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.

Navigating Sexual Turmoil


Naomi Wolf, author of “Promiscuities: The Secret Struggle for Womanhood”
Sex will always be with us, but thoughtful, non-hysterical conversations about sexual issues are few and far between. With the publication of her newest book, “Promiscuities: The Secret Struggle for Womanhood” (Random House, $24), social critic Naomi Wolf has helped bring the subject of girls’ sexuality to the national spotlight in a serious way — for at least as long as it takes to conduct a book tour.

Though Wolf’s book is uneven (see review), the importance of the issues she raises is undeniable: What marks the passage from girlhood to womanhood in our society? If sex is integral to a definition of womanhood, how do parents and educators help girls deal with the challenges it raises? What is the role of social institutions — the media, churches and synagogues, schools — in shaping sexual self-image and even desire?

In conversation with The Jewish Journal while on tour in Los Angeles, Wolf turns these issues over for the umpteenth time, examining them in a slightly different light — a Jewish one. That’s not such a stretch.

“Oh, I’m a real Jew girl,” she says.

“Promiscuities” reveals only the surface of a deep Jewish background. Raised in a Conservative family, Wolf grew up attending San Francisco Temple Beth Shalom. She had the bat mitzvah, went to Hebrew school and made numerous visits to Israel. Wolf, her husband, writer David Shipley, and their 2-year old daughter, Rosa, attend synagogue near their home in Washington. The Jewishness, she believes, made her career choice something more than a coincidence.

“Being a Jew is great training for being a cultural critic,” she says, “because you’re always an outsider. You’re never allowed to be fully integrated into whatever the prevailing culture is.”

Wolf herself has become a fairly well-known figure in that culture. Her first book, “The Beauty Myth,” published when she was 29, was an international best seller, and launched Wolf as spokesperson and whipping girl. Depending on which feminist you speak with, “Promiscuities” is either a thoughtful continuation of Wolf’s polemic or a halfhearted exploitation of a hot-button issue.

In any case, it raises the issues that The Journal hopes to address in these pages.

The Jewish Journal: Where does sex education for girls really take place?

Naomi Wolf: Even the most conservative family can’t avoid the bath of images that their daughters and sons grow up in. Even the most observant and practicing families, especially in an urban environment like this one, can’t protect or screen their girls from VH-1 and MTV and friends.

JJ: So does having a house that upholds Jewish values even help?

NW: I know it certainly helped me to have religious practice in our household in terms of having a vantage point from which to look at the Sexual Revolution as it was sweeping over us, and to consider whether this was the only way to understand sex.

JJ: You felt Jewishness had a different take?

NW: Definitely. One of the big diseases we have in the West is the virgin-whore split, and one of the blessings we have of being Jewish is you can always, as a woman, have some credible distance from the virgin-whore thing because it wasn’t our virgin or our whore. There’s also this beautiful tradition in the Zohar that eroticizes married love. Judaism’s better than Christianity at eroticizing married love. In marriage, women’s sexuality is definitely honored. I think we’re way ahead in that respect.

And I don’t know any Jewish families that, in practice, stigmatize masturbation, that teach it’s wrong to touch yourself — maybe just in public or during the seder.

Also, spiritually, it made me much more scrupulous about contraception than my friends. Judaism has a stronger tradition than Christianity that sex is a sacrament, and it certainly has a stronger tradition than the secular Sexual Revolution that sex is a sacrament and that life is precious. And though I’m pro-choice, I knew I’d never want to face choosing an abortion. Somewhere, I’d absorbed from my religious background that you shouldn’t cause harm with your sexuality. I didn’t think I was doing anything wrong with having premarital sex at all in terms of my Judaism. There was no problem there, and I still don’t think there’s a problem there. But I definitely had the sense that I shouldn’t hurt anyone, that I shouldn’t cause unnecessary damage.

JJ: Did your friends come from similar Jewish backgrounds?

NW: No, it set me apart. The striking thing about the families of most of the girls I was friends with was the total agnosticism and secular mood. We were weird.

But that gave me grounding to navigate the sexual turmoil.

It didn’t spare me, but any kind of spiritual grounding, whether you’re comfortable with it or you’re uncomfortable with it, at least gives you higher or deeper or more lasting things than “Have the best orgasm of your life” or “Make the most money” or “Be the thinnest” as your prevailing value.

JJ: Like what kind of lasting things?

NW: Probably the most direct effect it had on us as kids was through our parents. I think it helped my parents keep their balance. Just having our synagogue as the ground of our community was probably a buffer for my parents to help them withstand the messages around us saying, “Find yourself; family isn’t that important.”

JJ: Is there a larger role Judaism can play in guiding girls through sexuality?

NW: Yes. I remember on our visits to the Planned Parenthood clinic, there was no moral grounding, no spiritual content, no ethical instruction. We were being processed like animals. And if there’s one thing Judaism does tell you over and over in every way, whether it’s through lighting the candles or blessing the meal, is that we’re more than animals.

Kids are being taught sex education in schools in a way that’s purely physiological and not about the relationship of their sexuality to their spirit. Boys are not learning about girls’ sexuality in relation to girls as complete human beings. Both boys and girls are encouraged to think of sex as completely divorced from their spiritual life, their spiritual evolution and maturation, and I really think this harms teen-agers. I would love to see sex education in schools in the context of asking deep questions about right and wrong, asking deep questions about love and responsibility.

JJ: It sounds like that would be a perfect course for a synagogue to give rather than a school.

NW: You’re absolutely right. As a mother, I would love to have my synagogue be a resource for my daughter’s generation to talk about these things. That would be great.

JJ: In the book, you call for older women to mentor younger women about sex. But when you were a young woman on a kibbutz, involved with an Irish-Catholic worker, you refused to listen to the rabbi’s wife, who warned you to stay away from him.

NW: It’s easy to misread that moment. What offended me was not that she was giving me guidance like, “Don’t go too far too fast.” That would have been fine. What offended me was I thought she was being racist about it. I knew it would have been perfectly OK with her for me to have made out with a nice boy from Great Neck (N.Y.).

JJ: That whole episode reads like a case study in the slippery slope to intermarriage. Is the attraction to the Other an inevitable or even necessary part of our development as sexual beings?

NW: The whole thing Philip Roth described is just as true for women. I think it’s almost hard-wired. But it’s also true that our culture does not eroticize marriage or intimacy. It eroticizes distance. I do think that if we did a better job eroticizing marriage and closeness, we would not be so drawn to always trying to find excitement and stimulus with the Other, further and further away from home.

JJ: What culture comes closer to the ideal in developing girls’ sexuality?

NW: You know, Israeli women are pretty confident. They don’t have a lot of the shame issues that people in other cultures have. That’s a sweeping, gross generalization, but that has been my experience.

I remember when I was on kibbutz when I was in my 20s, there were big barrels of contraceptives outside the infirmary, and you didn’t have to see a medical worker to get them. It just felt safer to be a woman there because of that.

JJ: How would you raise a son?

NW: The best thing I could do for him I already did, which is I married a man I think will be the right kind of model for him. Also, I guess I would talk to him about how girls feel, and let him know he’s entitled to think about how he feels. Really, the best thing we can do for our kids is to teach them how to stay conscious. We can’t save them, we can’t insulate them, but we can give them self-acceptance, and we can give them critical intelligence.