Toronto Sun

February 28, 1999

New take on the male/female thing

By LINDA WILLIAMSON -- Toronto Sun

When last we spoke (Thursday), the topic, as it so often is in these parts, was "what do women want?" Or more specifically, why are they so unhappy?

The answer, for an increasing number of young women, is surprising. They don't blame men. Rather, they blame feminism for selling them a bill of goods -raising a generation of girls to think, work, act, talk and have sex like men. Two new books explore this idea and, on the sex front, both take an unusual view - it's time for women to stop giving it up.

For Canada's Danielle Crittenden, author of What Our Mothers Didn't Tell Us, the sex question is as simple as free-market economics - withhold something and its value goes up. She cites, in all seriousness, every mother's familiar line about how men won't buy the cow if they can get milk for free.

But causing even more waves these days is A Return To Modesty by Wendy Shalit, a 23-year-old (yes, 23!) whose unusual views on sex have made her the new darling of the family values set. George F. Will in Newsweek devoted a full-page column to her book, headlined "Modesty is sexy. Really."

I admit, when I first heard of this book, I thought, "finally, a voice of reason." I thought Shalit might address the extreme lack of modesty among some young people, their crude language, their brazen bra straps, their ugly videos in which women are referred to as "bitches and ho's," the trashy types who bare their breasts to make a point on Jerry Springer.

I thought perhaps she saw herself as part of the Monica Lewinsky generation and decided she'd had enough. But it seems she's also had enough of things like sex education (she describes how her parents pulled her out of sex-ed in Grade Four and speaks disparagingly of classes where pre-teens learn to put condoms on one another's fingers, or bananas) and freely available birth control.

Like Crittenden, Shalit argues that women simply aren't cut out for promiscuity, and it would benefit us all if we, well, drove up the price of milk, so to speak. Shalit calls it "creating a cartel of virtue," with the result being more romance, more mystery, more security for women. What's more, she argues that by saying to men, "I'm worth waiting for, and worth concealing," young women will train men to be more civilized. "What women will and will not permit does have a profound way of influencing the behaviour of an entire society," she says.

Different animals

This argument relies on a very old idea that seems to be gaining new currency - that men and women are different animals. You know, men are naturally promiscuous, it's in their nature. Women, since they bear children, are naturally monogamous. It's an argument that's been used throughout civilization to justify all manner of male behaviour, up to and including Bill Clinton.

But, as an article in last week's New York Times Magazine ("Men, Women, Sex and Darwin") pointed out, it's not necessarily sound. "Women are said to have lower sex drives than men, yet they are universally punished if they display evidence to the contrary ... there is still enough of a lingering female infidelity impulse that cultures everywhere have had to gird against it" with severe laws, says writer Natalie Angier. Not only that, studies show marriage adds years to men's lives, indicating the institution agrees with them.

Nevertheless, Shalit argues that women, while strong, are naturally more modest than men, more private, more prone to embarrassment, more fragile emotionally as well as physically, and basically less crass. We can't play by men's rules because "the game isn't equal," she says "because men always win the game of vulgarity." She obviously hasn't spent much time in a newsroom. Seriously, though, surely even at 23, Shalit should know that some people are just more gentle than others, regardless of gender.

I'll say this for both Shalit and Crittenden - they offer new thinking, without blaming men or casting women as victims. They admit our problems may lie simply in having too much freedom - to marry, to have sex or not, to have a career, children or both? Men, I'd add, face very similar choices daily.

What I just can't buy is their insistence that we are so different from men. We might as well say we're from Venus and they're from Mars. Doesn't this insult men?

After all, researchers in Britain announced last week that, thanks to modern fertility techniques, it will soon be possible for men to bear children. Sounds mind-boggling, but who knows? This could break down the final sex barrier and allow us to truly empathize with one another - and showcase some men's modest, nurturing side.

Or, it might just prove how utterly different we really are.


Linda Williamson is the Toronto Sun senior associate editor. She can be reached by e-mail at lwilliam@sunpub.com.

Letters to the editor should be sent to editor@sunpub.com.

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