a problem in need of a solution. But Shalit's suggested return to old values cannot work. I recommend a focus on long-term values and a serious attempt to find a meaning for life beyond self-gratification.