Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company The New York Times

June 8, 1997, Sunday, Late Edition - Final

SECTION: Section 7; Page 12; Column 1; Book Review Desk

LENGTH: 1452 words

HEADLINE: Growing Up Sexual

BYLINE: By Courtney Weaver; Courtney Weaver writes the Unzipped column for the on-line magazine Salon.

BODY: PROMISCUITIES The Secret Struggle for Womanhood. By Naomi Wolf. 286 pp. New York: Random House. $24.

NIGHT IN PARADISE Sex and Morals at the Century's End. By Katie Roiphe. 193 pp. Boston: Little, Brown & Company. $21.95.

What does it mean to be sexually active today? It's a gripping question for most writers, but if you pose it when you're young and female, be prepared to pay for your audacity. The furor raised by the so-called "bad girl" memoirs -- Kathryn Harrison's book "The Kiss," Elizabeth Wurtzel's "Prozac Nation" and, to a lesser extent, Caroline Knapp's "Drinking: A Love Story" -- demonstrates that subjective accounts of female sexuality and deviance still make many critics awfully uncomfortable. "In spite of the rhetoric of freedom that surrounds us, women's reclamation of the first person sexual is filled with the risk of personal disaster," Naomi Wolf writes in her new book, "Promiscuities: The Secret Struggle for Womanhood." The statement is a pre-emptive strike against society's message, which seems to be, "Go ahead and do it, but for God's sake, don't write about it."

The male coming-of-age story, by contrast, has been plundered relentlessly. D. H. Lawrence, Tobias Wolff, J. D. Salinger and Ernest Hemingway have written autobiographically. Henry Miller, Philip Roth, Norman Mailer and J. P. Donleavy have even written misogynistically -- all without the corresponding hand wringing. Yet the use of the subjective voice isn't what makes a book good or bad. Its presence is only one reason that "Promiscuities" is so trenchant, and its scarcity only one reason that Katie Roiphe's "Last Night in Paradise" is so disappointing.

Anyone -- particularly anyone who, like Ms. Wolf, was born in the 1960's -- will have a very hard time putting down "Promiscuities." Told through a series of "confessions," her book is a searing and thoroughly fascinating exploration of the complex wildlife of female sexuality and desire. The anecdotes serve as a springboard for broader social issues: who besides Ms. Wolf, for example, has tackled in so personal a way the effect on children of the irresponsible behavior virtually mandated by the hippie revolution? It was a part of growing up in San Francisco for Ms. Wolf and her friends. White, upper-middle-class and politically liberal, they are hardly representative, but the sexual "secrets" they divulge will be achingly familiar to most women.

Consider Ms. Wolf's encounter as a 10-year-old in which she was lured into the bushes to "help" a young (and, as it turns out, masturbating) man find a lost contact lens. "I did not know what a contact lens looked like," she writes, but "I had been raised to be polite to adults." She escaped unharmed, yet her experience, if you ask around, will seem like deja vu to most women. It has become a female rite of passage, Ms. Wolf points out, to confront some form of sexual terror in one's girlhood.

Did the freedom of the sexual revolution give girls a clear sense of sexual identity? You be the judge. Ms. Wolf, the author of "The Beauty Myth," tells of how in her preadolescence she and her friends would gaze up at the flashing electric nipples of the stripper Carol Doda in San Francisco's North Beach, walk past the pornographic newspapers sold on the street corners and watch their fathers exchange their boring old moms for young and sexy girlfriends. Yet there was no correspondingly helpful information for girls on what it meant to be sexual. If you had sex, did that make you a slut? (Answer: No. Only if you talked about it and liked it.) With all the contradictory sexual messages surrounding Ms. Wolf and her friends, it's no wonder their reaction to "the first time" was summed up by two words: That's it?

Blasting away myths is one of Ms. Wolf's great strengths; she firebombs with knowledge and authority, citing cultural reference after cultural reference that counters the Western notion -- which she, and I, imbibed and which is still prevalent -- that "boys want it more." Outside the West, females are actually regarded as the more carnal of the sexes. From ancient Chinese philosophies and Sanskrit texts to the Zuni Indians and tantric literature, women's desire is held up as more positive, and the female orgasm more sustained and multifold, than men's -- contrary to what Western boys and girls are led to believe.

