Not so easy

As a nation, we are fixated on promiscuity. One has only to turn on the television for a glimpse of bed-hopping stars and adulterous housewives. Celebrity party girls change partners like they change shoes. Actor Charlie Sheen received a “Legends of Sex” award for allegedly bedding 5,000 women, and Lindsay Lohan, tired of the same-old celebrity scandal, recently revealed a conveniently headline-grabbing lesbian streak and is now free to spread the misery of serial dating across the boundaries of gender and orientation.

In the midst of this obsession with flashy-but-meaningless hookups, a book like Kerry Cohen’s Loose Girl: A Memoir of Promiscuity is the kind of cold shower we’ve been waiting for. Told with brutal honesty and haunting prose, Loose Girl reminds us that our ability to sustain meaningful relationships can make or break us as human beings.

Though “promiscuity” appears in Cohen’s subtitle, it’s not all about sex. It was a desire to love and be loved that drove her to sleep with more than 40 men during her teens and 20s. Raised by divorced and distant parents (Mom left the country, Dad’s New Jersey apartment contained more than one kind of dope), she began to look for replacement affection at a young age.

“I am eleven the day I begin to understand what it means to be a girl,” she writes of the moment when a passing motorist alerted her to the power of her natural good looks. Like many girls before her, she quickly confused sex with love and, by age 14, had embarked on an odyssey of bad choices, always searching for the boy who would “breathe me into reality.”

As she describes her days of underage barhopping and her evolving feelings of self-loathing when, time and again, her neediness scares off long-term relationships, Cohen also puts her experience into context with the frightening double standards of her day. Attending high school in the 1980s, her quest for companionship was hampered by the decade’s “me” sensibilities. It’s an era of quick hookups and even quicker goodbyes. Over and over, Cohen describes boys who leap at the chance for casual sex and bail the moment she indicates her interest in a deeper, long-term relationship. She’s quick to blame herself for the feelings of emptiness her promiscuity induces, but the vapid behavior of her sexual partners seems equally culpable—even alarming. When a girl she knows from barhopping is murdered by her preppy boyfriend, Cohen’s clear-eyed analysis of the aftermath is chilling, revealing the underlying hypocrisy of a culture where girls are expected to both put out and accept the tarnished reputation they earn for doing so.

“Over the next few months,” Cohen writes, “the Robert Chambers murder, or ‘Preppy Murder’ will build national attention.” But Cohen simplifies the redirection of attention from perpetrator to victim: “A clear connection in the media is made: If Jennifer wanted sex, she deserved to die.”

Aware of both the dangers and hypocrisy involved in her situation, Cohen battled her sexual addiction for several more years before a love of writing eventually led the way to salvation. Her work stands as a warning against the dangers of sexual recklessness (abstinence advocates should slap her brushes with death and STDs on a poster), but also reminds us of the battle we have yet to wage in a society where Charlie Sheen is rewarded for whoring, and girls like Cohen are just whores.

As Cohen astutely points out: “For a man, [this memoir] might be a pleasant trip down memory lane, counting up his conquests. But for a girl, it’s a whole different story.”