Naomi Wolf's Blog

April 3, 2014

From Project Syndicate

NEW YORK -- Western feminism has made some memorable theoretical mistakes; a major one is the frequent assumption that, if women held the decision-making power in society, they would be "kinder and gentler" (a phrase devised for George H.W. Bush in 1988 to appeal to the female vote). Indeed, so-called "second-wave" feminist theory abounds in assertions that war, racism, love of hierarchy, and general repressiveness belong to "patriarchy"; women's leadership, by contrast, would naturally create a more inclusive, collaborative world.

The problem is that it has never worked out that way, as the rise of women to leadership positions in Western Europe's far-right parties should remind us. Leaders such as Marine Le Pen of France's National Front, Pia Kjaersgaard of Denmark's People's Party, and Siv Jensen of Norway's Progress Party reflect the enduring appeal of neofascist movements to many modern women in egalitarian, inclusive liberal democracies.

Read more at Project Syndicate.
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Published on April 03, 2014 07:34 • 198 views

November 1, 2012

I keep learning more eye-opening information about my fellow human beings as I travel around the country talking about Vagina: A New Biography, now in a fifth week on the American Booksellers Association extended nonfiction hardcover bestseller list, and bouncing around the top of the Apple iBooks nonfiction list too. The adventures continue:

Wednesday, Chicago: Lusty Older Women

After a talk in a women's bookstore, a lesbian audience member in her sixties tells me that she was inspired by Vagina to be more romantic with her girlfriend, and acknowledges that some of the little seductions in the relationship had fallen by the wayside, as they can in any relationship. She also said that her gynecologist is startled because she is just as lustful now as she was at any time in her life.

She described many her straight friends' relationships with their husbands as both enter their sixties, and said that most of them say that they are relieved that the sexual aspect of the relationship has died down, along with their husbands' testosterone levels. "The men aren't yelling as much, but they aren't as sexual either," she reports. "The woman says the interaction is like best friends now." She thinks for a minute. "I think I would die if that happened to us" she muses.

This conversation meshes with many conversations I have had on the road with older women, that showcase the incredible variation in female libido in later years. But any stereotypes about sexless older women that our culture offers have definitely been blasted away for me.

Some older women, of all sexualities, are having the best sex of their lives -- including with themselves; others are wondering where their desire went, and have either accepted this or are unhappy about it.

But all of the stories confirm the "use it or lose it" quality of the female sex drive after menopause that the latest science confirms. The more that older women choose to have sex, the data now show, in their post-menopausal years, including solo sex, which turns out to be highly medically beneficial for older women, the more sex they wish to have (including solo sex). But while many doctors who specialize in the sexual health of older women that I encountered in the tour confirm this, only one -- Gail Saltz, M.D., a physician specializing in sexual health who interviewed me for the 92nd Street Y -- added an important caveat that no one else mentioned. Too graphic? To maintain the health and wellbeing of older women's sexual tissues, which can often cause problems post-menopausally, she said that it was helpful for older women to masturbate regularly with some kind of penetration. I conclude that for sure, that recommendation -- as helpful to many and as medically sound as it is -- is not going to make it onto daytime TV.

Thursday, Chicago: Episiotomies and Depression?

I get an email -- one of many similar ones -- from a 58-year-old Midwestern woman telling me that she followed the suggestions in Vagina to find her "sacred spot" (not my language, Tantra's) -- and had "the most intense orgasm of [her] life." Since she had suffered for twenty years from diminished sensation after two vaginal births -- one with an episiotomy (which cuts right through a major sexual center for women, and is standard, though usually unnecessary, in US birth practices) and one with a tear she thought she would never have the intense pleasure she had once had, with her husband of forty years, again.

For those who haven't given birth in America: episiotomy -- cutting the perineum -- is standard practice in the US because the rush to give birth in a for-profit environment means that standard births are sped up with pitocin, which means that a woman likely faces either a tear or an episiotomy -- both of these outcomes can usually be avoided with perineal massage with oil, and time; the massage is considered too sensual a practice for US birthing rooms, and tiem is too costly.

I am getting dozens of reports from readers of Vagina: A New Biography about loss of sexual sensation and sexual happiness following tearing or episiotomy. A major medical secret is that US episiotomies result almost inevitably in a major loss of sexual sensation for women. My emailers are reporting that this affects them and their marriages in very serious ways.

