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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.

Why, Ms. Shalit asks, do women need to be seen as "hot" in order to be socially acceptable? Can't a woman just be smart? No one calls Bill Gates "hot" or "sexy" for his philanthropic work, yet even top-ranking female chess players feel the need to pose nude for Playboy to help their careers.

Men used to objectify women, and now women objectify themselves so as not to seem "repressed." "We continually malign the good girl as 'repressed,'" Ms. Shalit writes, "while the bad girl is (wrongly) perceived as intrinsically expressing her individuality and somehow proving her sexuality." But the sexually free "bad girl" is not as liberated as one might think.

Women are encouraged to have sex as readily and casually as men — and to be as emotionally detached as well. "Keep your hearts under wraps," counsels Seventeen, lest you seem "boring and clingy." Scarleteen, a sex-ed Web site, includes a "Sex Readiness Checklist" with this under "emotional items": "I can separate sex from love." Cosmo advises women to "always keep your expectations low." The way to "wow a man after sex?" Ask for a ride home.

"What is the point of casual sex if the sex part isn't any good?" Ms. Shalit asks, quoting former sex columnist Amy Sohn. It's a question many girls are asking. On one sex-ed site, the number one topic for girls is how to refuse a boyfriend's request for sex without losing the boyfriend.

"Girls Gone Mild" treads much of the same ground as Ariel Levy's "Female Chauvinist Pigs" and Pamela Paul's "Pornified." Where it stands out, though, is in its championing of "new role models," girls, like Ella Gunderson and the Girlcotters, who are taking a stand against the excesses of the Sexual Revolution.

Interestingly, many of these women are black. One "prominent sociologist," who asked to remain nameless, explained: "Black women have paid the heaviest price from the sexual revolution in the United States . . . [B]oth as individuals and in their communities as a whole, they now see the value of abstinence as a way to renew family life."

Confident and proud, these girls may not have gone wild — but they're definitely not meek or mild. Take Lakita Garth, a former Miss Black America and an unapologetic 36-year-old virgin.

"I'm president and CEO of my own company," Ms. Garth boasts at an abstinence convention. "I have to hire a janitor . . . and you know what I'm going to do? I'm going to have some applications before you can even see my face. And then there's the interview process, when you sit across from my table in my office. . . . And that's just to clean my toilet. Most women don't have that much sense, to get a last name from guys who will take off their clothes and have sex with them."

Or take 15-year-old Taylor Moore, a talented singer who started speaking about abstinence at schools when she was 9. "Why you always have to be the president of something?" Ms. Moore says her peers ask her. But Ms. Moore doesn't mind being different. Her reply could be the credo for empowered "good girls" everywhere: "I'm living my life to the max. I'm not sitting around waiting for boys to call. I'm not crying because I think my boyfriend is cheating on me with another girl . . . I'm simply living my life to the fullest."

Cheryl Miller is a 2007 Phillips Foundation Fellow.

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