January 13, 2007

Sexless and the City

By: Cheryl Miller

Helen of Troy may have launched a thousand ships but Carrie Bradshaw has launched a thousand book proposals. Ever since Candace Bushnell’s novel Sex and the City became a hit TV series for HBO, the bed-hopping single played by Sarah Jessica Parker, in her famous Manolo Blahniks, has become a cultural shorthand for life after the Sexual Revolution: How do you find lasting love and happiness in a world of casual hookups? What does it really mean to be “liberated” or “empowered?” And what do you do if you’re still not married by age 30?

The official Sex and the City answer to those questions isn’t clear. Was the show an unreflective celebration of the values of the Sexual Revolution, with its glamorous leads pursuing sex and career as doggedly as any man? Or was it a betrayal of those values, its narcissistic heroines too fixated on shopping and dating to give a thought to the Equal Rights Amendment? Or was it a vindication of traditional values (albeit in a roundabout way) and a rejection of the single life in favor of fulfillment in marriage and commitment?

It seems like the writers initially had the first idea in mind, but the fans wanted a more traditional fairy-tale ending, and the series closed with all four characters in committed relationships. So maybe there’s more to happiness than single sex in a bohemian city? Recently, I met with three female authors — Dawn Eden, Carol Platt Liebau, and Jennifer Marshall — who think they have the answer: Women don’t need more sex, they need less.

And, of course, they each had something to say about Carrie….

“Pathetic hags…” “[with nothing] to aspire to other than being attractive, having pretty clothes and having sex…” — Dawn Eden on Sex and the City

I’m running late for my interview with New York Daily News editor and blogger Dawn Eden at Japonica, a hip sushi bar in Greenwich Village. I finally make it to the door and take a quick look around. I spot her immediately. She’s wearing a feather boa, a black leather cap and some sparkly silver jewelry — a get-up I recognize from pictures on her blog, The Dawn Patrol.

When I sit down and take out my ancient Sony tape recorder, she coos over it: “I just love seeing an old-fashioned cassette recorder.” She is not at all what you would expect a Christian author who has just finished a book about the virtues of chastity to be like.

But then her book, The Thrill of the Chaste: Finding Fulfillment While Keeping Your Clothes On (W Publishing, January 2007), is not what you might expect from a Christian bookstore either. On the cover, the cut-off face of a young woman broods sexily over the New York City skyline. It could be the cover of the latest Candace Bushnell novel.

Dawn began writing about chastity and her conversion to Christianity on The Dawn Patrol. Born Dawn Eden Goldstein in Galveston, Texas, she was raised in a Reform Jewish household. As a child she was fascinated by religion and began reading the Bible at age 4. As she grew up, she lost her early faith, flirted with the occult for a while, and finally became an agnostic. Her early enthusiasm for religion was channeled into a new obsession, Sixties pop music.

In 1999, at the age of 31, Dawn had a born-again experience and began to identify as a “Jew who’s accepted Jesus as the Messiah.” Then, in her mid-30s, she began exploring Catholicism and decided to convert. (She completed her conversion last year.) She also began to experiment with chastity. Her first stop, at a Christian bookstore, was not encouraging.

“The books there,” she explains, “they were books with titles like Lady in Waiting where, you know, the cover of the book has this old-fashioned hat…sitting on an empty bench.” Worse, they all seemed geared to younger women who, it was assumed, were still virgins. Where were the books for people like her who had “been around the block a few times” and wanted to get off the “casual sex merry-go-round”? In 2005, Greg Daniels, vice president of W Publishing, spotted a profile of Dawn in The New York Observer and suggested she write a book. She had an idea: Chastity needed a makeover.

The Thrill of the Chaste reads like an issue of Cosmo would if Cosmo quoted G.K. Chesterton as well as Erica Jong. The prose is lively, mixing pop culture and dating tips with Catholic theology. Chaste women aren’t shallow “singles”; they’re deep “singulars.” The line in Psalm 49 about the “iniquity of my heels” leads to a discussion of Carrie Bradshaw and her Manolos. And like many an advice columnist before her, Dawn suggests women form clubs, join volunteer groups, and avoid bars in their search for Mr. Right.

Some of Dawn’s dating horror stories could make even Carrie Bradshaw blush. Before she converted to Christianity, Dawn was a pop-music historian, which may explain why she has so little good to say of dating in her pre-chastity days. The music scene was a “good environment for learning about debauchery,” she says only half-jokingly. At the tender age of 14, she was sneaking off to New York City to meet up with the extraordinarily creepy Travis, a 32-year-old music journalist whose side job was writing for pornographic magazines. Three years later, when they ran into each other at a book party, Travis bragged to his friends about how she used to come over to his place but they could only neck because she was a virgin.

