News and Features
Since this is going to be a story about sex and children, let's start
with a bit of groping in the priests' chamber.
I must have been 12. My confederates and I, all suited out in our little
Scout uniforms--demure blouse, ribbon tie, sash of merit badges across
the chest, jaunty tam-o'-shanter--were mustered in the rectory of St. John
Gualbert's, there to be investigated on our knowledge of and devotion to
the Blessed Virgin. This was the last step toward our achieving a
Catholic girl's honor called the Marian Award. I remember the word
"investigated." I remember, too, sitting on the long bench, looking at
the heavy draperies, the carved legs of the vast dining table, waiting
my turn in the half-dark, feeling the gaze of the stripped and suffering
painted Jesus behind me while, at the head of the table, our resolutely
unmortified investigator began asking first one girl then another such
questions as "Where do babies come from?" "What do you have between your
legs?" "What do you have here?" laying hand on breast, and so on like
that. Hmm, I thought, these were nothing like the sample questions in
the manual I'd been reviewing for days. And what was he doing
easing my friend up across his tumid belly and onto his lap? I'd never
liked this priest. He was florid and coarse, with piggy eyes, a bald
head and thick fingers that he'd run along the inside of the chalice
after Communion, smacking his lips on the last drops of the blood of
Christ. My mother didn't teach me about sex--I don't count the
menstruation talk--but, without quite saying so, she taught me to regard
authority figures as persons who had to earn respect. Obedience was
rarely free, never blind. Time has stolen what this priest asked me,
where, if anyplace, he touched me; I remember him stinking of drink is
all, and myself standing schoolmarm straight and reciting, with the
high-minded air I affected for such occasions, the statement I'd been
preparing: "Father, I fail to see what that question has to do with the
Marian Award. Girls, let's go." We escaped in a whirl of gasps and
secretive giggles, rushing to telephone our Scout leader. I had no
inclination to tell my mother, but most of the other girls told theirs,
and soon the priest was relieved of child-related duties. We got our
Marian medals without further investigation, and before too long the
priest dropped dead in the street of a heart attack. Even now, as
middle-aged men weep about the lifelong trauma inflicted by an uninvited
cleric's hand to their childish buttocks, I consider my own too-close
brush with the cloth as just another scene from Catholic school.
There were very different scenes, many more in fact, that I could just
as easily conjure forward now under the heading "sex and childhood,"
though at the time I no more thought they had anything to do with sex
than our encounter with the priest or, for that matter, my mother's
subtle lessons in self-possession. They contained, rather, the bits and
pieces of a sensual education that would be fit together in some
recognizable pattern only later. And because, at least in my school at
that time, official silence about sex meant we were also spared lectures
against abortion and homosexuality, onanism and promiscuity ("Thou shalt
not commit adultery"? who knew?), what was left to us was indulgence in
the high-blown romance of the church: Gregorian chants and incantatory
Polish litanies; the telling and retelling of the ecstasies of the
saints; the intoxicating aroma of incense, of hyacinths at Easter and
heaped peonies in June; the dazzling brocades of the priests' vestments
and the Infant of Prague's extravagant dresses, which we girls would paw
through when cleaning the church on Saturday; the stories of hellfire
and martyrdom; and the dark, spare aesthetic of the nuns.
There is a parallel in my ordering of childish memories here and the
public reaction to Judith Levine's Harmful to Minors. Levine
spends a large portion of the book advocating for candid, comprehensive
sex education in schools, something I and many of my generation never
had. But the spirit that animates the book is a less programmatic,
polymorphous appreciation of the sights and smells, the sounds and
language and tactile delights that make a person--adult or child--feel
alive in her skin. Levine's central preoccupation, running like a golden
thread throughout the book, is the pursuit of happiness, the idea that
kids have a right not just to safety and knowledge but to pleasure too.
And "pleasure" here is more than the sweet shudder of a kiss, the happy
exhaustion of climax; it is the panoply of large and small things that
figure under the heading joie de vivre, including the
satisfaction, quite apart from sex, of relating deeply with others in
the world. "Knowledge" is more than facts and technical skill; it is the
ability to understand the prompts of body and mind--to recognize "when
you can't not have it," as one woman quoted by Levine replied to her
daughter's "How do I know?" question--and the wherewithal to decide when
it's time to get out of the rectory.
