Veteran 3rd wave feminist Naomi Wolf‘s new book, Vagina: A New Biography, reveals some new science about female sexual response and the power that good, attentive sex can give women. It’s been receiving scathing reviews, but I think there’s valuable and interesting information contained within.
The sexual revolution has not been kind to women or men; our information about the intricate science of female sexual response is at least a half century out of date; history reveals that in many cultures the vagina was once revered but has also been continually under attack as a systemic way to suppress women’s power; the click-of-a-computer-key availability of porn is rewiring our brains and impeding our ability to be intimate; and a woman’s sexual history – especially if it is violent – is held in nerve memory, but can be healed.
“We did not know when we felt wild and danced to Patti Smith’s Horses with our hair flying and could not stand ourselves for one more minute and wanted to tear the world open, we were not incipient sluts but normal girls becoming women.”
Women are more carnal than men. Petting should be taught in schools. Rituals marking the passage from girlhood into womanhood are necessary in our culture. Girls need to have a voice with which to tell the stories of their erotic awakenings and experiences. These are some of the revelations, and recommendations put forth by third-wave feminist, speaker and writer Naomi Wolf in her new book, Promiscuities: The Secret Struggle for Womanhood. Wolf is the author of two previous polemical books, The Beauty Myth and Fire with Fire, both of which changed the tide of feminist debate and have since become cemented in current mainstream feminist ideology. Now Ms. Wolf veers into confessional mode in order to tell what she describes as a “sexual coming of age story for girls,” that is also an inquiry into the nature of female sexual passion.
With ideology firmly entrenched in power feminism Wolf urges girls and women to take the control they already have over their own bodies, emotions, and essences as women.
Wolf’s own sexual awakening story, and those of her girlhood friends are woven in and out of historical and cultural facts about the resilient quality of women’s passion. The setting is “ground zero of the Sexual Revolution;” those turbulent years between the Pill and AIDS, in her hometown The Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco. Wolf outlines the intricacies of dating, hierarchical “partner” selection, drug experimentation, sex struggles, loss of virginity, et al, against the backdrop of the newly forming ideas of the “tune in, turn on, drop out” blip in our history.
In the process we discover that our own culture keeps women forever adolescent by not empowering us to make informed decisions about what to do with our very real feelings of desire. While in some other cultures, Ancient China for example, men and women celebrated women’s passion as a force strong enough to hold the universe together. In fact, Wolf tells us, Western culture is the only one that doesn’t exalt female sexuality as an entity quite separate from men. This, of course, has devastating effects on young women. Wolf asks us to consider this: Any trace of “the bases”—petting stages somewhat accepted, or at the very least acknowledged as part of courtship in the ‘50s—has been virtually wiped out. This is exacerbated by an increased number of confusing media and pop-culture images, in which there is often no clear delineation between sex and violence. In the ‘60s and ‘70s these images were front and centre for the first time, perhaps too readily available to the developing pre-sexual teen. Post-sexual revolution teenagers, Wolf argues, go from “zero to sixty,” with little or no self-knowledge based on healthy exploration, on their own or with partners.
Most girls of her generation couldn’t wait to lose their virginity—to be all grown up—but they had no idea what it meant or would mean. They did know that if they were good girls they weren’t supposed to want it. After asking her friends about their “first time” sex experiences, Wolf concludes that many women talk about their “passage” with surprising passivity. “It just happened,” a chorus of women says. Consequently, they were unprepared, since preparation meant planning and actively participating in the act. Possibly even acting as the aggressor. “’Drawing a blank’—lack of consciousness—absolves you,” Wolf says of this phenomenon. Which leads to a high percentage of teen pregnancies and STDs that no amount of safe sex counseling seems to be able to control or change.
Wolf’s ideas about the sexual complexities facing teenagers and women today are a necessary addition to the feminist dialogue. But they are, at times, disturbing to ponder. In a section called “A Short History of the Slut,” Wolf recounts the stories of two schoolmates who were casualties in the secret struggle; one by becoming pregnant, the other by fulfilling the prophecy of “loose” bestowed upon her because of her early physical development. Wolf then traces female sexuality through two millennia and various cultures, engaging in some intricate discussion about what has been considered the norm for women, what our history can teach us about the true nature of female desire, and how hard it is to decipher all the in-betweens. Here, women’s history and today’s accepted sexual behaviours collide, shocking us into the sad realization that two hundred years of history and so-called progress has not redeemed women and their desire beyond the label of slut. Which raises the question: Will we ever feel healthy about our sexual selves? Will we ever be able to break our codes of silence, even with each other, to reveal that we are women full of desire, sometimes as much for the pure pleasure of connecting through sex for the sake of sex, as for the development and sustenance of a love relationship.
Thankfully, Wolf injects some comic relief with her search and rescue effort through history to reveal the path to female sexual pleasure: the clitoris. “Lost and Found: The Story of the Clitoris” spans 1559—the pleasure spot’s identification—through what Wolf calls The Great Forgetting period at the end of the 18th Century, to a brief 1896 celebration of it, to tiny evidences of its existence in the early 20th Century. Finally, second-wave feminists of the ‘70s introduced it as a novel discovery. Women, however, have been first hand witness to its reality all along.
As with all of Wolf’s books, Promiscuities asks more questions than it answers and opens the floodgate to healthy debate about the issues raised. Not the least of which is always: how to live in the world and still be feminist. I find Naomi Wolf a much better speaker than writer. Her weighty ideas are contained within sentences that are often poorly structured. Such big, complicated thoughts would be more comprehensible rendered through clean, clear prose. Her recall of verbatim dialogue from her youth, and the recounting of the stories of her friends seems, at times, contrived. And her own confessions would have the emotional impact that I’m sure she intended and felt were she a better writer.
That said, I personally loved reading this book simply because it represents the time-frame of my own coming of age–a moment in history that has not been discussed in any meaningful way. The pop-culture references alone were pleasing to look back upon. By risking telling her story, Wolf has helped many of us of that generation piece together our own. Over the years Naomi Wolf has provided a necessary link between the feminism of our mothers and that of a progressive and inclusive new feminism whose theories are less utopian and more achievable in our day-to-day existence as women. To my mind her uniqueness among feminists is that she is a living example for young women—who are often alienated by feminism to the point of rejecting the label even while embracing the ideals and goals—that it is possible to live within an inherited patriarchal construct, to do all we can to make it a better world for women, and also to be whole women. In other words, she shows us over and over, through her ideologies and prescriptions for change, and her own life as a wife, mother and now a woman with a sexual past, that it’s not necessary to take the feminine out of feminist.
Carla Lucchetta is a Toronto writer who works by day in Communications at Bravo!