News and Features
Nearly fifty years ago, in Eros and Civilization, Herbert Marcuse
suggested that homosexuals (then the current term) might
someday--because of their "rebellion against the subjugation of
sexuality under the order of procreation"--provide a cutting-edge social
critique of vast importance. Marcuse's prophecy may have come to pass.
Or so some are claiming.
There is mounting evidence that a distinctive set of values has
emerged among gay people (despite enormous variations in their
lifestyles) in regard to how they view gender, sexuality, primary
relationships, friendships and family. One even increasingly hears the
claim that gay "differentness" isn't just a defensible variation but a
decided advance over mainstream norms, that gay subcultural perspectives
could richly inform conventional life, could open up an unexplored range
of human possibilities for everyone. That is, if the mainstream
were listening, which it isn't.
The mainstream's antenna remains tuned to a limited number of
frequencies: that heterosexuality is the Natural Way; that (as we move
right of center) lifetime monogamous pair-bonding is the likeliest
guarantee of human happiness; that the gender binary (everyone is either
male or female and each gender has distinctive characteristics)
is rooted in biology. Those queers who look and sound like "normal"
people (or are at least able to fake it in public)--meaning, mostly,
well-mannered, clean-cut white men and lipstick lesbians--are
being welcomed into the mainstream in mounting numbers.
But the armed guards at the gates continue to bar admission to (as they
might put it) overweight butch dykes, foul-mouthed black queers or
dickless "men" and surgically created "women" delusionally convinced
that they're part of some nonexistent group called the "transgendered."
The mainstream somehow senses that the more different the outsider, the
greater the threat posed to its own lofty sense of blue-ribbon
superiority. Fraternizing with true exotics can prove dangerously
seductive, opening up Normal People to possibilities within themselves
that they prefer to keep under lock and key.
But what happens when "normal-looking" queers start asserting how
different from you they actually are--and start lecturing you about how
abnormal your own proclaimed normalcy is? Take, for example, the
arguments that David Nimmons puts forth in his new book, The Soul
Beneath the Skin. His focus is on precisely those privileged urban
gay white men who, judged by outward demeanor, closely resemble
stereotypical heterosexual males; they don't look or act at all like
those phantasmagoric renegades, the transgendered. Yet according to
Nimmons, standard-issue gay males have birthed a strikingly different
(and, he claims, superior) set of personal ethics and community
institutions. These are guys, for God's sake, who hang out in gyms and
look like football players! Yet far from being your average macho Joes,
their subculture is, Nimmons claims, marked by "a striking range of
What are its chief identifying features? In the past, the question has
typically been answered by referencing a set of negative stereotypes
that emphasize an obsession with buffed bodies, drug-driven dancing
marathons, "circuit" parties of profligate sexual excess, a devotion to
consumerism that excludes politics and the life of the mind, and a
ruthless narcissism that denies entry to its playgrounds to all but
stunning young white male bodies reeking of Ecstasy and attitude.
In The Soul Beneath the Skin, Nimmons builds a strong
countercase, favorably contrasting gay male values with those associated
with heterosexual men. Urban gay life, for instance, is notable for the
absence of community violence. The gay male bar scene rarely spawns
shouting matches, brawls or an exchange of blows. Our dances, parades,
political rallies and marches are suffused with drama but nearly devoid
We also have a high rate of volunteerism. According to one large-scale
study, the gay cohort volunteered 61 percent more time to nonprofit
organizations than did the heterosexual one--and divided its charitable
contributions nearly equally between gay and nongay causes. Gay men,
moreover, consistently score higher than straight men on studies that
attempt to measure empathy and altruism. We perceive
discrimination against others more readily than other men do, and we're
more likely to have friends across lines of color, gender, religion and
politics. It's telling that during the trial of Matthew Shepard's
murderers, nearly every leading national gay and lesbian organization
publicly opposed the death penalty. Cruelly treated for generations, we
practice tenderness and tolerance more than other oppressed minority
groups--who tend to treat us with contempt and disdain.
