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Re-Making Love: The Feminization of Sex by Barbara Ehrenreich, Elizabeth Hess and Gloria Jacobs (Anchor/Doubleday: $15.95; 228 pp.)

December 14, 1986| Mary Ellen Donovan | Donovan is co-author of "Women and Self-Esteem" (Penguin).

A few months ago, I appeared on a TV talk show with Marabel Morgan, the born-again Christian author of the 1970s' best-seller "The Total Woman," which recommended that housewives keep their husbands sexually happy by doing such things as surprising them at the door wearing nothing but Saran Wrap. During the show, Morgan reiterated the importance of pleasing your man in bed, but then confessed she sometimes found this difficult because her husband's sex drive resembles "a 747 busting to get out" while she has "only a tiny little Piper Cub." Morgan's breezy delivery gave no clue that she saw anything at all odd about this admission, but many of the women in the audience responded as though she had said something truly bizarre. As one commented, "The women I know are the 747s--and they're all griping because the men they married aren't even Piper Cubs. They're gliders."

In "Re-Making Love: The Feminization of Sex," Barbara Ehrenreich, Elizabeth Hess and Gloria Jacobs argue that the real sexual revolution of our time is not the one initiated and symbolized by such swaggering celebrants of male libido as Hugh Hefner. The real sexual revolution, they claim, has occurred in the attitudes and behavior of women, and this revolution has taken place at the behest of women, not of men. As the authors demonstrate, 20 years ago, it would have been unthinkable for a demure Christian woman like Morgan to go on TV and discuss her and her husband's differing sex drives. And it would have been even more unthinkable for a woman to claim that when men and women's sex drives differ, it's the men, not the women, who tend to trail behind. But then 20 years ago, women weren't supposed to talk about sex at all; and when they thought about sex, most did not question the veracity of the notion that men desire sex more than women--or the veracity of a lot of other so-called truths about sex either. Women's current freedom to speak openly and think challengingly about sex is, the authors further argue, a direct result of women's struggle for liberation, and thus the backlash against sexual permissiveness we're witnessing today needs to be viewed as a backlash against women's quest for autonomy.

"Re-Making Love" begins with an interesting discussion of Beatlemania, which the authors interpret--correctly, I think--as an expression of mass sexual hysteria among girls who were grappling with two opposing dictates: the moral dictate to conform to the restrictive sexual codes left over from the 1950s, and the economic dictate of the growing consumer marketplace--which was then starting to respond to the newly burgeoning purchasing power of teens--to spend freely in the pursuit of pleasure. Good girls in the early '60s still couldn't go very far with the boys they knew, but they could go berserk buying up Beatles' records, posters and other paraphernalia; and seeing the Fab Four in concert or on TV was an excuse for millions to indulge the girlish desire to let loose and scream in orgiastic frenzy.

After their analysis of Beatlemania, the authors then mine the books, magazines and movies of the 1960s and 1970s to show how radically publicly expressed attitudes toward women's sexuality changed in the post-Beatle years. Whereas in the 1950s, the (usually male) experts agreed on the primacy of the vaginal orgasm, by the 1970s, women had debunked that myth, and the once-sacrosanct notion that sexual intercourse was the only proper route to pleasure was eventually thrown out the window too.

As it takes the reader on a tour of the artifacts of American pop culture, "Re-Making Love" demonstrates beyond doubt that in terms of the public discourse about women's sexuality, there has been a revolution indeed. But by focusing almost exclusively on magazines, books, movies and other examples of public discourse, it leaves the reader with many unanswered questions. Isn't it possible that when they actually get into bed, many of the women who buy Cosmo and sex manuals and go to see male strip shows behave as timidly as their mothers did? Although at one point, the authors comment that "substantial numbers of women" today still feel guilty about sex, the difference between public attitudes toward sex and private behavior and feelings is unfortunately never fully explored.

I don't doubt that there have been great changes in women's private sexual attitudes and behaviors over the past two decades, but "Re-Making Love" doesn't probe deeply enough into the psyches and lives of real women to stand up as the "important study of contemporary sexuality" that its publisher claims it to be. Nevertheless, it does remind us that in the still unfinished struggle for sexual freedom, we've come a long way. And in exposing the hostility to women's autonomy that is behind today's renewed sexual conservatism, it sounds a warning that all of us--whether we be 747s, Piper Cubs or mere gliders--would do well to heed.

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