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Promiscuities : the secret struggle for womanhood /
Naomi Wolf.
1st ed.
New York : Random House, 1997.
xxx, 286 p.
067941603X (acid-free paper)
More Details
New York : Random House, 1997.
067941603X (acid-free paper)
catalogue key
Includes bibliographical references (p. [263]-271) and index.
A Look Inside
First Chapter
From Chapter 3 of Promiscuities by Naomi Wolf

As we prepared for adolescence, our marching orders were  contradictory, for some of the rules of the game we inherited came to us intact from the days of the dinner dance and had not been abandoned with the sexual revolution.  Passivity was one rule.  Girls that boys liked were not supposed to ask for a dance.  You were not supposed to kiss first.  And while you were waiting for a boy to put his arm around you, you were not supposed to move more than a fraction of an inch.  If you precipitated contact in any way, you would be going "too far."

Those confounding rules were hard for active, curious girls to put into practice.  The culturally imposed process of "whiting out" our child's erotic consciousness--what Mary McCarthy has called "drawing a blank"--this intentional not knowing that girls are asked to yield to at moments of sexual experience, involved us, necessarily, in the task of becoming mysterious to ourselves.  We began to notice that songs about "becoming a woman" centered on the woman's vagueness and lack of reality.  In these songs, men were sexually infatuated with women they did not know, women who had no outlines and no characteristics.  One song--"Knock Three Times"--told the story of the sexual obsession of a man with his anonymous downstairs neighbor:  "I can feel your body swayin' one floor below me, you don't even know me, I love you."  The same scene was played out in the Temptations song "Just My Imagination":  "But in reality she doesn't even know me!" "She takes just like a woman.  She makes love just like a woman.  And she
aches just like a woman.  But she breaks just like a little girl," crooned Bob Dylan.  What did that mean?  What was happening to her each of those times?  How would we recognize it?  "I love you," a truck driver yelled out one day at a red light as my mother held my hand on Haight Street, and she smiled in spite of herself.  Love you?  He doesn't know you!  I thought indignantly.

We would speculate with one another in maddening conversations as we played in Dodie's basement.  Our Mystery Date board game began to supplant our Barbies.  What did it mean to "make love just like a woman"?  How could we know?  Clearly, it would not be enough just to grow up.  There was something else involved.  How would we learn?  What if we didn't manage to "make love just like a woman"?  What god-awful thing would we then be?

"Lay, lady, lay, lay across my big brass bed, ..." Dylan sang too.  "Stay with your man awhile, until the break of day, let me see you make him smile.  His clothes are dirty but his hands are clean ..."  Was a woman different from a lady?  Better?  Worse?  Did it depend on the situation?  What was she doing to him to make him smile?  How could we learn that?  Was there no deal in which he would make her smile?  Why not?  Sex, we understood by eleven, did not work symmetrically.  "Her clothes are dirty but her hands are clean"--we already knew we would never hear that kind of line in a seduction song.

The woman's sexiness, when it wasn't a mystery, was often a thing or a single attribute:  "She wore ... an itsy-bitsy teenie weenie yellow polka-dot bikini" ... "Every kind of girl there was, long ones, tall ones, short ones, brown ones ... Spill the wine.  Dig that girl."  The message was that we had to be wanted in order to be allowed to want.  We had to be mostly out of focus, except for a bikini or a hair color, to be sexy.  It was not just a biological mystery that was enfolding us; it was cultural.

Carol Gilligan and Lyn Mikel Brown, in their classic Meeting at the Crossroads, eloquently described the way in which girls go from being distinct personalities at ten to amorphous, uncertain creatures at thirteen.  An analogous process, I am convinced, takes place in relation to girls' loss of the "voice" of their own desire.  The culture that surrounds girls signals to them that they must, sexually, forget themselves.  They must become passive in relation to the energy of desire, or detached from owning it, even in the face of its increasingly active pressure.  

This situation--the mystification that intervenes between girlhood and womanhood--reminds me of a scene in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass.  Alice finds herself wandering in a beautiful, dark forest.  She is joined by a young deer, which accompanies her in perfect amiability.  The two share the journey with a sense of deep familiarity.  But when they emerge from the wood, the fawn recognizes its companion for what she is:  "I'm a Fawn ... And, dear me! You're a human child!"  The creature bounds away in alarm, leaving young Alice alone.

Something like this happens to us at the threshold of adolescence.  "What are you?" the girl asks of her own desire--once her companion, now wary of the light.  And: "What am I?"

The girl must now pass into the unforgiving glare of social reality in which human and beast--consciousness and appetite--confront each other in a state of estrangement before the relearning begins.  The girl's consciousness and the animal aspect of her nature must assume names that insist they are separate beings ("And, dear me! you're a human child!")--rather than names that allow them to remain parts of each other.  The girl, denatured, becomes a mystery to herself.

