17th Sep 2012
Vagina: A New Biography by Naomi Wolf
I wish that I could go back in time and tell my 18-year old self as I hungrily devour The Beauty Myth that in a few shorts years I will be, like so many other feminists, sitting down somewhat reluctantly to write a piece on Naomi Wolf’s Vagina.
It seems like everyone is talking about the “profound brain-vagina connection” at the moment, and as soon as this tweet appeared on my time line:
“I didn’t think it was possible, but I’m actually more tired of Naomi Wolf’s Vagina than I am of 50 Shades of Grey.”
We decided it was time to bug you even further and compile our favourite write-ups of feminism’s latest controversy, just in case you’ve been in space for the last few weeks and don’t know what all the fuss is about.
To get you in the mood (rubbish pun intended), the premise of the book is that Wolf suffered a subtle spinal injury which caused her to lose “that sense of a spiritual dimension that unites all things – hints of a sense of all things shivering with light” that she had come to expect after experiencing an orgasm. I know, lucky woman.
So she consulted a myriad of doctors and scientists who informed her of the brain-vagina connection, and Wolf underwent an operation to realign her spine. Presumably the rainbows and fireworks and sparkling fucking fairies reappeared in her post-shagging state of mind as a result of said operation, and here we are.
Wolf’s argument, backed at every point by (questionable) neuro-biological studies, cultural history and even tantric practice, is that the oppression of women begins with the oppression of female sexuality, and that the differences between the male and female sexual experience must be understood in order for women to start having better sex.
It’s somewhat contradictory to the last thirty-odd years of feminism that fought for female sexuality to be seen as equal to male, and credited the clitoris as the centre of the female sexual experience.
Needless to say, it’s not getting the warmest of responses. Suzanne Moore wrote a pretty scathing piece in the Guardian on bad science, tantra and the infamous “cuntini” episode. She labeled Wolf’s works as “self-help branded as feminism.”
Feministe were equally horrified by Vagina’s prescriptive method of feminism, accusing Wolf of trying to shoehorn evolutionary biology in to place to explain her own personal preferences for drawn baths, scented candles and dreamy gazes.
They borrowed a few quotes from Zöe Heller’s article from The New York Book Review, perhaps the most scornful of all, which called Vagina “a shoddy piece of work, full of childlike generalizations and dreary, feminist auto-think.”
There isn’t a single thing Laurie Penny doesn’t hate about it, and her article for The New Statesmen ends with possibly my favourite closer of all time;
“Fascinating as it may be to watch Naomi Wolf disappear up her own vagina, we’ve had too many centuries of being fobbed off with flowers and appeals to the inner goddess to fall for that again. The vagina can monologue, but it takes a cunt to throw a brick through a window.”
In fact, I had to search far and wide to find anyone who had anything nice to say about it at all. Melanie McGrath for The Telegraph at least concedes that Vagina makes “a persuasive argument and Wolf presents it with her habitual clarity,” before agreeing with the consensus that “it leaves out as much as it includes.”
Wolf is not shying away from the criticism, though, and when you hear her speak with characteristic passion and conviction about the book I definitely think you could be forgiven for thinking that a couple of things that she brings to light might be applicable to your own sexual experience.
And I think, to some extent, that’s kind of the point. A lot of what Wolf is talking about isn’t new at all; we know that all kinds of rape are emotionally scarring, that hormones are powerful and that the brain is connected to the vagina just like it’s connected to every other part of the body. All feminists live in hope that all women will be politically and culturally free to enjoy lots of mind-blowing sex and orgasms.
But this book serves as yet another unfortunate reminder, like the Assange apologism and u-turn on abortion, that despite Wolf’s high profile she does not speak for this generation of feminists.
Vagina presents an outdated world, and one of the fiercest criticisms of this book is how Wolf would explain the countless creative and brilliant women throughout history who have little or no experience of heterosexual, penetrative sex.
For Wolf, boosts of dopamine from hetronormative sex are the key to female success, as it is known to boost confidence, assertiveness and measured risk-taking, and to oppress this is to oppress women’s power.
As we’re all throwing our two cents in, I’m pretty certain that I was driven and creative long before I was sexually active, and I definitely only started having good sex after I was able to identify myself as confident, assertive feminist, not the other way around.
But we’ve all got our own personal sexual histories, and while I can confidentially say Wolf’s book is certainly not a biography of my vagina, I wouldn’t want to suggest that it won’t in some way speak to you. So if you want to get your hands on a copy, it was published this month by Virago, and is available as a paperback, hardcover or ebook here.