Another politically inconvenient differential that this leveling logic has fuzzed over with a vengeance is this: Sexuality (especially at a young age) is more personally and socially toxic when exercised by women than when exercised by men. Compared to a time -- say, 1950 -- when women were encouraged to be (and were) far less sexually free than men, we now have stratospheric rates of unplanned births, births out of wedlock, births to teenaged mothers, pregnancy-related high school dropouts, low birth-weight and diseased newborns, abortions, and sexually transmitted diseases.
Most of these differences exist because sexually free women have a greater risk of getting pregnant. But there are other, perhaps more mysterious, damaging consequences of increased sexualization that also impact women more than men. For instance, according to recent studies by the Institute of Medicine and the Alan Guttmacher Institute, the rise in sexually transmitted diseases disproportionately affects women, who are substantially more susceptible than men to the diseases themselves, and also to their complications, such as infertility and uro-genital cancer.
And put a five-story poster of Marky Mark in his underpants above Times Square and only a negligible portion of the peer male population will do more sit-ups, take steroids, or otherwise change their lifestyles. But a poster of Kate Moss up there in hers is generally thought to encourage large numbers of young women to get caught up in anorexia, bulimia, and other life-threatening psychological disorders. Similarly, when the reader learns in Jeffrey Toobin's book on the O.J. case that all four of the Brown sisters "had breast implants, but not one had a college degree," it comes to mind that the two developments are probably not unrelated, that the connection is probably not all that rare for women, and that a similar one would be rather rare for men.
What 1950 had going for it that is for the most part no longer operative today was what we might call the Official Virtue System (OVS), according to which female virginity before marriage was publicly much prized. In many ways, the leading social policy takes on sex in recent years, from Charles Murray on welfare to William Bennett's virtue books to Dr. Laura's Ten Stupid Things Women Do to Mess Up Their Lives, can be viewed primarily as calls for reinstating this system.
The problem is, though, that in addition to providing excellent social controls, the OVS was also unfair: It winked at the sexual adventures of single men and endorsed the formation of a class of women -- prostitutes and other sex workers -- whose primary function was to service them and suffer the consequences. And it was repressive: Women's sexual needs were downplayed and often ignored completely.
So even if we could somehow go back to the OVS, it wouldn't be right. A very interesting question and a central one of sexual politics is: Is there another fairer, less repressive way to reinstate (many of) the virtues of the Official Virtue System?
Promiscuities is a valuable attempt to work out a "Yes" answer to this question, and it uses sexual narrative to build towards its policy prescription. Wolf, who was raised in a middle class Jewish/academic/ bohemian San Francisco family and came of sexual age in the '70s, tries to capture the particular flavor of that passage by drawing on her own sexual history and those of her teenaged friends. As filtered through her fine prose, it's a moving and often scary trip, sort of a Ten Stupid Things I Did to Almost Mess Up My Life. The list includes a physically abusive relationship at age 14, losing her virginity in a seedy hotel at age 15, drug abuse, and being pawed by a professor she revered. Although this last encounter is unfortunately so common that it seems a cliche, Wolf's description of what was really wrong about it made my heart hurt. "My manuscript lay dead on the table," she writes. "I felt emptier than I ever had been, and sore -- even more sore than I would be when I found, at the end of the term, that he'd lowered my grade. I was sore in exactly the place where my creative self-regard, still so new, had just begun to seed"
Wolf often punctuates her revelatory material with historical and anthropological excursions. Some are more successful than others. For instance, her use of Margaret Mead's conclusions about female sexuality in the Pacific Islands to help articulate the sexual predicament of the women of her generation was excellent. But a 14-page stretch covering the zig-zags of scientific theories about the clitoris and its connection to sexual arousal struck me as unnecessarily digressive to the point of being show-offy, and worse still, as marked by forced, cutesy, humor, the point of which usually seemed to be what dim bulbs male sex scientists can be. And besides, is it really big news that men (or women, for that matter) are somewhat confused about the physiological details of female desire?
