Prude: New Book Rolls Sexuality Back Centuries
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Carol Platt Liebau is proud to be a prude. In fact, "Proudly, A Prude," is the concluding chapter in her teen-sex-shockfest Prude: How the Sex-Obsessed Culture Damages Girls (and America, Too!) (Center Street). What sets Liebau, an attorney, political analyst and commentator, and self-professed "voice from the right," apart from the spate of other recent books decrying the ills of teen sexual exploration, is her unabashed conservatism and real desire to roll back the clock -- sometimes as far as previous centuries.
Nostalgia is omnipresent in Prude, which reluctantly reckons that the sexual revolution did, in some ways, overhaul bedroom mores in this country: "With so many sexual taboos having been effectively dismantled, perhaps it's no surprise that sexual experimentation doesn't carry the stigma it used to, especially for young girls. Previously unacceptable sexual behavior, like same-sex relationships , is increasingly common, and at younger ages." (Emphasis mine.)
This is a typical Liebau sentiment, one that does nothing to distance itself from its clearly homophobic message. For Liebau is not simply bemoaning the fact that it's easier, and more socially acceptable, for young girls to be sexually active, but also that adult women dare to act this way as well.
In her chapter "Between the Covers," which laments that "sex between teenagers is treated as a given," she blithely glosses over a major issue affecting students' access to information and simply states, "Given its sexual content, it's not surprising that Seventeen was one of the magazines banned from a middle school in 1998." As far as I'm concerned, her follow-up to that (that the magazine's content "was at odds with school policy teaching that abstinence constitutes the best way of preventing the spread of STDs") only serves to infantilize young people. Denying them information will only lead them to seek it out from other, possibly less reputable, sources. But this is of no concern to Liebau.
Liebau is just the latest in a series of writers essentially pitting the good girls against the bad girls -- the good girls being the ones we need to protect, the slutty, bad girls being the ones who are ruining things for the good girls. Her examples are unoriginal and largely unconvincing. While Wendy Shalit cited Bratz dolls and Abercrombie and Fitch in her more nuanced Girls Gone Mild , Liebau's original research leaves much to be desired. (She concludes that R.A. Nelson's YA novel Teach Me "encourages young girls to fantasize about their teachers as sexual objects, thereby ripening them for exploitation by real-life classroom Lotharios." In fact, the student, Nine, almost winds up getting herself and her best friend killed due to her obsessed stalking. It would be quite difficult to read the book and want to emulate her.)
Both books come after a wave of tomes telling us how far we haven't come, baby, from Ariel Levy's feminist take in Female Chauvinist Pigs to Laura Sessions Stepp's supposedly objective journalistic take in Unhooked, and from Jillian Strauss's you-waited-too-long scold The Unhooked Generation , to Hayley DiMarco, who has made a cottage industry of selling girls insecurity around sex (tag line on the back cover of Sexy Girls: How Hot Is too Hot? : "If it ain't on the menu, keep it covered up!")
To be fair, the issue of girls being marketed sex-related products at increasingly young ages should be of concern to everyone -- feminists and conservatives alike. Naomi Wolf zeroed in on a Liebau target, Gossip Girl , in the pages of the New York Times. The shifting sexual landscape, threats of STDs, and reports of younger and younger children becoming sexually active are important issues, but as even Liebau herself points out, simply harping on the twin horrors of pregnancy and STDs is not the best approach.
But Liebau's arguments throughout the book show that she doesn't want to shield only girls from sex, but adults, too. Liebau is horrified that burlesque performer Dita Von Teese was featured in the Los Angeles Times 's calendar section as "fashion's 'it' girl" when she's known for "stripping down to her pasties." She is not just talking about girls when she writes, " ... the idea that everyone has his or her own, individual sexual morality -- which no one else is entitled to challenge -- has contributed immeasurably to the sexualization of American culture. It's also contributed to the death of the concept of sexual shame, which is nothing more than an inner recognition that one has violated established standards of propriety, good taste, and morals." Whose standards? Whose morals? Liebau's? George W. Bush's? Mine? To pretend that Americans can all agree about anything, let alone sex, is preposterous.
Liebau simply wants to bring back the days of the scarlet letter -- and I'm not exaggerating. After lamenting the privatization of religion, she fondly quotes John Adams, circa 1789: " ... Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other." Perhaps this is why Liebau's blurbs come from Dr. Laura and Kate O'Beirne, author of Women Who Make the World Worse . It's apparently inconceivable to her that there are "moral" and "religious" people who would not advocate the wholesale condemnation of sex outside of marriage.
She makes the same tired mistake that so many do, assuming that "sexual freedom" means living in a world where sex doesn't matter, to anyone. Whether we call that "do-me" or "wham, bam, thank you, ma'am," there is so much more to true sexual freedom. But in her world, you're either in a committed, monogamous relationship, or out there screwing anything that moves.
In other words, it would be nice to read a book advocating chastity that does not resort to the "why buy the cow" analogy, whether explicitly or implicitly. Liebau goes there, even in 2007: " ... rather than being taught to value those who decline to engage in easy sex, boys are simply learning to avoid them; it's easier to seek out the girls who will meet their sexual needs while asking nothing in return."
First, this is not necessarily a new trend. Nor is it one I think anyone's applauding. I certainly don't want to see the next generation of teenagers assume that sexual pleasure is for men, while acquiescing to it is for women. I don't deny that there may be gender-based differences when it comes to our approaches to sex and what turns us on; however, the answer to this gap cannot simply be to make girls ashamed of sexual curiosity. It cannot be to urge girls to lord the possibility of sex over boys as a way to "obtain" a relationship.