I reported that in Vagina that sexual anticipation of pleasure, and pleasure itself, in women, boosted dopamine, opioids and oxytocin, which go to positive mind-states involving motivation, assertiveness, bliss and a sense of connection and trust. Reading the many emails of women who suffered negative emotional and sexual effects after episiotomy or tearing, I started to wonder if the post-partum depression that affects such a high number of women in America -- between fifteen and twenty per cent of women post partum, according to the Centers for Diseases Control, self-report post-partum depression; PPD support sites such as this one argue that the actual number should be higher. Many studies also show lower satisfaction for women in marriage after the birth of children. Could this data have in some cases something to do with the relative suppression of these positive neurotransmitters and hormones, resulting from tears and from episiotomies that cut perineal neural termini?

This was a question I had explored vis a vis damage from vulvodynia and female genital mutilation; the mass of personal testimony I was receiving, in person and on email, from US women with "ordinary" episiotomies persuaded me that this question was worth more investigation. You can see the damage done to the sexual center in women here -- about a third of women in the US will have to undergo episiotomies in childbirth. Please take a look at Netter Plate 412 in this link -- which shows the innervation [nerves] of the female perineum and pelvis -- to see just how episiotomy or a birth laceration severs one major sexual center for women. And, if you follow the data I offer in the book about dopamine, oxytocin and opioids, this can also mean, trauma there can affect a part of the body that can in turn affect subjective mindstates involving emotion, drive, euphoria, and the sense of attachment and closeness.

I was glad that women with this symptom are finding, from my book, ways to amplify their pleasure again. Any controversy, I feel, was a small price to pay for so many women and couples to regain such an important part of their connection to each other, and for women readers to describe in their own words a renewed connection to themselves.

Friday, Minneapolis: Skanky Webcams

A fun evening talking in the beautiful new Minneapolis city library -- a gorgeous space and great, frank, take-no-prisoners Midwestern questions. (I found that Midwesterners are even more direct, and open to frank discussion about female sexuality, than are their counterparts on both coasts -- in spite of the coasts' self-congratulation about their own sophistication). But in the midst of a great discussion, a homeless man raises his hand: he starts to describe the perverse things you can get women to do on a site called MyFreeWebCam. I have heard a number of stories about the influence of these webcam sites -- the compulsive attraction to some people (so far I have just heard from or about men, but I am sure that the appeal is not gender exclusive) that is involved in a live site in which you can get women to do extremely degrading acts.

A woman I know left her very respectable husband because she found out about what he had gotten hooked on, and she could not integrate that idea of his tastes into her relationship with him. Jokes about watching women urinate on webcam, etc, are finding their way, as I noted elsewhere, into mainstream media such as a Californication episode I saw on a United flight recently. I worry that this becomes the new normal. I talk about how a lot of the people on those sites are trafficked, and that that is, to me, an issue even apart from the issue of the content. A very nice young man I meet later in the week back in New York, who interviews me for the site, points out that a video called "Two Girls and One Cup" is an internet sensation. "My mom saw it," he noted.

This lowering of the bar for what is mainstream sexual imagery influences, my audiences are sure, the behavior of kids, an issue I keep heating about. In Chicago, a guidance counselor for middle schoolers says that the standard way the genders relate sexually now in his school is that older high school boys get much younger -- even middle school -- girls to give them blow jobs in the bathrooms in the Mall. No one goes steady; no one dates. The norm is what they are getting from porn, and, he says, there is a complete vacuum of adults discussing more appropriate or emotionally contextualized sexual behavior with them. So, he notes, how would they know that that is not just "how sex is?"

Monday, New York: "Choking Out"

The testimonies about how porn is influencing behavior are unending. I have a great time chatting with Jane Pratt and her colleague Mandy, a comedienne, on Jane's radio show, but also learned something a bit startling. They are super graphic, and very, very funny. I am very pleased to sign a Vagina book for Courtney Love, a friend of theirs, who has tweeted supportively about the book ("Hole" was quite a band name for the time; -- an homage to the concept of some kind?) But again the influence of more and more violent porn startles me: Mandy says that several of the guys she recently had one-night stands with tried to "choke her out" -- asphyxiate her, with their hands around her neck -- as orgasm approached (I forgot to ask: was this assumed to be for her or for him? Or both?) The women were surprised that I was surprised -- "Choking out" is a porn cliché Jane Pratt explained to me. Mandy also said that someone she had had a one-night stand with had spat on her -- which had led her to find herself in tears on the train on the way back.

