Vagina: A New Biography
by Naomi Wolf
Ecco, 381 pp., $27.99
Lady, love your cunt.
Forty-one years after Germaine Greer issued her infamous directive, the ladies seem to have complied. Greer lost her battle on the question of nomenclature—“cunt” has remained, despite her best efforts, the worst of bad words*—but “vagina pride” is now part of the common culture. Television celebrities like Oprah Winfrey speak publicly and with cheerful affection of their “vajayjays.” (The conservative watchdog group Parents Television Council calculates that the use of the word “vagina” on television has increased eightfold in the last decade.) The Vagina Monologues, Eve Ensler’s theatrical celebration of the female sex organ, has become an international franchise, endorsed and performed by glossy Hollywood stars and even Michigan state representatives. More than one website now exists for the sole purpose of allowing women to share and compare pictures of their vulvas in “a supportive context.”
To be sure, not every iteration of vagina pride represents an unambiguous advancement for the feminist cause. It is a matter of dispute whether Eve Ensler’s twee flights of fancy about vaginas that smell like “snowflakes” are really good for the sisterhood. And whatever Greer was hoping for when she enjoined women to “boast of…their venery,” it is safe to say that it was not “vajazzling,” the modern trend of affixing crystals to the shaven pudendum.
One might reasonably argue that the occasional outburst of snowflakery is a tolerable price to pay for liberation. But Naomi Wolf would counsel against such complacency. In her new “biography” of the vagina, she warns that her subject is in danger of being trivialized by its cultural ubiquity. The vagina, properly understood, is, “part of the female soul” and the medium for the “meaning of life itself.” In order to free female sexuality from patriarchal calumny, pornographic distortion, and some of the damaging myths of second-wave feminism, it is essential, she argues, that women reclaim the “magic” of the vagina and restore it to its rightful place at “the center of the universe.”
For those familiar with Wolf’s career as a polemicist and memoirist, it will not come as a complete surprise to find her attributing occult properties to the female anatomy. Wolf, who has always understood feminism to be a spiritual cause as much as a civil rights movement, has made several moony allusions over the years to the numinous character of female sexuality. In Promiscuities, her memoir of growing up in 1970s San Francisco, she proposed that “female sexuality participates in the divine image.” More recently, in 2006, she told a startled reporter from the Glasgow Sunday Herald that she had experienced a vision of Jesus during a therapy session and was now more certain than ever that her purpose on earth was to remind women of “what’s sacred about femininity.” Vagina, however, represents her frankest exposition of these themes to date and as such, it offers an unusually clear insight into the workings of her mystic feminist philosophy.
As Wolf explains in her introduction, her original plan was to write a book surveying cultural representations of the vagina through the ages. In the course of her research, however, she decided that “the truth about the vagina” lay not in history or culture, but in the latest findings of neuroscience and evolutionary psychology. So the survey was sidelined and her book became instead a sort of character study of the vagina. What now remains of the original, “biographical” project—a fifty-seven page overview of some of the “dramatic shifts” in historical attitudes toward the vagina—is a shoddy piece of work, full of childlike generalizations and dreary, feminist auto-think: the ancient Sumerians and Babylonians worshiped the vagina, the post-Pauline Christians were really horrid about it, male modernists objectified it, and so on.
One particular source of irritation is Wolf’s conviction that “the way in which any given culture treats the vagina…is a metaphor for how women in general in that place and time are treated.” If it is rash to dip into The Perfumed Garden, an erotic manual from fifteenth-century Arabia, and conclude that Islamic culture five hundred years ago had “a very non-Western awareness that vaginas are pluralistic, individualistic, and have wills and intentions of their own,” it is rasher still to assume that this text tells us anything useful about how women were treated “in general in that place and time.” The veneration of vaginas does not equal the veneration of women. (The Perfumed Garden contains, as it happens, an entire chapter dedicated to “The Deceits and Treacheries of Women.”) And unpleasant ideas about female sexuality are not the same as principled objections to women’s civil rights. This is why America is able to produce both Hustler magazine and a female secretary of state.
The truncated version of Wolf’s cultural survey may give us no reason to wish it were longer, but her enthusiastic foray into the “new science” comes with its own set of problems. Like many who have drunk shallow drafts from the fountains of evolutionary biology and neuroscience, Wolf is so excited at the idea of explaining complex, overdetermined features of human behavior with simple reference to the prehistoric savannah or the hypothalamus that she often ignores the promptings of common sense and logic.
Her interest in science was occasioned, she tells us, by a crisis that befell her in 2009, when, for no apparent reason, she ceased having vaginal orgasms. This was an “incredible, traumatic” loss. Although her capacity for clitoral orgasm remained intact and she continued to derive great physical pleasure from intercourse with her boyfriend, she found herself deprived of the intensely emotional postcoital experiences to which she was accustomed: “that sense of a spiritual dimension that unites all things—hints of a sense of all things shivering with light.”