In another age and country this might be called reasonable, everyday
stuff. Levine spends hardly any time talking about pedophiles, none on
priests. In dissecting the various sexual panics of the past couple of
decades, she marshals a catalogue of what, in the scheme of things,
should be reassuring studies and statistics to show that satanic ritual
abuse is a myth; child abduction, molestation and murder by strangers
(as opposed to family members) is rare and not rising; pedophilia (an
erotic preference of maybe 1 percent of the population) typically
expresses itself in such "hands-off" forms as voyeurism and
exhibitionism; child sex offenders have among the lowest rates of
recidivism; child porn, whether on the Net or the streets, is almost
nonexistent and then (less reassuring) its chief reproducers and
distributors are cops; sexual solicitations aimed at children over the
Net, while creepy, have not resulted in actual assaults; and "willing"
encounters between adults and minors do not ruin minors. Although Levine
has noted in interviews that, as a teenager, she had a sexual
relationship with an older man, she never mentions it in the book, nor
does she delve too far into this last taboo. She relegates to a footnote
the fascinating, difficult story of Mary Kay Letourneau, the 35-year-old
Seattle area teacher jailed for her affair with a 13-year-old student
who impregnated her twice and insisted to the press, "I'm fine."
Levine's most detailed discussion of age-of-consent laws involves the
more easily comprehended story of a precocious 13-year-old, who also
asserted her free will, and an emotionally immature 21-year-old,
currently locked up for statutory rape. More than once Levine states,
for anyone suspicious enough to wonder, her unswerving opposition to
every form of forced, coerced or violent sex, and to sex between adults
and young children. It shouldn't be necessary for her to assert that
just because kids have a far greater chance of dying in a car accident
than at the hands of a sex offender that doesn't mean the latter isn't a
problem, but she does. Yet, for all that, her book is being blasted by
the heavy guns and light artillery of the right-wing sex police as a
child molester's manifesto.
One reason is timing. The priest scandal, one of those things that
everyone knew but kept an unbothered or guilty silence about until the
court cases and daily headlines forced a response, has raised a hysteria
against which any rationality on youthful sexuality has about as much
chance as that student facing the tank in Tiananmen Square. Even without
that, nothing seems to make the blood boil like the suggestion that it's
possible for minors to emerge unscathed or even enriched from consensual
sexual relations with adults. I have had such conversations with
leftists who angrily reject the whole notion, even as I ask, What about
X, who says it was like an answered prayer when his parents'
30-something friend initiated him sexually at 13, when for months
afterward at the end of the school day he would politely kiss his
same-age girlfriend (now his wife of twenty-five years) and then rush to
this experienced woman's bed? What about Y, who seduced her married
teacher when she was 17 and he 45, and who, thirty years later, has with
this same man one of the most loving unions I have ever seen? What about
Z, who as a youth regularly sought out the company of older men because,
apart from a sexual education, they offered him a safe place for
expression, a cultural home, a real home? The priest scandal, which
forecloses any attempt to separate vicious crime from pervy nuisance
from consenting encounter, has further limited the possibilities for
thoughtful discussion on the real things people do and feel, the causes
and effects and complex power exchanges of a human activity that does
not, and will never, operate according to the precepts of a textbook or
Another reason is that Levine's most bombastic critics had not read
Harmful to Minors before damning it. Dr. Laura, who called
on the University of Minnesota Press to stop the book's release, took
her cues from Judith Reisman, who declared Levine an "academic
pedophile." A longtime zealot in the trenches of the antipornography
cause, Reisman told the New York Times, "It doesn't take a great
deal to understand the position of the writer. I didn't read Mein
Kampf for many years, but I knew the position of the author." Tim
Pawlenty, the Minnesota House majority leader and a Republican hopeful
for governor, also admitted to not having read the book before equating
the press's role in its publication with "state-sanctioned support for
illegal, indecent, harmful activity such as molesting children." Robert
Knight, a spokesman for Concerned Women for America who urged the
university regents to fire those responsible for publishing this "evil
tome," says he "thumbed through it." Knight, whose organization is
dedicated to bringing "Biblical principles into all levels of public
policy," might consider what, at a practical level, that might mean,
starting with Moses' commands to his warriors in the Book of Numbers:
"Kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. But all the
women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive
Still, I think Levine would be pilloried by Dr. Laura and her ilk even
without the priest scandal and even if she had ignored the subject of
sex across the age divide. For the pleasure principle she enunciates
challenges the twenty-five-year-old organizing strategy of the right.
