The atmosphere of the full house that greeted Wendy Shalit’s discussion, “Modesty: An Alternative Lifestyle?” was nearly as giddy as that which had greeted Margaret Cho in the same room a month ago, though for very different reasons. Author of A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue and Girls Gone Mild, Shalit is a cultural critic of a stripe rarely seen in daylight at Swarthmore. The group of students sitting behind this reporter seemed to reflect the general attitude of the crowd when they suggested watching a pornographic film on a laptop during Shalit’s talk.
Ms. Shalit is a 1997 graduate of Williams College, where hall members vote at the beginning of the year on whether or not their hall’s bathrooms will be gendered or coed. Shalit’s hall voted for coed bathrooms, a decision that made her intensely uncomfortable. But when she talked to her Junior Advisors (Williams’ version of RAs) about her discomfort, they reassured her that she would come to be comfortable with her body and coed bathrooms. If not, she could talk to Psych Services. This experience propelled Shalit into the role she has now occupied of more than ten years, that of advocate for the extension of the “penumbra of tolerance to include modesty as a valid lifestyle”.
Shalit touched on many themes in her discussion, including the intense pressure both men and women feel to participate in the “hook-up culture”, the possibility of a generation gap between parents who grew up during the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 70s and their children, and the innateness of a desire for modesty. Shalit did not precisely define the buzzwords she used throughout, including “higher standards” and the “we” and “they” she referred to throughout. Several people raised this issue of language later on, during questions, but did not ultimately seem satisfied by the answers Shalit gave. The one definition that Shalit did provide, “Modesty is about setting boundaries and dignity” was greeted with skeptical, “huhs?” from the crowd.
The audience seemed unimpressed by Shalit’s evidence for her arguments from women’s magazines, such as Marie Claire and Elle, and excerpts from letters she has received. Zoe Lewicki, ‘11, said, “I thought that a lot of it [Shalit’s claims] was invalid because it seemed like she was getting most of her information from teen magazines and her impressions of current culture.” When asked by a student for evidence of her apparent claim that modesty is innate, Shalit pondered why children in sexual education classes would giggle. “If kids are giggling, maybe it’s because they know sex is significant,” she said.
The heteronormativity of Shalit’s focus was brought up during the questions by one student who inquired into “the queer community’s role” in her discussion of modesty. Shalit’s reply that her call for “the respect of boundaries applies to everyone” but that queerness wasn’t what she “was about” did little to satisfy the crowd, already riled up by a comment Shalit made earlier in the evening that many audience members felt was dismissive of queerness: a girl wrote to Shalit, sharing that her mother thought she was a lesbian because she had not had any boyfriends, which Shalit interpreted as indicative that we have become tolerant of homosexuality but not modesty.
The crowd grew increasingly restless with Shalit’s apparent evasion of questions during the question portion of the discussion. While Shalit attempted to answer the query about evidence for the innateness of modesty, a student yelled, “You know infants masturbate, don’t you?” Soon thereafter, Rachael Mansbach, ’11, stood up and asked the audience to return the dialogue to a “level that is polite” to warm applause.
Mansbach had read some of Girls Gone Mild previous to the evening’s discussion, and found Shalit’s ideas to be better articulated in the book than in her presentation. When asked what she thought could be the cause of the audience’s dissatisfaction with Shalit, Mansbach said, “Her choice of language was not as careful as a lot of people here are used to having. They would immediately jump on her use of language and not listen to what underlay the language.”