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Naomi Wolf's Latest Work Examines The Sticky Subject Of Female Desire

By Stacey Richter

NOVEMBER 10, 1997:  Promiscuities, by Naomi Wolf (Random House). Cloth, $24.

NAOMI WOLF IS one of the few feminist writers willing to tackle the difficult subject of heterosexual lust. While lesbian thinkers from Judith Butler to Dorothy Allison have celebrated women's desire for other women, the flow of words from straight feminists has been weak and thin. Sallie Tisdale writes embarrassingly "hip" essays about her naughty habit of looking at porn, and Annie Sprinkle explains domination; but Wolf, in her three books, has consistently taken a thoughtful look at the plight of feminists trying to reconcile their desire for men with their resentment at inheriting a world of restricted movement, lower wages and less power than their husbands and lovers.

With her latest book, Promiscuities, Wolf has written a trenchant, keenly observed exposé full of anecdotes, personal details, and lively interpretation dealing with growing up in the United States in the '60s and '70s. Her main concern is to examine how "our culture turns girls into women." She argues that while boys are afforded a variety of avenues to test their mettle, including sports, work and sex; since the sexual revolution, girls "are turned into women through what happens to them, and what they choose to do, sexually." She illustrates this thesis in an admittedly subjective and personal way with stories from her own adolescence (which occurred near Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco) and through the stories of her friends.

The resulting book falls somewhere between the teen diary/confessional genre and the academic feminist treatise. With Promiscuities, Wolf has produced a far more personal document than The Beauty Myth, her influential first book which argued with facts and statistics. Here, she tells funny, engaging, and disturbing tales of a girlhood endured in the turbulent wake of the sexual revolution that gave birth to a pop-culture of miniskirts, go-go girls and sex-toy parties for suburban housewives. She chronicles the disintegration of the family in the let-it-all-hang-out '70s--parents who let their children sell pot, bed-hopping moms, absent dads.

These times obviously had their ups and down. Though they ushered in a greater freedom for women--with the pill, frank discussions of sexuality and access to abortion--Wolf convincingly argues there was no corresponding advance in thought that would lead girls to value their own sexual desire. Wolf's stories of adolescence, and those of her friends, circle around this recurring theme: Desire was something that belonged to boys. Media images of scantily clad women, the myth that "men want it more," even the sex-ed information they got at school (warning that girls shouldn't let boys get out of control) all reinforced the myth that girls were the object, rather than the agent, of desire.

Wolf is at her best as a thinker and a writer when she dissects the meaning and power the idea of the "slut" had for her and her friends. ("The instant gratification of your senses, at the expense of your feelings of self-worth, can only lead to deep unhappiness," she quotes, from the Kimberly-Clark pamphlet distributed in schools in the early '70s).

Wolf's work has always shown an interest in the ways women's behavior is regulated, both externally and in more subtle, internal ways--here, by girls themselves. She writes poignantly of how one or two members of a group became the designated slut--and often, it was other girls who did the designating. In their recollections of growing up, her friends talk again and again of the tightrope they had to walk between being considered a "prude" on the one hand, and a "slut" on the other.

Wolf writes cogently of how "the idea of 'slut' regulates contemporary girls' and women's behavior and becomes a category that assigns a meaning she did not choose to life events that she did choose." She convincingly describes how this shared anxiety kept her and her adolescent friends from enjoying their newfound sexuality, and more dangerously, how it contributed to the passive way they came to regard their sexual fates. (Wolf tells a chilling story of how one of her boyfriends physically abused her, and how she was slow to recognize that this was wrong.)

In Promiscuities, Wolf does an excellent job of describing the problems and triumphs of coming of age in changing times that will surely strike a chord with her contemporaries. But fortunately, those who grew up after Wolf are likely to have a different experience than she did. Thanks to new legislation, girls now have greater access to sports in the schools; and pop icons like Xena and the Spice Girls send out radically different messages about female power than girls could have dreamed of receiving in the '70s. Back then, it would have been unimaginable to see a teenage girl walking around wearing a T-shirt that says "slut." Now it's only mildy surprising.


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