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Wolf sets up her third book of feminist social commentary as an ethnography of a subculture—specifically, white, middle-class girls who crossed the threshhold of adolescence in the 1970s. It is, she says, "the tribe I know best." Reprising themes from her 1991 bestseller The Beauty Myth, Wolf highlights the consequences for girls of our consumer society's emphasis on the exchange value of sex and its reduction of womanhood to rituals of diet, seduction, and the accumulation of possessions. She writes vividly about her own experiences contending with these issues while growing up in San Francisco in the era after the so-called sexual revolution and before the scourge of AIDS. Set adrift by their fragmenting families, Wolf's peers are prone to cynicism about love and to confusion about the power of their own sexuality. Wolf traces how externally imposed shame and silence systematically separate young women from their own, freely chosen sexual pleasure, effectively leaving intercourse as the only alternative to abstinence and resulting in high teen pregnancy rates. She observes the tragic casualties among her cohorts—spirited girls who pursue their natural instincts but are too quickly awarded pariah status as "bad girls," and she recounts her own near-misses with molestation. And she celebrates her most transgressive act of sexual expression—an extended, deeply erotic, and physically satisfying (though ultimately unconsummated) affair with an Irish Catholic boy who was among the paid workers on an Israeli kibbutz where, at age 16, she spent her summer.
American girls who successfully manage the perilous journey to autonomous womanhood should not be left to rely so much on their own luck and bravado. But the author's alternative to such confusion, an adaptation of Native American initiation rituals, seems unpersuasive and insufficient.
Those confounding rules were hard for active, curious girls to put into practice. The culturally imposed process of "whiting out" our child's erotic consciousness--what Mary McCarthy has called "drawing a blank"--this intentional not knowing that girls are asked to yield to at moments of sexual experience, involved us, necessarily, in the task of becoming mysterious to ourselves. We began to notice that songs about "becoming a woman" centered on the woman's vagueness and lack of reality. In these songs, men were sexually infatuated with women they did not know, women who had no outlines and no characteristics. One song--"Knock Three Times"--told the story of the sexual obsession of a man with his anonymous downstairs neighbor: "I can feel your body swayin' one floor below me, you don't even know me, I love you." The same scene was played out in the Temptations song "Just My Imagination": "But in reality she doesn't even know me!" "She takes just like a woman. She makes love just like a woman. And she
aches just like a woman. But she breaks just like a littlegirl," crooned Bob Dylan. What did that mean? What was happening to her each of those times? How would we recognize it? "I love you," a truck driver yelled out one day at a red light as my mother held my hand on Haight Street, and she smiled in spite of herself. Love you? He doesn't know you! I thought indignantly.
We would speculate with one another in maddening conversations as we played in Dodie's basement. Our Mystery Date board game began to supplant our Barbies. What did it mean to "make love just like a woman"? How could we know? Clearly, it would not be enough just to grow up. There was something else involved. How would we learn? What if we didn't manage to "make love just like a woman"? What god-awful thing would we then be?
"Lay, lady, lay, lay across my big brass bed, ..." Dylan sang too. "Stay with your man awhile, until the break of day, let me see you make him smile. His clothes are dirty but his hands are clean ..." Was a woman different from a lady? Better? Worse? Did it depend on the situation? What was she doing to him to make him smile? How could we learn that? Was there no deal in which he would make her smile? Why not? Sex, we understood by eleven, did not work symmetrically. "Her clothes are dirty but her hands are clean"--we already knew we would never hear that kind of line in a seduction song.
The woman's sexiness, when it wasn't a mystery, was often a thing or a single attribute: "She wore ... an itsy-bitsy teenie weenie yellow polka-dot bikini" ... "Every kind of girl there was, long ones, tall ones, short ones, brown ones ... Spill the wine. Dig that girl." The message was that we had to be wanted in order to be allowed to want. We had to be mostly out of focus, except for a bikini or a hair color, to be sexy. It was not just a biological mystery that was enfolding us; it was cultural.
Carol Gilligan and Lyn Mikel Brown, in their classic Meeting at the Crossroads, eloquently described the way in which girls go from being distinct personalities at ten to amorphous, uncertain creatures at thirteen. An analogous process, I am convinced, takes place in relation to girls' loss of the "voice" of their own desire. The culture that surrounds girls signals to them that they must, sexually, forget themselves. They must become passive in relation to the energy of desire, or detached from owning it, even in the face of its increasingly active pressure.
