Modern girls and the moral revival they are leading

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GIRLS GONE MILD: YOUNG WOMEN RECLAIM SELF-RESPECT AND FIND IT’S NOT BAD TO BE GOOD

By Wendy Shalit

Random House, $25.95, 352 pages

REVIEWED BY CHERYL MILLER

Sex sells — or at least it used to. “One can’t be different by being racy today. It’s not interesting anymore,” declared Prince. And he’s not the only one through with partying like it’s 1999. Fewer teens are having sex, and the teenage birthrate has hit a record low. So boring have things gotten that the New York Observer recently reported on the rise of the “New Victorians,” twentysomething city denizens whose lives are more Jane Austen than Carrie Bradshaw. Even Paris Hilton has taken to carrying around the Bible (albeit not actually reading it).

Are we undergoing a moral revival, or is the “new prudery” just the latest fashion? Wendy Shalit would argue the former. “A rebellion is already under way,” she claims, one that promises to be the “biggest shake-up of feminism since Seneca Falls in 1848.”

Ms. Shalit would know. Since her 1999 manifesto, “A Return to Modesty,” was published, she has received thousands of e-mails and letters from other “modestyniks” who share her appreciation of long skirts and her dislike of co-ed bathrooms. The result is her new book, “Girls Gone Mild,” an account of how a new group of sexual revolutionaries are challenging the hookup culture.

Unlike the deconstructing radicals of old, these “rebellious good girls” are not out to demolish old traditions, but rather to rebuild and renew. They’re baking apple pies at home and staging “Pure Fashion” shows at their churches. Even something as passe as dating has found its defenders, like the Yale undergrad who wrote in to her college newspaper to encourage guys to take girls out for a milkshake — that old standby of Fifties courtship. As one teenage girl explains, “We’re the establishment, because nobody else wants to establish things.”

Indeed, the current establishment, Ms. Shalit writes, has left girls dangerously adrift. Parents explain how to protect against pregnancy and disease but give their daughters no information on how to safeguard their hearts. American Library Association-recommended Web sites offer tips on anal sex for teens who want to remain virgins.

On a trip to the local mall, one can find thongs for tweens, scantily dressed Bratz dolls in tube tops and miniskirts, even a suburban dentist who advertises: “We’re bringing the sexy back, by replacing all the teeth you lack.”

With the adults AWOL, a few brave girls are taking charge, leading protests and campaigns to fight our pornified culture. Fifth-grader Ella Gunderson started a public-relations nightmare for the department store Nordstrom when she wrote a letter protesting the skin-tight, low-cut clothing on sale. Her campaign landed her on the “Today” show, among many others, and Nordstrom soon came out with a new clothing line called “Modest and Modern.”

In Pittsburgh, a group of teen girls led a successful “girlcott” against Abercrombie & Fitch after the company came out with a line of racy T-shirts bearing messages like “Who Needs Brains When You Have These?”

Along with clothing retailers, the girls are also taking on old-line, sex-positive feminism. Not that modestyniks don’t consider themselves feminists, Ms. Shalit cautions. It’s just that they “use the term to signal that they care about the dignity of women.”

The so-called “do-me” feminists “use it to indicate that they want to fight the very notion of being dignified at all.” But in their rush to abandon the old models of “dignified” femininity in favor of “bad girl” liberation, the sex-positive feminists actually limited the roles available to women. Feminists used to complain about the “Madonna-Whore” dichotomy, but now the only Madonna girls have to emulate is the cone-brassiered pop star who is merely like a virgin.

In order to be empowered, you have to be sexy. One feminist group, Real Hot, created a “Real Hot 100” list of outstanding women to counter the lists in lad-mags like Maxim and FHM. “See how hot smart can be!” the group’s Web site enthuses, alongside its logo, a voluptuous woman clad in lingerie.

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