Sex Without Apologies

Naomi Wolf’s Promiscuities.

Promiscuities: The Secret Struggle for Womanhood
By Naomi Wolf
Random House; 286 pages; $24

She’s back. Naomi Wolf, for better or worse this decade’s representative feminist voice, has written a third book arguing that women should … well, after all this time, it’s still not clear what we’re supposed to do. In The Beauty Myth, Wolf argued that cosmetics companies, plastic surgeons, and the appearance-obsessed media were cheating women out of feminist gains. In Fire With Fire, she argued that women were cheating themselves by blaming all their problems on men. But her suggestions for fixing these crises have never gone very deep. Her point, that women should stop letting men set the agenda and start attending to our own desires, sounds reasonable, even obvious. But it’s also vague. And it doesn’t help that her prose races along like a press release from Utopia.

Wolf’s new book, like her pet theme of “desire,” is extremely hard to pin down and, once in a while, even embarrassing. It’s a high-concept package, a blend of memoir (Wolf recalls learning about sex as a child growing up in San Francisco’s racy hippie district, Haight-Ashbury) and reporting (she gets childhood friends to cough up their key moments). There are also some scattered minihistories of female desire among Taoists and among the Zunis of New Mexico, which are provocative (a 19th-century Zuni ceremony celebrating the superiority of the vulva required men to don huge wooden penises) but feel as if they were cribbed in a 45-minute visit to the library. And she sprinkles in half a dozen policy ideas. Wolf seems to think that everyone would get along better if we all went away on retreat.

So why is this book interesting? It does contain some elegantly rendered anecdotes, and several small but shrewd insights. But, mostly, it’s a window on a problem in current feminism. Wolf’s fixation on desire isn’t so much an idea as a good intention, an attempt to make feminism feel less like a complaint–to give women equal rights not just to a job but to ecstasy. But desire is a tricky, multifaceted thing. It can refer to a purely physical arousal, or to a heartfelt experience of love. It can also refer to a more idle, juvenile form of daydreaming–to the heated but generic longing a pop star evokes, for instance, when he wails, “I want you.”

Wolf mixes up all these types of desire but, too often, her recollections fall under the heady province of idle, juvenile Desire No. 3. She lovingly recalls sleepover parties where she and her friends inspected each other’s budding chests, and dances where she rubbed up against a boy’s crotch. Her own education appears to have been gradual, even Pollyanna-ishly prudent: She and her sweet, square boyfriend dutifully visited the birth-control clinic three weeks before the non-earthshaking surrender of her virginity. The sky isn’t always sunny: Wolf gets groped by a menacing stranger, and a jealous boyfriend hits her. Otherwise there’s little that hasn’t already been covered by Judy Blume.

For someone writing on desire, Wolf, curiously, has a good deal of trouble describing the actual experience of letting loose. In the passage that follows, she recalls the summer she was 13, living on a kibbutz, dying to sneak off and make out with a forbidden Irish boy named Devin. It’s a good example of her smooth, graceful prose–and also of her shocking tendency to break life down into abstract terms:

If to my trip counselors I was a miscegenating rebel, and if to Ofra’s uncle, whose censure I still remembered, I was a godforsaken secular Jew, and if to Devin’s mates I was that locker-room joke, the lubricious JAP, and if in the eyes of the Muslim men observing us while they played sheshhesh in the market cafes I was a representative of dissolute America, the country of women who are beyond whoredom, then the weight of these clashing systems of control and expectation around female sexuality was just too much. In my mind, under the burden of all those dictates competing to stereotype rather than support me, the legitimacy of the notion of such control simply collapsed.

To cut to the chase–she kissed him. But this stuff about “clashing systems of control” doesn’t sound like the thoughts of a 13-year-old, and the reader begins to feel tricked. One minute Wolf is supposed to be revealing her most intimate experiences, and the next minute she’s writing in a humorless, self-regarding academese. There’s a kind of intellectual greed going on here, almost a sense of entitlement. Wolf seems to think that because her goal is worthy, methodologically speaking, anything goes.

It’s important to be clear. I’m not arguing that Wolf is incoherent because her approach is feminine and therefore soft and gooey. In fact, if she would just pick an approach, any approach, it would be a relief. Nor am I arguing that she exaggerates the problems girls face as they grow up. As a critic Wolf usually hits the target, or at least gets near it.

She’s right, for example, that sex education now is a bad compromise between puritanical shame and a cold, clinical detachment. Most girls get some sort of instruction, but dangerous concepts like pleasure and love are scrupulously avoided; we’re taught to think of ourselves as scary coils of tubing that are hard to keep clean, and which periodically leak. Wolf the complaining propagandist is flaky, but not unsound.

It’s Wolf the thinker who’s wobbly. She erases distinctions–besides apples and oranges, she’s mixing peaches, pickles, and prunes. One of her more comical tics is to repeat a concept over and over, uncritically, until it takes on an almost physical presence, like a parody of a Platonic ideal. In The Beauty Myth, Wolf grouped all our expectations and prejudices surrounding women’s chest-size under a single heading: “The Official Breast.” I couldn’t help imagining a life-size dancing mascot. In Promiscuities, the mantra is “The Slut.” This is Wolf’s term for that girl in the eighth grade who sprouted breasts early, fooled around with too many boys, and got slammed with a bad reputation. According to Wolf she embodies the nascent sexuality that pubescent girls are trained to fear and loathe, so we turn her into a scapegoat. It’s a reasonable if not original observation, based on a friend of Wolf’s who got pregnant and eventually dropped out of school. But Wolf builds it up into a timeless international archetype. Soon she’s writing “A Short History of the Slut.” (It’s short indeed, going from Mesopotamia to medieval Burgundy to Nicole Simpson in 10 pages.) And in the next chapter we’re asked to take it as an established fact that all women, everywhere, since the beginning of time, have lived in fear of entering “The Slut’s Dominion.” What’s worse, Wolf flip-flops in her opinion of The Slut every few pages. On the one hand, she’s the pitiful victim of our hypocrisy and our unnecessary shame. On the other hand, we’re also supposed to envy her, because she violates the restraints we’ve imposed on ourselves.

In the end, what Wolf really seems to be saying is that sex is perfectly wholesome–it’s our uptightness and moralizing that are corrupt. She’s right, of course. And yet, after a while, all this going on about how girls are not allowed to feel desire begins to feel like a kind of nostalgic fantasy. “As adult women, those of us who are heterosexual sometimes have a sense of a lost Eden,” she writes at one point. And later, à la Rousseau, “As my understanding of the kinds of scripts about sexuality available to women bore down on me, the forest would function the way that fantasies of wilderness functioned for the urbanized eighteenth-century European mind: I would find myself making a mental reference to the forest when I searched for a symbol for female lust.” This isn’t much more than pining–a longing for longing. I suppose it’s only fair that girls win equal rights to good old, solipsistic Desire No. 3. But the victory feels pretty hollow.