The Third Wave
Wolf will no doubt be commended for the bravery of the book's confessional side, which is in fact crucial for the way she pre-empts the political correctness trap: A man who wrote a book disclosing these sorts of details about women's sex lives as a basis for reform wouldn't get much of a hearing. But Wolf's use of her material is not as probative as it might have been. For instance, she says of her sexual education that "not at the clinic, at school, in our synagogue, or anywhere in pop culture did this message come through clearly to us: sexual activity comes with responsibilities that are deeper than personal." And she describes the events immediately preceding her first intercourse this way: "A civics class drove me over the edge. The thought of plowing through the electoral college -- which, in its stubborn irrationality, seemed to represent all the rigidity and hopelessness of the adult world closing in on me -- was finally too much." Maybe Wolf's upbringing and schooling had all these shortcomings, but she never quite brings herself to admit that (with the exception of the professor's unwanted advances) sex is something she did, not something that happened to her. In focusing on the operant cultural forces, Wolf's narrative tends to shortshrift her accountability. While doing the hard thing of describing her past, she doesn't fully own up to it.
Having said all this, it's still true that Wolf's stories do indeed provide powerful evidence for her acute observation that in the status quo culture, "men were deciding for us if we were women. Heck: teenage boys were deciding for us if we were women. "In Wolf's view, changing this feature is the key to reform.
But Wolf is a so-called "third wave" feminist, so her approach here is more irenic than alienating. If the motto of the first wave (Friedan and Steinem, say) was "women have a problem" and the motto of the second (Dworkin and Brownmiller, say) was "men are the problem," Wolf's basic approach has always been more on the order of "women can fashion solutions, and can ally with men to do so."
Under the male-oriented OVS, single female sexuality was publicly denied and privately encouraged. The plausible idea undergirding the OVS is that publicly, culturally encouraging female sexuality leads inexorably to the whole nasty nexus of problems listed above: high rates of out-of-wedlock births, abortions, sexually transmitted diseases, etc., and to boot, women feeling besieged and guilty about it all. Wolf's idea for cutting this Gordian knot is to hold that if women were somehow publicly and culturally to take charge of their sexuality, they could be sexual without being so prone to these consequences.
The vehicle she advocates for bringing this about is a public, even quasi-ceremonial rite of passage from girlhood to womanhood, in which adult women teach their younger counterparts technical sex information -- which would include an emphasis on "petting" -- in return for promises to postpone intercourse until they feel safe and ready, never to have sex without being fully conscious, or to use sex to get love, status, or money. (As a martial artist, I was glad to note that the rites would include the teaching of self-defense, because real deferral requires real deterrence.)
Wolf envisions this rite as built around female-only retreats away from daily life. Skeptics will be quick to portray this as girl talk gone mad -- "Join the Sex Scouts and get a merit badge in 3rd Base" -- but as Wolf notes in some detail, this kind of approach has been viable in many different (primarily non-Western) cultures, so it is certainly worth considering. At the very least, it has this advantage over the OVS: In recognizing female gratification and distinguishing it from intercourse, it treats the emerging sex drive of young single women (and collaterally, of young single men) not only as real but also as a continuum capable of being managed, whereas the OVS treats it as an On-Off switch to be (officially) left in the Off position, but with not much of a plan for when it's flipped On. And as Wolf points out, whether we like it or not, in our society young women already widely engage in a much less desirable rite of passage: getting pregnant too soon.
However, there is an important element that is fundamental to improving the way our culture manages young female (and male) sex to which Wolf seems a little blind. Just what that is can be gleaned from Wolf's sex tales by negation. At one point, she sums up the ground rules of the house she grew up in this way: "I couldn't have my new boyfriend, Martin, spend the night if I didn't clean my room... ." She describes her routine with another boyfriend thus: "We would shower together in his parents' bathroom..." And one of Wolf's friends relates how she lost her virginity as a high school junior at a classmate's home high on acid "right in line with the whole parents-aren't-there-during-what's-going-on kind of thing." The major point I wish Wolf had seen and made is that no matter what direction sex reform for young people takes, it must include the reinstatement of the social safety device that was at the core of the OVS: strong parents.
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 1, 1997|
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