The signals of distress currently coming from the fairer sex merit a hearing. They issue from books and magazine articles, and they are echoed in the often impossibly contradictory statements by leaders and spokesmen of the feminist movement on themes ranging from women in combat roles to the threat ostensibly posed to womankind by the all-male Promise Keepers.
On the one hand, we are still being assured by feminists that any behavior on the part of men that suggests a protective attitude toward women is by definition sexist. “Chivalry,” the writer Nancy Henley has declared, is an “oppressive tool”; according to the philosopher Marilyn Frye, even the act of opening a door for a woman sends the abhorrent message that “women are incapable.” As for the Promise Keepers, a movement of men who forswear violence and vow to fulfill their marital obligations, it has been denounced by Patricia Ireland, the president of the National Organization for Women, for seeking to perpetrate a “hidden agenda”: installing “men back in control as heads and masters of the family, government, and every other institution that shapes our society.”
But does this mean that feminists prefer a world in which the sexual playing field has been truly leveled, where men and women alike are free to behave as they please, keeping and breaking their promises as the spirit listeth? That does not seem to be the case, either. In the age of stalking and date rape, of teenage pregnancy and AIDS, some feminists are in fact beginning to wonder, however tentatively, whether women, particularly young women, are really better off without the old, “sexist” codes that once governed the behavior of men. Admittedly, though, you have to read between the lines to hear the message, which is often no sooner breathed than it is denied.
What, for instance, does a paladin of the movement like Naomi Wolf think is wrong with young women today? She would seem to think that they are not being promiscuous enough. That, at least, is what she suggests when she defines the central task of her recent book, Promiscuities: The Secret Struggle for Womanhood,1 as erasing the stigma against the “shadow slut.” It is also the thesis elaborated upon in her introduction, where she explains that the “fear of being labeled promiscuous [still] accompanies contemporary girls on each stage of their erotic exploration.” And it is the rallying cry emblazoned on the book’s jacket: “There are no good girls; we are all bad girls.”
If that were the sum of Promiscuities, it would constitute just another case of equal-opportunity vamping and tramping. Are we not all hip by now to the fact that women and men (in, of course, their uncorrupted state) entertain the same expectations of sex, and that, as the novelist Margaret Atwood reminds us, real equality “means equally bad as well as equally good”? But this is not what Promiscuities is really about. Under its liberated surface, Naomi Wolf has written an essentially reactionary book—or, rather, she has written two books, which run next to each other on parallel tracks.
Promiscuities is a “first-person sexual” account of life from 1968 to 1996. At the book’s beginning we tour the dawn of the sexual revolution through the lens of Wolf’s own sexual coming-of-age in the hippie kingdom of Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco; at its middle we witness firsthand the AIDS epidemic through the fearful eyes of one who has been sexually active for years; and at book’s end we experience what getting married is like for an author who does “not want to return to the values of the prefeminist ‘sexual mystique.’ ”
The double-track effect kicks in early. Even as Wolf’s first chapter celebrates the “gorgeousness” of the hippie life of Haight-Ashbury, which “made us feel that we were not alive if we were not being sexual,” another, less gorgeous story is being adumbrated:
When, as an adult, I saw a documentary on the  Summer of Love that showed a naked four-year-old trying desperately to get his tripping, dancing mother’s attention until he started to cry, I felt my heart contract. I had an emotional memory of similar gatherings where playmates of mine had tried and tried to remind their parents, who were having so much fun, that they were still there—and still small.
Wolf’s liberated voice returns soon enough. By chapter 3, she is lamenting that even during the heyday of the sexual revolution, girls were still being forced to deny the “ ‘voice’ of their own desire.” When, at her Zionist summer camp, Wolf’s friend Tia—she of the “high arched-feet with . . . pearly toenails”—is sent away for turning up pregnant one day, Wolf reflects bitterly on “the impulse to equate women’s being sexual with their suffering a swift, sure punishment,” an impulse she traces to “the Hebrews [who] equated female promiscuity . . . with shame, destruction, and just punishment.” Yet Wolf also reports with palpable sadness that, when she lost her own virginity at age fifteen, there was “something important missing.” What was missing was, precisely, a sense of that old Hebrew stigma: “When Martin and I went together to a clinic to arrange for contraception some weeks before the actual deed, no experience could have been flatter,” she recalls. “It was weird to have these adults just hand you the keys to the kingdom, ask, ‘Any questions?,’ wave, and return to their paperwork.”
Throughout this book, Wolf bravely goes on insisting that a girl’s sex drive is “at least as intense” as a boy’s and arrives just as “early,” and that all the woes girls suffer today can be traced “to the silences created by the fear of entering the Slut’s Dominion.” But throughout this same book, she is also incensed at the eroticization of little girls in our post-sexual-revolution age, enraged about the “old-fashioned perverts to whom the culture ha[s] suddenly granted unforeseen access to create sexualized images of us,” and fearful of the dangerous world her now two-year-old daughter will be inheriting. In short, this book, which purports to be about promiscuity, is really about the desire for innocence.