Ever since Anita Bryant first demonstrated that a power base could be
built by attacking homosexuals, the right has exploited real anxieties
about sex, love and family to constrain the liberatory spirit, whether
expressed by sexual preference, divorce, abortion, contraception,
women's freedom or teen sex. This has not managed to send queers back to
the closet, lower divorce rates or "protect the children." American
teenagers have about four times the pregnancy rate of teens in Western
Europe. Those in a program of "abstinence only" education still have sex
and are about half as likely to protect themselves than kids who've
received broad sex information. Even with abortion rights severely
curtailed, US teenagers have abortions at about the rate they did just
after Roe v. Wade. One in four has had a sexually transmitted
disease; one an hour is infected with HIV; and, not incidentally, among
American children one in six is poor. That notwithstanding, the sex
panic strategy has succeeded in the only way it had to: creating a
movement, with all the institutions, political power, lawmaking
capability, grassroots presence and funding that implies, to advance an
agenda for everything from global dominance to bedroom snooping.
Levine's critics are all part of that project, and since she butts
against it almost from the opening pages of her book, they are striking
What is more telling is who isn't rushing to the defense. While a group
of free-speechers, pro-sex feminists and radical gay activists have
generated press releases, opinion pieces, e-mail alerts and letters of
support to Levine's publisher, there has been silence from mainstream
feminist organizations and the liberal sex-education and child-health
establishments. That may be partly because they, too, have felt the
sting of Levine's criticism. Rather than build a countermovement to
insist on sexual freedom, she writes, such heavyweights as Planned
Parenthood, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, ETR
Associates (the largest US mainstream sex-ed publisher), the National
Education Association, the Health Information Network and a host of
progressive sex educators tried to appropriate the "family values"
rhetoric of the right, joining in "a contest to be best at preventing
"The Right won," she writes, but the mainstream let it. Comprehensive
sex educators had the upper hand in the 1970s, and starting in the
1980s, they allowed their enemies to seize more and more territory,
until the Right controlled the law, the language, and the cultural
consensus.... Commenting on its failure to defend explicit sexuality
education during an avalanche of new HIV infection among teenagers,
Sharon Thompson [author of the engrossing book on sex and love among
teenage girls, Going All the Way] said, "We will look back at
this time and indict the sex-education community as criminal. It's like
being in a nuclear power plant that has a leak, and not telling
Throughout the Clinton era those forces largely stood by as the most
sexually reckless President in memory signed a sheaf of repressive
legislation, acts with names like Defense of Marriage, Abstinence Only,
Personal Responsibility and Child Pornography Protection. The last on
that list, capping a legal trend that, as Levine says, "defined as
pornography pictures in which the subject is neither naked, nor doing
anything sexual, nor...is even an actual child," was recently struck
down by the Supreme Court. The second to last, also known as the welfare
bill, is up for reauthorization this year, along with its enhancements
of penalties for statutory rape and its policing of teen sex, motherhood
and marriage. As part of that bill the Clintonites fanned the notion
that minors were too young to consent to sex with an adult, while in
criminal law they eased the way for prosecuting children as adults and
jailing them as adults, in which circumstance consent usually isn't an
issue. To grasp the effect of liberal silence about Levine, it is
perhaps enough to recall one name: Dr. Joycelyn Elders, sacked by
Clinton as Surgeon General in 1994 for saying that masturbation is part
of childhood and it doesn't hurt to talk about it. Elders has written an
eloquent and sensible foreword to Harmful to Minors. Back when
Elders was twisting in the wind ABC's Cokie Roberts called her "a sort
of off-to-the-left, out-of-the-mainstream, embarrassing person"; now
the Washington Times insinuates she's soft on molestation. From
self-abuse to child abuse in eight years, one absurd charge prepares the
ground for the other.
That said, it's too easy to read the reception of Levine's book as
simply more evidence of right-wing lunacy and liberal retreat. What the
brouhaha also signals in its small way is a failure of the left. In
organizing around issues of sex, love and family, the right has surely
been cynical but at least it speaks to the deepest questions of intimate
life. Its answers are necessarily simplistic and straitened. The family
is falling apart? It's the homos. Marriage seems impossible? It's the
libbers. Sex brings suffering? Just say No. Love seems distant? Await
the Rapture. Except for a small group of queer radicals and pro-sex
feminists, to the extent that such questions are even entertained on the
left, the answers tend toward a mixture of social engineering and
denial: There's nothing wrong with the family that an equitable economy,
divorce or gay marriage won't fix. Marriage is possible; equality is the
key. If sex ed was better and condoms were free, teens wouldn't get
pregnant and wouldn't get AIDS. If abortion is painful, you've been
propagandized. If sex is painful, you're doing it wrong. If love is
painful, find a new lover.
