Promiscuities: The Secret Struggle for Womanhoodby Naomi Wolf
In this provocative and highly personal book, bestselling author Naomi Wolf explores a subject that has long been taboo in our society: women's sexual coming-of-age. Promiscuities brazenly exposes the truths behind the conflicting messages directed at young women during and after the sexual revolution. Drawing on surprising examples from the ancient and recent past, along with vivid recollections of her own youth, Wolf shows how our "liberated" culture still fears and distorts female passion. She also shares fascinating true stories that illustrate the fantasies and sometimes crippling realities women pass through on their way toward erotic and emotional discovery. A landmark book, Promiscuities is a call to women of all ages to reclaim and celebrate their sexuality.
Wolf sets up her third book of feminist social commentary as an ethnography of a subculturespecifically, 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 cohortsspirited 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 expressionan 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.
"Refreshing ... highly evocative ... Wolf does two important things very well: reminding readers her own age what it felt like to be a teenage girl, and providing a crash course on the wildly varying cultural meanings attached to female sexuality throughout history." - The Ottawa Citizen
"Naomi Wolf [is] the best writer about women and sexuality that we have." - Toronto Sun
"Fascinating ... Wolf celebrates the ancient concept, heavily suppressed in the 20th century, that women are the more carnal sex." - Vancouver Courier
- Random House Publishing Group
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- 6.47(w) x 9.59(h) x 1.08(d)
Read an Excerpt
From Chapter 3 of Promiscuities by Naomi Wolf
As we prepared for adolescence, our marching orders were contradictory, for some of the rules of the game we inherited came to us intact from the days of the dinner dance and had not been abandoned with the sexual revolution. Passivity was one rule. Girls that boys liked were not supposed to ask for a dance. You were not supposed to kiss first. And while you were waiting for a boy to put his arm around you, you were not supposed to move more than a fraction of an inch. If you precipitated contact in any way, you would be going "too far."
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.
Meet the Author
Naomi Wolf's first book, The Beauty Myth, was published in 14 countries (over 70,000 copies in paperback sold in Canada to date) and is an international bestseller. Her second book, Fire with Fire, was also well received by critics and readers alike. Wolf has appeared on many national talk shows and speaks to college audiences across Canada and the United States on the topic of young women and feminism.
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