BY LIBBY ASHTON
Published February 4, 2010
Last weekend, University Health Service’s peer sexual health education group, Sexperteam, presented its second annual three-day seminar called “Sexpertise: Conversations about relationships, sexual health, and sex.”
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Wendy Shalit, author of “A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue” and “Girls Gone Mild: Young Women Reclaim Self-Respect and Find It's Not Bad to Be Good,” helped to launch the weekend’s events, serving as the keynote speaker for the panel discussion Wednesday night titled “No Strings Attached? A Conversation About Sex and Relationships on Campus.”
Shalit’s motivation in writing and speaking about the status of sexuality today seems to be twofold: she’s both urging young people to consider the negative implications of the “hook-up” scene (which refers to anything from a long kiss to sex) and facilitating our realization of our own dissatisfaction with it.
After reading aloud the saddening personal accounts of young people who sought her counsel regarding their feelings of worthlessness after a night of hooking up, Shalit spoke about the pluralistic ignorance she’s found to be binding young people to the empty reality of casual sex. According to her, we’re wrong to assume that everyone around us is hooking up with each other and probably even more wrong to assume that those who are hooking up feel satisfied by their hookups. She reminded the audience of the importance of emotional intimacy in experiencing fulfilling physical intimacy and asked, rhetorically, “What’s the point of casual sex if it isn’t any good?”
Although many of Shalit’s observations contained kernels of truth, something about the way she articulated her message was off-putting. Shalit calls for a reconsideration of whether or not sexual prowess is a means to empowerment. She seems to have a visceral, negative reaction to the relationship between sexual liberation and personal empowerment. This reaction, I suspect, follows from an insight that a failure to honor the intimately personal nature of her body would allow a feeling of worthlessness to seep into her innermost self-regard. She extrapolates from that personal insight (one to which I and probably many others can relate) to prescribe that all people must honor their bodies, with a behavioral lifestyle of “modesty” and “virtue,” in order to be truly empowered.
Shalit seems to have mistaken the foundational problem of the cyclically devaluing hookup scene as being an oversexed culture with no care for the private realm. She sees a generation of young people who blindly fall prey to the precedent of sexual freedom established in the ‘60s and — as her narrative samples illustrated — wake up the next morning feeling self-loathsome and inauthentic.
That diagnosis, however, ignores those who do have a foundation of self-respect and aren’t emotionally repressed but still choose to engage in behavior that Shalit may not deem “modest.” To imply that one must either be emotionally repressed or sexually repressed leaves everyone powerless in some respect. While our hypersexual culture certainly facilitates the devaluing of physical intimacy and the repression of emotional intimacy, the primary cause of consistent self-inflicted degrading sexual behavior is a pre-existing lack of self-worth and self-awareness.
The general insecurity that seems to plague many young people features a variety of symptoms including binge drinking, bullying, eating disorders and injurious sexual behavior. If, in attempting to remedy this societal ailment, we distract ourselves by focusing too heavily on one of the products of the insecurity, we’ll allow the insecurity itself to continue masquerading as other (seemingly more pertinent) self-destructive behaviors.
Near the end of the panel discussion, Shalit suggested that perhaps people are reluctant to accept the reality of a problem when no obvious solution seems to be available. The prospect of somehow lessening this mass psychological handicap (which could be a timeless characteristic of youth) is daunting, but not impossible.
As Shalit noted, the necessary first step toward solving a problem is accepting that it exists. This would require a lifting of the veil of pluralistic ignorance and an admission of the fear of vulnerability and rejection that guides so many people down a path of unfulfilling, mutually destructive relationships.
Applying Shalit’s rather abstract conversation about sexual emotional health to a Saturday night in Ann Arbor is similarly daunting, but not impossible. As you walk into the bar or your friend’s house or the fraternity house, make a commitment to honor your own fragility and that of those around you. Guide your actions by a doctrine of respect. Modesty may (or may not) follow.
Libby Ashton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.