Dawn is unflinchingly open about almost every detail of her life — both on her blog and in her book — whether the topic is her parents’ painful divorce, her struggles with her weight, her bouts of depression, her sexual history, or her SAT scores. Not everyone has been pleased with her candor. She was fired from her headline-writing job at The New York Post last year in part because the paper was concerned about her blog and its often extreme rhetoric.

Dawn is not altogether happy about her “too-far-right-for-the-Post” reputation and insists she’s not “a wingnut straight from Jesusland.” Still, she concedes she has always had something of a dogmatic streak. When she was five, she wrote a letter to her rabbi titled “My Sermon,” which criticized her mother for not taking her to services the previous Friday. On The Dawn Patrol, she can be just as unyielding about her socially conservative views. She is a pro-life absolutist and a staunch enemy of Planned Parenthood, which she compares to Nazi eugenicists and Satanists. Along with Rick Santorum, she warns that gay marriage will lead to “a cultural breakdown that opens the door to state-sanctioned polygamy and bestiality.” When I press her on her views of feminism, she says the positive achievements of the Sexual Revolution are “akin to Mussolini’s making the trains run on time.”

Yet, for all her red-meat rhetoric, Dawn — in person at least — is not a scold. She has a playful sense of humor, which shows in her headline-writing at the Post. She wrote, “Dylan Sells Out for a Thong?” about Bob Dylan’s Victoria Secret commercial, “The Lady Is a Trump” on Donald and Melania Trump’s wedding, and, my favorite, “Amazing Gross” on The Passion‘s blockbuster opening weekend.

Her religious conviction seems to be another instance of her intense enthusiasm for everything she takes up. Outside the bedroom, you might say, Dawn Eden goes all the way. She has only passionate feelings about the evil of abortion, the genius of G.K. Chesterton, and the greatness of Sixties pop. One boyfriend made a game out of her devotion to pop music — called “Stump Dawn.” He would name a Billboard Top 100 song from the Sixties and she’d reply with the artist, record label, producer, songwriter, and approximate chart position. “I could be, ahem, a little obsessive,” she says — a trait which she got from her mother, who, like Dawn, has played a bit of spiritual hopscotch.

To some, though, Dawn can seem a bit flighty. One friend, WABC radio host Ron Kuby, sent her an email after hearing she was converting to Catholicism. Naturally she posted it on her blog. “Some women do this stuff with guys — you do it with religions,” he wrote. “Did you ever think that you should just take a breather and think less about God and more about what Dawn Eden believes without the help of a big invisible person in the sky?”

When I ask Dawn about Kuby’s email, she pauses. How does she know this conversion experience is for real? It’s a fair question, she allows, and one which her mother faced when announcing her own conversion to Christianity after decades of religious experimentation.

Dawn explains that she had a “hypnagogic experience”: She woke suddenly and found herself unable to move. Lying there in bed, she heard a woman’s voice saying, “Some things are not meant to be known. Some things are meant to be understood.” As soon as she could move again, Dawn jumped up and took out her Bible; it fell open to Romans 5:1: “Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace through God Our Lord.” Dawn got down on her knees and read the Sinner’s Prayer. From that day on, she says, “the depression that had been hanging over me, up until I had my conversion experience, this black cloud that had been over me since my teenage years completely lifted.” Her diagnosis went from “major depression” to “major depression in remission.” “I haven’t had my happy ending yet in terms of marriage but I know I’m far happier now than when I wasn’t chaste.”

“[It’s] this rah-rah macho girl approach to sex.” — Carol Liebau on Sex and the City

If Dawn Eden is trying to make chastity cool, Carol Platt Liebau hopes to do the same for the word “prude” with her new book, Prude: How the Death of Chastity Hurts Young Women (and America Too) (Center Street, 2007), which examines the sexualization of American culture and the effect it has on teen and pre-teen girls.

The word “prude” used to have positive connotations, deriving from an old French word for a virtuous or chaste woman, she tells me. When I suggest she might be following the old screenwriter’s adage — “Hang a lantern on your problem” — she laughs. She is not, she assures me, “a joyless sexual prig,” who, quoting H.L. Mencken, “suffers from a haunting fear that someone, somewhere is having a good time.'” Nonetheless, she says: “I’ve been called a prude a number of times…Why not beat your critics to the punch?”

Just to talk to Carol over the phone is to get a sense of her prodigious energy. It’s early in the morning in San Marino, California, where she lives with her husband and their West Highland white terrier, Winston. Still, sometimes before I can even get a question formed, she has already jumped in with reams of examples, arguments, and ideas. It’s not a surprise to find out she’s a lawyer. She is also a prolific commentator and analyst who blogs at her own website and at the Huffington Post. She writes a column for Townhall.com and contributes to the American Spectator. She has advised political campaigns, consulted on the film script for Legally Blonde 2, and is an active volunteer.

