Brand building through storytelling

There’s something about the expression “have sex” that never fails to make me cringe. How can anything as powerful and intimate as sex be had, for God’s sake? Is sex just another commodity to hunt out in the marketplace, like iPhones, designer bags, fast cars and all the other stuff that people feel compelled to possess as proof of their currency and coolness?

Loose GirlI’ve just read a book that vividly portrays the quest for sex at its most abject and dehumanizing. In Loose Girl: a Memoir of Promiscuity, author Kerry Cohen recounts the compulsive sexual misadventures that began at age 11, during the turmoil of her parents’ divorce. Mom, blind to everything except her own pain, left the country (and two grief-stricken daughters) to study medicine. Dad’s notion of single parenthood included smoking pot with his kids’ friends. Abandoned on the cusp of adolescence and feeling overshadowed by more glamorous peers, Kerry longed for attention. She soon realized that she had a secret weapon: her body. Boys stared at her legs and breasts; they wanted her as no one else did. Their touch convinced her, for a few fleeting moments, that she mattered after all. While her oblivious parents got on with the urgent task of reinventing themselves, she had a whole lot of wretchedly un-erotic sex.

I didn’t need Kerry Cohen to tell me that pre-teen girls are giving blow jobs, or that hooker fashion has come to middle school. I’ve read more than enough hand-wringing news reports full of quotes from therapists and academics. I wanted to hear from a real expert–a clear-eyed survivor who has both the narrative gifts to make me root for her desperate young self and the guts to tell the truth. Kerry Cohen is that person, and she tells her gritty tale without a trace of self-pity. She was a girl who dumped a tender, caring boy to make other conquests, who seduced a friend’s boyfriend just to prove she could—a manipulator who, as she readily admits, equated sex with power.

Men have been doing just that since the dawn of time, creating the mystique that drives any number of swaggering, down-and-dirty blues songs. A guy who loves ’em and leaves ’em is a rolling stone, a back door man, a hoochie coochie man, a king bee and a jelly roll baker. A woman who behaves the same way is a slut. In Kerry Cohen’s rolling-stone days, her girlfriends pitied her and boys often viewed her with contempt. Worse luck, her escapades brought her no pleasure.

She got genital warts. She got crabs. And in the end, with a therapist’s support, she got herself more or less sorted out. She’s married to a man she loves, who loves her in return. But there’s a lot more to Loose Girl than a cautionary tale about a bad girl who goes straight. It’s still considered shameful for a woman to talk about the impulses described in this book (never mind the graphic sex in movies, or the infamous blow job in the Oval Office). Our anything-goes culture has a separate set of rules for women, and Kerry Cohen has defied them.

If I had a teenage girl, I’d take a deep breath and share this book with her. I’d want to explore how much has really changed since my own adolescence and hers. When I was 16 and had never been kissed but proclaimed my right to “free love” (to use the quaint 60s term), my mother warned me that boys would not respect an “easy” girl. My limited sexual options seemed to mirror what I faced in the wide world, where no married woman I knew had a high-flying career. Now girls get a double message. On the professional front, they can supposedly become whatever they want (and leave the office in time for the day-care dash). But every billboard tells them they had better be desirable, too. Is it any surprise that girls set so much store by sex appeal? Or that girls without parents to guide them may cross the line from looking hot to being hot? Cohen wisely offers no advice or agendas. She lets her story speak for itself.

Kerry Cohen sought power through sex because, at heart, she felt  powerless. But there’s nothing more powerful than a story that breaks a taboo, as this one does. Because only be seeing what is, with all its disappointments and frustrations, can we envision what might be.

Posted by Rona

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