Nimmons also applauds the premium that many (though certainly not all)
gay men put on being emotionally expressive and sexually innovative--for
the compelling way we've reworked the rules governing erotic
exploration, friendship and coupledom. In regard to couples, he argues
that the community ideal (even if only approximated in practice) is one
of mutuality and egalitarianism--which again sets us apart from
stereotypical straight men, some of whom spout egalitarian rhetoric but
few of whom carry their fair share of domestic responsibilities.
I find much of what Nimmons has to say persuasive--indeed, a recent
British study, Same Sex Intimacies, by Jeffrey Weeks, Brian
Heaphy and Catherine Donovan, confirms gay male distinctiveness beyond
the borders of the United States. Still, I do have problems with some
aspects of Nimmons's argument. The most serious derive from his lack of
clarity about whether he's primarily defending the limited number of
urban, privileged, mostly white men who make up the gym/circuit/Fire
Island Pines crowd, or whether he's mounting a broader defense of gay
male culture as a whole.
He wobbles back and forth, though he finally does seem more interested
in sticking up for the small circuit set than in burnishing the image of
the general gay male community. In my view, though, the distinctive set
of values that he catalogues more justly apply to the latter than the
former. I've made dozens of trips over several decades to the Pines, for
example, and can say only that Nimmons's description of it as "a form of
queer kibbutz" where "an easy male affection suffuses the air" is
wildly at odds with my experience of it as a smug, fatuously snotty
watering hole for the very rich or very beautiful.
I also think that Nimmons overdraws the contrasts between gay and
straight men and overcredits our "stunning cultural accomplishment[s]."
After all, Hugh Hefner made some contribution to the "erotic
innovations" that so enthrall Nimmons. And experimental patterns in
sexuality and relating date back at least to the countercultural 1960s
(not to mention the nineteenth-century Oneida community, the Bloomsbury
crowd or the bohemian Greenwich Village of the 1920s). Nimmons also
minimizes the notable shifts in attitude that characterize today's
younger generation of heterosexuals. In simplistically insisting that
"the icy winds of sexual repression...have swept across the
[heterosexual] American landscape," Nimmons fails to understand how
broadly attitudes about sex and gender have shifted, especially in urban
areas, as traditional notions of what constitutes a "family" or a
"viable" relationship come under increasing scrutiny.
Nimmons is better at delineating gay male distinctiveness than
accounting for it. He establishes the fact of gay male peaceableness,
for example--and does so with style and verve--but he's of little help
in explaining it, other than to remark in passing that "gay men might be
biologically a gentler species of male." But it seems to me far more
likely that our nonviolent behavior originates in our historical
experience. Having been subjected for generations to gay-bashing and
police brutality, we've learned, out of prudence and fear, not to let
our anger show in public. Tellingly, it does show in private: The
rate of domestic violence among both gay men and lesbians ranks right up
there with heterosexual violence. (The latest of many studies to confirm
that is No More Secrets, by Janice Ristock.) We're not devoid of
rage; we're unwittingly passive-aggressive, taking out the aggressive
side in the comparative safety of our homes--or on ourselves, through
the abuse of alcohol and drugs.
But Nimmons, prone to inspirational excess (as when he writes about "the
centrality of bliss and play in our lives"--sure, try telling that to
the legions of poor gay people), is impatient with introspection. He
sneeringly refers, at one point, to "the reigning queer academic
chatter--uh, sorry, discourse," showing no awareness of how much queer
(and feminist) theory has contributed to the "new culture" whose virtues
Besides, he has ideological allegiances of his own, though he reveals
them off-handedly. Phrases like "hard-wired," "essential components" and
"innate tendency" are sprinkled throughout Soul, tipping
Nimmons's deterministic hand. They're sprinkled, not boldly embraced,
and Nimmons frequently inserts a tepid disclaimer to protect his flank:
"There is much to argue with in any strict sociobiological view," he
says at one point, but never tells us how much. He even drops in
a little spiritualist fairy dust now and then, as when suggesting that
those involved in the party circuit are, in their pursuit of "rapture"
and "bliss," direct descendants of "ancient shamans."
