Four writ­ers of­fer their per­spec­tives on Naomi Wolf’s con­tro­ver­sial bi­og­ra­phy of an in­ti­mate part of her anatomy Vagina: A New Bi­og­ra­phy

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Rose­mary Neill

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?

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