Any recent account of awakening sexuality necessitates a discussion of the AIDS virus. But for Ms. Wolf it merits just six pages, and for Ms. Roiphe an entire book. When it comes to the disease's impact on their lives, the six-year age gap between Ms. Wolf and the younger Ms. Roiphe, who is 28, might as well be 600 years.

Ms. Roiphe made a name for herself in 1993 with the publication of her first book, "The Morning After," in which she shooed away the annoying twin gnats of date rape and sexual harassment on college campuses. She saw them as little more than the politically correct offspring of an infestation of rule-mongering feminists like -- guess who? -- Naomi Wolf.

"Last Night in Paradise: Sex and Morals at the Century's End" is no less flip: it is a shoot-from-the-hip blend of observation and reportage, supposedly about the sexual caution endemic to Ms. Roiphe's generation. But lacking the complex insights, cultural background, history and research that make "Promiscuities" so substantive, "Last Night in Paradise" comes off as an irresponsible and protracted whine. What research there is seems to be gathered mostly from two sources: the headlines of Time and Newsweek, and a few interview sessions with East Coast teen-agers. The bad girl of this memoir is not Ms. Roiphe but her elder sister Emily, who is mentioned only in the introduction, and who for the reader will hover uncomfortably throughout the book. Indulgent in the dark and dirty world of sex, drugs and rock-and-roll, Emily wound up testing positive for H.I.V. when Ms. Roiphe was a student at Harvard. "I am telling the story of what happened to my sister because of how tangled up in my mind it got with what happened to me," she writes, "and because in some larger sense it is part of the story of a whole generation." This is a promising beginning. But what did "happen" to Katie? I, for one, would like to know. It's a little weird, given her sister's H.I.V. status, that Ms. Roiphe makes the safe sex movement her bete noire.

She confesses in college to feeling "almost sick with the accumulated anonymity of it, the haphazardness . . . of toweled men" parading in and out of her roommates' bedrooms. Why, then, is Ms. Roiphe so annoyed later about the litany of safe sex recommendations handed out to teen-agers? Because she believes it's the same old dunderheaded fixation with safety and rules, in which the "dark continents" and "half-light" of mysterious sexual encounters give way to "an oppressive orderliness." And the youths swallow it up. AIDS gives them limits in a limitless world; risk is a "blank canvas" on which they can project all their "mental states and cultural needs." Well, to what end? The answer is never made clear. To hear Ms. Roiphe tell it, there is an intricate conspiracy of strange bedfellows: tut-tutting feminists, right-wing religious leaders, Clinton appointees, health educators -- all pressuring the unsuspecting youths in varying degrees to embrace abstinence, sexual harassment codes, date rape pamphlets (yes, that again) and safer sex. (She can take heart: statistics from as recently as July 1996 for H.I.V. infection from the Centers for Disease Control indicate that teen-agers are still having unprotected sex, and lots of it.)

"By smoking or drinking too much at dinner," she writes, "or by sleeping with someone you just met and not bothering to use a condom, you are actually doing something that is considered, even in the living rooms of liberal society, wrong." Somehow I don't think the first two transgressions are quite in the same league as the third; such sloppy writing makes her argument easily dismissible. When she sticks to the subjective voice, relating the arbitrariness of sexual encounters among 20-somethings -- "We wait five weeks after knowing someone before sleeping with him," or "We use condoms with people we meet at parties, but we don't use condoms with people we knew from school" -- the effect is much more resonant.

The irony is that Ms. Roiphe has played it safe in "Last Night in Paradise" by giving little of herself and dressing up opinion as fact in a way that verges on the disingenuous. "Last Night in Paradise" begins where the artless "Morning After" left off. Maybe now she can turn off the light and go to sleep. GRAPHIC: Drawing


HEADLINE: BOOKS OF THE TIMES; Feminism Lite: She Is Woman, Hear Her Roar


PROMISCUITIES The Secret Struggle for Womanhood By Naomi Wolf 286 pages. Random House. $24.

