Book review: Promiscuities: The Secret Struggle for Womanhood
Promiscuities: The Secret Struggle for Womanhood by Naomi Wolf. Not recommended.
Female coming of age. Female desire and sexuality. Feminism. Promiscuities: The Secret Struggle for Womanhood attempts to address these issues in the context of Naomi Wolf’s own coming of age in the 1970s. The problem with this approach is that it is too personal (a weakness Wolf admits early on) to offer either much insight or value. The best it can do is provoke clearer thinking in the reader than Wolf is capable of.
The stories are provided by Wolf and her circle of friends, who are for the most part middle-class, urban, and Caucasian. Much of Wolf’s discussion focuses on her childhood/adolescence in San Francisco and her exposure to that city’s counterculture ideas and sex industry — something that may resonate with women of similar backgrounds, but not with this lower middle-class, East Coast, small-town girl whose exposure to the sex industry came at the end of adolescence, not during childhood. (Unlike Wolf, I and my peers didn’t walk past strip clubs every day, see genital fetishes sold in local stores, or know about “sex workers” before hitting double digits.)
Wolf describes in detail such things as her procurement of birth control in preparation for the planned loss of her virginity to a “sweet guy.” She would have you believe she was thinking about when a girl becomes a woman, what makes a girl a woman, the ritual of becoming a woman, and the adult attitude toward teenage sex at this tender age while making this well-thought-out decision. According to her description of the event, which feels meaningless to her because of the way society disregards it, there is no teenage impulsiveness or passion involved — again, something that does not resonate.
Wolf’s primary point is that we were taught to believe, falsely, that females control sexual relations because males have uncontrollable desires, while we do not. Her exception to this teaching is, of course, valid. She hypothesizes that not only do females have tremendous desire, but that we are capable of a higher level of more prolonged desire and that we are nothing short of sexual deities. She illustrates this with a “history of the clitoris” (in which it is forgotten and rediscovered over the millennia) and of the extensiveness and sensitivity of the female sexual skin. She cites ancient wisdom that is no longer in practice or understood about male/female sexuality and relations; they understood sexual relations in a way we do not. Along the way, she occasionally makes valid points, for example, that all too often, parents of the 1960s and ’70s abdicated their adult roles to pursue their own pleasures and that there is no real transition from girlhood to womanhood.
In the end, however, her points rely too much on the personal anecdotes and on selected sources, that is, sources skewed toward her viewpoint. This is not an objective analysis of legitimate issues and theories, but an agenda that has little substance behind it. Wolf does manage to successfully illustrate the muddiness of sexual attitudes with the muddiness of her own thought. She is a barely adequate writer because she is neither a clear nor a deep thinker. Promiscuities is no more than pop feminism that adds little to what has already been written upon the subject other than Wolf’s own narrow perspective and need to be more sexually charged than men — a need that her passionless relationships and anecdotes belie.
If you really want insight into female desire and sexuality and what it means to become a woman, there are surely much more universal, fundamental, and emotionally and intellectually integral truths available than the weak mental ramblings offered here.
6 September 2001
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf
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