Naomi Wolf is nice. She is attractive, she has a daughter, she is even married. To a man. A far cry from the rabid man-haters associated with modern-day feminism. Her voice has been hailed as one of moderation; she celebrates “power feminism,” professing that women are not helpless. She goes out of her way to say how much she likes men. But beneath her diplomatic veneer of likable moderation lies a worldview as radical as that of her more militant feminist colleagues.

Her last book, Fire with Fire, was nothing less than a battle plan for women to break down the “patriarchy,” of which they are victims. In Promiscuities: The Secret Struggle for Womanhood, Miss Wolf trots out the female victim scenario again, supported by anecdotes of her, and her girlfriends’, coming of age in the San Francisco of the 1970’s. American society. Miss Wolf says, does not value and respect “female desire,” thus no one teaches girls how to become women, resulting in today’s mayhem of confused girls’ unwanted sex, disease, and babies. Additional support comes from interspersed history and social studies lessons, explaining how other cultures and epochs treated women and sex.

Her favorite example of female victimhood is the “shadow slut,” and she introduces several from her adolescence. She recounts how a girlfriend, at 12 or 13, put on makeup and unbuttoned part of her top in the bathroom during a family dinner at a restaurant. When she returned to the table, her grandmother told her to wash off the makeup, and her little brother giggled. While the ego of a teenage girl is easily bruised, even Freud should have trouble defining this as a life-altering experience. Leave it to Miss Wolf to find that when it comes to anything even slightly unpleasant for any woman, a cigar is never just a cigar: “What Daria heard was: You’re no woman; just the thought is ludicrous. Your nakedness is a failure.” The grandmother later apologized, but Miss Wolf explains that Daria “got the message that her grandmother would not love her as much if she were sexual” and that Daria “spent her teenage years hiding her body and denying her own growing up.” Miss Wolf’s stories of girlhood misery appeal to emotion, not to reason. She ignores that men have teenage sob stories of their own. Would she claim that a 12-year-old boy forbidden by his parents to watch the Playboy channel—as legitimate a pubescent desire as a girl wanting to wear lipstick—will be scarred for life? Parenting has a specific purpose—children are supposed to be told not to do certain things, because they are too young to make judgments for themselves, Surely Miss Wolf would not get teary-eyed over a girl forbidden to go bungee-jumping with the Hell’s Angels. She limits her call for laissez-faire parenting to girls and sex.

Miss Wolf’s tone is consistently one of pity for girls (herself included), with an implication that any girlhood hardships are somehow society’s fault. “If we were out of line sexually, we could become sluts; if we became sluts, we could die several deaths. . . . The impulse to equate women’s being sexual with their suffering a swift, sure punishment is reflexive.” Consumed with an invented notion of female punishment, she imagines it again and again. Not even a simple pickup scene goes without a forced interpretation of oppression: “What was it the world so feared in two young women setting off alone with each other? Why was it that when Shari and I sat in a cafe . . . young men and old would make their way toward us belligerently . . . ‘You girls want company?’ They didn’t just want sex. They also wanted, it seemed, to make sure we didn’t get too far without them.” When men make inappropriate passes at women, they are hardly busy plotting a keep-women-in-their-place conspiracy; they usually do “just want sex.” Miss Wolf finds suffering where it docs not exist, because suffering creates martyrdom. By turning girls who are told to wipe off their lipstick, or who are bothered by unwanted male advances, into martyrs, Miss Wolf builds her ease for the need to dismantle the male-dominated society she has long seen as the enemy.

The history lesson Miss Wolf chooses about punishment is that of a first-century, 14-year-old Germanic girl, possibly killed for having an affair with a man. “Given these origins,” Miss Wolf surmises, “it is no wonder that even today fourteen-year-old girls who notice, let alone act upon, their desire, have the heart-racing sense that they are doing something obscurely, but surely dangerous.” If a 14-year-old girl today feels that having sex at that age is dangerous, it is not because ancient Germanic tribes were mean to women, but because her parents had the good (and increasingly rare) sense to raise her to fear the dangers of teen sex, which are far from obscure (unlike references to 2,000-year-old lynchings). Is Miss Wolf implying that society should not discourage 14-year-olds from having sex? “It is also in part because of this inheritance,” she continues, “that a modern woman wakes up after a night of being erotically ‘out of control’ feeling sure, on some primal level, that something punitive is bound to happen to her—and that if it doesn’t, it should.” On some primal level. Miss Wolf’s arguments threaten to be lost in obscurity, and if they are not, they should be.

Miss Wolf concedes that the sexual revolution, while “great fun for adults,” was “played out at the expense of children,” and she decries the “most harmful manifestations of the times in the shape of thirteen-year-olds wearing dominatrix costumes.” Yet she quickly shows where her true sentiments lie, claiming that “many of the gifts of the time counterbalanced the corruptions.” A world of neglected children and adults run amok is redeemed by “a city of murals and street theater, where creativity and play could expand the sensibility of the most jaded; and perhaps most important of all, in the form of the gay liberation movement, we saw love— human, physical, sexual, romantic love—stand as a metaphor for the highest good and animate the idealism of an entire culture.” Some trade-off.

Promiscuities is all about how hard life is for women. Puberty is easier for boys, sex is easier for men. Men have sexual coming-of-age stories in literature, women do not. Life is so unfair. But it doesn’t have to be. Miss Wolf’s solution: “new rituals, new laws, and new lessons for our daughters through which both men and women will recognize that female desire is priceless.” It is precisely “new” ways, of which Miss Wolf’s feminism is a large part, that have contributed to the uncontrolled teenage sex today. Miss Wolf touts hilltop retreats with older women teaching 13-year-old girls about “sexual pleasure” and “birth control,” as if parents were not already worried about their daughters learning that in school. It is up to individual parents to teach their daughters how to become women, not to some tribal assembly of wise grandmothers. More and more, parents are failing this duty. But a return to such parental responsibility (which includes saying “no” to children) would require a revival of the values and mores considered “patriarchal” by today’s feminists—and which Miss Wolf is committed to destroying by creating the illusion of an undue burden for women. That is the dirty little secret in her struggle for womanhood.


[Promiscuities: The Secret Struggle for Womanhood, by Naomi Wolf (New York: Random House) 286 pp., $24.00]