I am not surprised that auto-asphyxiation is erotic to some people -- it has had its fans since sex began, and subcultures in Victorian England and modern Japan. I am surprised that someone in a casual one-night-stand would try to do it to a woman without talking to her about it or getting a measure of her interest. I was surprised that it seemed to have become sort of normative. And yes, that escalation worries me -- because of the numbing effect of porn which I discuss in the porn chapter of the book, and because of its result: people need more and more extreme imagery to get the same level of arousal.

In the week ahead I get a stream of emails about porn addiction overtaking marriages: a woman in a Southern state, with five boys, who said she "lost" her husband to his porn addiction and was now trying to figure out how to raise her sons in a different way; a acquaintance, a talented artist in her twenties who emails me that she is now divorced and that my porn chapter led her to realize that her young husband -- also in his twenties -- who had to watch porn at times in order to have sex with her, and who became irritable and hostile if he did not ejaculate multiple times a day, was probably a porn addict -- and that the "unseen" dependency on porn created a toxicity in her marriage that she is only now understanding. It is sad to have such multi-layered confirmation that so many couples who might otherwise be able to make each other happy are torn apart by this issue.

Friday, New York: Alarming T-Shirt?

Breakfast with the very nice young men from -- the editor and a photographer. They bring up the numbing effect of porn themselves, which makes me wonder if this side effect is becoming known among young people, which would be a good thing in my view. We have a great, wide-ranging, delightful and perfectly mutually respectful conversation.

But then, outside, after he has asked me for one more photo op, this time with him, and I agree, the editor takes off his sweater with a flourish, and the photographer starts snapping away. The editor is, I now see, wearing a T-shirt with a woman's long naked legs on it, teetering in high heels. Her legs are spread apart, her hands cover her genitals as if in self-defense, and her panties are pushed halfway down.

Hard to interpret the t-shirt exactly -- but it certainly carries a sense of something being done sexually to the half-seen woman that she does not want.

The image definitely feels like a challenge of some kind. And the moment was staged -- planned in advance.

The poor photographer, a very sweet young man, had seemed oddly uneasy, even guilt-stricken, throughout our breakfast. Now I sort of got the source of his anxiety.

It is a challenge -- but to what, I wonder? Is it about shocking Mom? Some kind of power struggle? Or is this one of those moments where the same image reads very differently to a woman and a man -- could it be just edgy to him, or sort of cool, or simply thematic -- the only vagina-oriented piece of clothing he had lying around?

The photographer encourages me to stand next to the editor and his t-shirt.

What do I -- a free-speech activist -- say: "I won't stand next to your t-shirt? "

With a sigh, I stand next to the editor and his confrontational-to-me, or cool-to-someone, or simply ambiguous t-shirt.

Monday, New York: The Orgasm fMRI in New Jersey

Dr. Barry Komisaruk and Dr. Beverly Whipple, pioneers in the brain imaging of female arousal and orgasm, have graciously invited me to visit their lab at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Female subjects there reach orgasm while readings of their brain activity are recorded and then analyzed.

It is Komisaruk and Whipple who found that different touches at different parts of the female sexual area -- clitoris, labia, walls of vagina, cervix - register in different parts of the brain associated with different mind states, a result that I find fascinating,

I am eager to witness the lab and talk to these scientists who have done such groundbreaking work, and will report back... More travelogues soon!

Warmly, Naomi
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Published on November 01, 2012 07:57 • 243 views

September 26, 2012

Friday: I get a glimpse of my life ahead for the next little while. American publishers send authors their copies of books in big boxes labelled with the title. My doorman approaches me in the lobby, gesturing with some consternation at a three-foot cardboard box marked, "Vagina." "Is this yours?" he asks.

Saturday: Getting ready to fly to the UK for the launch. Two excerpts have run already, in the Times and the Guardian. My inbox is full of emails from the UK -- all adding to the growing mass of emails I received from women throughout the West about the dearth of information on sexual-health issues that affect them.

A young woman transitioning surgically from female to male -- whose neural anatomy was never explained to her by her doctor -- tells me that she got more information about her body from my book than she had from her physicians; a woman from an organization for women who have a rare disorder -- genetically female but born without fully developed vaginas -- explains to me that the bias in pediatric surgery is toward building up "underdeveloped" penises in intersex babies, and that the male-dominated profession doesn't care as much about researching vaginas; so many of the women in her support group suffer bad medical outcomes.

Legendary AIDS researcher Larry Kramer points out that at the forefront of AIDS research, there are mysteries about the transmission of the AIDS virus in the vagina because -- few scientists want to study the vagina, or research is underfunded. Finally many emails arrive from UK women who have had back injuries, even as minor as slipped disks -- and have sexual side effects -- who tell me that the NHS doctors are perpetually telling them they are hysterical.