Levine is too sensitive to the mysteries and complexities of human
relations to be characterized as advocating anything so pat as
happiness-through-policy in the area of childhood sexuality. But if her
putting children and sex together in the same sentence can be read by
the right as a call to licentiousness, her heavy emphasis on the
pleasure-enhancing possibilities of sex education may encourage readers
on the left to believe that kids can be protected from bad sex, mediocre
sex, regret, risk, danger, pain. And they can't, any more than adults
can. They can't because in matters of sex, desire is a trickster. What
you see isn't always what you get, much less what you want, though it
may be what you need. In matters of the heart, intimacy means
vulnerability means daring to bet against pain. As with all bets,
sometimes, often, you lose.
Levine actually makes this point but she so wants kids to have better
information, better experiences--and she argues so well and hard for
these--that somehow it gets lost. Citing a study showing that 72 percent
of teenage girls who'd had sex wished they had waited, Levine wonders
whether this regret isn't perhaps really about romantic disappointment
and asks, "Might real pleasure, in a sex-positive atmosphere, balance or
even outweigh regret over the loss of love?" Can we know pleasure
without pain? one might ask in return. Can regret over lost love, at any
age, be so easily balanced? Even sidestepping those twisting lines of
inquiry, isn't the promise of "real pleasure" as much a romantic ideal,
as much an invitation to disappointment, as the promise of true love,
especially for the young? However wished, it's not so easy to
disentangle sex from the hope for love, to revel in pure, transporting
sensuality without letting expectations, not to mention fumbling
technique, get in the way. It doesn't have to, and it doesn't always,
but sex can change everything between two people. We are weak,
after all, and life's little joke is that in that weakness lies the
potential for our ecstasy and our despair.
This isn't to discount the lifesaving value of open education about sex,
condoms, desire, freedom. (And because discussions like this always
force one to state the obvious, I'll also note that nothing in the
foregoing should suggest that I oppose equality, economic
redistribution, abortion rights, child safety, sexual liberation, the
search for love or, so long as heterosexuals insist on having the state
sanction their unions via the marriage contract, divorce and gay
marriage.) But rather than promise kids a world of good sex--like
promising a world of happy marriages, monogamous fulfillment,
self-sustaining nuclear families--maybe it's more helpful to explain sex
as the sea of clear water, giddy currents, riptides, sounding depths and
rocky shoals that it is. You navigate, find wonder in the journey,
scrape yourself up, press on anyway and survive. And sometimes,
sometimes, you experience a bliss beyond expression. The political job
is to expand the possibilities for such experience, to free people to
navigate, help them survive the hurt or not hurt so bad. Maybe if we
could be honest about sex, we could be honest about marriage and
monogamy and family. Maybe if so much didn't hinge on an outsized faith
in pleasure and fidelity and romantic love--if for people in couples or
families, everything didn't depend on the thin reed of love, and for
people alone, coupledom wasn't held out as the apex of happiness--all
the talk we hear about community might actually mean something. The
greatest virtue in Levine's book is its hope that children might learn
to find joy in the realm of the senses, the world of ideas and souls, so
that when sex disappoints and love fails, as they will, a teenager, a
grown-up, still has herself, and a universe of small delights and strong
hearts to fall back on.
Rudolph the Red-Handed Terrorist
A long time ago I dated a 28-year-old man who told me the first time we
went out that he wanted to have seven children. Subsequently, I was
involved for many years with an already middle-aged man who also claimed
to be eager for fatherhood. How many children have these now-gray
gentlemen produced in a lifetime of strenuous heterosexuality? None. But
because they are men, nobody's writing books about how they blew their
lives, missed the brass ring, find life a downward spiral of serial
girlfriends and work that's lost its savor. We understand, when we think
about men, that people often say they want one thing while making
choices that over time show they care more about something else, that
circumstances get in the way of many of our wishes and that for many
"have kids" occupies a place on the to-do list between "learn Italian"
Change the sexes, though, and the same story gets a different slant.
According to Sylvia Ann Hewlett, today's 50-something women
professionals are in deep mourning because, as the old cartoon had it,
they forgot to have children--until it was too late, and too late was a
whole lot earlier than they thought. In her new book, Creating a
Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children, Hewlett claims
she set out to record the triumphant, fulfilled lives of women in
mid-career only to find that success had come at the cost of family: Of
"ultra-achieving" women (defined as earning $100,000-plus a year), only
57 percent were married, versus 83 percent of comparable men, and only
51 percent had kids at 40, versus 81 percent among the men. Among
"high-achieving" women (at least $65,000 or $55,000 a year, depending on
age), 33 percent are childless at 40 versus 25 percent of men.
