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Bad Girls

Carol Platt Liebau assesses the damage a sexualized culture does to young women.

By 12.6.07

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Prude: How the Sex-Obsessed Culture Damages Girls (and America, Too!)
By Carol Platt Liebau
(Center Street, 320 pages, $22.99)

Despite the title, Carol Platt Liebau's treatment of America's sex-saturated culture is anything but prudish. She is not afraid to expose the seamier side of popular culture, and this book is not for the squeamish. If an extensive discussion of the prevalence of certain sex acts among minors offends you, don't read this book. If, however, you're wondering how and if popular culture affects young women, Prude offers a detailed answer.

The book is divided by topic, with a chapter apiece devoted to books and magazines, television, music (the cleverly titled "Aural Sex"), clothes, and culture. Liebau draws her information from a mix of research, interviews with girls, personal observation and popular culture. What she uncovers is troubling: in almost every medium, young women are bombarded by messages encouraging them to "just do it." The examples from television and music that Liebau cites aren't unexpected, but it seems that even reading, once the bright teen's refuge, is not exempt. From magazines to novels, the reading material marketed at teenagers is filled with casual sex, homosexuality and crudity. The wildly popular Gossip Girl series (now a television show) is little more than novel after novel about who's sleeping with whom.

Even much of the so-called "good" advice aimed at girls is bad. Sexual education in schools starts with the assumption that all teenagers are having sex and does little to encourage abstinence. Liebau says, "Whether or not to have sex is presented as just another choice, much like whether to purchase a Britney Spears album or one by Christina Aguilera." Sharon Stone also got in the act, with some of the most laughably bad advice ever given to teenagers. Stone apparently carries a condom at all times and encourages teenagers who feel pressured to have sex to offer oral sex instead, since it's safer: "Young people talk to me about what to do if they're being pressed for sex. I tell them what I believe... if you're in a situation where you cannot get out of sex, offer a blow job. I'm not embarrassed to tell them." As Liebau rightly points out, "Perhaps she should be."

In terms of facts, one would be hard put to find a book on the market more thorough than Prude. Liebau has done her homework, and the research shows. Unfortunately, there is little else to set this book apart from similar titles on the market today, such as Wendy Shalit's titles A Return to Modesty and Girls Gone Mild. The problem with Prude is that Liebau spends ten of the book's 12 chapters dwelling on the problem, and only two of them making a tentative gesture toward a solution. She offers a brief discussion of some groups working to encourage modesty and abstinence, such as the Diamond Girls Leadership program, before moving on. The final chapter is more a list of vague topics than anything else. She uses the last chapter to touch on issues that she does not elaborate on in the book itself. Unfortunately, these issues are some of the book's most interesting sections.

One such connection is the political implications of America's hypersexualized culture. Liebau rightfully notes that more traditional cultures react negatively to America's loose sexual mores and what they perceive as our obsession with sex. She quotes Joseph Nye: "Some Iranian officials say that to understand what they mean by 'the great Satan,' one need merely watch MTV." More importantly, she notes that it is difficult to successfully advocate better conditions for Middle Eastern women when American women are consistently portrayed as "sex-hungry floozies." However, these implications are only mentioned, not given space enough for a full discussion. The last chapter also includes a brief nod to the problems and pressures facing young men, but this topic is never developed, either.

Though Prude is heavy on facts, it does not offer an especially thoughtful or provocative elucidation of the problem. Anecdotes about sex parties and explicit lyrics may drive home the gravity of the problems facing our culture, but few would argue that a problem exists, or that it has a detrimental effect on young women. Who is the intended audience for this book? It's certainly too explicit for the girls themselves to read (I learned a thing or two from Liebau's discussion of slang) and most, if not all, Americans are already aware of our culture's widespread sexual obsession and its negative effects on girls.

If you're unconvinced of the widespread nature of America's sexual obsession and its effects on young girls, or you're looking for facts to confirm this suspicion, then Prude is an excellent resource. However, if you're looking for a new take on this situation or a book that offers an actual solution, then you're better off leaving it on the shelf.

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