Monday: An interview in the hotel cafe with the perceptive and dynamic Jane Winterburgh, editor of Diva. We have a bracing and far-ranging conversation about the vagina as a contested political symbol, about the shame so many women -- gay, straight and bisexual -- have about their desire and sexual responses, about the need for more data on lesbian and bisexual arousal and orgasm (the databases are slim indeed, but strong reader interest in this issue means i will be explaining these themes in the next edition), and about my years growing up in San Francisco, seeing how for gay and lesbian people, reclaiming a marginalized and mocked sexuality and bringing it into language was an essential part of their liberation -- a movement which is a model for me often and in this project as well.

At the BBC Radio studios I have my first interview with a man, Sean Moncrieff, the charming Irish host of Newstalk. We have a lovely, informative chat about the new neuroscience about female arousal and orgasm, how it can help the 30% of Western women who report low desire or trouble reaching orgasm when they wish to, and what lovers of women may wish to learn from it. I am impressed that there is nary a giggle from Moncrieff or a pun, as he manages to say, several time quite straightforwardly, that extremely tricky word, "vagina." (I have learned that inadvertent giggling and seemingly equally uncontrollable punning seem to be reflexive for many male interviewers, no matter how well-intentioned -- I empathize, it is a tough word for me to say in public still too, though I have had more time to acclimate, as have my editor and publishing team, as "vaginas" fly about the office with no one by now batting an eyelash.) One of the delights of the interview is that with an Irish accent my title sounds a bit, to my American ears, like "vajoina."

Tuesday: To my surprise, Jenny Murry, with whom I have had any number of cozy chats in the past, starts scolding me as soon as I sit down for Women's Hour. "Critics accuse you of fuzzy thinking for saying the vagina is part of a woman's soul!" she snaps. This was actually a Guardian headline. She then says: "You defended Assange!" This is a distressing and inaccurate conflation of my defense of his free speech rights to publish state secrets with what sounds like a defense of sex crime. I correct the record, but by then we have little time to talk about the new neuroscience of female arousal, desire and orgasm -- and I leave struck by how challenging it seems to be to just spend eight minutes simply addressing female sexuality on its own terms. If there is new and very much not-conventional-wisdom scientific information about how women do and do not become aroused and reach orgasm, how is that not worth discussing -- in an hour devoted to women, in particular?

That night, on heavyweight news show NewsNight, Jeremy Paxman starts scolding me as soon as I sit down. He accuses me of defending Assange, making the same mistake. I try to talk about the new scientific data that shows how deeply rape imprints the brain and even the body. It is a struggle to get four minutes focused on the latest neuroscience of sexual trauma in women. I gather that we were going to do a segment on the book itself -- but then it was changed to Assange. I wonder why a man keeps being dragged in to a discussion of what should be the news a bout female arousal and desire on its own terms -- and start to speculate that it is more comfortable for our culture to talk about rape than women's desire and pleasure.

Wednesday: Lunch, arranged by my editor, with some of the most talented women writers in Britain -- a marvelous intellectual Rogue's Gallery of women: Kate Figes, Kate Muir, Natasha Walter, Katharine Viner, and Susie Orbach, and the insanely witty Bedisha. Natasha Walter, who is now working with London-based refugee women, points out sadly that the issues they flee from -- female genital mutilation, child marriage, rape as a weapon of war -- are the very issues the UK judiciary does not take seriously. This dismissiveness hampers their struggles for asylum. I think sorrowfully about how the dismissive, silencing and mocking attitudes to the vagina that I wrote about -- are alive in the struggle of these vulnerable women, and having life and death consequences.

At the Bristol Writers' Festival, I have a long and serious conversation with a young feminist college journalist, who speaks sadly about how many young women she knows are silent, or feel themselves silenced, in situations that are sexually coercive to them. We talk about the importance of claiming the right to use a sexual voice -- to tell one's story and to assert the right to say what one does and does not want; and that bringing the "yes" into language is as important to young women as being empowered to bring the "no" into language as well. At the end of the talk, she raises her hand and, in an audience of a couple of hundred people, asks for specifics on how she can have a certain kind of orgasm. And she gets answers -- not just from me but from others in the room. I see that these moments are related: her courage in expressing her interest and curiosity, and claiming the right to do so, will be related to her feeling that she has a voice in situations that may be threatening to her or disempowering to her. A Guardian critic accuses me of being "privileged" -- my poor brain turns that one over like a Rubik's cube, since, as I have the same job as she, on the same newspaper, I can only gather, try to reach another conclusion though I may, that we are of exactly the same social class.

