The more than 400 people who attended author and feminist Naomi Wolf's March 28 Women's History Month keynote address were the first U.S. audience to hear material Wolf is planning to use in a book she is currently writing. The address was titled "Promiscuities: Reinvisioning Female Desire and a New Sexual Ethic."
The book, which Wolf described as still a work in progress, will address the question, What is the real nature of female sexual desire? She said that while some recent media material "addresses what women mechanically respond to sexually, there's still a sense of, `Is that all there is?' We still have this sense of ourselves and our bodies being in conflict with the scripts of our sexual culture."
In light of the many myths that women are brought up with (A woman's worth is determined by her looks," "Being beautiful equals being thin," etc.), "it's a wonder we're not more nuts than we are," Wolf said.
She cited three prominent myths:
1) In light of the archaic beliefs about women's sexuality from the past few centuries, women are unrealistic to expect anything better than they have today. Wolf said many myths about female sexuality have emerged from Western culture over the past several hundred years: women can't conceive without orgasm; women have orgasms but can't feel them; women who express sexual desire are deviants. The emergence of such myths, Wolf explained, says a lot more about the men who created them than about women. Many of these emerged at times when cultural conditions "threatened to liberate women and their desire."
2) Men are the more sexual gender compared to women. Wolf said that Masters and Johnson dispelled this myth when they found that the average woman can have as many as 20-50 consecutive orgasms. "That's intimidating, but not aberrant," she said. "Anatomically, women are designed for a staggering capacity for sexual pleasure. This not only does away with the false distinction between clitoral and vaginal orgasm, but also suggests that nature has ensured that women will bond with men who satisfy them sexually."
Wolf also said that women are more sexually responsive after they've given birth, because more blood is able to flow to the sex organs. "That's nature's way of making sure that women will risk conception more than once," she said. "This also means that a woman in her 40s will be more of a sex goddess than the nubile Cosmo girl in her 20s."
3) Today's women live in an erotic paradise that no previous time or culture has ever approached. Wolf said that during the time of China's Han Dynasty (202 B.C.-220 A.D.), the satisfaction of female sexual desire was seen as the key to harmony and well being for the entire culture. "This whole belief system," Wolf said, "was focused on improving the sexual technique of men to enjoy the benefits that accompanied the satisfaction of women's sexual desire. I can't imagine rape existing in such a culture, because if women weren't aroused, men harmed themselves." She pointed out that the Han Dynasty identified 50 gradations of the stages of female sexual desire, in contrast to the two or three stages described by 20th-century Western researchers.
The Han Dynasty's view of women, Wolf said, could have profound implications for today's women. "How different would a 14-year-old girl feel about herself if she heard metaphors of preciousness used to describe her sexuality?" Wolf said.
Ultimately, Wolf said, individual women must challenge the entire Western distinction between good girls and bad girls, particularly in light of society's approval (and even encouragement) of male sexual desire. A woman who hears someone criticizing another woman who has been raped or assaulted because she was "asking for it" must not be silent. "Whenever you hear somebody saying something like that," Wolf said, "you have to speak up and say, `That's me too. When you call her a bad girl, then you call me a bad girl too.'"