Not nearly naughty enough, Naomi

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The Independent Online
Naomi Wolf, the American feminist, has decided that we are all "bad girls". This is the essence of her new book, Promiscuities, which she is coming to Britain to promote and via which she hopes to rehabilitate "the shadow slut who walks alongside us".

In what way are we bad girls? It is not made clear, but seems to be linked to the fact that women have sexual histories which they do not wish to make public. In the interests of the sisterhood, however, Ms Wolf is now prepared to lay bare her own. Promiscuities, to be published on 24 April, is not just a self-help manual for sluts, but her own "erotic autobiography".

Is it unfortunate that Ms Wolf's erotic adventures were relatively mild, mostly confined to gentle relationships with men called Andrew and Martin? It certainly gives her less material to work with. There was the nasty incident when the 10-year-old Naomi was lured into an acanthus bush by a young man with priapic inclinations, and the teenage boyfriend with a habit of punching walls. Luckily she has access to her friends' erotic autobiographies, so we can learn how Michelle and Dinah and Tia coped with their own emerging puberty.

The problem is that the anecdotes are a bizarre combination of the everyday and the outdated: the experience of girls who grew up in the drug-suffused psychedelia of the Seventies seems barely relevant today.

Ms Wolf made her name with the feminist blockbuster The Beauty Myth, and her new book emphasises at every turn the Western obligation to be pretty and sexy. As readers retrace Ms Wolf's faltering steps through her San Franciscan puberty they are bombarded with images of her and her friends comparing budding breasts, flashing at passing traffic, exchanging sexual tips and perfecting their gameplan to attract an "alpha male".

But these teenagers were themselves bombarded with other, more corrupting, images: of topless models and eroticised images of women in see-through muslin on posters. From early on their Barbie dolls taught them how to be sexual: "chest forward, bust out, limbs rigid". But even Barbie was a slut, they decided. "How did we think Barbie paid for her wardrobe, the candy-apple-pink convertible, and the ranch-style bachelor-girl house with the plastic rock garden? We half-guessed that she lived in that fabulous house because someone out of the picture - some man, not Ken, not handsome and young - was picking up the tab. She wasn't an heiress ... Barbie was something like a call girl."

Ms Wolf believes great harm is done by society's reluctance to glorify the "shadow slut" in women. Now respectably married to a speechwriter for Bill Clinton, she wants to "redeem" the slut in herself and others by revealing her sexual life story - the loss of her virginity in a seedy hotel, the professor who tried to seduce her with sherry and a hot hand between her thighs.

But one is finally forced to ask: who wants to read this stuff? Who cares that Naomi searched the racks until she found her dream wedding-dress - "a marked-down beat-up yellowing gown with a vast skirt of netting". Who wants to know that "I wanted the dress I wore to say the opposite of what married love too often says: I wanted it to say that we would keep travelling, that desire would still drive me out of doors"?

Often the most perceptive insights came from the women whose sex lives Ms Wolf raided. The most thought-provoking was from Mandy, who was gang- raped while studying for an MA in mathematics. Promiscuities relates the two women's conversation about it: "'Why didn't you tell your instructor?' I asked. And she explained the nature of the profound silence which most survivors of the more unbelievable narratives of sexual assault inhabit.

"'You know,' she said, 'you can say: The cat ate my homework, or, I broke up with my boyfriend. But you can't really tell people: Two weeks ago Thursday I was gang-raped.'

"No one believes that things like this happen. Or if they do, no matter how hard they try not to, the strangeness and horror of it - they project that not onto the rapist, but onto me. And always, then, I'd be that girl who got raped. That Martian.'"

So much for revealing your erotic autobiography.

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