No, we have to look elsewhere for deeper insight into the origins and
significance of the gay male version of masculinity. I have two offbeat
candidates in mind: Talmudic studies and relational psychoanalysis. The
towering figure in Talmudic studies these days is Daniel Boyarin of the
University of California, Berkeley. His 1997 book Unheroic
Conduct is a work of immense importance, all at once astonishingly
erudite, witty, playful and boldly speculative. As its reputation
spreads, it's beginning to roil the waters far beyond Talmudic studies.
Boyarin's basic thesis--though this summary won't do justice to its
supple byways--is that traditional Ashkenazic Jewish culture produced,
in opposition to the Roman model of the powerful, aggressive, violent
warrior, a cultural ideal of masculinity that valorized gentleness,
nurturance, emotional warmth, nonviolence, inwardness and studiousness.
These characteristics were associated with sexual desirability, not
sexlessness--in contrast to the somewhat comparably pacific early
Christian model of maleness associated with the desexualized St.
Francis. This doesn't mean, Boyarin emphasizes, that orthodox Ashkenazic
culture was sympathetic to women (who were excluded from power) or to
homoeroticism (though male sexual attraction to other males does not
seem to have been considered abnormal).
By the nineteenth century, the now stereotypical figure of the
"feminized" Jewish man had become, in the minds of many Jews, a
roadblock to assimilation; a successful effort (joined by Freud and
Theodor Herzl, among others) was made to discredit the once-privileged
model of a gentler, more nurturant masculinity as either the
pathological product of the Diaspora or a figment of the anti-Semitic
Boyarin wants to reclaim the earlier tradition. He believes, and I'd
agree, that restoring the once-revered model would greatly help to
destabilize binary notions of gender, would emancipate men and women
from roles that currently constrict their human possibilities. The
critical recovery of the past would, in Boyarin's words, make for the
redemption of the future. The implications of Boyarin's work are
breathtaking. By reclaiming a radically different--and socially
constructed--model of masculinity, he wreaks havoc with simplistic
biological determinism and offers us a previously unsighted path toward
As a champion of the gentle, inward male, Boyarin has to confront the
macho muscularity of the circuit culture, and he does so in a typically
nuanced way. Himself an openly gay man, Boyarin has no trouble
appreciating, on one level, the beauty of the gym-built gay male body.
But unlike Nimmons, who uncomplicatedly exalts it, Boyarin warns that
the emphasis on powerful muscularity reinforces "the dimorphism of the
gendered body and thus participates... in the general cultural standard
of masculinity rather than resisting it." In contributing to the notion
that only one kind of male body is desirable, the gym stud-bunny is
helping to reinforce the valorization of "topness" over receptivity that
already dominates our culture, sexual and otherwise.
The macho-looking gay male is also serving another negative function.
The gym-built body, imitative of stereotypical maleness, all but
announces that "No Sissy Lives Here," thereby encouraging gay men
(including the stud-bunnies themselves) to bury and deny the
gender-discordant traits that made so many of us feel painfully
different in childhood--to repudiate, in other words, "woman-identified"
aspects of the self. ("Gender-discordant" is a necessary but troublesome
term, implying as it does that we know what a gender-concordant
model looks like and that it exists cross-culturally and is superior.
The fine essays in Matthew Rottnek's Sissies and Tomboys further
explore these issues.)
