Wendy Shalit is loathed by a certain kind of feminist. When as a twentysomething college graduate she published her first book, "A Return to Modesty," she was scorned by The Nation's Katha Pollitt as a "twit," a "professional virgin" who should be given the task of designing "new spandex chadors for female Olympians." Others were less civil.
Shalit, who had raised eyebrows even while at Williams College for opposing co-ed bathrooms in student dorms, has now probably put herself even further beyond the pale by marrying young, giving birth to a son, and looking radiantly happy on the jacket cover of her new book, "Girls Gone Mild."
Her skepticism about the bacchanal we call modern sex is undiminished. The book opens with a discussion of Bratz dolls (sold by MGA Entertainment), apparently aimed at ages "four-plus." "Bratz Babyz makes a 'Babyz Nite Out' doll garbed in fishnet stockings, a hot-pink micromini, and a black leather belt . . . . the baby also sports a tummy-flaunting black tank paired with a hot-pink cap. 'These Babyz demand to be lookin' good on the street, at the beach, or chillin' in the crib.'" Another of the dolls wears heavy red lipstick and bright toenail polish to match red panties. One is almost reduced to sputtering.
For the slightly older set, the "tweens" (girls between 9 and 12), Target markets thong underwear. Apparently you can find "Care Bear" thongs at some retailers and "push-up" bras at Kohl's for the first-time bra purchaser.
American popular culture seems determined to obliterate innocence -- even in the crib! But Shalit's critique is not so much prudish as pitying. Her deepest insights concern the new repression that has been imposed on young women. Repression? In this "liberated" age? Read on.
Consider the "hook-up" scene on college campuses (and many high schools). Under the new dispensation, with Ludacris providing the soundtrack, young women are expected to have casual sex with no strings attached. Some girls consent to be "friends with benefits" for their male friends. Magazines like Cosmo and Seventeen, cultural bellwethers, advise young women to "keep your heart under wraps." The very worst thing a woman can do, apparently, is to express a desire for some sort of emotional connection or (gasp) commitment from her sexual partner. That amounts to being "boring and clingy," declare the magazines.
Scarleteen offers a "sex readiness checklist" for young girls to help them gauge whether they should plunge into the fun. Among the items: "I see a doctor regularly," and "I have a birth control budget of $50 per month." The emotional readiness a girl should demonstrate is "I can separate love from sex." Shalit notes, "Those who can separate love from sex are mature, like jaded adults. They are ready to embark on a lifetime of meaningless encounters."
In fact, Shalit argues, all of this advice and deprogramming aimed at women is necessary because women do not by nature thrive on casual, meaningless sexual encounters. They crave emotional intimacy and fidelity -- desires the women's magazines are at pains to quash in the name of maturity. Psychiatrist Dr. Paul McHugh describes the vast numbers of young women who consult him asking for Prozac because they have sex with lots of different men, all of whom say they're "not ready" for marriage. "'But there's nothing the matter with you,' I tell them; 'what's the matter with the world? Let me help you find a way of not hopping into bed with all these guys right off the bat . . .'"
The good news is that a small but significant backlash is underway. Eleven-year-old Ella Gunderson became a minor celebrity when she wrote to Nordstrom complaining that she could not find a pair of jeans that didn't show her underwear. Sixteen-year-old Taylor Moore travels the country advising girls to follow their dreams. She tells them, "There's nothing wrong with being a good girl . . . . You put yourself in a position of being a girl who's classy and having dignity, and eventually people will treat you as such." The "Girlcotters," a group of Pennsylvania teens, pressured Abercrombie & Fitch to pull T-shirts with sayings like, "Who needs brains when you have these?"
There's a teenage inspirational speaker who uses the word "dignity"? Together with the savvy culture warrior Wendy Shalit, it puts a smile on your face.