Why don't more professional women have kids? Hewlett's book nods to the
"brutal demands of ambitious careers," which are still structured
according to the life patterns of men with stay-at-home wives, and to
the distaste of many men for equal relationships with women their own
age. I doubt there's a woman over 35 who'd quarrel with that. But what's
gotten Hewlett a cover story in Time ("Babies vs. Careers: Which
Should Come First for Women Who Want Both?") and instant celebrity is
not her modest laundry list of family-friendly proposals--paid leave,
reduced hours, career breaks. It's her advice to young women: Be
"intentional" about children--spend your twenties snagging a husband,
put career on the back burner and have a baby ASAP. Otherwise, you could
end up like world-famous playwright and much-beloved woman-about-town
Wendy Wasserstein, who we are told spent some $130,000 to bear a child
as a single 48-year-old. (You could also end up like, oh I don't know,
me, who married and had a baby nature's way at 37, or like my many
successful-working-women friends who adopted as single, married or
lesbian mothers and who are doing just fine, thank you very much.)
Danielle Crittenden, move over! Hewlett calls herself a feminist, but
Creating a Life belongs on the backlash bookshelf with What
Our Mothers Didn't Tell Us, The Rules, The Surrendered
Wife, The Surrendered Single (!) and all those books warning
women that feminism--too much confidence, too much optimism, too many
choices, too much "pickiness" about men--leads to lonely nights and
empty bassinets. But are working women's chances of domestic bliss
really so bleak? If 49 percent of ultra-achieving women don't have kids,
51 percent do--what about them? Hewlett seems determined to put the
worst possible construction on working women's lives, even citing the
long-discredited 1986 Harvard-Yale study that warned that women's
chances of marrying after 40 were less than that of being killed by a
terrorist. As a mother of four who went through high-tech hell to
produce last-minute baby Emma at age 51, she sees women's lives through
the distorting lens of her own obsessive maternalism, in which nothing,
but nothing, can equal looking at the ducks with a toddler, and if you
have one child, you'll be crying at the gym because you don't have two.
For Hewlett, childlessness is always a tragic blunder, even when her
interviewees give more equivocal responses. Thus she quotes academic
Judith Friedlander calling childlessness a "creeping non-choice,"
without hearing the ambivalence expressed in that careful phrasing. Not
choosing--procrastinating, not insisting, not focusing--is often a way
of choosing, isn't it? There's no room in Hewlett's view for modest
regret, moving on or simple acceptance of childlessness, much less
indifference, relief or looking on the bright side--the feelings she
advises women to cultivate with regard to their downsized hopes for
careers or equal marriages. But Hewlett's evidence that today's
childless "high achievers" neglected their true desire is based on a
single statistic, that only 14 percent say they knew in college that
they didn't want kids--as if people don't change their minds after 20.
This is not to deny that many women are caught in a time trap. They
spend their twenties and thirties establishing themselves
professionally, often without the spousal support their male
counterparts enjoy, perhaps instead being supportive themselves, like
the surgeon Hewlett cites approvingly who graces her fiancé's
business dinners after thirty-six-hour hospital shifts. By the time they
can afford to think of kids, they may indeed have trouble conceiving.
But are these problems that "intentionality" can solve? Sure, a woman
can spend her twenties looking for love--and show me one who doesn't!
But will having a baby compensate her for blinkered ambitions and a
marriage made with one eye on the clock? Isn't that what the mothers of
today's 50-somethings did, going to college to get their Mrs. degree and
taking poorly paid jobs below their capacities because they "combined"
well with wifely duties? What makes Hewlett think that disastrous recipe
will work out better this time around?
More equality and support, not lowered expectations, is what women need,
at work and at home. It's going to be a long struggle. If women allow
motherhood to relegate them to secondary status in both places, as
Hewlett advises, we'll never get there. Meanwhile, a world with fewer
female surgeons, playwrights and professors strikes me as an infinitely
inferior place to live.
Afghan women are free of the Taliban, but liberation is still a distant dream.