I suspect that if we really do care about breaking down the gender
binary, the place to look for inspiration is not Gold's Gym but the
increasingly visible transgender movement, offering as it does a radical
remodeling of traditional "masculinity" and "femininity." Transgendered
people and gender-discordant gay men are notably absent from Nimmons's
book. So, too, is any discussion of lesbian culture ("Lesbians and gay
men inhabit radically different worlds," is Nimmons's weak
justification). Not accidentally, those who are transgendered,
gender-discordant or lesbian are also rarely seen, if not actually
barred from, the circuit party network. Yet all three belong at the
heart of any comprehensive discussion of a "new" gay culture.
The extent of gender discordance among gay men hasn't been a
front-burner topic since the early 1970s, when radical gay
liberationists championed an androgynous ideal. It's time to stop
avoiding the topic. Boyarin has provided us with a historical context
for dealing with it, and the psychiatrist Richard Isay (among others)
has offered us some provocative contemporary data.
In a 1999 paper in the journal Psychiatry, Isay insists that all
of the several hundred gay men he's treated over the past thirty years
exhibited gender-discordant traits in childhood. (Such traits, it should
be pointed out, are not confined to children who later develop a
same-gender erotic preference: Some fifteen years ago, Richard Green, in
his much-contested book The "Sissy Boy Syndrome" and the Development
of Homosexuality, found that roughly a third of the
gender-discordant male children he studied became, as adults,
heterosexual in orientation.)
If one accepts--as I do, but Isay does not--the queer theory argument
that "male" and "female" gender roles are not to any significant degree
intrinsic--that is, biologically determined--but are primarily, and
perhaps even exclusively, the products of learning and repetitive
performance, then "gender discordance" becomes something of a non
sequitur: Where all boys are capable of (perhaps even, in the earliest
years, inclined toward) a female-identified--which may be the same as
saying transgendered--self-image and presentation, then no particular
gender configuration can legitimately be seen as "deviant." Boyarin's
Ashkenazic Jews--men whose avoidance of what we call "rough and tumble"
play would, by contemporary standards, be branded as "sissy"--were in
their own culture esteemed as ideal representatives of maleness.
That model of manliness has nothing in common with the currently
fashionable incantation--itself harking back to Jungian twaddle about
"anima" and "animus"--that men "need to get in touch with their feminine
side." No, it's about the need to reinvent for everyone, male and
female, more fluid, expansive self-definitions; it's about moving beyond
gender conformity, beyond gender itself, to molding individually
Isay's concern is with current suffering, not with a futuristic path
that might circumvent it. "Gender-discordant" boys, taunted at school
and berated at home (especially by their fathers), internalize the view
that something is "wrong with them," that they're "not OK." And most of
them, from an early age, struggle to divest themselves of the
disapproved behavior--of all traces of effeminacy. The psychic cost, as
Isay points out, is high. In repudiating aspects of the self that could
be read as feminine, the male (straight or gay) does deep injury to his
affective life, including the loss of emotional expressiveness and
resilience, possible separation trauma from the forcibly disavowed yet
still adored mother, and the need to avoid relationships that might
evoke any resurgence of "feminine" traits.
Such speculations should, at a minimum, make us ponder precisely what is
"transformative" (as Nimmons and others claim) about the gym/circuit
culture. Is it expanding our range of expressive options--or narrowing
them? I think we should be wary, too, of the paeans to "erotic
adventuring" that fill The Soul Beneath the Skin (and much of gay
male discourse). I used to write such paeans myself, so feel free to
chalk up my current uncertainty to the onset of old age and the loss of
We need to keep in mind that there's enormous variation in how gay men
conduct their sexual lives. Even before AIDS, only about 20 percent of
the gay male population pursued erotic exploration in any sustained
way--about the same percentage as those who chose celibacy. Still, even
among long-term gay male couples, roughly three-quarters of them define
"fidelity" in terms of emotional commitment rather than sexual
faithfulness--a much higher percentage than is found among either
lesbian or heterosexual couples.
