The New Prudes
'Sex-obsessed culture' excites 'good old days' fantasies.
- Prude: How the Sex-Obsessed Culture Damages Girls (and America, Too!)
- Center Street (2007)
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!). 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 her 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.
Sluts and virgins
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 young adult 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.
Scolding the grown-ups, too
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 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. 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.
What 'good old days'?
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 girls 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.
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.