Eight years ago, at the youthful age of 23, Wendy Shalit put forward a compelling case for sexual prudence in A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue. Now Shalit has penned a sequel, Girls Gone Mild: Young Women Reclaim Self-Respect and Find It’s Not Bad to Be Good. The title is a play on the infamous Girls Gone Wild videos which ruthlessly exploit the sexual imprudence of American college girls.
Like Shalit’s first book, Girls Gone Mild argues that the sexual revolution may not have been as beneficial for women as staunch feminists stridently assert and questions why there is so much opposition to considering, even just for a moment, a more wholesome alternative. Drawing on over a hundred interviews and thousands of emails from women from diverse cultural, ideological and racial backgrounds, Shalit’s narrative surveys the dreary outworking of a failed revolution and discerns the signs of a new counter-culture.
In our sex-saturated culture, the “bad girl” is the archetype of liberation and (post)modernity. Many young women no longer baulk at the opportunity to take their clothes off to prove that they are “sex positive” and comfortable with flaunting their physical attributes. As seventeen-year-old, Audrey lamented, “Being ‘bad’ is like normal now…there are so many people that are, like, ‘bad’ but for then it’s just normal because they don’t know the difference.”
Yet the homage paid to the “bad” girl should hardly surprise us. From the moment girls can breathe, they are bombarded with messages asserting that they must be “sexy” and “hot”, in dress and deed, in order to achieve social acceptance. Take the hugely popular Bratz dolls, marketed to the three plus age-bracket. Seductively dressed, the dolls spout their favourite catch phrase “are you hotter than hot?” By the time these “prostitots” reach womanhood, “bad” becomes almost second nature.
The media is not the only authority advising young girls to be sexual exhibitionists; baby-boomer parents, clinging to the motifs of the 1960s, encourage their children to dress and act provocatively. Shalit recounts how at least half of the letters received from girls who had read Return to Modesty bewailed that their own parents thought there was something wrong with them for believing that sex should have something to do with commitment and love. One mother chastised her daughter after finding out that she had not slept with her new boyfriend after a whole weekend away with him. She declared that if her daughter did not sleep with him soon, she would be sure to lose him.
Many fathers have abandoned their traditional role as protectors, instead embracing what Shalit calls the anti-patriarchy. Instead of guarding their daughters from sexual exploitation, fathers now actively encourage their daughters to flaunt their physical attributes as if “sexy” had become the new yard stick for success or achievement. Twenty-nine-year-old Sarah starred on a television show where her relatives picked a suitable match to lose her virginity. Her father openly consented and publicly endorsed a candidate. While second and third wave feminists may have succeeded in liberating young women from the constructs of patriarchal society, perhaps it has been replaced by an incestuous alternative.
Teachers, too, counsel young women to embrace the “wild” and reject the “prude”. Post-modern education, rejecting absolutes and any trace of objectivity, largely focuses on respecting the autonomy of the learner and endorsing self-discovery through experimentation. Habitually, academics and teachers declare the need to be “sex positive”, advancing the need for “healthy” attitudes toward sexual experimentation. Unfortunately, “healthy” attitudes towards sex usually equate to unashamed promotion of sexual exhibitionism in one form or another.
Evidently, liberation has its limits within the post-modern framework, which is a tad ironic considering its emphasis on choice and self-determination. If a young woman wishes to embrace purity or modesty, she is told that she is ashamed of her body or “sex negative”, whereas if she’s willing to “bare all” or treat sex as a recreation she is held up as the epitome of a truly liberated woman.
Many young women are dissatisfied with the new supersexual status quo; “they feel oppressed by the expectation that they will engage in casual sex, just as their mothers felt oppressed by the expectation that they would be virgins when they married,” says Shalit. Yet she is no pessimist. Despite the inability of many parents and educators to tolerate a more wholesome alternative, some young women are leading the charge against promiscuity and sexual exhibitionism. Shalit writes: “we are living through a unique cultural moment, society moving on two tracks simultaneously. Despite the saturation of our society by sex, there is a rebellion under way”.
Fourth-wave feminism, as Shalit argues, is the new revolt. No longer is it culturally rebellious to be sexually promiscuous; rather, modesty and sexual prudence has become the new weaponry of cultural dissent. Not only do the new feminists refuse to be subjected to sexual objectification, but also they are quickly becoming role models for young women who want to embrace a more wholesome choice regarding their sexuality. Staging pure fashion shows, lobbying department stores for more modest choices of clothing, girlcotting — as opposed to boycotting — purveyors of offensive t-shirts with catch-phrases such as “Who needs Brains when you have these”, and talking to other young women about the benefits of purity all feature within the scope of their activism.
Shalit hasn’t been unanimously praised for Girl’s Gone Mild. According to Deborah Seigal, she is guilty of “divvying the moral universe into ‘us’ and ‘them”’ by singling out second- and third-wave feminism as major players in creating a culture of sexual exhibitionism. She argues that the agenda of Shalit’s fourth-wavers appears to coincide with the agenda of third-wave feminism with regard to the premature sexualisation of girls. Why then should the two clash? Yet Seigal avoids addressing the crux of Shalit’s argument, namely, that it is not so much over the premature sexualisation of young women that the two would clash; rather, it is the “wholesome” element of fourth-wave feminism that would cause tension.
A quick lesson in feminist history reveals that private sphere issues, particularly sexual freedom, were high up on the agenda of second-wave feminism. Later, its first child — third-wave feminism — would take up the cause “advocating a public, crude sexuality”. Shalit asserts that many young feminists find it difficult to identify with the notion of casual sex as liberation.
The girlcotters who staged a nationwide boycott of Abercrombie and Fitch for marketing sexually explicit t-shirts were invited to a National Organisation of Women conference to receive the “Women in Action” award for their success. While appreciative, the girls were not convinced by some of the conference material. One remarked: “the artistic performance was horrible. There was so much about ‘dykes’ and sex… It was pretty graphic sex, too… It was so weird and vulgar.”
Despite all its disheartening anecdotes regarding our sex-saturated culture and the limits of liberation, one reaches the end of Girl’s Gone Mild reasonably reassured. The wealth of testimonies confirming disenchantment with prevailing sexual norms and the growth of a countercultural movement through which many young women are conscientiously rejecting the notion of the “wild” girl, suggests that revolution is nigh.
As Shalit herself points out, the problem seems to be the inability of radical feminists, as well as their baby-boomer counterparts, to understand that crudeness is actually the problem, not the solution. In contrast, Shalit’s fourth-wave feminists have grasped the concept well and formulated a solution of their own, which in itself is reassuring.
Pauline Cooper is a recent graduate of the University of Auckland with an interest in radical histories. She writes from Auckland, New Zealand.