Promiscuities: The Secret Struggle toward Womanhood

By Wolf, Naomi | Tikkun, May/June 1997 | Go to article overview
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Promiscuities: The Secret Struggle toward Womanhood

Wolf, Naomi, Tikkun

It's time to blow the abortion debate open and look at the wounds that lurk underneath. If we emerge from the blame-and-shame dialogue surrounding abortion, we can ask the pertinent question: How does the way that our culture explains sexuality and intimacy influence our sexual behavior, and subsequently, our rate of abortion? In this section, these underlying and neglected issues are explored by Naomi Wolf in a series of excerpts from her forthcoming book entitled Promiscuities: The Secret Struggle Toward Womanhood, and by Anna Runkle in an article entitled "Unsafe Sex". These writers urge us to face how we conceive of women's bodies and female sexuality, and the cultural dynamics produced as a result.

From "Third Base: Identity"

...He and I could have been a poster couple for the liberal ideal of responsible teen sexuality - and, paradoxically, this was reflected in the lack of drama and meaning that I felt crossing this threshold. Conscientious students who were mapping out our college applications and scheduling our after-school jobs to save up for tuition, we were the sort of kids who Planned Ahead. But even the preparations for losing one's virginity felt barren of larger social significance.

When Martin and I went together to a clinic to arrange for contraception some weeks before the actual deed, no experience could have been flatter. He waited, reading old copies of Scientific American, while I was fitted for a diaphragm ("the method with one of the highest effectiveness levels if we are very careful, and the fewest risks to you," Martin had explained after looking it up). The offices were full of high school couples. If the management intended the mood to be welcoming to adolescents, they had done an excellent job. Cartoon strips about contraception were displayed in several rooms. The staff members were straight-talking, and they did not patronize. The young, bearded doctor who fitted me treated it all as if he were explaining to me a terrific new piece of equipment for some hearty activity such as camping or rock climbing.

In terms of the mechanics of servicing teenage desire safely in a secular, materialistic society, the experience was impeccable. The technology worked and was either cheap or free. But when we walked out, I still felt there was something important missing. It was weird to have these adults just hand you the keys to the kingdom, ask, "Any questions?" wave, and return to their paperwork. They did not even have us wait until we could show we had learned something concrete -- until we could answer some of their questions. It was easier than getting your learner's permit to drive a car. Now, giving us a moral context was not their job. They had enough to handle, and they were doing so valiantly. Indeed, their work seems in retrospect like one of the few backstops we encountered to society's abdication of us within our sexuality. But from visiting the clinic in the absence of any other adults giving us a moral framework in which to learn about sexuality, the message we got was: "You can be adults without trying. The only meaning this has is the meaning you give it." There was a sense, I recall in retrospect, that the adults who were the gatekeepers to society had once again failed to initiate us in any way.

For not at the clinic, at school, in our synagogue, or anywhere in pop culture did this message come through clearly to us: sexual activity comes with responsibilities that are deeper than personal. If our parents did say this, it was scarcely reinforced outside the home. No one said, at the clinic, "You must use this diaphragm or this condom, not only because that is how you will avoid the personal disaster of unwanted pregnancy but because if you have sex without using protection you are doing something antisocial and morally objectionable. If you, boy or girl, initiate a pregnancy out of carelessness, that is dumb, regrettable behavior." Nothing morally significant about the transfer of power from adults to teenagers was represented in that technology.

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Promiscuities: The Secret Struggle toward Womanhood


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