When a girl becomes her school's designated slut, her friends stop talking to her. Pornographic rumors spread with dazzling efficiency, boys harass her openly in the hallways, girls beat her up. "WHORE," or sometimes "HORE," is written on her locker or bookbag. And there is usually a story about her having sex with the whole football team, a rumor whose plausibility no one ever seems to question.
Even those of us who weren't high school sluts and don't recall any such outcast from our own school days have become familiar with her plight--through media stories and the growing body of feminist-inspired literature on female adolescence, as well as the talk shows and teen magazine spreads that have made her their focus. What's harder to understand is how the label persists when the landscape of sexual morality that gives it meaning has so drastically changed--well within living memory. If the sexual revolution didn't obliterate the slut, wouldn't the successive waves of libidinous pop stars, explicit TV shows and countercultural movements to reclaim the label have drained it of its meaning? What kinds of lines can today's adolescents, or those of the 1990s or 1980s, for that matter, possibly draw between nice and not nice girls?
Emily White's Fast Girls sets out to look at the central dilemmas of the slut label. Two earlier books that have focused on the slut--Leora Tanenbaum's Slut! Growing Up Female With a Bad Reputation, a collection of oral histories, and Naomi Wolf's Promiscuities, a reflection on girls' sexual coming-of-age in the 1970s that combines memoir with a casual survey of the women Wolf grew up with--rely primarily on the subjective narratives of women and girls to explore the slut phenomenon. Paula Kamen's Her Way: Young Women Remake the Sexual Revolution surveys the sexual mores and activities of young women, but not specifically of teenagers. White is the first to combine different methodologies in an attempt to write specifically about the functions and significance of the teenage slut--in her words, "to shed some light on that space in the high school hallway where so many vital and troubling encounters occur."
White spoke to or corresponded with more than 150 women who had been the sluts of their school (whom she found largely by soliciting their stories through newspaper ads), and she spent "a couple of weeks" observing in a Seattle-area public high school. She also offers cultural criticism--of horror movies and the riot grrrls, for instance--as well as a digest of psychological, sociological and post-structuralist theory pertinent to the subject. White's evident ambition makes it all the more frustrating that the book's impressive breadth doesn't translate into thoroughness or rigor.
When White interviewed the women--most of them white, middle-class and from the suburbs--who responded to her ads, the stories she heard had certain similarities. There was a "type" of girl who tended to be singled out: She developed breasts earlier than other girls; she was a loud, vocal extrovert; she was self-destructive, tough or wild; often she had been sexually abused; and in one way or another she was usually an outsider, whether she had moved from a different town, had less money than most kids or belonged to some peripheral subculture. Some women described themselves as having been promiscuous, but more said they were not as sexually active as their (untainted) friends, and none of them had done the things that were later rumored. Often the first rumors were started by bitter ex-boyfriends or jealous friends. Once they caught on, the ritual torments and "football team" fantasies inevitably followed.
These similarities make up what White calls the "slut archetype," and for much of the book she riffs on the common factors of the stories, with chapters dedicated to subjects like the role of suburbia, the slut's social isolation and the preponderance of sexual abuse. Though sprinkled liberally throughout the book, the women's testimonies are only a launching point for White's meditations. She writes about these interviews in a way that at times both romanticizes and condescends to the women. "She walks so confidently in her boots," writes White of one 18-year-old, "causing tremors in the ground beneath her feet. She presents herself as a girl who has crawled up out of the underworld, who has found her way through the isolation and the drugged dreams.... It is a way of coping, this tough act. It's a start." Still, despite certain problems of credibility, this overwrought style is pretty effective at conveying the anguish of the ostracized adolescent girl (if only by echoing her earnest self-dramatization). It's much less suited to considering the girl in social and cultural context.
In editing and interpreting her interviews, White emphasizes their similarities at the expense of the kind of detail that makes a particular social universe come to life. Her time observing the Seattle-area high school students inspires mostly familiar observations. ("The cafeteria is high school's proving ground. It's one of the most unavoidable and important thresholds, the place where you find out if you have friends or if you don't.") Only about half the time do we get any real sense of the sort of community an interviewee grew up in or what the social scene was like at her school. There's even less detail about precisely how she fit into the hierarchy before the slut label took hold, whether she was perceived as threatening or flirtatious, what her past relationships were like with girls, boys and teachers. Even worse is that for all their lack of texture, the women's stories are by far the most interesting part of the book; when White pulls away to supply her own commentary, it's usually vague and predictable--precisely because she's not attuned to the details that would reveal how the slut really functions in the teenage universe. Although she acknowledges that the slut myth is much bigger than any individual girl behind it, she is also attached to the literal-minded notion that the girl being labeled has some kind of privileged relationship to the slut myth--that her individual story is the slut story, and the women's emotional recollections of abuses and scars collectively explain the slut myth. In fact, to understand the myth we need to know at least as much about what the rest of the school is thinking.
