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Carol Platt Liebau is a conservative, and her book Prude documents and bemoans the way that girls are exposed to sexuality in our culture. It's a careful book at least in its early chapters, however, rather than the usual rush to judgment by religious conservatives, and Liebau makes some strong points. Even if one disagrees with her point of view, her argument deserves attention.
The first half of the book catalogs the ways in which young girls are exposed to sex, are more sexual, and are having sex. There are chapters on sexual activity, the Internet, teen fiction, TV and movies, pop music, and clothing. Here, Liebau makes a strong case that girls are increasingly more casual about sex, are exposed to sexual material more often and from an earlier age, and have pressures on them to act more sexually in order to win approval from others. She goes on to argue that this is harmful for girls, because it exposes them to more dangers, physically, educationally, and socially. She criticizes feminists who have failed to condemn this cultural trend, and the libertarians who value freedom without morality. She ends by discussing what parents can do to protect their daughters and to work towards a less sexually-saturated society.
American culture has changed a great deal in the last 50 years, with the prevalence of the Internet, cell phones and TV, so it is difficult to compare life now with life then and find whether our culture is more sexualized than it was in the past. But TV and popular music have certainly become more sexually explicit in recent decades. Standards of dress for young girls have also changed quite dramatically, so younger girls are now dressing more provocatively. It is quite clear that most children are see hardcore pornography much earlier in their lives than used to be the case. Liebau points out that even well-run responsible websites like Sex, Etc. put very little emphasis on moral judgment about sexual activity, leaving it up to individuals to decide what they think right. Liebau discusses books like the Gossip Girl series and other books aimed at teenaged girls with strong sexual themes. She points out they tend to be very open towards the ideas of girls having sex without love and make no mention of morality. The same attitude is found in the teen magazine industry, in titles such as Seventeen and Cosmo GIRL! TV is full of barely disguised sexual innuendo on prime time, and of course many pop songs are similarly explicit, with videos to match. Liebau compiles a good many examples to make her case reasonably convincing regarding the sexualization of youth culture.
The critical part of the book is less compelling. Leibau documents the correlation between earlier sexual activity and more STDs, more emotional problems, teen pregnancy, and lower achievement in school. However, she pays little attention to the potential positive effects of teens feeling more open about sexuality, and she tends to lump all the changes together, not distinguishing between sexuality that demeans girls and that which empowers them. She does make some attempt to address feminist views that embrace a positive sexuality, but given that the title of this chapter is "Do Me Feminists and Doom-Me Feminism," it is clear from the start that she is only going to address a straw version of feminism. Her characterization of modern feminism seems to derive from Sex and the City and has the single premise that girls should be as sexually open and aggressive as possible. However, it will be impossible to find any real feminist who take such a simplistic view, and certainly most academic feminists would disavow it.
Prude falls into further traditional conservative rhetoric when Lieblau focuses on the sexual revolution and the idea of sexual liberation from the 1960s. Although she does not fall into the worst excesses of religious conservatives, she mentions the usual targets: the 2003 Supreme Court decision Lawrence v Texas that struck down a homosexual sodomy law, the 1966 Supreme Court decision that the sexually explicit bawdy novel Fanny Hill was not obscene, the 1960s counter culture, the supposed removal of religion from public life reinforced by the Supreme Court, and even the TV show The West Wing. She labels the change in values our society has experience as "moral relativism" and claims that sexual liberation has made society less free. However, she provides no substantial argument to make her case. It is far from obvious that young women were more free in the sexually repressive 1950s than they are today, and its hard to know what would prove it. Nothing that Liebau writes counts as good evidence. Furthermore, it is obviously true that our greater acceptance of gay, lesbian and transgendered people has increased their freedom.
Liebau's solution is a return to more traditional gender roles according to which young women preserve their honor and are courted by men. This may indeed be a possible solution, but Leibau doesn't address the problems it brings with it, of reinforcing a gender difference that makes men more active than women. Her book tends to assume that the choice available to us is beyond traditional sexual conservativism and crude sexual aggressiveness.
It's the lack of a vision of a realistic way to improve our society that is the real disappointment of Prude. The closest that Liebau comes is in documenting a few initiatives in her final chapter. Her main argument is that we have been able to reduce the numbers of people who smoke cigarettes and we have had successful movements against drunk driving, so we should be able to change society so it is more respectful of young women and less tolerant of sexual crudity in popular culture. She points to Oprah Winfrey as an example of someone who has a good attitude and influences many people, and she, rather bizarrely, gives prominent place to Princeton University's student run Anscombe Society, which adheres to Catholic values and promotes the virtue of chastity. She discusses some school programs that give students activities so they don't have so much time to get into trouble. But that's basically it. Liebau barely mentions abstinence movements and the popularity of teen pledges for chastity, probably because there is so little indication that they have had any success in actually reducing premarital sex in young people (see the January 2009 article in Pediatrics, "Patient Teenagers? A Comparison of the Sexual Behavior of Virginity Pledgers and Matched Nonpledgers," by Janet Elise Rosenbaum. But the failure of the chastity pledge approach is a good indication of the problems faced by anyone who wants to change teens' sexual attitudes and behavior, and Liebau's paltry suggestions amount to very little.
The failure to provide a solution does not mean that there isn't a problem. Popular culture is certainly crude and people don't have many skills to think about how to live their lives. Whether life is worse now than it was 50, 100, or 200 years ago is not really the issue; rather we need to think about how to improve our existing culture. Although it is trite to say it, it is nevertheless true that we need to move forwards rather than moving backwards. We can look at the young people who make good choices, and don't end up with STDs, have early pregnancies, get into exploitative or abusive relationships, and have a healthy sexuality, and see how they have accomplished this. My guess is that a key element is good parenting, something that Lieblau spends almost no time at all on. These examples of success parenting should help us work out how to guard against the dangers of our sexualized culture.
Note that while there are about 50 pages of careful notes, there is no index at all.
© 2009 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York.