books: Queen of tarts

Joan Smith tracks a Wolf into virgin territory; Promiscuities: a secret history of female desire by Naomi Wolf, Chatto & Windus, pounds 12.99
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Everything about Naomi Wolf's new book suggests it is going to be racy stuff. A woman's naked torso stretches langorously from top to bottom of the cover, overprinted with one of those pejorative words, this time Promiscuities, which feminist writers delight in reclaiming. As a title, it promises radical readings, not just a re-interpretation of the longing for multiple sexual experience but a new way of thinking about desire.

This impression is reinforced by the sub-title, with its knowing reference to another Secret History - that of Procopius, the Greek historian who chronicled the excesses of the Byzantine emperor Justinian and his wife Theodora. Inside, in her introduction, Wolf picks up the theme of transgression, arguing that "our sexual histories are often tapestries stitched around great areas of silence". Women who dare acknowledge a sexual "past" are scapegoated, she says, in a process that whips the rest of us - the "good" girls - into line.

The answer, she argues, is to recover the "slut" who walks alongside us like a shadow self. She writes that "It will not be safe for us to live comfortably in our skins until we say: you can no longer separate us out from one another. We are all bad girls". The way she chooses to do this is by revealing the sexual histories of herself and some of her friends, women who grew up together in San Francisco in the 1970s.

Intercut with these stories are passages of anthropology and history, intended to demonstrate that the contempt for female sexuality Wolf and her contemporaries discovered is specific to a time and place - the US West Coast at the height of the sexual revolution. These sit oddly together, from an account of Wolf's successful attempt to fight off a lecherous professor to a discussion of attitudes to desire in the Holy Roman Empire, Native American culture or "ancient Chinese civilisations".

These sketchy accounts of other times, other places, are necessary to protect the book from the charge that it is - like Wolf's The Beauty Myth - a piece of disguised autobiography. So self-obsessed is Promiscuities that it seems to exist for the most part without context, its angry rhetoric engaging with female desire as though Wolf is an explorer stepping boldly into virgin territory. She simply does not know, it seems, who or what has gone before.

Yet the book's core question - how girls and women can succeed in defining themselves sexually in a culture which stigmatises the free expression of female desire - has been at the heart of feminist debate for the past three decades. This is true both of the private sphere Wolf writes about - female friends, and in the more structured forum of 1970s consciousness- raising groups - and in a wealth of published material.

Women have been grappling with the problem of reclaiming the sexual self in texts as diverse as Anais Nin's diaries, in which she constructed a defiantly sexual persona for public consumption, and the work of Nancy Friday and Shere Hite on female sexuality. The same inquiry is at the heart of Linda Fiorentino's role in John Dahl's film The Last Seduction, the recent lesbian thriller Bound, Susannna Moore's controversial erotic novel In The Cut and almost everything Madonna has ever said or done.

This is not to claim that the problem has been solved, or that there is nothing left to say. What it does mean is that the subject requires more than Wolf's artless solipsism; this is a volume, after all, which devotes an entire chapter to how she chose her wedding dress. For a book entitled Promiscuities, Wolf's account of her own sexual history is rather pedestrian but it reinforces the impression, gleaned from her two earlier works, that her most compelling subject is herself.

In that sense, the book reveals more about the state of American feminism - its preference for personalities and its seemingly endless taste for confessional literature - than its ostensible focus. What it emphasises, like her earlier volumes, is that Naomi Wolf has almost everything - passion, anger, self confidence - an author needs. What she does not have, as Promiscuities makes painfully clear, is ideas.