Between the Bright and the Dworkin

A bunch of girls sitting around writing about sex.

A certain famous French thinker declared in the early 1980s that there was no such thing as sex. There was an activity, certainly, sometimes involving "body pleasure"; but "sex" was really only a collection of social, verbal, historical, and psychological constructs all interwoven in a labyrinthine and dispiriting ball of tangled string. Unsnarl this ball and you found... nothing. Four new works, dealing variously with sex-the-activity and Sex-the-Construct have come out recently, written by some of the leading voices on the subject, and it turns out that the famous French thinker was right. If there is such a thing as sex, you sure won't find a usable definition of it in any of these books.

This is simply because there is no way that these four authors could be talking about the same thing. Compare, for example, Naomi Wolfe's idea of sex, and women's sexuality in particular, as a positive force that has been misused, repressed, and misplaced, with Details columnist Anka Radakovich's construction of sex as a trendy accessory of the edgy urban gal on the go. Of course Wolfe's book, Promiscuities: The Secret Struggle for Womanhood (Random House), attempts to mine a deeper source and get to higher ground than your average lifestyle column: What Wolfe is looking for is no less than a new world vision of female sexuality, a way of ritualizing girls' passage into womanhood that celebrates rather than mutilates.

It's a worthwhile goal, but finally her book doesn't help in achieving it. The main problem with Promiscuities lies in Wolfe's intention: She wants, by mixing the personal with the academic, to create a work that functions both as populist primer and scholarly investigation. What she gets is a book that's probably too academic for undereducated working women and will tell no one with a college education anything she didn't already know. Is it news to anyone that the passage from girlhood to womanhood is like a gauntlet in this society? That Barbie wasn't really that much fun to play with (after you'd dressed her up) because she had "no inner life"? Are the cruel Darwinian hierarchies of high school that Wolfe recalls really so cryptic that they need deciphering?

It must be said that she deciphers well: She is honest about her own compliance with the rules of sex and status, and she never attempts to set herself up as a martyr to the weakly human fallacies around her. Wolfe recalls herself taking full part in the evasions, self protections and hypocrisies that girls necessarily use to keep from being banished into "the sluts Dominion." In a reminiscence about a 13-year-old bunkmate who vanished from her summer camp, Wolfe remembers:

We made all the right sounds.... We produced the tearful smiles that were the currency of moments of great girl importance (but)... her secrets were no longer thrilling... we were glad that we were carefully guarded middle class girls with some limits still in place. Not sluts. Like Tia.

It's the "we" in this reminiscence that gives Wolfe's memoir, again and again, the difficult honesty it needs to keep our attention. As for the scholarship, it's fun for the most part (a sort of pocket history of the clitoris is especially delightful), but it's second-hand and hardly revelatory. There is also a real problem with the way Wolfe, like other well-intentioned cultural critics before her, sets up the
coming-of-age rituals of other cultures as a model for our own. Some of these rituals, especially the Native American ones, seem empowering and invigorating, but Wolfe neglects to mention that they evolved organically. No one scripted them as a way of empowering young women; they simply reflected the underlying attitudes that were already prevalent. For example, a Northwest Native tradition had girls swim from a special canoe to the shore to celebrate their menarche, as swimming was an important and valued skill for young women. What they could do, in other words, was more important than how they appeared to a governing body of males. But sadly, to suggest, as Wolfe does, that we simply make up our own similar rituals puts the cart before the horse. This is as flimsy a strategy as Disney's attempts to create "communities" out of sheetrock and landscaping--a town grows, it isn't "built." What we have to do is find a way of living and thinking, an essential paradigm shift, out of which these rituals would emerge naturally.

Of course, to find these ways of living and thinking may not be possible in the mainstream. One way to deal with this is to make your life outside it, as Susie Bright has done. The picture on the cover of Sexual State of the Union (Simon & Schuster), her new collection of essays, says it all: a big, sexy, freckle-faced American woman, butt-naked and wrapped up in the nation's flag. It's a populist declaration of homey rebellion. Inside, Bright continues to be the Will Rogers of the sexual debate: Whether talking about sadomasochism, the hysteria over child abductions, or the pornographic fantasies of the Christian Right, Bright remains accessible, human and humane.

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