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Pride and Prejudice

Whether she knows it or not, investigations into the adaptive “purpose” of orgasms, vaginal or otherwise, are far more contentious and inconclusive than she suggests. The classic data on which the “upsuck” theory of female orgasm is based derive from one study, involving a single participant, conducted in 1970. And the fact that between a third and two thirds of women rarely or never achieve orgasm through intercourse would seem by itself a pretty conclusive argument against any evolutionary explanation for female orgasm. But there is a further problem with her argument. Why should a feminist woman who is having sex for nonprocreative purposes care whether what she is doing is “adaptive” or not? Wolf, it seems, has ended up in the dangerous position of giving certain sexual behavior greater value because it is “natural” or “evolutionarily valuable.”

As we have seen, Wolf’s belief that the vagina is integral to a woman’s sense of “core self” is predicated not just on the mystical experiences that the vagina “mediates” during orgasms, but on the continuing, salutary effects that orgasms have on the rest of a woman’s life. Wolf claims to find strong evidence in the biographies of women writers and artists (Georgia O”Keefe, Emma Goldman, Edith Wharton) that women often “create best after a sexual awakening or a particularly liberating sexual relationship.” When she canvasses women “from many different backgrounds”—friends, grad students, the 16,800 members of her Facebook community—their responses confirm that there is a connection for women between a happy sex life and enhanced confidence levels.

It seems reasonable, if banal, to suggest that having good sex makes women feel good, and that feeling good might make them more productive in other areas of their lives. But there is no evidence that this is a uniquely female phenomenon, or that the sex in question has to be the mystic kind, and one could cite any number of examples to support the opposite thesis—that the consuming pleasures of sexual love are apt to distract a woman from her desk.

It would be interesting to know how Wolf explains the creativity of virgin artists like Jane Austen and Emily Brontë and Emily Dickinson, or the rapturous experiences of history’s actual women mystics (whose lives tended to be short on liberating sexual relationships). Whatever moral Wolf draws from the fact that Edith Wharton wrote The Age of Innocence after experiencing orgasms for the first time is surely rather undermined by the fact that Emily Brontë wrote Wuthering Heights after having no sexual intercourse at all. (She might have masturbated, of course, but Wolf specifically disqualifies masturbation as a method of achieving high orgasm: “A happy heterosexual vagina requires, to state the obvious, a virile man.”)

After consulting many research papers and interviewing many scientists, Wolf has decided that the sex–creativity link can be “explained” by dopamine, one of the brain chemicals involved in female orgasm. Dopamine, according to Wolf, is the chemical that fosters female focus and motivation. It is what makes women leap up from the rank sweat of their enseamed beds to write novels. Modern women who complain of depression need better sex and more dopamine, but patriarchal societies, fearful of sexually empowered women, prefer to fob them off with antidepressants. “Serotonin,” Wolf writes, “literally subdues the female voice, and dopamine literally raises it.”

Wolf literally does not understand the meaning of “literally” and her grasp of the scientific research she has read is pretty shaky too. By repeatedly confusing correlates with causes, she grossly exaggerates what neuroscience can reliably tell us about the functions of individual brain chemicals. Dopamine undoubtedly has a role in female orgasm. But it also has a role in schizophrenia and, by Wolf’s own admission, a panoply of addictions. Given this, it seems foolhardy on Wolf’s part to designate it “the ultimate feminist chemical.”

As Wolf has come to understand the vagina’s vital role in “delivering” self-esteem and joy to the female psyche, she has also come to appreciate the injurious effects of verbal hostility toward the vagina. An insult to the vagina is, she claims, “a ‘performative utterance.’” (She is under the mistaken impression that a “performative utterance” is any speech that has a material result in the world.) She herself suffered six months of writer’s block as a result of attending a dinner party at which her host served vagina-shaped pasta and called it “cuntini.”

Naturally, physical attacks on the vagina have even more dire consequences. Rape is not merely a “sex crime,” or a form of violence, Wolf writes. It is a profound “injury to the brain,” from which a woman never fully recovers. Her experiences with female rape victims in Sierra Leone—women who spoke of themselves as “damaged goods” and in whom she saw a “unique dimming of vitality” quite distinct from that of any other war victim—have convinced her that rape destroys the female spirit in ways that other forms of cruelty, physical or mental, do not.

It is unclear how Wolf tells a uniquely dimmed vitality from the ordinarily dimmed kind. But if there is a special horror to the traumas these women have suffered, one suspects it has more to do with their sense of being intimately violated, with their gruesome internal injuries, and with the social stigma that attaches to them as rape victims, than with rape’s special ability to “hollow out” the female soul. It is odd that Wolf now sees rape in these terms, because only last year she appeared to take a very different line. When writing in the Guardian newspaper about rape charges against Julian Assange, she argued that his accusers should not be allowed to remain anonymous, on the grounds that such a dispensation mischaracterized rape as a “different” kind of crime. The convention of shielding rape accusers was, she noted, “a relic of the Victorian era…when rape was seen as ‘the fate worse than death,’ rendering women…‘damaged goods.’”

There is a strange hubris in Wolf’s claim to understand how all rape affects all women. It is the same hubris that compels her to instruct us on how all women need to be wooed, and how all women feel when they come. Wolf remarks more than once in this book that she has no wish to be “prescriptive,” but prescriptiveness, alas, is her compulsion. She won’t be able to rest easy until all of womankind has heard her gospel and has started having sex that is not just pleasurable, but worthwhile. Her refusal to acknowledge the heterogeneity of female temperament, of female sexual proclivity, of female desire, would be galling, if it were not so dotty. As it is, her willingness to position herself as a visionary sexual prophet inspires a sort of affectionate awe.

Toward the end of Vagina, Wolf offers two inspirational instances of the sort of “Goddess-focussed” sexual practice she wishes to promote among her readers. The first is the “sacred sexual healing” administered by Mike Lousada, a self-described “somatic therapist,” who provides massage, masturbation, and intercourse to “erotically suffering” women in his north London studio. The second is a weekend Tantra workshop in Manhattan, at which female attendees get to select the male attendees who will give them “sacred spot massage” in their midtown hotel rooms on Saturday night.

For Wolf, these are heartwarming examples of vagina worship. And perhaps they are. But they are also examples of women achieving intense erotic satisfaction from paid sex and sex with strangers. So much for female sensitivity to “emotional environment.” The Goddess, it seems, is ready to acknowledge, even if Wolf is not, that different folks like different strokes.

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