Izgad linked to an interesting article by Matthue Roth (author of the 'great but flawed Orthodox novel') discussing shomer negiah. Actually, the article simply described a phenomenon of which I think people are pretty generally aware: Modern Orthodox young people tend to view shomer negiah as optional, if not downright nerdy.
This is a fact that has always fascinated/annoyed me (according to context, mood, and audience.) For me, personally, it is less a religious issue at this point than a sociological one. (Also, not a personal one. I have had no personal experience on the subject, besides the awkward work-handshake situation, so I have no dog in this fight.) But here's my religious take off the bat, just to get it out of the way:
To the extent of my knowledge, shomer negiah (when the girl is a niddah, as most unmarried girls are these days) is possibly a Biblical level prohibition, possibly a Rabbinic one. (Based on the verse "To a woman in her niddah, you should not approach to bare her nakedness." Not, perhaps, a necessary reading by modern standards, but in Talmud homiletic terms, a pretty strong one.) Like most prohibitions found in the Talmud, you can discuss the legitimacy of the Biblical reading, the societal influences pushing the reading\prohibition, and the moral/psychological value of the prohibition from here until the cows come home, but there is little intra-halachic basis to write off the commandment. And, as is generally the case, there are various loopholes that the halachic system and the Jewish community has chosen not to go with. So, from a purely halachic standpoint, there isn't really any intra-system reason that it should be weaker than almost all the kashrut we currently keep, or 99.9% of shabbat.
But for some reason, it is considered a legitimate question in even observant circles to ask "Are you shomer?" And they don't mean shomer shabbat or shomer kashrut, or general shmirat mitzvot. And for that same inexplicable reason, answering 'no' gets you nothing worse than being thought at worst 'a little left-wing' and at best 'normal' in a way that admitting to not really keeping kashrut never would.
I am at a loss to explain these things. I can come up with a few general guesses, but they fail the basic test of explanations, which is that they could predict which things would be like this and which wouldn't. But here they are:
1) It's too hard. Unlike turning on lights and eating milk and meat together, shomer negiah offers too much temptation for hormone- or love- addled minds can overcome. The problem: this doesn't really explain why it's okay to state in general that you don't even attempt to be shomer; if the action is regarded as a irresistable sin, you'd think there'd be more shamefacedness about it. Also, Jews are pretty insane about the oddest stringencies in the most difficult situations. I doubt that shomer negiah presents any insurmountable obstacle to people who really, really believed that it was wrong.
2) It's too weird. Society, as a whole, has changed drastically from the Victorian mindset that would have regarded such a thing as even semi-normal. Society today, instead of stigmatizing love/sex, has nearly idolized it, so that the most ridiculous and immoral actions seem to gain validity if done in the name of love. As such, the official halachic stance is simply not tenable in the modern world and under modern sensibilities. To be modern, in effect, means to disobey the halacha in this case. The problem: there's plenty of weirder and/or more 'offensive' things that the modern orthodox will continue to do. Shomer negiah, actually, sounds pretty good when phrased in sweet, airy terms to the general world (Read, for example, Gila Manolson). Certainly better than shechitta or various other things that we keep.
3)It's not all that exceptional. Maybe Modern Orthodoxy, in general, is dropping prohibitions left and right, and this is simply the only one that occurs to me at the moment. If so, the shomer negiah phenomenon is symptomatic of a general trend in modern orthodoxy that is well beyond the scope of this suddenly-quite-long blogpost.
4) Who knows? Sometimes religion just evolves, working along its own path, weaving in and out of history. In a hundred years, perhaps this will just be one of those things. I think that what makes this trend different is the fact that halacha has never really caught up. Nobody's trying to reinterpret the law or challenge the validity of the prohibition. They just ignore it, in a manner that must be causing some pretty unhealthy cognitive dissonance out there.
Does my ever-wise blogging audience have any suggestions?