This situation--the mystification that intervenes between girlhood and womanhood--reminds me of a scene in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass. Alice finds herself wandering in a beautiful, dark forest. She is joined by a young deer, which accompanies her in perfect amiability. The two share the journey with a sense of deep familiarity. But when they emerge from the wood, the fawn recognizes its companion for what she is: "I'm a Fawn ... And, dear me! You're a human child!" The creature bounds away in alarm, leaving young Alice alone.
Something like this happens to us at the threshold of adolescence. "What are you?" the girl asks of her own desire--once her companion, now wary of the light. And: "What am I?"
The girl must now pass into the unforgiving glare of social reality in which human and beast--consciousness and appetite--confront each other in a state of estrangement before the relearning begins. The girl's consciousness and the animal aspect of her nature must assume names that insist they are separate beings ("And, dear me! you're a human child!")--rather than names that allow them to remain parts of each other. The girl, denatured, becomes a mystery to herself.
|Introduction: First Person Sexual|
|1||The Time and the Place: 1968-1971||3|
|2||The Facts of Life||14|
|3||Activity into Passivity: Blanking Out||23|
|4||Free Flight to House Arrest: Slowing Down||29|
|5||Nakedness: Pride and Shame||35|
|8||First Base: Hierarchy||83|
|9||Second Base: Love and Control||87|
|10||Crash Course: Their Bodies||97|
|11||Third Base: Identity||104|
|12||Fourth Base: How to Make a Woman||116|
|13||Skipped Homework: Our Bodies||139|
|14||More Skipped Homework: Our Pleasure||157|
|16||Cheap or Precious?||172|
|20||The Technically White Dress||221|
|21||The Time and the Place: 1996||225|
Naomi Wolf: Thanks for inviting me. Yes, let's go.
Naomi Wolf: Margaret Atwood, who tells secrets, not always pretty ones, about women's real feelings. The 19th-century novelists Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte, who are so passionate and subversive. I would have to say Sylvia Plath, for that again, scathing honesty. I guess I like the edge they all bring to reporting women's consciousness.
Naomi Wolf: Well, since I'm part of the memoir trend/surge, I have a lot of compassion for what I think is often the motivation for this kind of personal truth-telling. I can't speak for other writers of intimate memoirs, but I felt a burning need to tell the story of growing up feeling in the sexual revolution, because I felt the truths weren't being told by the culture and that girls and women were suffering because these stories were censored/self-censored. There's a big difference, though, between writing about an incestuous affair with one's father or liking to be spanked -- which are two examples of the kinds of female sexual experiences that are out right now -- and writing about the sexual coming of age of the American adolescent "girl next door." It's much easier to marginalize the former kinds of experiences. For me, writing about much more "ordinary" but equally, to me, dramatic and shocking everyday sexual experiences that girls and young women are having is as compelling.
Naomi Wolf: That is such a good question! Here's an example: we all know that when we are in bed with a partner, there are more than two people there. There's one's self, one's partner, and the frame that the culture puts around the sex act you're engaged in. You can be doing something sexual as a woman in bed, and the script in your head is "Debbie Does Dallas," because that's all we get, by and large, with those sorts of scripts, but I drew on other cultures that have in some ways more empowering scripts about female sexuality, because it feels very different to be doing the same sex act but with the frame around you being: I am Shaktie, goddess of my own sexuality. The point is that we can't be empowered sexually just by doing things. The reason I wrote PROMISCUITIES was rather to give us a way to think differently about female sexuality.
Naomi Wolf: I certainly feel that pressure, too. I am a woman in the culture, so by definition I experience those pressures. To me, knowing where those pressures come from and what motivates them is a useful tool. I certainly can feel fat in comparison to a cultural ideal, for example. But then I remind myself that I'm comparing my healthy, normal body to the bodies of people who are practically starving. That reminds me where the real distortion lies.
Naomi Wolf: My second book, FIRE WITH FIRE, goes into detail about ways in which the women's movement of the recent past sometimes went off-course -- becoming, for instance, too ideologically rigid and trapped in a women versus men mentality. While there was a lot of controversy about those criticisms at the time, I'm happy to see that feminist debate seems to have really moved beyond a lot of its old reflexes. The great task we have is to continue to learn how to be comfortable with the vast potential of our power as the majority of voters in this country and keep learning how to use power to put issues like work-family conflicts at the top of the national agenda.
Naomi Wolf: It's a grotesque, logical extension of the infatuation with death and the profound distrust of women's sexuality and vitality that the anorexic ideal represented. In a way, I'm glad the horror of this aesthetic is being discussed. It may help people feel more capable of intervening angrily and decidedly in harmful images that are pushed at them.
