October 17, 2018

Part Memoir, Part

For the next few weeks, you will be hearing about girls and sex. “Oprah,” “Leeza,” “Charlie Rose,” The New York Times, even The Jewish Journal — media great and small will focus airwaves and inches on a topic that, while hardly new, rarely gets serious, sustained attention.

You’ll be hearing about it because Naomi Wolf wrote about it. The best-selling author of 1992’s “The Beauty Myth” has just released her third book, “Promiscuities: The Secret Struggle for Womanhood” (Random House, $24). Part memoir, part polemic, part socio-anthro-historiography, the book talks about how American girls experience sexual awakening, and how society can do a better job of helping them.

There have been dozens of other books that have covered the same or similar ground (Wolf credits most of them in her bibliography), but Wolf has a knack for shaping the various voices into a mostly coherent, highly readable set of arguments.

With heart. The heart comes from Wolf’s memoirs of her own sexual development. Growing up near the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco at the tail end of the Sexual Revolution, the author, now 35, recounts her and her friends’ own gropings — pun intended — toward womanhood in a culture that offered few definitions of being a woman beyond losing one’s virginity.

“Men were deciding for us if we were women,” she writes. “Heck, teenage boys were deciding for us if we were women.” (Much of Wolf’s decision making took place during summers abroad in Israel; “Promiscuities” gives new meaning to the phrase “Israel Experience.”) In all, these personal recollections form the book’s most moving passages.

They are joined by Wolf-the-cultural-critic’s discussion of how society has come to devalue women’s sexuality. As she points out, there is a great, debilitating power in terms such as “promiscuous” and “slut,” which punish women for exploring what Wolf posits is, in fact, a much more powerful feminine libido.

Wolf-the-activist weighs in at the end with suggestions on how women can take control of their sexual destinies. Among them: Go on retreats with other women to pass on wisdom; develop rituals to mark and respect sexual growth; and join girls with older women/mentors to whom they can turn to ask questions about anything, including it.

There is, in fact, a lot going on in “Promiscuities.” Sometimes, the effect can be jarring. Just when Wolf’s memoirs pick up steam, for example, she veers off to discuss a turn-of-the-century Danish sex manual or Emma Goldman’s sexual liberation. At other times, the polemicist plows forward, leaving the larger picture in the dust. Doesn’t society’s ineptitude at sexual initiation afflict boys and young men as well? Isn’t a larger discussion in order here?

But here’s where Wolf succeeds mightily: in touching nerves. You will find quite a bit in this book to side with, react to, debate, reject, admit. While Wolf’s greatest successes as a writer may lie in the future with more personal essays, it’s hard to deny her current power as the instigator of a crucial national conversation. — R.E.