Sexual revisionist


NAOMI Wolf is coming to Ireland with a message. "There are right and wrong ways to be a social and sexual revolution," she says, "and I'm very interested in talking to Irish audiences about this because Ireland could be at the beginning of such a revolution."

Ms Wolf should know. The 35 year old bestselling feminist author was born into the counterculture world of California in the 1960s and grew up on the psychedelic streets of Haight Ashbury. She went on to write her own generation's liberation manifesto in The Beauty Myth (1991) and in Fire With Fire (1993).

Today, however, Ms Wolf is publicising the downside of the sexual revolution.

"We dismantled family structures without raising the value of parenting," she says, "and we dismantled many of the constraints on female sexuality without raising the value of that sexuality."

Promiscuities: A Secret History Of Female Desire is Naomi Wolf's intensely personal reassessment of the era she once viewed as the dawn of "the female erotic millennium". Now an older, wiser (and wealthier) Wolf argues that the sexual revolution and the "moral vacuum" it created had a damaging rather than a liberating effect on the vulnerable girls and young women who needed adult guidance and boundaries.

"Girls have been ill served by both liberal and conservative ideologies," she insists. "Teenage girls in particular were left on the front lines of the sexual revolution. The traditional supports were stripped away and none put in their place."

But wait a minute. Guidance? Boundaries? Traditional supports? Is this Naomi Wolf speaking, the same Naomi Wolf who talked dirty to an Esquire reporter a couple of years ago, who proclaimed "I want to be a serious thinker and not have to hide the fact that I have breasts"? The same Naomi Wolf whose self described hearty appetites marked her as a "sexual agency" feminist like Camille Paglia and Katie Roiphe?

"The sexual agency people don't want equality," Catherine MacKinnon, the anti pornography hardliner commented on Wolf and her allies, "They just want better orgasms."

Well, yes actually. Naomi Wolf thinks that would be nice, especially for teenage girls, the shortchanged grandchildren of the revolution. "But they're not taught about desire, about how to explore their sensuality," she says. "Instead, this culture forces them to compete with pornography. We should remember that forms of licence that are liberating to an adult can be violation, of a young person's boundaries.

Instead of smut, how about stories, Ms Wolf suggests - specifically women's stories of their own development? In Fire With Fire, the author had declared "it's time for us to saturate the airwaves with our millions of erotic truths". It was an alarming prospect to those of us who felt we were still mopping up the spillage of 1960s/1970s self revelation.

Not the same thing at all, Ms Wolf insists. Forget your inner child and get in touch with your "shadow slut". To show us how easy it is, Ms Wolf reveals all in Promiscuities. The result is a surprisingly tame account of her own sexual awakenings interspersed with drier passages on the history of female desire.

"You know why I wrote this book?" she reflects. "I wrote it because something like this did not exist when I was 16. All we had in our pathetic high school library were stupid instructions about grooming or about boys getting excited. There was nothing that said to girls: `You're okay, what you're going through is a source of, joy and you don't have to do it the way Penthouse says'."

To answer the question "How do we turn girls into women?" the author reminisced with childhood friends 20 years after they had entered high school together, while revisiting her hometown in 1996. "The narratives of the 1960s and 1970s had all been told by adults," she explains. "Only now are they being written by the children of that time." Like every other awakening group, the Adult Children of Hippies insist on being heard.

The San Francisco of Naomi Wolf's youth was essentially one huge aftershock. The Summer of Love had severely tilted the psychological landscape. The fixtures of a child's world - parents, home, school - had either vanished or were precariously balanced on new terrain. Mothers turned into outrageous girls, fathers into free spirits, home into a state of mind. "Time was marked by my parents growing furrier and furrier," Naomi Wolf recalls of the beards and Afghan era.

Wolf's father taught English at San Francisco State University, her mother became first a feminist, then an anthropologist, then a psychotherapist. "Early on, you could ask a mother, anyone's mother, to do anything: get you a drink of apple juice, a place at dinner . . ." Wolf writes. "As time progressed, though, many of the mothers - certainly mine - would shut the door to an improvised study. `Sshh,' we told our playmates, humouring the change that for a long time we took - or hoped to take - as a game. `Sshh. Mom's working'."

OTHER women were working too, in the sex industry that, along with Barbie dolls, provided the only available images of women to uncertain young girls. "Looking back on it, this is how we were taught to objectify our own bodies," Ms Wolf says today. "Instead of following our natural desires, we were taught to see our bodies as the place where sex happens. The sexual revolution reduced everything girls needed to know to `You're a woman when you have sex'."

In childhood, Ms Wolf and her friends just had fun. And in her deft portrayal, that fun is immediately recognisable, even to an Irish reader who might as well have grown up on another planet. "I didn't know if all of this was culturally specific when I was writing it," Wolf comments. "But I'm hearing similar stories from women who grew up in Australia, Italy, Ireland. I'm also hearing it from the older generation, women in their 50s."

The torments of adolescence band early sexual experimentation are also acutely observed in Promiscuities, as are "bad girls" like Dinah who go too far. "By watching what happened to Dinah, we discovered that sex - for girls at least - was a game of musical chairs," Wolf writes. "It was very important to stay in the game, if always nervously moving; but finding yourself suddenly singled [out was nothing short of fatal." "Fatal" is shorthand for pregnancy, shame and possibly abortion.

Not that shame was - or is - a thriving concept in California. "In the Sonoma County mountains, you stood out if you had clothes on," a schoolfriend of Wolf's recalls. Losing one's virginity, alike being naked, was regarded as no big deal". Ms Wolf's point, however, is that it is a big deal, a marker of womanhood, and that all young girls require more than contraceptive reassurance. Since every girl who ever grew up has needed to know she has made a successful transition from girlhood to womanhood, why should we be surprised our levels of teenage motherhood are so high?" she asks.

Naomi Wolf rebelled against her hippie Jewish parents by eroticising the "other" - having a fling on an Israeli kibbutz with an Irish boy called Devin who later disappointed the author by sending her a photograph of himself, outside the carpet store he manages in a small country town. "I never even wrote back," she recalls. "I hope he forgave me."

In the 1980s there are other boyfriends, lecherous professors and some wild times in Manhattan involving cocaine. But academic achievement and professional advancement are never completely eclipsed. Ms Wolf graduated from Yale, earned a doctorate in literature as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University and cultivated the gift that New Republic magazine described as her "personal strategic compass".

Whether advocating "power feminism" in Fire With Fire or "sexual gradualism" (heavy petting) in Promiscuities, Wolf's sense of the nation's mood and appetite seems unerring. President Clinton's re election strategist, Dick Morris, recognised that gift and employed Wolf as a campaign adviser last year when the female vote was identified as critical to Clinton's success. Among other things, Wolf urged Morris to create an image of Clinton as The Good Father, "protecting and defending the American house".

Naomi Wolf lives outside Washington DC, is married to David Shipley, a speechwriter for President Clinton, and has a two year old daughter. She defends her move into the mainstream, saying: "These lessons drawn from growing up in the counter culture are not reactionary lessons. I just want new rules that place women's sexual nature at the pinnacle of social respect." She still wants girls to have fun just enlightened fun.

IN The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan warned that focusing on sexual issues would make the women's movement. Some 30 years later, writing in "the first person sexual", Naomi Wolf demonstrates that today, Friedan's concern is antique. "The right to tell it my way came from the feminist revolution," Wolf concludes. The erotic historians have won.