The New York Times, June 10, 1997

The basic premise Naomi Wolf wants to promote in her books is a sensible and much-needed antidote to the stridency and ideological self-righteousness purveyed by hard-core feminists. She has argued for a pragmatic, new brand of feminism based on common sense instead of rigid dogma, for a feminism that treats men not as adversaries but as partners.

Unfortunately for women who would like to ratify Ms. Wolf's message, she proves a frustratingly inept messenger: a sloppy thinker and incompetent writer. In her latest book, "Promiscuities," she tries in vain to pass off tired observations as radical apercus, subjective musings as generational truths, sappy suggestions as useful ideas.

In this volume, Ms. Wolf seeks to use autobiographical reminiscences and interviews with contemporaries who came of age during the 1960's and 70's to limn "girls' secret struggle for womanhood in the post-sexual revolution world." The narratives of their sexual coming of age, she writes, are "virtually always 'extreme,' normatively shocking" and are "rarely spoken" outside a circle of trusted confidantes "because they include elements of sex and greed, danger and narcissism, insecurity and bad behavior."

To begin with, it's hard to buy this "silencing of the female first person sexual." Where has Ms. Wolf been? What about the raunchy confessions that surface daily on radio and television talk shows? What about all the memoirists -- from Anais Nin to Kathryn Harrison -- who have bombarded us, over the years, with tales of their illicit affairs? What about Madonna's self-dramatizing revelations in "Sex" and "Truth or Dare"? What about the endless articles about dating and orgasms that fill women's magazines, from Cosmo to Mirabella to Glamour?

Indeed the stories Ms. Wolf sets down in "Promiscuities" are incredibly familiar ones about the loss of virginity, birth control, unwanted pregnancies and possessive boyfriends. Using anecdotes about such matters as a springboard, Ms. Wolf tries to make sweeping and highly pretentious generalizations about women and men and sex. The story of a teen-age friend named Dinah who had a reputation as the class slut becomes a cautionary tale about the perils of being thought promiscuous, even though Ms. Wolf does not know what happened to Dinah after high school and says she had "to imagine her thoughts." Ms. Wolf's own youthful affair with an Irish laborer whom she met one summer at an Israeli kibbutz is similarly used as an excuse for a windy meditation on the lure of the forbidden.

Ms. Wolf's philosophically embroidered reminiscences about former boyfriends -- which try to turn the current craze over memoir-writing into an excuse for pompous moralizing -- suffer, as so much of this book does, from an annoying self-importance and myopia. The AIDS crisis, for instance, appears fleetingly in this book as a development that shook Ms. Wolf's own "brave-girl, my entitled-girl demeanor," a development that "gave elements in our culture tacit license to regard every sexually active woman as a slut once more."

The same sort of melodramatic inflation of language and sentiment that undermined Ms. Wolf's earlier books ("The Beauty Myth" and "Fire With Fire") infects this volume as well. Of the danger of earthquakes in her hometown of San Francisco, she writes: "It gave girls in the Bay Area the license that young women have in wartime: if today is your last day, do you really want to die a virgin?" And of the dangers (once again) of being thought promiscuous: "We could die, socially; in terms of our identities as good children, we could die to our families; we could even die literally. We already understood that our own death could be the shadow side of our desire."

Throughout "Promiscuities," Ms. Wolf combines heavy-breathing Nin-like effusions with the cloying New Age language of self-help groups and the pastel-colored prose employed by those facts-of-life pamphlets that the makers of sanitary napkins used to give to pre-pubescent girls. "What would our culture -- and our divorce rate -- look like," she asks, "if we dared to teach men the skills that could keep women's promiscuously responsive bodies happy in monogamous lives?" Women, she writes, want to be regarded as "goddesses, priestesses or queens of our own sexuality."

There are some interesting topics in this book (concerning the emotional fallout of the sexual revolution, and other cultures' perceptions of female carnality) but they are buried beneath reams and reams of bad writing, narcissistic babbling and plain silliness.

Ms. Wolf may have started out with something useful to say, but she has ended up writing a terrible and tiresomely solipsistic book.