Nimmons considers this rescripting of monogamy in primary relationships
a "creative" phenomenon. Certainly there's plenty of evidence to support
the view that monogamy is comparatively rare among animal species. In
their recent book The Myth of Monogamy, the husband and wife team
of David Barash and Judith Eve Lipton offer a barrage of information to
the effect that monogamy is "not natural" and certainly "not easy." But
Barash and Lipton also argue that there is no better alternative, "that
open, unstructured, and nonrestrictive sexual relationships" do not make
Nimmons is certain they do, and it's a view widely shared among his
crowd of urban gay men. They could be right, but the argument needs to
be mounted, not merely affirmed. When Nimmons claims that gay men have
built "the most complex, flourishing, nuanced sexual culture the planet
has known," it can only mean he's never heard of the Kama Sutra.
And although it may be true that gay people talk "a whole lot dirtier
with spouses and lovers" than straight people do, I wouldn't be too
quick to equate that with either "a stunning cultural accomplishment" or
a revolution--no, not even if we include such additional innovations as
"fuck buddies," "orgy rooms," "glory holes" and "lube guns." Personally,
I'd rather reserve the word "revolution" for that halcyon day when we
manage to eradicate racism, poverty and the subjugation of women.
To be sure, the pursuit of bodily pleasure is, given our puritanical
traditions, decidedly a force for good. But too self-congratulatory a
focus on glutes and orgasms often seems yoked to an undernourished
political sense that comes across, ultimately, as a form of
provincialism light-years removed from any concern with the survival
issues that dominate and defeat most of the planet's
inhabitants--including most of its gay people.
Celebrating what is special and innovative in urban gay male life is a
needed antidote to generations of negative stereotyping. But simply
affirming our cultural achievements won't cut it. We need to weigh them
against theories and evidence that don't simply reflect our community's
self-referential values. A concrete example of what I have in mind would
be to incorporate into our debates about, say, primary relationships the
writings of Stephen Mitchell, one of the founders of relational
psychoanalysis and among the very first to challenge the once-standard
view of homosexuality as pathology. Mitchell's new, posthumously
published book, Can Love Last? The Fate of Romance Over Time, is
not aimed at a gay audience, but the questions it raises assuredly
The book throws unsettling light on the dynamics of longstanding
relationships, unsettling because Mitchell turns some cherished formulas
on their heads--like the view, shared by many gays and straights alike,
that erotic excitement and domesticity cannot coexist for long. The
usual explanation for their incompatibility is some version of
"familiarity breeds boredom." But in Mitchell's view, turning off to our
primary partner is essentially a function of risk management. We
separate sex and love because otherwise the stakes would be too
high--too likely to heighten dependency and vulnerability, too
threatening to our (illusory) sense of being in control of our lives.
And, Mitchell points out, this is more true for men than women. The
macho masculinity we privilege in our culture, Mitchell argues, is
"easily destabilized by dependency longings." Most men cannot
risk monogamy. And we give them an easy way out: Our cultural
script tells men that for them (unlike women), sexuality is rapacious
and indiscriminate; that the male libido demands adventure.
Mitchell reports that when his patients "complain of dead and lifeless
marriages, it is often possible to show them how precious the deadness
is to them, how carefully maintained and insisted upon." Long-term
partners "collapse their expectations of each other," he writes, "in
collusively arranged, choreographed routine."
We then relocate our sexual desire away from our primary partner,
telling ourselves that he or she has become too familiar to ignite
desire--whereas in fact we're fleeing the threat of deeper knowledge of
the other and deeper exposure of ourselves. We refuse to acknowledge
that our partner, far from having become wholly known or from being
securely centered, is a mysterious multiplicity of selves. But armed
with our denial of the other's (and our own) potential, we rush off to
our one-night stands, threesomes and orgies. Nimmons relabels erotic
adventuring "diffuse intimacy" (the "diffuse" part, anyway, is
unassailable), and urges us to applaud it. Yet in light of Mitchell's
sensitive distinctions, the applause seems too sweeping, too
I'm deeply committed to ending the era of gay apologetics. But we need
to be on guard against the temptation to replace it with an era of
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.
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 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.
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