Boldly, Carol Platt Liebau recently wrote a book about sex in America called Prude. To mark Valentine’s Day, National Review Online editor Kathryn Jean Lopez asked Liebau about her book and our over-sexed culture.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: Isn’t declaring yourself a “Prude” a sure-fire way to never get a heart-shaped diamond on Valentine’s Day?
Carol Platt Liebau: Well, it certainly isn’t a recipe for romance! Our culture understands a “prude” to be someone who is “sexually conservative and no fun” — as Columbia University’s online health counselor defined the word in response to a question from a self-described “thirteen year old clueless girl.” Who could blame a guy for being a little leery of someone who describes herself that way?
But as I point out in the book, the word “prude” derives from the old French “prude femme,” meaning “a good or virtuous woman.” It’s revealing that, these days, the term “slut” has become a widely accepted, affection term of familiarity among girlfriends, but being labeled a “prude” is nothing short of a social disaster.
Lopez: How is popular culture letting girls down? Is it doing the same to boys?
Liebau: America’s popular culture has been letting girls down by teaching them, over and over, that the most important attribute they can have is “sexiness” — that it’s more noteworthy than character, intelligence, or talent. “Sexy” has become the ultimate accolade, which is why everything from hair mousse to shades of lipstick to chefs to cameras are touted as being sexy. When sexiness is the standard for what’s deemed to be interesting and important, then of course you’re going to see more girls doing everything from wearing revealing clothes to engaging in over-the-top sexual behaviors.
All of this has a spillover effect on boys, of course. When girls are encouraged to be coarse, there’s a coarsening effect on boys, too, because boys live up (or down) to the standards girls set for them. Certainly, when girls behave in vulgar or crass ways, it erodes boys’ innate desire to cherish, respect and protect them — which has always been one of the marks of a civilized society. What’s more, bad behavior by girls enables and normalizes bad behavior on the boys’ parts, so there ends up being more of it all around.
Lopez: You also point out that “young women in America have never had it better.” So why whine about the culture when there’s plenty good about it?
Liebau: “Whining”?! I hope not! Certainly, as I point out in Prude, by a whole host of measures — including school attendance and academics — girls are routinely outperforming boys, and writers like Christina Hoff Sommers have explained brilliantly why young men need our concern and attention in the areas where they’re falling short.
Given how far, how fast girls have come, it becomes easy to dismiss the impact that the aggressive sexualizing of American culture has had on them. But it’s important to remember that many girls can grow up to experience great professional or economic success and still suffer deep and long-lasting physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual damage from having given too much, too soon.
Lopez: What is do-me feminism? And doom-me? Have feminists doomed American women?
Liebau: American women aren’t victims — and feminists don’t have the power to “doom” them without their own complicity. Nonetheless, pernicious attitudes with their genesis in radical feminism have infiltrated popular culture to a startling degree. Chief among them is the concept of “do-me feminism,” which is the idea that somehow it’s “empowering” for girls to act like the worst kinds of men when it comes to sex. In this formulation, sexual activity devoid of emotion or commitment is the goal — and the hallmark of true female liberation.
The problem is that “do-me feminism” sets girls up for failure when it comes to their dealings with the opposite sex. As long as girls are innately more invested in relationships and emotions than boys are (as studies — and common sense — indicate), they will be at a grave disadvantage in a sexual landscape where optional, emotion-free, commitment-less sex is deemed the ultimate in “coolness” and liberation.
Ironically, do-me feminism has made it more difficult for girls to obtain the attention, affection, and connection they want from boys, even as its influence has made it harder for them to refuse what many boys want — sexual activity. By convincing girls that it somehow makes sense for them to offer their bodies quickly and easily, do-me feminism has essentially persuaded them to surrender their most effective means for securing the kind of male attention that they most desire.
As I argue in Prude, the whole concept of “do-me feminism” has done women a terrible disservice. Although they are — and certainly should be — considered equal before the law and in the eyes of the culture, men and women simply aren’t the same. Girls are being led to believe they’re in control when it comes to sexual relationships. In truth, however, they’re living in a profoundly anti-feminist landscape where girls compete for attention on the basis of how much they are sexually willing to do for the boys.
Lopez: What’s the alternative? Are there solid pop-culture models?