Too much too soon, or not enough? – Honouring girls’ sexuality

Having been born in the early 1980s, I confess my ignorance about the details of the social atmosphere of the 1960s and 1970s. Yet the more I learn about these decades of “peace”, “free love”, “liberation”, etc., the more I realise how important learning about them is, comparing what is different  between what we take for granted today and what life was like then. Indeed, studying this period feels to me a bit like a lesson in ancient history, yet it is an era that the majority of Australians alive today have lived through, and therefore is directly relevant to those whose parents experienced that era.

It has been Naomi Wolf’s 1997 book Promiscuities which has, in recent weeks, aroused my interest in this historical period. After previously overlooking her as some predictable man-hating feminist with lofty and godless ideologies and nothing particularly relevant to say to me, her book has proven to be thought-provoking, and I have found myself agreeing with her more often than I expected to. Despite her view of sex outside of the marriage covenant as a universal norm, I appreciated her emphasis that female sexuality is an extremely precious gift – something that our world has too often abused, shamed or even sacrificed for the sake of some “higher” calling.

I would like to reiterate a couple of the applications she makes which I think are pretty important, and which are too easily overlooked. In my mind they apply equally to boys as to girls. Firstly, Wolf points out the great need to better protect chidren’s sexual development (by shielding them from inappropriate movies, etc). She sees neglectful parenting and a selfish demand for free speech as the cause of this damaging trend: “Our collective refusal to respect the sexual development of children, in the interest of defending our own freedoms constitutes a collective psychic assault on kids for which we must all take responsibility.” (p.241)

Furthermore, in Wolf’s mind, the distinction between the world of adults and the world of children in recent decades has become so blurred as to no longer exist: “I think that we who were young in the 1960s were perhaps the last generation of Americans who actually had their childhoods, in the… sense of childhood as a space distinct in its roles and customs from the world of adults, oriented around children’s own needs and culture rather than around the needs and culture of adults.” (p.26) This is a tragic reminder for parents to not make their kids grow up too fast.

Lastly, Wolf proposes certain rites of passage for a young girl in the laying of secure foundations for her transition into womanhood. Here, she recommends that a thirteen-year-old girl be taken on a retreat with older women to learn about sex, sexuality, motherhood, and so on. I see the value in giving such recognition and attention to what it means to as a young girl becomes a woman. The silence about human sexuality that still exists in so many homes as children grow up is a devastating tragedy.

These suggestions of Wolf’s are refreshingly thoughtful and practical. Though Promiscuities boldly over-applies Wolf’s very personal and limited experience to a whole generation, it is the intense realness of her (and others’) story which makes it compelling and relevant. As a New York Times review puts it: “Anyone – particularly anyone who, like Ms. Wolf, was born in the 1960’s – will have a very hard time putting down “Promiscuities.””

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