Skylar Burris's Reviews > Girls Gone Mild: Young Women Reclaim Self-Respect and Find It's Not Bad to Be Good

Girls Gone Mild by Wendy Shalit
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Jun 07, 08

bookshelves: sexuality, sociology, feminism
Recommended for: Women young and old, parents of daughters
Read in June, 2008

Whenever I have spoken to a baby boomer feminist about sex, it has felt something like this: A woman grows up at the end of thirty years of drought, while her daughters grow up in the midst of thirty years of flood, but the memory of the drought is so bad, that anytime she sees her daughters bailing water out of the boat, she instinctively cries, "Stop! Do you want to send us back to the drought?!" GIRLS GONE MILD is a book that acknowledges we need to bail out the boat but that we can do so without going back to the drought. The book relates the hope that a "fourth-wave" of feminism will empower women through modesty and sexual restraint in a world saturated with meaningless sex and ubiquitous sexual imagery.

Many younger feminists, writes Shalit, find the idea of "decency tremendously appealing, whereas to the older ones, it is the chief problem." I can only hope she is right about the former statement; my own experience suggests she is probably right about the latter. I know older feminists who would be infuriated by the mere use of the word "decency" in that sentence: "How dare you suggest that a woman is being sexually indecent for ANY reason!" Yet, if we can't suggest that, how can we with any reasonable consistency suggest that a man is being sexually indecent for any reason? And how does it really benefit women, in the long run, when society removes all boundaries of sexual decency (with the single exception of rape)?

In a single sentence, Shalit summarizes what has been my primary concern about feminism as I have encountered it: "Girls must do everything boys do, even if it's not working." The sexual double-standard of the 1950's was overturned by dramatically lowering the sexual standards for women instead of by raising the standard for men. This is certainly the easiest solution to any double-standard, but is it really the best solution for the majority of women? Are casual sex, "friends with benefits," passing out condoms like candy in schools, and public displays of female sexuality really "working" for women?

The behavior of most men, to at least some degree, will be influenced by the demands of most women. If nothing is what most women appear to expect, nothing is what more and more men will begin to deliver. This may be fine if you're content to expect no chivalrous behavior from men, but what if you're not? Your world may nevertheless be affected by the low expectations of other women. As one ex-model interviewed by the author says, "the definition of a Decent Man has been expanded to include" all sorts of disrespectful behaviors towards women.

I agree with Shalit that "sexual liberation" has unfortunately involved (consciously or unconsciously) encouraging women to have sex by men's rules and then to repress their emotions (their doubts, their feelings of discontent, their sense of being used, their guilt) afterward. Well, sex divorced from love and long-term relationships doesn't seem to be "working" for many women, but many feminists are loath to admit it. If young women feel any guilt or pain about their choice to engage in unattached sex, it is because of the ugly remnants of society's sexist double standard, and not because their emotions are a valid warning that should be heeded. Young women, argues Shalit, have been fed the lie that casual sex is bound to be just as enjoyable for girls as it is for guys, leaving many women wounded with "the pain of feeling that society had abandoned them by failing to inform them of the emotional consequences of sex."

Having grown up post-sexual revolution, and not having been a part of a religious subculture until college, I myself remember hearing form the lips of countless educators and elders, "They're just going to do it anyway." In other words, if you were a young person with a desire to be abstinent, what you heard from almost everyone in authority was: "You have an ideal? That's nice. You're going to FAIL. Here's a condom." As a teenager, I don't recall any adult ever telling me, "You CAN succeed in being abstinent if you want to be, and it's a worthy goal." Shalit points out, and I think this is true, that the attitude of adults that kids "are going to do it anyway" only "adds to the pressure."

The silver lining is all this is that every generation rebels against its parents, and teenagers are now beginning to rebel against the "sexual revolution." Shalit recounts many examples of such rebellious young women in her book. So obviously I think this is a positive book with important truths. Why then do I not give it five stars? Shalit's approach is highly anecdotal and rather skewed toward extreme examples. While I agree with the author's basic thesis, I found her approach far too sensational.

At one point, she says, "You may insist that this is a crazy example indicative of nothing, but…" and I had to say, "Yes, I might." Far too many of her examples seemed to be "crazy" examples "indicative of nothing" except the existence of a minority of perverse and/or stupid people. I agree the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of sexual liberalization, but I don't think it ever swung, for the majority of average Americans, quite as far as this book implies. In a sense, Shalit feeds into the very thing she criticizes: she perpetuates the false perception that sex absent long-term relationship is the social norm when it probably really isn't the social norm at all; it is only *perceived* as the social norm, which adds to the pressure for many young people. One final criticism I have is that the author waxes a little too nostalgic for a variety of eras prior to 1960.
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Comments (showing 1-5 of 5) (5 new)

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message 1: by booklady (new) - added it

booklady Excellent review of the book and critique of the entire topic! Have you looked at any books that consider the whole subject from the moral perspective?




Skylar Burris Do you have any to recommend? The problem with considering it from the "moral perspective" it is that it is difficult to persuade people outside of religious communities that way. Also, it's difficult to introduce into the school anything about "morality" and sex (although you can certainly talk about morality and the environment, morality and programs for the poor, etc.—just not ever "morality and sex"), so you can't approach abstinence promotion among teens that way if you want to be allowed to conduct programs in schools.


message 3: by booklady (new) - added it

booklady Yes, I do know what you mean--frustratingly irritating that social double standard we have where sex is concerned. Although I haven't finished it, I like Mary Beth Bonacci's Real Love, and I'm getting JPII's Love and Responsibility for the same reason. Something to consider--often such books include very practical reasons for making the moral choice. God didn't give us the laws He did arbitrarily; our greatest happiness lies in following His plan for our lives.


Skylar Burris Thanks for the suggestions. I will add them to my "to read" list.



Katya Skylar this is a pretty perfect review, very well written and you definitely covered the most important points as well as the most serious drawbacks.


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