Vanessa V. Friedman
June 20, 1997 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Promiscuities: The Secret Struggle for Womanhood

Current Status
In Season
Naomi Wolf
Women's Studies

We gave it a B-

”The following is…a set of confessions, a subjective exploration,” writes Beauty Myth author and feminist poster girl Naomi Wolf, in her introduction to her third book, Promiscuities: The Secret Struggle for Womanhood, a touchy-feely analysis of women’s sexual coming-of-age. She informs the reader that she will be writing in ”the first person sexual” and stresses that although the women whose stories she uses — essentially her own childhood classmates, which is to say white, middle-class San Franciscans growing up in the late ’60s — are a small subset of the population, ”their crises and confusions are not confined to their demographic.” Well, the following is a subjective take on the book, and I will be writing in the first-person critical, and while I acknowledge my views are my own, they may not be confined to my person.

The central premise of the book is that girls become women through their sexual experiences and that society has not grappled with that transition in any meaningful way. The first part of that thesis is arguable (some might say girls become women when they get their first job), but the second is undeniably true. The problem lies in how Wolf illustrates her discourse: through a mishmash of academic and historical facts and personal experiences — riffling through Fear of Flying at 14, losing her virginity at 15.

In a chapter section titled ”A Short History of the Slut,” she begins with a paragraph on societies that existed in the years b.c., then follows with a parable about a classmate of hers named ”Dinah” who had a bad reputation; in ”Lost and Found: The Story of the Clitoris,” following a portrait of her high school sex-ed class, Wolf tracks the clitoris through scientific literature from 1559 onward. The personal stories are by far the more evocative of the two threads, but they are also highly subjective; I am only a few years younger than the author, but I grew up on the opposite coast and my childhood was markedly different — to start with, it never occurred to me, as it did to Wolf and her friends, that Barbie was a call girl. The occasional powerful, disturbing anecdote (such as the violence Wolf says she suffered at the hands of a high school boyfriend) is rarely followed through.

Granted, there’s much to be learned from other people’s experiences. But Wolf draws too many conclusions from these stories, which are mostly confined to her own narrow social milieu. The book would be a better one if she left the final reckoning to the readers, who can — and will — view other women’s tales through the prism of their own lives. Despite Wolf’s contention that she is some sort of a paradigm, We are not She. B-

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