Talk about sex or something like it


Wendy Shalit, a self-proclaimed post-modern feminist, visited Pittsburgh in October to… Wendy Shalit, a self-proclaimed post-modern feminist, visited Pittsburgh in October to promote her latest book, “Girls Gone Mild.” The book attempts to reassert the value of modesty in the modern girl’s lifestyle after years of sexual liberation which, Shalit claims, have created a damaging culture leading to depreciated self-esteem in girls who become sexually active at increasingly younger ages.

In the first chapter of the book, Shalit cites an alarming 2006 National Institutes of Health study which found that “girls were about four times more likely to be depressed if they experimented with sex,” in comparison to boys of the same age. The book adds that not only are girls more likely to become depressed but they are also more likely to attempt suicide if involved in sexual experimentation.

If it’s not already, this should be a giant red flag on the public health radar. It is enormously scary that girls’ experimentation with sex is having serious mental health repercussions.

But while I don’t wholly disagree with Ms. Shalit’s push to bring modesty back, I do think that she is, quite simply, missing the point.

It isn’t sex itself that is destroying our youths’ self-esteem. Oddly enough, in an era when media images relentlessly bombard us with concepts of what is sexy, it is our culture’s apprehension, sometimes downright refusal, to address what constitutes a healthy concept of sexuality that is leaving the younger generation ill-equipped to navigate the rocky sexual waters when the time comes.

While more and more school systems are correctly recognizing the need for safe sex education in their classrooms, not just abstinence-only policies, the proper emotional support tools are sorely lacking.

As laudable as Ms. Shalit’s stance is, modesty is not going to restore the apparent collective absence of self-esteem among young adult women – especially if this idea of modesty doesn’t address the pressing need for women to learn to embrace their sexuality, not fight or altogether dismiss it.

Embracing one’s sexuality is not “if you’ve got it, flaunt it.” Similarly, the amount of sex one has does not directly correlate with how comfortable one is with her sexuality. And neither does it mean thinking that only one person can make you feel sexy and satisfy all your emotional and sexual needs.

Rather, first and foremost, a healthy concept of sexuality is a singularly personal experience – it involves no one but you. Accordingly, healthy sexuality includes the idea that a woman makes intelligent, thoughtful decisions about herself and her sex life based on the self-knowledge of her own feelings, desires and capabilities. Above all, a woman must feel comfortable and empowered to make decisions of such a nature for herself.

“Sexy” is an external attribute of a person. “Sexuality” is an internal, intangible component of a person. It consists of one’s personality, one’s intelligence and one’s attitude, but ultimately sexuality is a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

Thus, we need to teach girls at a young age to be aware of sexuality as a part of their personality, and we need to foster an environment in which they feel comfortable doing so.

Furthermore, if there is such a need for a post-modern feminist movement, it absolutely must include frank, non-euphemistic discussions about the emotional impact having sex has on a person.

We have to teach our kids as soon as possible that sex is a big deal – with a capital ‘B,’ ‘I’ and ‘G’ – for reasons other than its physical ramifications. We should impart to our youths a sense of respect for the act more than to simply consider it a recreational activity to be pursued only under inebriated states on the weekends.

I’m not advocating abstinence-only education. I think people have the right to safely pursue something as uniquely enjoyable as sex. But when our freedom to do so leads to other, more serious problems like suicidal depression, then something is obviously wrong.

It’s no longer fun if pressure to have casual sex exists solely in order to be considered “modern,” “liberated” or “not a prude.”

I respect the young women in Ms. Shalit’s book who believe that by returning to modesty they are affecting change. By making their own decisions about their sex lives and not giving into social pressures, they are demonstrating the kind of personal, healthy concept of sexuality that I do think will change things.

But I don’t think that the presence or absence of modesty is the problem behind increased mental health issues in young women resulting from casual sex experimentation.

Rather, it is the absence of emotional know-how when it comes to sex, what is sexy, what is sexuality and the difference between the three.

As such, we cannot keep ignoring the emotional impact of sex in our sex-education endeavors. If we do, we are robbing our young women – and men – of the chance to have fulfilling, healthy, fun sexual lives.

E-mail Colleen at [email protected].