White suggests that "the slut becomes a way for the adolescent mind to draw a map. She's the place on the map marked by a danger sign...where a girl should never wander, for fear of becoming an outcast." But, given the arbitrary relationship White found between the slut label and a girl's actual sex life, does the slut myth really have any practical applications for girls? Do they limit sexual activity out of fear of these rumors? Are there particular sex acts that can bring censure in themselves? Can social status insulate some girls from slutdom, regardless of how much they fool around? White doesn't directly pose these questions, but one of her findings hints that, though they may fear the label, kids themselves interpret slutdom as primarily an expression of social status rather than a direct consequence of sexual activity: "Girls who at one time might have been friends with the slut recede as her reputation grows; they need to be careful how they associate with her or they will be thought of as sluts along with her."
The slut doesn't seem to point to an actual line that a nice girl can't cross; she commemorates the fact that there once was such a line, and suggests that the idea of a line still has currency, even if no one can figure out where it is anymore. It's no surprise that she is such a popular subject for third-wave feminists; her ostracism seems to have implications not only for residual sexism but for the way that we personally experience sex and desire.
Ididn't think I had a personal connection to the slut story. For most of my adolescent years, which were in the late 1980s and early '90s, I was very good, and too awkward to attract attention from boys. In the schools I attended there were whispers about who did what, and some girls were considered sluttier than others, but there was no single figure who captured the imagination of the whole class.
Then I remembered something about one of the girls I was closest to from age 10 to about 13 or 14. We didn't go to the same school, but for much of the time we both attended Saturday Russian classes held in her kitchen by an elderly neighbor. She was the only one of my friends who was, like me, born in Russia, though her family still lived in Philadelphia's immigrant neighborhood while mine had moved to a more prosperous, non-Russian suburb several years earlier. My family had a bigger house. We had, thanks to my American stepdad, more American ways of doing things. I was a better student. I think she was more popular at her school than I was at mine; at least, she was more easygoing and sociable. I never felt in awe of her, as I did of other friends. I was not always nice to her, though usually I was.
She knew more about sex in our early years than I did, but, like me, she didn't go out with anyone in the time we knew each other. She was pretty, in a round-faced, unfashionable way that made me think I had a discerning eye for appreciating it. She always seemed more developed than I was. (That may not have been true in any measurable sense.) At some point in those years, though it didn't particularly affect our friendship, and I don't remember thinking about it while I was actually with her, I began to spend nights casting her as my proxy in every kind of pornographic fantasy I could conjure.
It's always difficult to figure out the relationship between cultural fantasies and mores, on the one hand, and actual behavior and sexual self-image on the other. You could probably spend a long time listening to teenagers and still not get to the bottom of how the slut myth filters into their own lives. Still, the site of the slut's continuous re-creation, the high school hallways, deserves closer scrutiny, and the mysteries of her endurance await further exploration.
Back in 1994, Christina Hoff Sommers accused The New York Times Book Review of unfairly assigning her attack on the women's movement, Who Stole Feminism?, to the distinguished scholar of Victorian literature Nina Auerbach for review. Sommers claimed that Auerbach was an unethical choice: Although not named in the book, she had been present at one of the many feminist academic conferences disparaged in its pages and was allegedly the author of a rather overbearing comment, cited in the book, scribbled on a paper written by Sommers's stepson, who had taken a course with Auerbach at the University of Pennsylvania (Auerbach denied writing the comment and suggested it was the work of a TA). Sommers's absurd bid for publicity stirred up a media chorus of sympathetic harrumphs about feminist conspiracies (the Review was at that time edited by a woman, Rebecca Sinkler): Columns ensued by Jim Sleeper, Howard Kurtz, Hilton Kramer. Rush Limbaugh accused the Times of trying to "kill this book."
None of these mavens of literary ethics saw fit to note that Cathy Young raved about the book in the Philadelphia Inquirer and in Commentary despite being vice president of the right-leaning Women's Freedom Network, where Sommers was on the board, or that Mary Lefkowitz gave it high marks in National Review despite being Sommers's very good friend. The Times Book Review ran two weeks' worth of letters (including a particularly rabid one from Camille Paglia, bashing Auerbach as if she were some PC criminal and not an important academic whom any author in her right mind would feel honored to be reviewed by, and who had been, in point of fact, much too high-minded and polite to give Who Stole Feminism? the pasting it deserved).
