A new generation of frightened, unhappy and overmedicated young women are having sex too soon. So argues Wendy Shalit, in ‘A Return to Modesty: Rediscovering The Lost Virtue’. This was published back in 1999, but I’ve been re-reading her arguments in relation to self-harm and eating disorders.
Shalit’s thesis is that sexual equality has forced women to repress their natural sexual modesty. We’re having too much sex, too soon – and this is why we’re experiencing such an epidemic of eating disorders. Why, she asks, do none of my grandparent’s friends have anorexia? Because of a decline in modesty and a rise in promiscuity. Bluntly put, girls today are expected to put out. This makes us hate ourselves so we self-harm as a way of getting back power and control. We think that our bodies are malleable and disposable, but the end result is actually self-hatred, self-alienation and a desperate struggle to find real intimacy. She writes,
Having an eating disorder, I would submit, is the only way our culture allows a woman to find order in a sexually chaotic landscape. In a culture that permits food hang-ups but not sex hang-ups, it’s become the new way for a girl to express her modesty, to restore distance between men and herself.
…The anorexic disfigures her body to become unwomanly because if she no longer has the right to say “no,” at least she has her body language at her disposal.
Perhaps the longing for security and intimacy is part of our modern fascination with period dramas. We are yearning, not just for Mr Darcy, but a time of protection from sexual excess. This is not to say that sex or bodily life is somehow ‘unchristian’ or ‘bad’ – far from it! In Song of Songs for example, the woman’s sexuality is described in terms of a walled garden – a source of great pleasure and blessing to her and her lover, but sheltered and protected by a covenant relationship.It is because God has made sex such a powerful source of blessing that He gives us such detailed instructions about how to use it. He made it as a key part of a very good creation – not during a ten minute snooze or lapse in concentration.
Like all of creation, sex is theological. It tells us about who we are and who He is. For this reason, even more than our concerns about reputation or STDs, modesty, in the biblical sense, really matters.