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Modesty_Revisited - CULTURE"Many ofthe problems we hear...

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CULTURE "Many of the problems we hear about today - sexual harassment, date rape, young women who suffer from eating disorders and reportfeeling a lack of control over their bodies - are all connected, I believe, to our culture's attack on modesty." Modesty revisited BY WENDY SHALIT Reprinted by permission from IMPRI- MIS. The following essay was excerpted from a speech delivered at Hillsdale College (www.hillsdale.edu). This afternoon I was reading a maga- zine for brides in which a woman had sub- mitted the following question: "My fiance wants us to move in together, but I want to wait until we're married. Am I doing our marriage an injustice?" The editor re- sponded: "Your fiance should understand why you want to wait to share a home. Maybe you're concerned about losing your identity as an individual. Or maybe you're concerned about space issues." Space issues? Losing her identity? If this woman cared about those things, she wouldn't want to get married in the first place. Her question was a moral one. She wanted to know what would be best for her marriage. And on this - however unbe- knownst to the magazine's new-agey edi- tor - the evidence is in: Couples who live together before marriage are much less likely to get married; and if they do marry, they're more likely to get divorced. Yet the vocabulary of modesty has largely dropped from our cultural consciousness; when a woman asks a question that necessarily implicates it, we can only mumble about "space issues." I first became interested in the subject of modesty for a rather mundane reason - because I didn't like the bathrooms at Williams College. Like many enlightened colleges and universities these days, Will- iams houses boys next to girls in its dor- mitories and then has the students vote by floor on whether their common bath- rooms should be coed. It's all very demo- cratic, but the votes always seem to go in 10 AFA Journal June 2001 the coed direction because no one wants to be thought a prude. When I objected, I was told by my fellow students that I "must not be comfortable with [my] body." Frankly, I didn't get that, because I was fine with my body; it was their bodies in such close proximity to mine that I wasn't thrilled about. I ended up writing about this experi- ence in Commentaryas a kind of therapeu- tic exercise. But when my article was re- printed in Reader's Digest, a weird thing happened: I got piles of letters from kids who said, "I thought I was the only one who couldn't stand these bathrooms." Howcould so manypeople feel theywere the "only ones" who believed in privacy and modesty? It was troubling that they were afraid to speak up. When and why, I won- dered, did modesty become such a taboo? At Yale in 1997, a few years after my own coed bathroom protest, five Ortho- dox Jewish students petitioned the admin- istration for permission to live off-campus instead of in coed dorms. In denying them, a dean with the Dickensian name of Brodhead explained that "Yale has its own rules and requirements, which we insist on because they embody our values and be- liefs." Yale has no
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