Paula Kamen, Feminist in a World of Bridget Joneses

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In a world full of Bridget Joneses, it's nice to stumble across Paula Kamen. Her 1991 Feminist Fatale focused on why many young women who identify with the tenets of feminism reject the label "feminist." Her latest, Her Way: Young Women Remake the Sexual Revolution (NYU Press, $25.95, 280 pages), chronicles women's relatively newfound sexual freedom via two current cultural phenomena: the sexually aggressive "super rats"?rat because they are often considered "disruptive," and super because they embody "the development and pattern of future generations of women"?and today's new breed of virgins, who've gotten a public-relations style makeover and are possibly a more evolved version of the former. As well as everything in between.

Kamen and I spoke recently on the phone.

I wanted to talk about your last book, Feminist Fatale. Explain for us why feminism has become a dirty word among women who were born after the sexual revolution.

It's a complex issue. I wrote about it in Feminist Fatale 10 years ago, and it's even more the case now. Those women don't have a clear sense of 70s history?how things were before and after feminism?so feminism is taken for granted. Feminist Fatale explains how young women support the feminist principle of equal pay for equal work, and Her Way is about how they support all these sexual freedoms of choice, but at the same time they're not calling themselves feminists. Her Way deals with women not necessarily recognizing the political issues involved with sexual freedom. Young women don't connect the choices they have with a political struggle, and therefore aren't prepared to defend it, and it's about to be totally attacked again by the Bush administration. Clinton obviously hasn't been all good for women, but John Ashcroft is like some character from The Handmaid's Tale.

Bush has been appointing women to his Cabinet like crazy, but they're not necessarily women who are pro-women, if that makes sense.

It totally makes sense. With women like these?

?they might as well be John Ashcroft.

This is the generation of women who feel more entitlement sexually to do things on their own terms than ever before. But now reproductive rights and sex education are being threatened, and these are essential components of that sexual freedom. It also terrifies me that many young women have no real idea of what happened 30 years ago with underground abortions?that hospitals were constantly getting hundreds of mutilated women per month.

During the election, women around 18-30 didn't seem to believe Roe v. Wade could come under attack or even be reversed. When you brought up the possibility, people said, "Oh that would never happen," because they've had it their whole lives.

In the book I have some statistics of a poll that was taken among women in their 20s, and most support abortion rights, but they believe it's a guaranteed right. Also, they don't understand that it's being chipped away. Like Ashcroft possibly not employing federal authorities to back a woman's right to go into the clinic.

What did you think of Clinton?

From Ralph Nader's point of view, it was terrible. But compared to George W. Bush, he was Susan B. Anthony. Maureen Dowd made a good point by saying that Bush was elected by white men and absentee military ballots, and the Democratic Party has always had lots of support from women. Of course abortion rights and sex education were chipped away at during the Clinton administration, like in 1996 when the Republican Congress appropriated $100 million for abstinence-only sex education compared to the $30 million set aside for AIDS prevention. And poor women lost welfare.

I was in England when the Lewinsky story broke, and the reaction was very European: just one more babe Bill bagged, and Americans are so uptight about sex. For me it's been a case of this serial sexual harasser, and possibly a rapist, as our president.

That's why Ralph Nader did so much damage, because many women didn't want to just settle for crumbs. But one of the first things Clinton did was to get rid of the gag rule, and he gave his wife unprecedented power. However, there were a lot of lies?the lie Clinton told about the blowjob, and then there was the lie that George Bush Sr. told about Clarence Thomas being the most qualified man for the job on the Supreme Court, and I think that was the worst lie.

There was that story going around about the 1988 Republican Convention, during which a reporter asked George W. Bush what he and his father talked about when they weren't discussing politics. He allegedly said, "Pussy." So what all women have to understand about politics today is that a man who refers to women in print as "pussy" can still win the highest office. It's true of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush?fill in the blank. All these men have one face for the public as far as women are concerned, but in private, and in their hearts, they obviously believe something very different.

This is something I wrote about in Her Way, the fact that many men, even our alleged ally Bill Clinton, are frozen in time in the 70s, where women are sort of sexually there for the picking.

Women have become more confident and aggressive about pursuing men, and a lot of men, while they listen to Belle and Sebastian and think it's insane that women don't earn a dollar on a man's dollar, can't handle a woman asking them out. While we evolved in that area, they stood still.

Statistically there's definitely a lag, and it's one I am personally most upset about. Although I prefer now to how my mom lived in the early 60s, when she couldn't go out on a Saturday night unless she had a date, and she couldn't put herself in certain situations with a man because it was giving him permission to have sex. I'd rather have the sort of anarchy we have today.

What about Monica and the "super rats"?