The absence of this sublime element in lovemaking began to affect other aspects of her life. She fell into an existential ennui. “It was like a horror movie,” she writes, “as the light and sparkle of the world dialed downward and downward…I could not face living in this condition for the rest of my life.” Finally, she applied to her gynecologist and was promptly diagnosed with a misalignment in her spinal column that was causing a compression of her pelvic nerve.
Wolf had never heard of her pelvic nerve before, but now, as she learned about the elaborate net of neural pathways that send impulses from the vagina to the spinal cord and up to the brain, she began to suspect “a profound brain-vagina connection”—that is, a causal relationship between vaginal function and general emotional well-being. This suspicion was borne out for her when, after undergoing surgery to repair her spinal column, her vaginal orgasms returned, and with them, “a sense of vitality infusing the world, of delight with myself and with all around me, and of creative energy rushing through everything alive.” The vagina and the brain, she realized, were “one whole system.”
The discovery that vaginal sensations—or the lack of them—are capable of producing states of mind does not seem by itself a very startling one. Sensations in all parts of the anatomy release brain chemicals that result in feelings. We smell a bakery and feel the desire to buy a croissant; we shut our fingers in a door and feel rage. The body and the brain are “one whole system.” But according to Wolf, the chemicals released in “high,” or transcendent, female orgasm, are the vehicles of “very profound human truths.” They allow a woman to glimpse the greater, shining reality of “a Universal or Divine Feminine.” They give her the surety that “all is well with the universe” and that she exists “in a state of a kind of perfection.” When a woman is deprived of these chemicals because she is having no orgasms—or merely “culturally perfectly adequate” orgasms (my italics)—she becomes a stranger to her “inner Goddess” and her capacity for self-love and joy is depleted.
The female reader who has never felt herself to be “a radiant part of the universal feminine,” in bed or elsewhere, may feel that Wolf has mistaken her own highly personal, religiose experience of sexual bliss for a common definition. But it is also possible, of course, that the reader in question has been having inferior orgasms all these years and did not know it. Many—perhaps most—modern women are being denied the mystic sex that is their birthright, Wolf believes, which is why, despite all the economic and political advances that they have made over the last half-century, women keep reporting “lower and lower levels of happiness and satisfaction.”
The problem is that conventional models of heterosexual intercourse do not serve their needs. The “linear, goal-oriented” sex that predominates in the West does not take sufficient account of women’s extreme sensitivity to the emotional conditions in which sex takes place. Both pornography and classic second-wave feminism have tended to promote sexual technique as the key to female sexual satisfaction. Feminists in particular have tried to persuade women that they can “fuck like men, or get by with a great vibrator…and be simply instrumentalist about their pleasure.” But these, Wolf argues, are damaging myths. In order to achieve high orgasm, women need to feel safe and protected. (Ideally, they will feel “uniquely valued” and “cherished.”) They need atmosphere (candlelight, attractive furnishings, dreamy gazes) and “unique preparatory tributes or gestures” (flowers, drawn baths). It also helps a lot, apparently, if their male partners address them as “Goddess.”
These are not, Wolf emphasizes, the culturally specific preferences of a high-maintenance woman, but the biologically determined requirements of all women. In prehistoric times, it was dangerous for women to enter the disinhibited trance state of high orgasm when they were copulating “in the vicinity of wild animals or aggressors from another tribe,” so choosing sexual partners who would value them enough to protect them in an emergency was paramount.
This would seem a very flimsy speculation on which to hang an entire theory about women’s hardwired need for precoital schmoozing. One of its several problems is that it fatally exaggerates the obliviousness of the orgasmic woman. Anecdotal evidence suggests that a female in the throes of more than culturally adequate passion can snap to attention with astonishing rapidity if one of her children happens to wander into her bedroom, and the response time might even be quicker if the intruder were a woolly mammoth.
The lure of having an evolutionary imprimatur for her ideas about female sexuality seems to harden Wolf to such objections. It is striking that when confronted with an evolutionary story that does not suit her prejudices—the idea, for example, that a cross-cultural male preference for a certain female waist-to-hip ratio might be an adaptive preference for fertile-seeming women—she is happy to reject it, without further elaboration, as “sexist.” Yet offered a no less controversial theory that happens to support her a priori convictions, she is all naive fascination. To support her view that vaginal orgasms are superior to the clitoral kind, she cites the phenomenon of “uterine upsuck” as proof that vaginal orgasms are evolutionarily “superefficient.”
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.
* Greer objected to the word “vagina” on the grounds that it properly refers to only part of the multifaceted female genitalia—the passageway between vulva and cervix—and that its Latin meaning, “sword sheath,” obliged women to think of their sex “as a container for a weapon.” ↩
Greer objected to the word “vagina” on the grounds that it properly refers to only part of the multifaceted female genitalia—the passageway between vulva and cervix—and that its Latin meaning, “sword sheath,” obliged women to think of their sex “as a container for a weapon.” ↩