So, in fact, concluded many female reviewers of Promiscuities—and they did not like it one bit. Protest as she might that all she wanted was to redeem the inner slut, Naomi Wolf had managed to convey the impression of a defector, and for her pains she was slapped into purdah. In the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani called her a “sloppy thinker and incompetent writer” who “pass[ed] off tired observations . . . and sappy suggestions as useful ideas,” while the columnist Maureen Dowd testified that she found Promiscuities inadvertently “hilarious.” Time‘s Ginia Bellafante assaulted the book for its “banal stories” about young women “who dated the wrong guys, who wish they hadn’t lost their virginity so early, who were forced to deal with unplanned pregnancies.” And Camille Paglia, the buccaneering professor who has elevated the femme fatale to a normative model of womanhood, saw through Wolf’s “bad-girl” posturing in a second: “Why, why why why?,” Paglia moaned to a reporter, “Why is Naomi Wolf telling stories about her own virginity? . . . Who needs these earnest memoirs?”
Paglia might have asked the same derisive question of another recent volume, Katie Roiphe’s Last Night in Paradise: Sex and Morals at the Century’s End.2 A much subtler meditation than Naomi Wolf’s, if on the same theme, the book takes its title from a line spoken by a suburban housewife in John Updike’s 1968 novel, Couples: as she leads her lover upstairs to her king-size bed, this liberated seductress intones, “Welcome to the post-pill paradise.” Roiphe’s news, however, is grim: whatever the 60’s promised, there was, in fact, no paradise to be found, only “an atmosphere of anxiety and caution as herpes, AIDS, date rape, and sexual harassment began hitting the headlines with an almost biblical persistence.”
The personal tale behind this book concerns Roiphe’s sister Emily, who contracted AIDS from “all the unwashed boys slipping up the carpeted stairs” into her bedroom. Roiphe is honest enough to acknowledge the weight of this experience, but, in a manner not unlike Naomi Wolf, she is also resolved to extract the wrong lesson from it. Just as her first book, The Morning After (1993), took a certain wing of the feminist movement to task for “infantilizing” women with a “barrage of warnings” about date rape, Last Night in Paradise scolds AIDS activists for becoming “childishly afraid” of sex and for taking refuge in a “50’s propriety.” In Roiphe’s view, indeed, the worst thing about the AIDS virus is not that her own sister has contracted it, but that it has become a “powerful ally” of a right-wing Christian “abstinence movement [that] artfully plays on the deepest fears and insecurities of adolescence.”
In her final chapter, Roiphe gives the game away. Here she interviews a young woman who has sworn off sex until marriage. Although, she admits, this young woman “does have a certain glow,” and although the glow “resembles happiness,” Roiphe assures us that really it owes to “something more like delusion.” As for herself, she writes, she is “infuriated” by this woman: “I suddenly want to convert her more desperately than she wants to convert me.”
Why? Appalled as she is by the sexual wreckage she sees all around her, and sure as she is that it has followed directly from the serpent in the “post-pill paradise,” why is she so threatened—so “infuriated”—by a young woman who, in the full glare of the morning after, desires merely to be good, and thus to avoid a comparable wreckage in her own life? Roiphe does not say, and perhaps she cannot: again like Naomi Wolf, she has gone about as far as cognitive dissonance will take her, and cannot go farther lest, no doubt, she wind up “converting” herself.
Still, for the moment, that may be far enough. Wolf and Roiphe have each helped to register the signs of female wreckage, which multiply faster than the mechanisms of denial can explain them away.
Here are a few more signs, and a few more denials. The 1994 report of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), a pro-sex-education group, brings the news that, sex-wise, girls in this liberated age are not exactly jumping for joy. According to the report, they “are more likely [than boys] to say they ‘should have waited until they were older’ to have sex,” and much less likely to say they “really feel good about their sexual experiences so far.” (They are also, poor things, more likely “to say they were ‘in love’ with their last sexual partner.”) Another recent study, entitled Going All the Way: Teenage Girls’ Tales of Sex, Romance, and Pregnancy,3 puts the case more starkly: “Sex . . . for teenage girls . . . seems more dangerous than ever now.” Then come the denials: for SIECUS, the cure for girls’ sexual doldrums is, needless to say, more sex education—once their consciousness has been raised, they will enjoy what they say they do not enjoy—while for Sharon Thompson, the author of Going All the Way, at least partial blame for the “danger” facing young girls must be assigned to their own mistaken tendency to “condition sexual consent on romantic expectations.”
But things are even worse than these “studies” suggest. In Schoolgirls: Young Women, Self-Esteem, and the Confidence Gap,4 Peggy Orenstein reports on the bodily harm girls, especially sexually active girls, do themselves today. There is not only the usual gorging and purging, but now also “delicate self-cutting.” Vivid examples of this latter practice cram the pages of Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls,5 a book that has been on the best-seller list in paperback for over two years. Here is a typical anecdote as told by the author, Mary Pipher, a psychologist:
Tammy, seventeen, came in after her mother [Alice] discovered her cutting her breasts. Alice had awakened around three and noticed a light on in Tammy’s bedroom. She went in to check on her and found her sitting on the bed surrounded by bloody newspapers, a razor in her hand. Alice woke [her husband] Brian and they drove Tammy to the hospital. The doctor stitched up the deeper cuts. . . .