Naomi Wolf: I have to say I think that the pro-choice movement really is partly responsible for this argument right now. We have been using a morally neutral rhetoric about "choice" and "privacy" without acknowledging the grief and pain that many feel when they feel compelled to undergo a late-term abortion. Or without acknowledging how ambivalent more pro-choicers feel about very-late-term abortions. Part of why I wrote PROMISCUITIES is that many girls I knew growing up had had teenage abortions; while that was absolutely the right decision for them, they still, years later, had not been able to come to terms with the feelings of pain that they carried. The more positive messages we give teenage girls about their own sexual feelings, and the more permission we give them to be in charge of themselves in sexual situations, the fewer girls will have to undergo the very sad rite of passage that a teenage abortion too often is. I am pro-choice, but the fact that America has the highest abortion rate of any industrialized country is not a sign of women's freedom and equality. In some ways, it's a sign of how little support we give to women in their sexual lives.
Naomi Wolf: Well, information is a great start. I thought I was pretty well-informed about female desire, but when I did the research that I offer readers in my new book, I found out that I had been raised with a lot of bad information. For example, we still give girls the impression that men are the more lustful sex. But all cultures, including our own, until not long ago knew that women were the more carnal sex. We have a very crude understanding of female desire in our culture. It is a four-stage model -- arousal, plateau, climax, resolution. Amazingly to me, the ancient Chinese, who believed female desire kept the universe in harmony (not a bad belief system), had a 32-stage map of female sexual response! See Chapter 14. Another reason so many of us feel less than fully what we could be sexually is the shame that we are raised to associate with female sexuality. After I gathered together scenes from other cultures that portrayed women's genitals with terms connoting preciousness, beauty, and fragrance and that described female desire not as degrading but as sacred, I personally felt much more completely comfortable as a woman. Finally, there's technique. Many women don't know what gives them their most pleasurable feelings. The sex manuals of the turn of the century that I quote from are so much more detailed and subtle and explicit about exactly what it is that women like erotically than our own contemporary sexual scripts are that you can learn pretty much anything you need to know about your own pattern of response from the examples of them that I give.
Naomi Wolf: A note to the previous question GOOD LUCK and ENJOY! Well, there is a difference between the public and the press in my experience. PROMISCUITIES is already being embraced by parents, by teenage girls themselves, by women my own age who are remembering lost aspects of themselves, and by educators. Men, too, who want to learn what makes women sexually happy, have also been warm in their appreciation. Readers often immediately get books that speak to their own life concerns, even when those books are controversial in the press. I am telling secrets in this book --- secrets about growing up female today and secrets about the very nature of female desire -- so I can certainly expect some criticism. If these things were easy for us to talk about as a culture, we would have done a lot more talking before now.
Naomi Wolf: There's a lot of descriptions in my new book of how adults of the recent past and today fail children by exploiting them. There's a chapter titled "Adults" that describes how normal it was for adult men to be scamming on us when we were teenage girls --- the Kennedy baby-sitter case is just another example. The sexual revolution completely eroticized girl children for adult benefit and the JonBenet case -- the pageants rather than the murder -- is an extreme example of this.
Naomi Wolf: Blame is not as useful as understanding. Real leaders give people what they need but also push their limits. Glamour, a magazine I like a lot, is three quarters fashion, fitness, and not very profound personality articles, but one quarter politics, feminism, and empowerment. Readers crave harder-hitting information but get turned off if it is not given to them in a palatable wrapping. Editors are scared of alienating advertisers. The smartest thing your publication could do is hold some frank Town Hall discussions with its readers.
Naomi Wolf: If you feel threatened because you are outnumbered, maybe you can use the experience to strengthen a sense of empathy with the women around you, who so often feel just as you do. The best approach to someone you fear as an enemy is a compassionate attitude that can turn them into a source of support.
Naomi Wolf: Well, that's exactly where we need to step in as adults. We need to stop being in denial about the kinds of graphic and degrading images of sexuality that younger and younger kids are being bombarded with. As grown-ups, we need to step in to give them better sexual messages. I wrote PROMISCUITIES as a kind of inoculation of sexual self-esteem for girls who are facing stuff like SINGLED OUT and the women on all fours on the covers of various magazines. We need to get it that freedom for adults is wonderful, but it is corrosive when it is imposed on children. I think we should do a better job keeping adult sexual scenes out of children's mental space. I am a free-speech feminist -- I believe consenting adults should have access to adult material -- but where pornography has been placed where children cannot quite see it, civilization has survived. PROMISCUITIES is an account of watching the sexual revolutions from a child's point of view. We should learn from the harm that that did to us and still does kids growing up today that grown-ups should be more responsible custodians of sexual images and scripts and not impose them on children before they are ready.