Barbara Ehrenreich | Critical Review by Judith Viorst

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Barbara Ehrenreich.
This section contains 989 words
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Critical Review by Judith Viorst

SOURCE: "Rolling Back the Lust Frontier," in New York Times Book Review, September 14, 1986, p. 9.

In the following review, Viorst praises Re-Making Love.

It was women—it wasn't men—whose sexual attitudes and behavior drastically changed within the past two decades. The sexual revolution, Barbara Ehrenreich, Elizabeth Hess and Gloria Jacobs compellingly argue, is actually women's sexual revolution. Thus the counterrevolution, the sexual backlash that emerged in the early 1980's, is primarily directed against women and is a threat to women's achievements in "the remaking and reinterpretation of sex."

Much of Re-making Love is devoted to tracing these achievements over the past 20 years. The high value placed on virginity, the primacy of the vaginal orgasm, the linking of femininity to passivity, the condemnation of sexual fantasy and variety were accepted mainstream doctrine until the 60's. And although there is not much new in the parts of the book describing how we got from there to here, this intelligent, thought-provoking social history makes very lively reading.

The authors begin with Beatlemania, arguing that this shrieking, sobbing, moaning outburst of mass hysteria, this total abandonment of control, was "the first and most dramatic uprising of women's sexual revolution. "True, we had seen such carryings-on before—in the swooning over Frankie, the screaming for Elvis. But Beatlemania far surpassed these earlier teen-age frenzies, blowing the lid off a lusty sexuality that nice young girls were not supposed to possess.

The 60's were also a time, note the authors, of a rapidly emerging singles culture, as thousands of women—exploring new vistas between graduation and Mr. Right—flocked to cities. The message was growing louder that nice girls not only wanted to do it but were actually doing it. The birth control pill, commercially available in 1960, was helping them do it without getting pregnant. And the validation of clitoral sexuality was helping them do it with more pleasure.

Soon mainstream women, inside and outside marriage, were pursuing not only more but better sex, instructed by guides, available at every local bookstore, to the wilder shores of sexual rapture. As women became consumers of sexual pleasure, the marketplace offered ever more daring sex gear—vibrators, fruit-flavored lotions, ankle restraints—sometimes sold in middle-class homes at women's Tupperware-style get-togethers. Indeed, the authors say, the commercialization of sex and the search for new commodities continue to expand "the lust frontier" to the point (and I find this assertion surprising) where sadomasochism has been brought into the mainstream.

The sexual revolution has been broad enough to include radical feminist lesbians as well as Christian fundamentalist women. In her popular book The Total Woman, the fundamentalist Marabel Morgan urged wives to transform themselves into one-woman harems. Her piquant mix of sex and evangelism inspired a flood of zesty Christian sex manuals. But female fundamentalist sexual pleasure, the authors point out, is restricted to marriage, which still insists upon the submission of women.

It is clear that women's sexual transformation is not always linked to the liberation of women. Indeed, the feminist movement, which had initially embraced the women's sex revolution, is now separated from and to some extent at odds with it. Why? Because most feminists, say the authors, consider sexual issues peripheral to women's political and economic goals and because some feminists regard heterosexual sex per se as female subordination.

In the last chapters the authors move into a fascinating, disturbing discussion of women's reactions to their own revolution. They note that women have for the most part failed to claim their victory the transformation of physical sex from phallocentric intercourse to a variety of erotic possibilities, from an act burdened with meanings like love and surrender to one that might be engaged in simply for pleasure. They find that while women enjoy their expanded sexual opportunities, they are also afraid of sexual liberation. For if sex is not to be bartered for a relationship, more women may wind up going it alone. More often than men, they will face the prospect of economic hard times, of depreciation of their sexual value in the marketplace as they age and of life without sex.

The sexual backlash—urging less promiscuity, more restraint—has been able to feed on these real anxieties. The authors, giving too little weight to both sexes' fears of herpes and AIDS, take the view that this counterrevolution is "a campaign against women and their sex lives. "They conclude with an eloquent plea to feminism to involve itself with sexual liberation, to acknowledge the great victory that women have achieved, to protect it from being trivialized or rescinded, to assert that pleasure for women—sexual pleasure unburdened by meaning—is a legitimate social goal.

The authors, all of whom have written widely on feminist topics, present their views with clarity and forcefulness. They ask us "to set aside, at least temporarily, both feminist and conservative dogmas about what is good and bad or right and wrong when it comes to sex." If anyone needs reminding of the distance women have come, this is the book to read—and then to wrestle with. For Re-making Love requires us all to think about the meaning of sex in our lives.

I find the authors persuasive when they claim that a broader view of the physical sex act is sexual progress. But I find myself resisting their wish to free sexual pleasure from larger meanings—not because such divestiture is immoral but because it is a gyp. There are plenty of pleasures around that can be savored with little emotional investment. I think everyone gains if we—men and women—regard sex both as a pleasure and a big deal. Barbara Ehrenreich, in a brilliant earlier book, The Hearts of Men, called for "some renewal of loyalty and trust between adult men and women." Can casual sex be the answer to that call? The old male styles of careless love need not remain the model for female—for human—sexual liberation. Linking erotic pleasure to genuine concern for one's sexual partner may be a better way of remaking love.

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This section contains 989 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Judith Viorst