Elizabeth Fraterrigo. Playboy and the Making of the Good Life in Modern America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. vii + 295 pp. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-538610-3.
Claire Greslé-Favier. "Raising Sexually Pure Kids": Sexual Abstinence, Conservative Christians and American Politics. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2009. 306 pp. $87.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-90-420-2678-0.
Reviewed by Jessica Warner
Published on H-Histsex (October, 2010)
Commissioned by Timothy W. Jones (University of South Wales, & La Trobe University)
Pornography and Abstinence in Modern America
I never read academic books for pleasure. They may enlighten me; they may even challenge me; but not once have I taken one to the seashore or to the doctor’s waiting room. In saying this I am saying that I do not enjoy books that hitch their wagon to someone else’s theory, quote the secondary literature back to me, or fall back on jargon. These vices are the bread and butter of the average PhD thesis, and so when I saw that Elizabeth Fraterrigo’s book began as a dissertation, I anticipated a particularly tough read.
I was pleasantly surprised. The first thing that distinguishes this book is its polished handling of the secondary literature. Both the text and the endnotes make it clear that Fraterrigo has done her homework, but only once, on page 114, does she quote an academic (Sharon Hartman Strom) at length. Fraterrigo is after something more ambitious: a history that situates a cultural icon at the very center of postwar America. This goal, I suspect, helps account for the several invocations of Barbara Ehrenreich. Obviously, Ehrenreich’s Hearts of Men: American Dreams and the Flight from Commitment (1983) has a great deal to say about Playboy, and as such needs to be acknowledged. But there is also something kindred in their priorities, which is to say that both set out to write scholarly books for the general reader, or, if you prefer, trade books for the scholar.
Several broad themes repeat over the course of Fraterrigo’s book, but the one that ties them together is the revolt against suburban domesticity. For Fraterrigo, Hugh Hefner’s great achievement was to create a viable--and quintessentially urban--alternative to the family-oriented lifestyle of the new Levittowns. The penthouse, the subject of chapter 3, is the most obvious example, but Fraterrigo also makes a strong case for seeing the magazine’s cult of the self-made man as a reproach to the man in the gray flannel suit.
There are two things I especially liked about this book. The first was its organization. No matter how many themes Fraterrigo weaves into her narrative they never stand in the way of telling the story of Playboy and its creator. The sections about the magazine’s rise and decline are equally strong, and double as an important contribution to the history of publishing. The second is the writing. To write an entire book about Playboy and use the term “male gaze” only once is a singular achievement in academic circles. The other crutches of academic writing--discourses, narrative, even gender--are also kept to a merciful minimum. The result is a book that manages to be both serious and readable. Historians of the postwar era will find much to like in its pages, and so, I suspect, will the general reader.
I have only two complaints, both minor. The first is that Fraterrigo says very little about Playboy’s literary pretensions. The omission shortchanges one of her key points, namely, that the magazine would not have stood out from the “numerous men’s magazines that traded in female flesh had it not been for the larger editorial content that surrounded them” (p. 3). As much as I enjoyed Fraterrigo’s observations on the magazine’s attempts to foster a particular lifestyle, I would also have liked to have seen more about how it flattered its readers by placing them on the side of America’s literary angels. My second complaint is that Fraterrigo says next to nothing about the Pill. This surprised me, for surely the Pill was a game changer for playboys and playmates alike.
Claire Greslé-Favier’s book also started as a dissertation. The title is taken from one of Timothy and Beverly LaHayes’ books, Raising Sexually Pure Kinds: How to Prepare Your Children for the Act of Marriage (1998), and this, in turn, reflects Greslé-Favier’s unwavering focus on the “discourses and the subtexts” that lie just below the surface of pro-abstinence writings. The LaHayes are two of America’s most vocal evangelical authors, and their continuing preoccupation with sexual abstinence provides Greslé-Favier with endless fodder. Her other sources include the physician Meg Meeker, various pundits at the Heritage Foundation, and insiders from the most recent Bush administration.
I was left to wonder why Greslé-Favier chose these particular sources. I would have looked for changes (if any) over time, in evangelical messages about sexual abstinence. Why not follow the paper trails left by such groups as the Abstinence Clearinghouse or the so-called Medical Institute of Sexual Health? Absent a strong rationale for her choice of sources, Greslé-Favier leaves herself open to the charge that she is generalizing from the movement’s lunatic fringe. I doubt that this is the case. But to remove all doubt, it is crucial to establish just how representative the sources actually are.
Greslé-Favier cites a good many books that touch on the phenomenon of abstinence-only sex education, but then goes on to claim her own book is unique because it is written from an American Studies perspective. I am not at all sure what this particular perspective implies, but in any event Greslé-Favier is on much firmer ground when she argues, on page xx, that very few studies address the functions and goals of abstinence messages within conservative evangelical circles. That said, one of the hallmarks of evangelical Protestantism is biblical literalism, and so it never ceases to amaze me when academics refuse to take people like the LaHayes at their word and instead attempt to discover what they really mean when they go around quoting the Bible. For Greslé-Favier, this means plumbing their texts for evidence of a larger plan to “preserve traditional hierarchies” and “maintain the sense of threat necessary to the protection of the status quo and to the enduring commitment of the conservative Christian constituency” (p. xii).
I have no doubt that the LaHayes and company cherish these ambitions and many more. And in fairness, Greslé-Favier does a good job in uncovering a large and multifaceted agenda in the current campaign to promote sexual abstinence. But the priority in writing about conservative evangelicals is to engage in the admittedly disagreeable task of trying to think like them, and this cannot be done without talking to them and reading what they read. Kristin Luker did just that in When Sex Goes to School: Warring Views on Sex--And Sex Education--Since the Sixties (2006), and the result was a book that actually gets inside the heads of social conservatives.
Greslé-Favier engages in a literalism of her own when she quotes the secondary literature at great length. There is too much of this. At one point, on page 103, she quotes one writer (Linda Kintz) paraphrasing another (Antonio Gramsci); on page xv, she quotes a journal article’s statistics verbatim. There is an element of unintended irony when she quotes Kintz on the inability of academics to understand “beliefs that are not expressed according to [their] own scholarly expectations” (p. 104).
Greslé-Favier’s distaste for her sources is clear, and I, for one, can sympathize. And while she does her best to remain objective, it is equally clear that she would like to tell the world just how wrongheaded the abstinence lobby is. This is most notably the case when she argues, in chapter 13, that abstinence-only sex education violates the human rights of adolescents by denying them access to information about their reproductive options. I have no problem with crossing the line between research and advocacy. But to have an impact books about evangelicals need to reach beyond academe and engage the reading public.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-histsex.
Jessica Warner. Review of Fraterrigo, Elizabeth, Playboy and the Making of the Good Life in Modern America and
Greslé-Favier, Claire, "Raising Sexually Pure Kids": Sexual Abstinence, Conservative Christians and American Politics.
H-Histsex, H-Net Reviews.
|This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.|