The greatest hypocrisy of the book is one that Wendy Shalit takes up with far more passion: the mistreated, outcast virgins, such as three girls in Rockdale County, Ga., who "reported being isolated from their peers and even harassed for their decisions." I don't know a single person who would support this kind of sexual hierarchy, especially for teenagers; sex should not be glorified as right for all teens (or adults), but the blanket condemnation for it found in Prude is also uncalled for.
Furthermore, Liebau turns around and does the exact same thing she protests against -- casting derision on others for their sexual activity. Liebau opens her final chapter with a quote from Sarah E. Hinlicky's "Subversive Virginity," which states, "So-called sexual freedom is really just proclaiming oneself to be available for free, and therefore without value. To 'choose' such freedom is tantamount to saying that one is worth nothing."
This statement, which Liebau endorses and goes running with, is exactly where most such books and pundits fail. Instead of simply advocating for chastity and/or abstinence, they must cross the line to insist that their way is the Only Way. The rest of us are just coarse and vulgar sluts who are ruining it for those who want to wait (not an exact quote, but, I believe, an accurate paraphrasing).
What's especially sad about this polarization is that plenty of feminists, even of the "do-me" variety, also care passionately about young women's futures. We want women to succeed and gain access to all the educational, political, and workplace opportunities they can. However, I don't think any of us should have to sacrifice our sexuality in order to do so.
Liebau pits those of us who are sex-positive against those who favor abstinence until marriage, and I'm still not sure why we should have to pick a side. I'm not anti-abstinence or anti-abstinence education. I'm against abstinence- only education, which leaves those who are already exploring sex, or are simply curious about it, at a complete loss. But reading Prude, you'd think we have armies of sex-positive feminists like me recruiting teenage gurks to forget their homework, whip off their clothes, and get busy with their boyfriends. If anything, I'd rather give them vibrators so they can learn about pleasuring themselves first.
One of her weakest chapters is on "Do-Me Feminists and Doom-Me Feminism." First, "do-me feminism" was a term coined by Esquire writer Tad Friend way back in 1994, not by the actual feminists themselves. Every wave of feminism has always included discussion, argument, and difference over the role of sexuality within feminism, so there is no party line when it comes to sex (though I proudly count myself amongst the branch of sex-positive feminism). When she harkens back to Seneca Fakks, she pulls a bit of trickery to state that Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were "hardly champions of sexual promiscuity." Why would they be, at such a time, when they were fighting for the most basic of rights like the right to vote and own property in their names? Meanwhile, she dismisses the highly visionary "free love" advocates Emma Goldman and Victoria Woodhull as simply feminist outcasts, rather than women far, far ahead of their time.
I wish that I could at least conclude that Liebau's heart is in the right place, but I can't. While I share her desire to see young people live out their childhoods without being coerced, by peers or pop culture, into having sex, I can't share in her blanket condemnation of teen sexuality or sexuality in general. Where what she terms "radical feminism" comes in is when we don't just blindly accept studies that show that women who "dress provocatively were perceived as being less intelligent and capable than those who dressed more modestly," but battle those insipid stereotypes. We have to face the fact that there wasn't a universal "good old days." (Liebau decries the existence of teen sex information online, claiming that this "intimate advice ... in an earlier day might have been solicited only in the darkest hallways of the roughest schools -- if there.")
Sex, in and of itself, is not evil. Teenagers have been kissing, petting, making out and "going all the way" for decades, and while they may now be living in a "sex-obsessed culture," it's one we can teach them to navigate by separating fantasy from reality and relegating sex to a role worthy of its stature. It should not be the be-all and end-all of their lives, but it does not have to be treated as something that will immediately taint them.
By the end of Prude, one might almost forget that sex is not just something foisted upon us by consumer culture. It's actually something teenagers and adults are naturally curious about. Yes, they look to pop culture, adults and peers for answers, and certainly there are plenty of ill-suited role models for them. But part of growing up is learning how to synthesize the information presented to you, and every time Liebau criticizes the likes of Britney, Paris, Rhianna and Lil' Kim, she forgets that Elvis was seen as just such a threat in the 1950s.
As someone who is arguably part of Liebau's "sex-obsessed culture," I resent the mischaracterization of that movement. Yet I can see why someone like Liebau, who argues against moral relativism, for religion in public life, and thinks Gossip Girl and Madonna are slutting up our teenagers, the inroads made toward sexual agency for all generations are threatening. As one friend said to me while discussing this book, "Having sex as a teenager saved my life." She was confronted by bullies at school, and took refuge in an affair with an older man. A perfect solution? No. But one that worked for her.
The best I can say about Prude is that it's a pale imitation of several other books that even liberals may find something to appreciate in. Liebau's only preaching to those who are already converted to a narrow-minded, simplistic notion of sexuality, teenagers, and public health. If her goal is to help girls, she'd be better off laying off the shaming and blaming, and instead recognizing that girls today don't have to choose between sex and power -- they know they can have both, and not just in a circumscribed, predetermined Samantha Jones kind of way. Thankfully, despite the likes of Liebau, I don't think moral relativism and sexual self-expression are going anywhere, and I hope teenagers take full advantage of them both.
Rachel Kramer Bussel is a New York-based author, editor and blogger. She is the editor of Best Sex Writing 2008, Hide and Seek, Crossdressing, Heâ€™s on Top, and Sheâ€™s on Top, and host and curator of In The Flesh Reading Series.