Excerpted from Promiscuities: The Secret Struggle for Womanhood by Naomi Wolf
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.
Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Choice on 1997-12:
Wolf, author of the well-received The Beauty Myth (CH, Jan'92), offers an incisive feminist critique of contemporary scripts of female sexuality. Drawing on her own experiences and those of her friends who grew up in San Francisco after the pill and before AIDs, all of whom are now in their early 30s, she follows the typical sexual development of this group of young girls as they become women. From playing with Barbie dolls to choosing a wedding dress, Wolf offers moving personal vignettes and enlightened, critical commentary. Although she places some blame for the troubled nature of her generation's struggle for womanhood on the abdication of responsibility by the parental generation of the '60s and '70s, the primary culprit she identifies is society and the oppressive climate and contradictions it presents to young girls. Wolf argues for a better sexual culture and proposes a new moral context for women's desires, celebrating women's sexuality and passion, and defining young girls as nascent sexual goddesses who have every right to their lust and love. This book will generate much discussion and is recommended for undergraduate courses addressing issues of female sexuality. K. M. McKinley; Cabrini College
Appeared in Library Journal on 1997-06-15:
Wolf has written passionately about the effects of popular culture on female self-image in numerous articles and books (The Beauty Myth, LJ 4/1/91). Her newest work centers on the way American culture of the late Sixties and Seventies created a generation of females torn between the need to express their sensuality and the desire to meet society's behavioral expectations. To illustrate her position, Wolf relies almost exclusively on the coming-of-age experiences of herself, her friends, and acquaintances in her hometown, San Francisco. Overgeneralization abounds as she attempts to apply the microcosmic events of this mostly white, middle-class, liberal milieu to a whole generation. A new stereotype is presented in which all girls wanted to be Barbie and all teenagers viewed loss of virginity as the key to attaining "womanhood." There is a desperate defensiveness in the tone of this book, which, in spite of references to other sociological and anthropological studies, diminishes the force of Wolf's argument. Fans of the author as well as expected talk-show appearances will nevertheless generate demand for this work. Libraries should purchase accordingly. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 2/1/97.]‘Rose M. Cichy, Osterhout Free Lib., Wilkes-Barre, Pa.
Appeared in Publishers Weekly on 1997-05-05:
In this first-person account of growing up female in post-sexual revolution America‘"not a polemic but a set of confessions, a subjective exploration"‘Wolf (Fire with Fire) examines the "shadow slut" who trails "girls" in a culture that demands they be sexual even as it dismisses and devalues female desire. The result is an at times awkward mélange of memoir, reportage and academic anthropology. Contrary to our enduring Victorian myth of sexually rapacious men and passive women, Wolf argues, women‘with their capacity for multiple orgasms‘are the more carnal sex. However, the sexual experiences recounted here offer few glimmers of pleasure. Still, there are nuggets, as when a young woman relating a lesbian experience discovers, "God, this is sort of like kissing a boy‘except that she knows how to kiss!" While Wolf is at her best when evoking the anything-goes ethic of her hippie upbringing in 1970s San Francisco, her account grows oddly skittish as she gets older. Whether describing the fumbling process of losing her virginity or her desire to wear a "technically white dress" on her wedding day, Wolf tends to cut away too quickly to sociological boilerplate, as though she doesn't trust her own story to speak for itself. Still, it's hard to quarrel with Wolf's basic contention: that girls need more accurate information about their own bodies and better rites of passage than wrestling matches in the backseats of cars. (June)
This item was reviewed in:
Booklist, May 1997
Kirkus Reviews, May 1997
Publishers Weekly, May 1997
Library Journal, June 1997
Choice, December 1997
To find out how to look for other reviews, please see our guides to finding book reviews in the Sciences or Social Sciences and Humanities.
Table of Contents
Introduction: First Person Sexual
The Time and the Place: 1968-1971p. 3
The Facts of Lifep. 14
Activity into Passivity: Blanking Outp. 23
Free Flight to House Arrest: Slowing Downp. 29
Nakedness: Pride and Shamep. 35
Girlfriendsp. 50
Slutsp. 57
First Base: Hierarchyp. 83
Second Base: Love and Controlp. 87
Crash Course: Their Bodiesp. 97
Third Base: Identityp. 104
Fourth Base: How to Make a Womanp. 116
Skipped Homework: Our Bodiesp. 139
More Skipped Homework: Our Pleasurep. 157
Babiesp. 162
Cheap or Precious?p. 172
Adultsp. 192
A Virusp. 201
An Hypocrisyp. 208
The Technically White Dressp. 221
The Time and the Place: 1996p. 225
Notesp. 235
Bibliographyp. 263
Indexp. 273
Table of Contents provided by Blackwell. All Rights Reserved.

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