Thursday: The Royal Institution -- a great night with a lively audience in an auditorium that is bathed, amusingly, in pink lights for the occasion. At one point, describing the revolutionary work of neuroscientist James Pfaus in Montreal, who has identified the role of female sexual desire in mate selection among lower mammals I ask the audience to raise their hands if they knew that all mammals have clitorises -- the only woman to do so, in an audience of 350 -- the only person, indeed -- is a scientist who studies lioness sexuality. A woman says on the way out, to a friend, "I will never look at my puppy the same way again!"

On a more serious note, a counselor for British middle-schoolers confirms from her own experience how their exposure to porn is degrading what they think of, as she puts it, as "normal behavior," and heightening sexual aggression as a norm. She also said that because of the pressures of porn, kids that age whom she counsels now see anyone in a steady one-to-one relationship as a loser.

Friday: Diva photo shoot: seems like a dream in the midst of all this gender war: a sunny morning in a Camden house, surrounded by beautiful and talented lesbian editors, photographers and others who put out the magazine. It is a relief to be in a community in which the idea of the politicization of the vagina, and the struggle over its meaning, is obvious and not even a startling idea. We have more talk about the reclamation of female desire. But not always dreamlike: we also talk about the stresses faced daily by lesbians even in London for simply expressing sexual or romantic affection in the street.

Then Brighton -- another great audience, with great questions. I meet the artist who created the Great Wall of Vaginas -- a sculpture designed to show how varying women are, and which is being turned down for display in every venue the artist approaches. Hilarious title, and not so silly an issue, when one considers the 2,000 women in the UK last year with normal labia who requested labiaplasties (doctors explain that the role of porn makes many women who are entirely normal feel that there is something wrong with them).

I hear, as I did in Bristol and at the London event, from dozens of women who want to know about menopause; about recovering from rape; about the effect of antidepressants on female libido (substantial) and the effect of birth control pills on female libido (huge). Fascinating information is shared, and by now I have heard many vibrant sixty-somethings tell an audience a variant of "use it or lose it" (which is backed up by the science as well). These women are interested in learning about their own bodies and responses whether they are in relationships or not; whether they are gay, straight, trans or bi. I am struck by how passionately British women are serious about learning more about their sexual health and take seriously that that is a feminist goal -- even as, to my great surprise, a number of feminists in the UK press (and soon in my own country) will deride this interest on the part of me and my readers. One critic will assert that feminism had "taken women beyond the body" and that this book takes them back. But the women I interviewed -- the ones in the audiences too -- didn't get that memo; they are in their bodies as well as in their thoughts and characters, and struggling with all the issues and seeking the pleasures that being physical, as well as intellectual, women involves.

At the end of the night I meet two beautiful young women who suffer from vulvodynia -- a pelvic nerve disorder that affects sixteen per cent of women at some time in their lives, according to Dr Deborah Coady. They are very young -- only 21 or 22. They say they have spent years seeking a diagnosis, and that the NHS doctors tell them they are hysterical.

What do I take home from my week in the UK, talking (and causing apparent outrage) about something as simple and valuable as the new science of female arousal and orgasm? It seems that female sexuality is still such a difficult and contested issue even to think about in mainstream media spaces.

Monday: In the US again, things heat up further. In one day, the online forums explode with epithets -- mostly from people who have not read the book. I am called insane, disturbed and a traitor to the sisterhood.

David Dobbs, in Wired, takes issue with the neuroscience in my book -- but has yet to actually read the book; Dr. Jim Pfaus, one of the researchers on dopamine and sexual arousal whose work I report on, dissects Dobbs' dissection and takes it apart. But in spite of the fact that every scientific assertion in Vagina is cited thoroughly and that all of my sources are peer-reviewed academic books or journals -- in other words, impeccable -- and are listed in full in the notes and bibliography, including abstracts, some in the blogosphere, who seem not to have bothered to look at this sourcing, decide that the heavily annotated book contains "bad science." This is so prevalent a meme in the face of hundreds of notes to the contrary that I start to wonder and I joke about lotuses, figs, etc. -- nothing of the kind to be seen though in the landscape. We look up at the dock where we are shooting and notice that we are surrounded by gigantic phallic sculptures and buildings.