It seems that Tammy—in, no doubt, another case of misplaced “romantic expectations”—was upset at having been forced to watch pornographic movies at her boyfriend’s house on New Year’s Eve.
Reflecting on her quite fearsome collection of stories of self-mutilation, Mary Pipher concludes, like Sharon Thompson, that “girls are having more trouble now than they had 30 years ago, when I was a girl, and more trouble than even ten years ago.” Gamely, she too reaches for the convenient solution: if only girls would stop behaving like girls (“female impersonators”) and start behaving more “androgynously” (that is, like boys), they would gain an “ability to act adaptively in any situation regardless of gender-role constraints.” But in the end the terrible absurdity of this proposition defeats her, and she is driven back to the paradoxical, ineluctable facts. “Ironically,” she sighs, “the sexual license of the 1990’s inhibits some girls from having the appropriate sexual experiences they want and need.”
Ironically, indeed. As our reluctant reporters testify, we seem to have spawned a generation of girls whose thwarted feminine nature is reasserting itself in grotesquely distorted forms—in food hang-ups (culturally, a more acceptable way to maintain social distance than professing sexual modesty);6 in self-mutilation (often, and poignantly, directed against feminine parts of their bodies); or in sometimes indiscriminate charges of male sexual harassment and date rape.
What to do? It cannot be an accident that the aspect of Promiscuities most offensive to Naomi Wolf’s critics is her brief and nervous look at traditional societies and their methods of initiating girls into womanhood. All the cultures she holds up as examples—from the ancient Chinese to the early Dutch—have in common a specific understanding: namely, that “sexuality, like all the other functions of life, [should be] fraught with sacredness.” And then Wolf goes so far as to ask the impermissible question: could it be that the cautionary advice we used to give our daughters, together with the codes of conduct that were intended to shape the behavior of young men, actually empowered rather than infantilized them? Could the older way of doing things have made them, like free?7
There cannot be a more worthwhile line of inquiry than this. But where it will get the current crop of feminists is another matter. It is not just that, when it comes to prescribing, they tend, as we have seen, to call for ever greater doses of the germ with which they are already infected: more, but better, promiscuity. It is also that their hard-won if still-partial understanding of feminine nature is in danger of being enlisted as just another “option” on the endlessly accommodating agenda of their own liberalism.
Thus, Karen Lehrman, in her crisply written book, The Lipstick Proviso: Women, Sex & Power in the Real World,8 happily concedes that some women really and truly like to have doors opened for them—and it would be wrong, wrong, wrong, she declares, to make them feel guilty about it. Liberalism is about “choice”—is it not?—so why should liberalism not embrace these women and their preferences, along with all other women and their preferences? As Lehrman concludes, “thanks to feminism, women can now pursue different sexual ‘strategies,’ ” and one of these strategies just happens to go under the rubric of “courtship and chivalry.”
To any woman who wants to have her cake of custom and eat it too, this philosophy—pursue whatever “sexual strategies” you like, and then, when you are good and ready, let men know that it is time for them to come a-courting—must be immensely appealing. But just as no one has a right to be loved back, liberal feminists may have a hard time restoring, by fiat, the right of women to be wooed. Already, career women are reporting in irritation that, although they are now ready, having climbed the ladder, and having had their affairs and their abortions, they cannot find men who want to apply for the position of suitor. Surely the trouble cannot lie with their own career plans? (1. Take over big company; 2. Make somebody court me.)
Karen Lehrman writes confidently that “no one—most especially the law—should . . . underestimate the rationality of a woman, of her ability to make a clear-headed decision about her life.” (She also reserves her harshest scorn for women who exhibit “excessive dependence on men”—their rationality, evidently, can never be underestimated enough.) But there is always the unexpected hitch. Feminists, having discovered that patriarchy did certain things better, may decide one day to grab their cellular phones so as to order up the deep erotic experience that goes with security and monogamy. But what, really, does it mean any longer to seek to win a pledge of marriage, when even the law no longer insists the pledge is a pledge?
The choices we offer, the opportunities we extend, are shapers of our culture, cutting off, in turn, whole sets of other choices and other opportunities. Dislike the fact though they may, even these ladies, in the end, cannot have it all. The floodgates remain open, and for them as, alas, for the rest of us, it is still sink or swim.
1 Random House, 286 pp., $24.00.
2 Little, Brown, 193 pp., $21.95.
3 By Sharon Thompson. Hill & Wang, 340 pp., $13.00 (paperback).
4 Anchor Books, 335 pp., $12.95 (paperback).
5 By Mary Pipher. Ballantine Books, 304 pp., $12.95 (paperback).
6 Heidi, a sixteen-year-old patient of Mary Pipher: “ ‘I hate to say this, but I’d rather binge than make out.’ ”
7 Another of Mary Pipher’s patients, a fifteen-year-old named Cassie, lives “in a town less rigid about [sexual] roles and more supportive of autonomy.” But “ironically”—that word, again!—“in some ways, she’s less free.”
8 Doubleday, 228 pp., $23.95.