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Talking with the author of Her Way:
Young Women Remake the Sexual Revolution

By Jack Hafferkamp

Café Boost in Andersonville, Chicago, is the thinking person’s alternate to the Melville brand name. Big, airy, caffeine jolts at hand. Good place to meet a writer, especially when she’s your neighbor.

Paula Kamen is author of Her Way: Young Women Remake the Sexual Revolution. She is a visiting research scholar with Northwestern University’s gender studies program. Her articles have appeared in The New York Times,Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Ms. She has a journalism degree from the University of Illinois and grew up in Flossmoor. She worked on her study of Generation X women, Her Way, for eight long years.

And since New York University Press put out the hardcover edition at the end of 2000, Her Way has been noticed. No less a cultural lightning rod than Barbara Ehrenreich has be-blurbed the new Broadway books paperback Her Way with this eye-popping praise:

At last the torch has been passed! Paula Kamen follows women’s struggles for sexual pleasure and self-affirmation into a new generation -- and finds it healthier and more vibrant than ever. Young women will be fascinated by Her Way. Older ones will be amazed.

Her Way has been reviewed by The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, and most important to a writer, a starred review Publisher’s Weekly that forecast the book as a hit.

Paula Kamen touched a national nerve ending.

On the Midwestern afternoon we met, she also was trying to eat a sandwich. ("Sorry, haven’t had a chance to eat yet today.") Food made all the more delicious talking about her idea of superrats.

It’s a term she came up with to describe a kind of Gen X women, one who has popped all the bubble wrap. Monica is one. So is Madonna. And Melissa, too. And maybe even Britney.

"They seem like pests and a menace to society, like Monica Lewinsky," Kamen says brightly. "Or these women at The Citidel. Or Madonna. These are women with economic power (of their own) and who are confusing people and wreaking havoc with society."

Kamen laughs at the idea.

She also readily offers that the idea of superrats "is a kind of gimmick."

"I meant the term to be ironic. It follows the concept of the sexual evolution, that women over the last 30 years have evolved under the surface. Superrats are a subset of young women who have evolved beyond what society can take," Kamen says.

Her Way’s premise is that the point positions in today’s American sexual wars are filled by young women. They are leading the process of altering sexual norms. In Andersonville, Chicago this is not much of a surprise.

Out in the real world, it’s big news. Kamen has documented that one or another version of this process, so evident in our neighborhood, is happening all across America and beyond. It is a cross-cultural wave, built of independent wealth, education and rising expectations.

Kamen believes that we collectively -- as in our American cultural consciousness -- don’t tend to notice this process of change because it is more evolution than revolution. It is a movement flying below the surface of what generally passes for serious journalism. But like the force of a Hawaiian lava flow, this sexual evolution is nonetheless altering the geology of society.

Today’s young women, Her Way demonstrates in compelling fashion, are acting more like men; they insist on, even take for granted, a range of life options unlike those of any American generation previous. These choices include, but are not limited to, sexual behaviors.

It’s the sexual behaviors, gay, straight and bi, that raise the most eyebrows.

What post-boomer women want, Kamen says, is control of their own sex lives. "They do not want to follow a standard sexual script," she has written. They want what they decide is best, not what society says they should accept.

The Sexual Revolution of the '60s and '70s, Kamen says, was about young and even not-so-young men. It was a men’s movement. The '90s and beyond are about young women and their changing behaviors. The evidence says Kamen, is that where men have gone fearful of STDs, women have become more aggressive in their sexual expressions.

Kamen writes: While AIDS has made men less permissive and promiscuous overall, it has hardly influenced women's behavior and attitudes overall, which have been fueled by jobs and education. Sharing male values, they are also more sexually aggressive, feel less guilt and shame, and are defiantly open about their behavior--from having a child out of marriage to coming out of the closet to cohabiting.

In working on Her Way Kamen read the scientific literature, including -- and this truly is a measure of dedication to duty -- both versions of the exhaustive and exhausting landmark University of Chicago study by John Gagnon, Edward Laumann, Robert Michael and Stuart Michaels, The Social Organization of Sex, and the "popular version, Sex in America. She also traveled the country to interview about a hundred Gen X women in depth. They are young women in a wide range of life situations. Richer, poorer; more and less educated; from big cites and beyond; straight, gay; bi; liberal and conservative.

Kamen says they all generally share a sense of entitlement, the right to make their own decisions about education, work, marriage, child-bearing and sexual satisfaction. This outlook is both the fruit of the feminist labors of boomer women and their mothers, and the more generalized economic independence of women that followed World War II. It is nurtured in media and universities, but has reached a critical mass of women now powerful enough to facilitate the reaching of women globally.

In developing her understanding of this evolution, Kamen’s own learning curve wasn’t without its memorable moments.

One she remembers with laughter came at a University of Chicago conference in 1993 when she learned the danger of telling certain feminists that she was approaching her project without pre-conceived ideas about what she might find.

"I almost got thrown out of the big Sex Equality and Gender conference. It was a major pro-censorship conference with Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin. I was interviewing people in the press room, and they mistook me for someone from Feminists for Free Expression. It’s a crazy story.

"I was the only one down there and I picked up a manila envelope that FFE had planted in the press room. I just picked one up and put it in my backpack (thinking it was background material related to the conference). Later on I was interviewing people in the press room, and these women came bounding down the stairs, wanting to know who had put those FFE packets there. And as I didn’t know who they were, I said wait a minute, those are for the press, you can’t take them.

And they said "Who are you? And why are you defending this?" And I said I’m a journalist. I didn’t realize these were the organizers of the conference because they were so angry. I thought they were just trouble makers coming in off the street.

"So they started to question me even more closely as to who I was, and I said 'I’m a journalist, I have no agenda.' And that just made them even more mad. They said they can only talk to women with agendas. And then Andrea Dworkin came down the stairs and wanted the tape back from our interview; afraid that I am, like, an enemy. When I wasn’t.

"Then I was so confused. I was at the naïve beginning of my research and I didn’t realize that this conference was purely pro-censorship. So I was asking them all these questions -- that is my training -- and they were so angry and frenzied. In the end they wouldn’t let me interview anybody else.

"That," Kamen now chuckles about it all, "was my introduction to the anti-porn world."

Since then Kamen has spoken about her work and her understanding of a generation’s sexual evolution at over 60 universities. She sees no signs of the evolution abating there.

If anything, it’s heating up.