THE VAGINA DIALOGUE
Four writers offer their perspectives on Naomi Wolf’s controversial biography of an intimate part of her anatomy Vagina: A New Biography
NAOMI Wolf could have called this book My Vagina: A New Biography. It begins and ends with an account of how the author lost her sexual mojo when her pelvic nerve became trapped by misaligned vertebrae. Because of this, Wolf, a middleaged, divorced mother of two, no longer experienced sex ‘‘ in a poetic dimension’’.
She writes that she felt despair over this ‘‘ incredible, traumatic loss’’, which she compares to ‘‘ a horror movie’’. Yet she was still having orgasms and enjoying a wonderful relationship with a new partner.
Given this, the celebrity feminist’s descriptions of her pelvic nerve problem seem extraordinarily self-pitying. Even when describing her need for urgent spinal surgery, her primary concern is regaining sexual satisfaction.
The loss of perspective continues. When a male friend makes a tasteless joke about rape in war, she lies down and weeps. When another male friend throws a party to celebrate her book and makes vulva-shaped pastas he calls ‘‘ c . ntini’’, this misfired joke means she cannot write for six months.
Can this be the same feminist who in 1990 wrote The Beauty Myth — her first and best book — in an inspired rush of white-hot anger? Who drew parallels between post-9/11 America and Nazi Germany in her incendiary 2007 polemic, The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot?
Vagina is frustratingly uneven: Wolf’s analysis of how modern pornography devalues the vagina is as lucid and pithy as her faith in Tantric sexual healers is credulous and dewyeyed. More compelling is her exploration of the history of female sexuality, from ancient Sumerians worshipping a goddess’s ‘‘ lap of honey’’ to the 19th-century French doctor who whipped a female patient for engaging in ‘‘ the solitary vice’’.
Her examination of how and why the vagina is still mutilated and denigrated, from war-torn Africa to the porn-saturated West, is equally insightful. Worth reading, too, is her take on new theories about the vagina, though these passages are often clotted with lumpy scientific detail. These theories suggest this organ is more complex than previously supposed: that intricate neural pathways connect it to the brain; that there are more sites of pleasure than the vaginal v clitoral orgasm debate allows.
But Wolf’s conclusions about the ‘‘ profound vagina-brain connection’’ — about how the vagina directly affects women’s consciousness, confidence and creativity — are a worry. They imply that the more sexually satisfied you are, the more confident and creative you will be. Where does this excitable notion leave those celebrated spinsters Jane Austen, Emily Dickinson and Miles Franklin? Or countless divorced, widowed and single women who end up celibate? Is Wolf arguing these women are incomplete?
While she dispenses advice about the ‘‘ goddess array’’ (seduction techniques to arouse women), Wolf gives short shrift to the biggest libido killer of them all: the exhaustion of women working the triple shift (housework, paid work, childcare) or looking after young children unaided. Author Kathy Lette quipped recently: ‘‘ What a woman really wants in bed is breakfast.’’ I suspect this gag speaks to women more directly than Wolf’s hazy, new-age probing of sacred spot massage and yoni tapping. By Naomi Wolf Virago, 336pp, $32.99
WE’RE often told vaginas are complicated. Penises? Oh they’re easy. All you need is a firm grip and repetitive motion and, presto: a grown man has been brought to orgasm. But vaginas? ‘‘ It’s almost as if you have to speak to it and tell it that it’s pretty,’’ a female friend said recently. We laughed at the time, imagining the vagina as a shy, pigeon-toed debutante who needed to be sweet-talked before she could loosen up and go wild on the turps.
My friend was joking. Yet Naomi Wolf seems entirely serious about the prospect of speaking to vaginas. That much is clear from the opening section of this book, which is titled, seemingly without irony, Part I: Does the Vagina Have a Consciousness?