There are a lot of women like Monica who are using sex for power, just like men do. In the book, I talk about that subset of sexually aggressive women who act like men. I call them the "super rats," and they're here for better or for worse. The whole goal for young women is to do things "her way," and not how the male-defined sexual revolution of the 70s more narrowly views liberation, as being promiscuous and always available to everyone. But instead to define sex more in women's terms?saying no as well as yes, realizing there's spirituality involved, and not compartmentalizing. The super rats are a phenomenon I wanted to educate people about, because I think the whole country was caught off-guard by Monica and Sex and the City, when actually this type of sexually aggressive behavior has been evolving among women of our generation for the last 20 or 30 years. In the book I also talk about another phenomenon among young women?virgins and people saying no. Women moving beyond that traditional male power-hungry model.

Many people would look at virgins as more traditional.

I'm 33, and when I was in college in the 80s it was much more shameful to be a virgin. Now it's being redefined as someone who has integrity and control, and with all the oral sex and sexual sophistication going on, virgins aren't necessarily considered sexless or naive.

Does AIDS play a part?

I think with a lot of virgins, it's not about being antisex or fearful. I include a big academic study on virgins in the book, where they were polled on why they haven't had sex, and AIDS is ranked very far down on their list of reasons. The number-one motivation among virgins as regards sex is listening to themselves, and being true to that. The whole point of this book is to listen to your voice, and get rid of the scripts. Listening to your own voice is the standard for sexual liberation. However, in some cases, that means being a super rat.

Speaking of scripts, what do you think of women's magazines?

It's a mixed bag. I might have been too honest in the book?

Trash a magazine, and you better never think of submitting there.

I kind of wish I'd thought of that! But I would have done it anyway. It's important to criticize, and, like everything, there's two sides to women's magazines. I have a lot of statistics in the book about how women's magazines are a major way young women learn about orgasms and sexual pleasure without shame?all the nitty-gritty your mom won't tell you or you don't learn in high school. I interviewed a woman who had a bad first experience losing her virginity, and felt like a freak about it, until she read in Cosmo that other women had bad first times too?

I thought everyone's first experience was a bad time. Isn't that the rule?

Yeah, stabbing pain never helps.

I can criticize Jane, because I've already submitted there and been rejected. For one, its tone is extremely didactic and condescending.

Bitch magazine has a huge feud with Jane. They have whole essays on their website about how Jane is so insidious because they purport to be so feminist, yet they're really about 30 pounds less. My gripe with women's magazines is the same one I have with women in general, which is that there isn't a focus on political issues. A magazine's bread and butter is sex. And even Bust, in their issue right before the election, when all these freedoms were at risk, had John Cusack on the cover.

You expect even more of Bust than Jane, because it's independently operated and has more of a zine feel.

And they use the word feminist all the time. There is some great feminist stuff there in terms of good vibrator articles; it's smart and it's funny. But forget the mainstream in Iowa, even these feminists in New York City are missing making that leap to the political. That's why I wrote the book. I felt we needed some real reporting, and to go beyond the memoirs. I had to fight publishers, because they weren't interested in feminism. This publisher supported it, and really went against the grain. It would have been easier if it were a memoir about me losing my virginity at Yale.

Marie Claire always has at least one very political story, often about women in other cultures or countries, but it's a big feature.

A friend was telling me there's a lot of good feminist stuff in Elle.

You'd be shocked. Possibly that's because those magazines appeal to an older market?women in their late 30s, 40s.

That's a good point. The body-image stuff is so debilitating to women. They might have an article about self-esteem, but then it's invariably followed by 100 pages of skeleton-thin women in the fashion spread.

The funniest story, or saddest story, I saw in the papers recently was one in the New York Post about a woman who was a model because she had cancer, which allowed her to be skinny enough to fit the standard image. Or you have Betsey Johnson being declared one of the "Gutsiest Women of 2000" by Jane for using Playboy bunnies with implants for models. It seems like very conservative times all of a sudden.

On one hand it is, because while women have more education and money than ever, we're up against the current patriarchal system. But the bottom line is the positive, that women do have much more independence, which gives them permission to make choices. And instead of getting married because of the fear of being a spinster or being in the closet because of the fear of being exposed as a lesbian, the choice should come from inside the individual. You can be a Sex and the City person or a virgin or a bisexual or single or married and living in the suburbs with three kids. And with all the negatives, I wanted this book to really recognize that we have advanced, and to not take the women's movement for granted.

Paula Kamen and McSweeney's author Neal Pollack read and satirize their contemporaries on Tues., Jan. 30, at KGB, 85 E. 4th St. (betw. 2nd & 3rd Aves.), 505-3360. Kamen also reads from Her Way on Weds., Jan. 31, at Bluestockings, 172 Allen St. (betw.Stanton & Rivington Sts.), 777-6028.

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