Jewish World Review July 27, 2006/ 2 Menachem-Av, 5766

Suzanne Fields

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The lamentation of the slut | A man of my acquaintance, he of a certain age, waxes nostalgic about the sexual style of his youth. In his carefree bachelor days nothing ignited his imagination like the "allure of the slut." Loose women have always tempted men. Think Ava Gardner in "The Sun Also Rises" or Lee Remick in "Anatomy of Murder."

For decades, movie characters have been the standards girls measure themselves by. But as the sexual revolution begot working rights for women, the measurements changed. Sexual rites of passage changed, too. Years ago, at one of my high-school class reunions, a woman in our class accepted the prize for being the youngest grandmother. She said, "I never thought I'd win a prize for getting knocked up in high school." But there's nothing funny, as we've learned to our sorrow and society's financial pain, about teenage pregnancy. The poor, as always, suffer most when such mores change.

In The Washington Post, a fashion writer makes fun of young women who prefer not to expose an excess of flesh at the beach or pool and mocks their modesty as an excess of religious faith. In the nation's capital, where most metaphors are political, "WholesomeWear" bathing suits with skirts or culottes are described as the "ultimate coverup." The appeal to virtue is so (early) 20th century.

Fair enough. Everyone's entitled to his or her opinion, but it seems to me that certain cover-ups are a mercy, along with the newfound concern for obesity. The clothes that many women wear are not exactly what Irwin Shaw had in mind with his wonderful short story about "the girls in their summer dresses."

Fashion reflects the times and modesty and femininity are anachronisms in a world in which "slut" is no longer a slur. The word was popularized by gangsta rappers, linking it with "ho" and other denigrating descriptions of women. The rappers must now find another word. The New York Times reports that it has become a term of endearment between women friends, a "fun word" for ladies who lunch. These are the young women who read "The Vagina Monologues" to each other, reveling in the celebration of their body parts.

But despite what bloggers call "the taming of the slut," all does not sound sound in Slursville. Leora Tanenbaum, author of a book called "Slut! Growing Up Female with a Bad Reputation," finds that the word, popular as it may be in certain lunching parties, still inflicts pain and humiliation. She interviewed more than 100 women between the ages of 14 and 66 and tells how "slut" acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy because young women think they're expected to live up to the label. Maybe they are.

Teenage girls, like teenage boys, lie a lot about sex. Their bodies, subject to swift hormonal changes, are further manipulated by pop-cultural expectations not always of their own making. Tom Wolfe drives this notion home in his novel "I Am Charlotte Simmons" about promiscuity on campus. He tells of a sad conversation he overheard in a campus lounge:


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"[A] boy's voice was saying, 'What are you talking about? How could I? We've known each other since before Choate! It would be incest!' And then I heard the girl say, 'Please, come on. I can't stand the thought of having to do it with somebody I hardly know and can't trust.' It turned out that she was beseeching him, her old Platonic friend of years' standing, to please relieve her of her virginity, deflower her. That way she could honestly maintain the proper social stance as an experienced young woman in college."

Concludes Tom Wolfe: "There was a time when the worst ... slut ... for want of a better term ... maintained a virginal and chaste facade. Today, the most virginal and chaste undergraduate wants to create a facade of sexual experience."

Sexually active teenage girls, nevertheless, frequently tell interviewers how they wish they had waited until they were older. In a survey conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation in 2003, more than 6 in 10 girls express that sentiment. No matter how quickly our society pushes young women to grow up, a speeded-up sexual clock is rarely accompanied by the brakes of self-interest.

In a media-saturated culture, appeals to emotion must precede good sense. As the space between romantic innocence and sluttish experience narrows, it's the young who suffer the pangs of rue. Their creative fantasies as well as the range of complex pleasures are haunted with regret and tinged with remorse. The allure of the slut becomes loss and lamentation. The young women are entitled to better.

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© 2006, Suzanne Fields, Creators Syndicate