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Book Reviews

A History of Celibacy: Experiments Through the Ages

by Elizabeth Abbott

A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue

by Wendy Shalit

Where I live – grassland southwest of quasi-urban Victoria – 4H-ers put it this way: “Owning a horse costs a lot of money, but so does teenage pregnancy.” Tight, logical, no bullshit. In livestock resides the cure for adolescent heat.

Born in 1975, Wendy Shalit proposes a more sophisticated remedy. Her economist father takes an interest in every aspect of her life. “I’m a much stronger person,” Shalit says, “for having a ‘paternalistic’ father who is always telling me what to do. I know he’s that way because he loves me.” At college she was vice-president of the Republican club and editor of the conservative paper; she lobbied against the National Endowment for the Arts. And then she wrote a little piece that “dared to complain” (her promo says) about co-ed bathrooms in her dorm. Bingo. At 21, Shalit had her first book contract, for A Return to Modesty, her solution to the messy aftermath of the sexual revolution.

Shalit, cute ultra-hetero virgin (it’s not that men don’t want her), distances herself from anti- or post-feminists. In fact, she credits feminists with creating a “nonsexist paradise … wiped … clean of all traces of patriarchal rules and codes of conduct.” Given these gains, she wonders why misogyny thrives. Stalking, rape, sexual harassment – all are evidence of a “society which has lost its respect for female modesty,” and can all be eliminated if we “raise men who both understand that women are different, and [men who] would never dare take advantage of this difference.” Notice how “difference” for Shalit implies weaker. Notice how by “modesty” she does not mean dry hump.

Modesty, for her, means a little more patriarchy, at least more recognition of what she presents as male honour. Women must give up ground, allow men to “open doors for us again.” So no more slinky spandex to incite men, no more sex before marriage to make them think they don’t merit women’s self-control. Shalit believes we need “a good dose of precisely sexist upbringing” and that means acknowledging the differences between men and women instead of feeding Ritalin to little boys and Prozac to little girls to mask their biological selves.

And so Shalit’s arguments proceed; even the sensible ones are tangled and strangled in logical fallacy and false premise. Because fourth graders are taught sex education, sexual harassment of little girls abounds; she does not question with rigour the nature of masculine privilege. Shalit proclaims “we live in an age that prides itself on being beyond gender role stereotyping,” and then uses as her primary sources rags such as Mademoiselle, Glamour, YM, and, most frequently, Cosmo, a research akin to building a house with the Three Little Pigs as general contractors.

Shalit’s writing is slanted, naive, adjectivally challenged, and her argument is more suitable for an Op-Ed column. There we would not have to slog through the muck of so-called “women’s magazines” to reach a simple tautology: if people were nicer to each other, they would be nicer.

Elizabeth Abbott drop-kicks power virgins like Shalit onto the far end of a continuum. A History of Celibacy tracks every permutation of chastity, virginity, and celibacy beginning with Greek mythology, proceeding to AIDS-stricken Magic Johnson’s call for abstinence, and through movements such as the moral majority’s “True Love Waits” (they urge college kids to delay intercourse until church marriage). The history is fast and clean, a kind of Christianity and World Religions for Dummies.

Abbott is Dean of Women at Toronto’s Trinity College, a historian, award-winning journalist, and author. Her research, which took almost a decade to complete, is broad and not confined to a westernized approach to desire and chastity (no Cosmo!). She includes high-profile celibates such as Leonardo da Vinci and Mohawk saint Kateri Tekakwitha and documents Gandhi’s experiments to store the power of semen. We meet vestal virgins, Hindu widows, Byzantine eunuchs, Inuit whalers, and professional athletes from early Greeks to today’s Athletes for Abstinence. Abbott does not judge or revere celibacy, but records and analyzes its many forms.

And unlike Shalit, Abbott cites instances of male modesty. The Male Purity Movement, for example, dates from the American 1830s and sought to comfort displaced farm boys in their transition to urban chaos. To rid unsuspecting bachelors of such temptations as tobacco, strong coffee, and spicy food – all contain “whorish seductiveness” – the movement came up with “the diet that cured sex”: plain veggies, dry bread, and biscuits made of Graham crackers, as well as Dr. John Harvey Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, all supposed to subdue libido. Abbott’s tone is somewhat playful, occasionally biased – promiscuous metaphors mix. But her book is riveting. And she is smart enough, in the end, to acknowledge that abstinence does not cross all cultures. Especially in African societies, it will not be enough to stop AIDS.

Both women identify one creepy cost of the sexual revolution and feminism’s role in it. In trying to rebalance the power inequities of pre-revolution sex, we got what Abbott calls “belt-knotching, score-keeping, power-play sex, initiated and controlled by women.” Given the freedom, we went all macho. While Shalit calls for a counter-revolution, one premised on female modesty, Abbott is more interested in religion’s role, even today, in the double standard that dictates chastity to women and not to men.

Thirty years ago, Tillie Olsen published Silences, a book of circumstances – political, emotional, biological, economic – that cause writers to stop creating, for a while or forever. Olsen’s book remains a healing gospel for those who can’t get no satisfaction from imagination. What Shalit and Abbott miss in their attempts to explain the world’s sexual crisis – if you buy that there is one – are the smaller periods of abstinence, ones not caused by AIDS terror or anorexic angst. How can we convince a neon generation hyped and hoaxed by SEX SEX SEX that “no” can also mean the immodest “Leave me alone – I want to think?”

Some sexual silences generate wisdom: the two years after your childhood sweetheart found someone hipper and richer; the year of breast-feeding when your husband treated you as mother and not as lover; the six months of Canada Council Grant when you wrote because you’d never get another chance and had to live alone in a trailer in Prince George; the whole day in 1997 after your live-in girlfriend, totalled on Ecstasy, spent the whole rave with your older brother; and the prime years – 13 to 16 – when your parents bought you a quarter horse and you learned to canter with no hands and gallop down the beach.


Reviewer: Lorna Jackson

Publisher: HarperFlamingo Canada


Price: $32

Page Count: 352 pp

Format: Cloth

ISBN: 0-00-255735-5

Released: Mar.

Issue Date: 1999-1

Categories: Politics & Current Affairs

Reviewer: Lorna Jackson

Publisher: HarperFlamingo Canada


Price: $26

Page Count: 291 pp

Format: Cloth

ISBN: 0-00-255741-X

Released: Feb.

Issue Date: January 1, 1999

Categories: Politics & Current Affairs