There’s no doubt writer Naomi Wolf came of age in a rough situation. Picture Haight-Ashbury in the mid-‘70s, parents who partied through the night and on through the next day, and the next night, teenage slumber parties with boys and parents who thought that was OK. Picture the drugs and the excess. Boys who said yes, yes, yes. And no one home to say no. Those were Wolf’s teen years; she shared them all with us in her best-selling book “Promiscuities: The Secret Struggle for Womanhood,” released earlier this year. The author wove memoir with sociological studies to tell a story of teen years especially difficult for girls. Critics championed the book for its advice that girls be taught their sexuality is sacred. And critics skewered Wolf for attempting to generalize her own sordid teenage experiences to all girls coming of age in the wake of the ‘60s sexual revolution.
But on a three-month book tour earlier this year, and through the many speeches she’s given post-publication, she discovered her message resonates loud and clear in the ‘90s. Wolf will talk about “Promiscuities” at Eastern Washington University in Cheney on Oct. 28 as the first speaker in the EWU series “Eastern Dialogues: Opening Doors to the 21st Century.”
In the ‘70s, Wolf’s coming-of-age experiences in Haight-Ashbury hardly represented most girls’ experiences. Move ahead 20 years and the pressures she faced, the decisions, and the lack of structure seem like just another day at the mall. That’s why Wolf thinks parents and teen girls and teachers embraced her book. She tosses out the hot words of the ‘90s: sacredness and values and boundaries. But that doesn’t mean she’s raced for the political or spiritual right.
“I know it seems weird to be a feminist talking about spiritual values or treating sexuality as a treasure,” she said in a telephone interview last week. “Initially it’s an echo of the most repressive religious conservatism. But I don’t think the language of the past should keep us from doing something important, which is to make spiritual language our own, whether on the left or the right, feminist or not. The right wing doesn’t own the sense of sacred. There’s a new kind of movement about to crest on the American scene: the spiritual left. It’s people who came out of civil rights or feminism or the gay community asking the same set of social questions, but from a lot of spiritual questions they are coming up with different answers.”
Wolf doesn’t call for reversing the sexual revolution in “Promiscuities,” nor does she suggest we simply give up and melt into hedonism. Rather, she suggests we learn from the sexual revolution and complete the movement by getting to a place where we honor our sexuality.
“I have a young daughter and I want her to value sex more than I could, to not have intercourse earlier than she is ready to have it,” Wolf said. “I want us to create a society where both boys and girls could say this is as far as I want to go. It seems clear teenagers need safe places to go to get to know each other.
“Teens are bombarded with morally bankrupt messages. We need to use our words to weave a context, to see sexuality with a moral grounding - that sexuality is something that’s supposed to unfold on their terms. There is no such thing as a sheltered child these days.”
While she’s in the Pacific Northwest this week, Wolf will finalize plans to establish an institute for young women near Bend, Ore., and launch a $4.5 million investment drive. “It will be a leadership institute for women age 20 to 28, where they learn basic empowerment skills and skills of preparedness,” she said.
“One of the reasons we want to find a really big piece of land is to give the women the experience of wandering freely whether it’s midnight hikes or staying up all night out in the wilderness, without feeling the usual set of anxieties. We want them to feel safe and free in relation to space. We want the perfect setting for the women to unlearn habits of disempowerment and to learn the expansive possibility of positive-oriented ways of thinking,” she said.
Wolf’s next book will be about becoming a mother. In 1991 while she was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University, Wolf wrote “The Beauty Myth,” in which she examined how cultural standards of beauty damage women. She followed in 1993 with “Fire With Fire: The New Female Power,” in which she explored new opportunities for female empowerment.
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MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: NAOMI WOLF AT EWU Naomi Wolf will speak on Oct. 28 at 7:30 p.m. at the Eastern Washington University Showalter Auditorium in Cheney. The talk is free and open to the public.