Carol is also a regular guest host on “The Hugh Hewitt Show” — a gig she landed in 2003 after listening to one particular broadcast. Hewitt was in a lather over a column by Nick Kristof that implied that evangelical Christians were uneducated. Hewitt encouraged his Christian listeners to write to Kristof and asked that they cc him on their emails. Liebau sent in a letter with the subject line, “Benighted, Ivy League-educated, knuckle-dragging Christian.” Amused, Hewitt contacted Carol and they found they had a lot in common: Both clerked for the D.C. circuit; both attended Harvard. Hewitt helped Carol get a column at Townhall.com and has encouraged her to write Prude. He is “a real friend, a role model, and a guide.”

Like Hewitt, Carol is a fan of “New Media” and was excited at the new opportunities made possible by technology. Blogs, podcasting, satellite radio, the cable news channels all offered a platform for conservative voices to be heard — a much-needed corrective to the arrogance and stultification of the “Old Media.”

But as a would-be parent, she worried that the same segmentation of the media that had helped jumpstart the careers of conservative commentators had also made it harder for parents to police what their children were watching and reading. With the hundreds of television and radio channels available today — not to mention the millions of blogs and Internet profiles on social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace — adults today, she says, “really aren’t aware of how different the culture that girls are growing up in is from the culture we grew up in just 20 years ago.”

Even “Old Media” publications have adapted and redefined themselves in the face of the “New Media” juggernaut. While researching the book, Carol picked up a copy of Seventeen, expecting a magazine much like the one she had read as a girl where “the most risque thing in there was ‘Ask Jake: A Boy’s Eye View’ and this guy wrote about whether it was okay to call guys.” She was shocked to find numerous articles about contraception, masturbation, and oral sex: “I was appalled at the way everything seems to be directed below the belt.”

Prude — like Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs — also explores to what extent this new “Girls Gone Wild” culture has been aided and abetted by feminism. Under the guidance of what Carol calls the “do-me feminists” and their notions of sexual liberation, girls have been encouraged to “act as sexually libertine as hormone-addled teenage boys.” To be sexy is to be empowered in their minds. “Women used to object to men objectifying them, and now…women are objectifying themselves for men.”

The examples here are legion: Girls dress up for Halloween not as witches or ghosts but as “sexy French maids” and “sexy stewardesses”; teenagers are encouraged to take pole-dancing classes to feel “empowered”; high-schoolers disrobe for webcams and reality shows; and porn stars like Jenna Jameson are hailed as savvy business women and land book deals. Meanwhile, adults are too afraid of coming off as “prudes” or “killjoys” to counsel restraint, instead insisting only that girls practice “safe sex.” Sex education focuses on condoms and avoiding unwanted pregnancy and STDs — not the psychological and emotional ramifications of “giving too much, too soon.”

When I ask her if she considers herself a feminist, Carol is resolute: “Of course I’m a feminist,” she says. “I think people who know me would laugh because I’m a relatively opinionated, ’empowered’ woman.” She explains that she sees herself as a feminist in the mold of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, both of whom disapproved of sexual promiscuity “and abortion and easy divorce, for that matter” and who sought to marginalize the influence of “free love” advocates like Emma Goldman.

Carol focuses on girls because she believes that they are vulnerable in a way that boys are not when it comes to sex: “Men and women want very different things when it comes to sex… Men are able to take a much more physical approach; for women, of course, there is a much deeper emotional, relational component” to sex. I try to press her on this: What about the recent National Institutes of Health study, which found that girls were receiving as much oral sex as boys? “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to look at men and women and understand that they’re different,” she snorts. She points to men and women’s different roles: “Men and women evolved with different sex roles because sex was accomplishing different things for them.”

However, she says that she limited her analysis in Prude to teen and pre-teen girls because “people of good conscience can disagree over what people do over the age of 18.” Likewise she avoids appealing to her personal religious beliefs in making her case in Prude. This isn’t “a debate between a group of religious fanatics lost in the puritanical seventeenth century and everybody else,” she says. “You don’t need to be religious to see or recognize the effects on young people of a culture that’s obsessed with sex. It’s normal for parents of every religious stripe or no religion at all to want to protect their daughters.”

Carol’s forthright, matter-of-fact style doesn’t exactly bring to mind the image of a religious moralist, anyway, or of a “prude” for that matter. When she first met her future husband, for example, at a New Year’s Eve party hosted by radio host Laura Ingraham, she thought he was just another “lonely guy” hoping for a midnight smooch — and possibly something more. “Look, buddy,” she told him, “I know it’s New Year’s Eve and I know you’re lonely but there’s really not all that much that I’m willing to do for you, if you know what I mean.” He laughed, and when she arrived back at work two days later, she found waiting for her the “biggest bouquet of red roses I’ve ever seen.” They’ve been married for eight years now. “I guess that I was becoming just a little too cynical,” she jokes.