Fast-forward to the Washington Post Book World, which has landed in hot water for publishing a review of David Brock's Blinded by the Right by Bruce Bawer. Much of Brock's book deals with skulduggery at the Scaife-funded American Spectator--a magazine for which Bawer was a movie critic for several years prior to Brock's own stint there as, he now confesses, a hired mudslinger and fabricator of slanders against Anita Hill, President Clinton and others. Bawer did not mention his connection to the Spectator when offered the assignment, nor did he mention it in the review, even parenthetically, and having spent several years as The Nation's literary editor, I'm not a bit surprised: Reviewers were always neglecting to tell me that the author under consideration was their colleague, best friend, former lover or the editor of the magazine that was publishing their fiction. When I would belatedly find out and confront them, were they embarrassed? Dream on. One even wrote me an outraged letter comparing his panegyric on the poetry of his department chairman to Shelley writing about Keats. Caveat editor, indeed!
Did the Washington Post engineer a pan for Brock by knowingly choosing a reviewer too closely allied with the people and politics he attacks, as claimed by the Media Whores Online website, which is calling for the public beheading of the Book World editor, Marie Arana? Bawer is mentioned (briefly and favorably) in the book, but there is no index and--I hate to be the one to break this to MWO--"previewing" a book before assigning it is not the same as reading every page. (Truth in advertising: I've written a few reviews for Arana and think she's an excellent editor and swell human being, even if the Book World didn't review my last book.) Still, it's a little hard to believe that nobody at the Book World knew that Bawer is a pretty conservative fellow, and, as MWO points out, there is a bit of history here: Two years ago, the Post assigned Joe Conason and Gene Lyons's The Hunting of the President to James Bowman, who was also associated with The American Spectator. On the other hand, Bawer, who, like Brock, is gay, says he left the Spectator over its slurs against homosexuals. Gee, two gay guys who both quit the same rightwingnut magazine--had Bawer loved the book, conservatives would be claiming the fix was in. In fact, Bawer's review was fairly trivial; mostly he made fun of Brock in a feline sort of way--slyly noting his love of elegant tailoring, fancy parties, attention and money, and observing that Brock is still talking trash, only now his targets are his erstwhile friends on the right. Compared with Helen Vendler, whose poetry criticism Bawer skewered in the Hudson Review some years ago with such relish and in such detail that anti-Vendlerites bought up the entire print run within minutes, Brock got off easy.
But then Helen Vendler's taste, like all taste, is open to question, while so far no conservative, Bawer included, has seriously disputed Brock's revelations beyond expressing a general skepticism that this self-confessed liar and suck-up artist has changed his spots. Is Brock lying when he describes how wealthy right-wing foundations created and fueled a media apparatus devoted to smearing liberals, feminists and Democrats, especially the Clintons, with whatever mud it could find or fabricate? Are his unflattering characterizations of his former cronies false? Brock portrays peroxided pundette Laura Ingraham as an ignorant drunk who does not own a single book; he charges Ann Coulter with "virulent anti-Semitism"; he says Spectator editor-in-chief R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. urged him to attack women because that sold papers. He claims the only thing Simon & Schuster publisher Jack Romanos wanted to know before handing him a million dollars to write a hatchet job on Hillary Clinton was whether she was a lesbian. He says Ricky Silberman, vice chairman of the EEOC under Clarence Thomas and one of his most stalwart supporters, was thoroughly persuaded by Strange Justice, in which Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson validate Hill's claims, but helped Brock savage the book anyway. Virtually every page of Blinded by the Right makes an assertion that is, if true, embarrassing, and if false, libelous. The silence is curious, to say the least.
After much urging, the Post acknowledged that Bawer's review was inappropriate. Meanwhile, you can be sure that none of the pundits who raked Nina Auerbach and the New York Times over the coals will be firing up the barbie this time.
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This is a special selection from The Nation Digital Archive. If you want to read everything The Nation has ever published on the women's rights movement and feminism, click here for information on how to acquire individual access to the Archive--an electronic database of every Nation article since 1865.
This article originally appeared in the December 1, 1926, issue, inaugurating a feature called "These Modern Women," "a series of anonymous articles giving the personal backgrounds of women acti
Two events which occurred at the end of 1936 may signify a turning-point in the birth-control movement in America.