The Return of the Virgin

The return of the virgin

Elizabeth Nickson. The Globe and Mail. Toronto, Ont.: Jul 14, 2007. pg. D.4

The result? [Wendy Shalit] marshals her evidence with the diligence of a trial lawyer.

GIRLS GONE MILD: Young Women Reclaim Self-Respect and Find It's Not Bad to be Good

By Wendy Shalit

Random House, 316 pages, $32

So little seems erotic any more, and fun has been reduced to a kind of feral snacking on new sensation. The gaping fishy mouths actors present to us when they fasten on each other no longer bear any kind of charge. Most of the people I watch films with these days shout like disgusted 11-year-olds when the writhing starts. We're all so sick of the endless display of flesh, the parading of private parts for commercial purpose, the downgrading of sex to a bodily function, shorn of spirit and emotion, and certainly love. This sickness is laced through the culture. Put it another way, if it's an adventure for 10-year-olds to have oral-sex parties, where will the magic be located for them at 40?

According to Girls Gone Mild: Young Women Reclaim Self-Respect and Find It's Not Bad to be Good , some young women are saying, Enough! Wendy Shalit interviewed 100 young women in depth, from coast to coast in Canada and the United States, and spoke to thousands through her website,, during the years of 1999-2006. According to her research, while the dominant trope is still a soulless, stringless, fevered hooking up, which begins younger and younger every year, there are pockets of girls from 8 to 18 who have become, in the face of crushing indifference, refuseniks.

Shalit, who from her author photo looks like a lush Madonna, is married with child. She asserts that she and her husband did not touch until they married. She finds common cause among the women of Toronto's Orthodox community, who provide her book's counterpoint to the pornification of adolescence.

A Return to Modesty: Rediscovering the Lost Virtue , published when she was 23, rose out of her protest at Williams, her posh private college, that she didn't want to share a bathroom with the opposite sex. For this, and for suggesting that there should be, at the very least, an acceptance that for some, appearing in a Girls Gone Wild video isn't the height of achievement, she was classed as a right-wing nutbar and treated to the usual round of insults. Larry Flynt named her asshole of the month in Hustler, and Katha Pollitt mocked both her research and her admittedly silly dating recommendations about long skirts and blushing. It didn't help, either, that she had dated John Podhoretz, one of conservatism's chubby band leaders.

The result? Shalit marshals her evidence with the diligence of a trial lawyer. From hooker-rig-wearing Bratz dolls for four-year-olds, to Abercrombie and Fitch selling thongs to 10-year-olds with "eye candy" and "kiss me" printed on the front, to 12-year-olds listening to Ludacris singing about "ruff sex" ("make it hurt/ in the garden/ in the dirt"), to 13-year-olds telling porn star Jenna Jameson that she is their hero, Shalit makes it clear that for girls, the young world is not a safe harbour, but a Darwinian thrash hunt wherein their degradation is the prize.

And that most believe their best defence is to coarsen themselves first. The results are predictable: 41 per cent of girls ages 14-17 report "unwanted sex," two thirds of all sexually experienced teens said they wished they had waited longer to have sex, and there are four million new adolescent cases of STDs reported every year. That does not count either the actual casualties from drug overdoses and accidental death or the psychic suicides of girls who just can't cope.

Molly Jong Fast, Erica ( A Fear of Flying ) Jong's happily married 26-year-old daughter, is one of Shalit's refuseniks. This is a poignant interview, as Fast talks about her mother as if she were adorable, but close to insane. "When you are 12, there is nothing funny about your mother's fourth wedding," Fast says. Besides, Jong has changed and now says that sex with someone who doesn't know you is not pleasurable; her daughter almost fell off her chair when her mother confessed this. Molly admits she was promiscuous in her day, and regrets it; she believes she was sold "a bad bill of goods."

Shalit writes too about the disappearance of friendship in the melee of sexual competition in high school and college. The slow dying off of in-the-flesh friendship in every cohort is so well known as to be almost a truism, but Shalit suggests that one of the reasons among girls is that "if you can't trust women, it's much harder to be friends with them." Most of the violent girlfights beamed around the world impressing us that yes, girls can be as horrible as boys, are fights over those boys. As a natural knock-on, bullying in high school is common, and it is not uncommon to hear of a girl who killed herself rather than face another day at the hands of her predatory classmates.

While Shalit faults the merchandisers of popular culture for the hypersexualization of everything, she sources the problem closer to the girls themselves. Mothers, educators and female relatives have failed to make a distinction between equality and the society-wide race to the bottom. Girls must be free to be as bad as boys, as promiscuous as boys, and as violent and criminal as bad boys. Thus they are encouraged. Repression is a tool of the oppressor, therefore giving in to base impulse is liberating, freedom from repression. One can see their point: A full understanding of the shadow in all of us is necessary to full maturity, and there are rafts of well-argued papers proving that the impulse toward goodness victimizes girls, and keeps them from self-realization.

Shalit does not preach; she merely reports on the pockets of girls who are taking back their innocence and insisting it is not naiveté. Her book's only literary weakness (for its genre) is a series of teaching points at the end of each chapter, meant for young women who want to pull themselves out of the abyss. Yet even these are serviceable. I can see a lost 14-year-old building a bridge to self-respect using Shalit's promptings. One hopes her mother will pitch in and help her.