“It was all about finding a committed relationship… It’s that frustration at finding lasting commitment and love.” — Jennifer Marshall on Sex and the City

“Every policy question is a personal question as well,” Jennifer Marshall tells me over dinner at the Lebanese Taverna on Pentagon Row. She lives just a few blocks from here in a condo she recently bought — a purchase she made with some ambivalence. Still single and in her thirties, Jennifer had thought she’d be married before she established a household. “I definitely expected to be married and at home with children long ago — ten years ago,” she says. “So I didn’t picture a career — I still don’t quite think in those terms.”

Jennifer might not think in those terms but her career has taken off nonetheless. She is a star in the think tank world where she has headed numerous teams and departments in education policy and family studies. Since 2003, she has served as director of domestic policy studies at the Heritage Foundation. She is fluent in French and has a Masters in foreign policy from the Institute of World Politics.

There was “no master plan,” she says about her career thus far. “[I was] always just moving to where I felt God would use my gifts best.” Sometimes, though, she says ruefully that she wishes God had put her on the “direct route” rather than the “scenic route.”

It’s a frustration, she found, that many women share. In her first book, Now and Not Yet: Making Sense of Life This Side of I Do (Multnomah Publishers, 2007), Jennifer looks at the lives of young single Christian women and how they’re handling this new extended period of singlehood.

Jennifer attended Wheaton College where she majored in French and got her teacher’s certification. While studying abroad in France, she became intrigued by the cultural differences between Europe and America and started reading about government policy. She was particularly influenced by Bill Bennett’s book The Devaluing of America about his tenure as a public servant.

After graduating, Jennifer decided to hold off on her teaching career and move to Washington, D.C., to work at the Family Research Council. She spent six years there, eventually rising to the rank of director of family policy. In 2000, she took a “sabbatical” from the policy world and returned to France to teach at an international school. She returned a year later and went to work at Empower America and finally on to her current position at the Heritage Foundation, where she has spent the last three years.

The idea for Now and Not Yet came to her four years ago while she was on a return flight from Chicago to D.C.: “I find travel makes me think big thoughts.” Many of her friends back home in the Chicago suburbs were married with “2.5 children,” but when she thought of her friends in D.C., she realized very few of them were married. These were not “career women” who had set out to conquer the world and put marriage and family on the backburner. Like her, they were devout Christians, women who had fully expected to marry young as their friends and family had, and somehow found themselves, perplexingly, still alone.

Jennifer began investigating, sending out hundreds of surveys to women in similar straits. She found she had struck a nerve: “Women would say to me, ‘I never had any preparation for this growing up. My church didn’t teach me about this. My family didn’t teach me. I didn’t expect to be single this long and I wasn’t equipped to handle it.'” One respondent told Jennifer that her feelings about not being married by the age of 30 were “disappointment and dread.”

Jennifer saw a need. As delaying marriage becomes more and more the norm, women need guidance on how to navigate this new period of extended singlehood. So she set out to answer two questions: How did this disconnect between women’s expectations and reality come about? And how should they be dealing with it?

She wanted first to reassure women that they are not alone in their uncertainty and loneliness: “This isn’t in women’s heads; this is a real cultural change and dealing with it is part of the challenge of being twentysomething, thirtysomething in this day and age.” She includes brief profiles of women, showing how they have personally dealt with the challenge. She also looks at the sociological landscape, exploring the cultural reasons why women are marrying later and describing how the dating culture has changed.

On the practical side, Jennifer hopes to help women to come to terms with singlehood and to recognize it as a “purposeful time” in their lives. “This is not a how-to-find-a-man book,” she warns. Rather, she wants women to think beyond dating and marriage and to concentrate on the central relationship in their lives — their relationships with God. Women need to remember that “our first call is to God and to that relationship with Him.” With that as a starting point, women must begin to work out what their “callings” are — how best to use the gifts that God has given them.

Jennifer emphasizes that we have more than just one calling and that these callings change as we progress through life. Marriage may or may be not one of them. It may not be the advice single women want to hear, but “a wedding is not a solo decision.” We cannot control everything around us, she says, but we “are responsible for the disposition of our hearts” toward our individual circumstances.

Looking back at her career, she tells me that the “greatest satisfaction” has been the journey — searching for those callings from God “with the path unfolding to whatever in the future.” She quotes a passage from Psalms: “Blessed is the person whose heart is set on pilgrimage.”

Cheryl Miller is a writer in Washington, D.C.