A reporter cries when she interviews me. A reporter tells me that she read the book till two AM then texted her old boyfriend, explaining that she now knew why they broke up. A marvelous writer -- Patricia Bosworth -- describes to me what it was like to attend Betty Dodson's masturbation class -- for research -- in the 1970s, a mind-blowing narrative that makes our era look tame and prudish. A number of gay and straight men in their seventies email me asking more about the connection between their porn use and potency issues. A reporter tells sanguine since what I care about are the readers -- the book is selling -- and because I remember this same outrage when The Beauty Myth came out.

Home to New York. Another giant box with the words "Vagina" on it. "Do you need help with that?" asks my doorman politely.
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Published on September 26, 2012 13:25 • 131 views

September 12, 2012

Many critics and readers, including many feminists, have welcomed my book Vagina: A New Biography . Some critics, though -- feminists too, of another kind -- are accusing me of a form of contemporary heresy.

Vagina is an account of the latest neuroscientific and other findings that markedly update our understanding of female sexual desire, arousal and orgasm, at a time when conventional wisdom about female sexual response is arrested in research from Masters and Johnson, decades-old; at a time when, even in a hypersexualised society, 30% of American women self-report not reliably having orgasms when they wish to; in a year when 2,000 British women with normal labia requested labiaplasties. Surely reporting on fresh information about female sexual response is an obviously feminist thing to do?

But these critics' contention is that this reporting is "essentialism" -- that I am re-grounding gender "back" in the body, which is a contemporary feminist-theory sin. To mainstream readers, this argument may seem arcane. So a primer: some contemporary feminist theory's primary orthodoxy asserts that gender is always, everywhere, entirely "socially constructed" -- that is, only real in the mind or in social attitudes.

But critics who attack me from this position don't seem to know how recently their position was created in feminist intellectual history. The "essentialism" versus "gender theory" wars emerged only belatedly, in the 1980s, as legal activists sought to downplay any potential biological differences between women and men in pursuit of equal treatment in the workplace and, elsewhere, academic feminists were inspired by post-structuralism to create a discipline that cast gender as existing only as a social norm.

But the radical new findings on which I report have to do with the female body and with female sexual response. The new findings are updating our understanding of female pleasure and the mind-body connection in women on many levels. Some new findings are important for understanding the harm of sex crime more fully, and others have to do with the numbing effects of porn on desire. In a time when porn co-opts young men's and women's responses, is it "feminist" to withhold new data about its potentially addictive nature and depressive effect on a habituated libido?

Should we not know about this data? I come from the feminist school that believes knowledge is power. Knowing about the science of the brain-vagina connection -- a concept that is not my construction but rather an everyday fact for the scientists at the forefront of this research - simply means we are willing to engage with the modern world; the brain-body connection is being thoroughly documented in hundreds of ways, from cardiovascular health research to the role of stress in illness.

Problematically for my critics, this book is not an opinion piece or a polemic; it is mostly a survey of this new science. These critics, to truly carry their points, can't simply attack me -- they really need to take issue directly with the findings of the dozens of studies that I cite.

Their hostility towards looking at any new neuroscience of female sexuality and at any data on the mind-body connection is unsustainable -- and will only, as time goes on, make some feminist theory seem more and more out of touch with contemporary human learning.

I would say, too, that this particular critical attack on Vagina -- as somehow abandoning feminism's "higher agenda" by giving women new information about such "trivial" issues as their sexual responses, arousal and orgasm -- is remarkably historically shortsighted. I am actually standing not in opposition to feminism but squarely in one (temporarily submerged) intellectual tradition, part of a long tradition of women who saw the empowerment of women as being linked to their having good, solid and fearlessly presented information about their sexuality.

My critics show some historical amnesia; because a robust feminist tradition of pro-sex information defined a long tradition of feminism until the 1970s -- dating back to 17th-century midwife Jane Sharp and through to Victorian physician Elizabeth Blackwell, motivating contraceptive activists of the 1920s Marie Stopes and Margaret Sanger, and reaching a high point in the second wave.

In that era, pro-sexual-awareness feminists added the speculum to encounter-group activities so women could see what they looked like. Germaine Greer looked at biology and culture in The Female Eunuch and insisted, in a 1970 essay, Lady, Love Your Cunt. Judy Chicago made her confrontational Dinner Party -- a piece of artwork that represented famous women in the archetype of various vaginal images. Lesbian activist Tee Corinne made a vagina coloring book; Betty Dodson made movies showing various vulvas and teaching women to masturbate; Shere Hite insisted (to familiar howls of outrage) that the Freudian model of vaginal intercourse alone was not enough to please two-thirds of women. And a generation of women's health and sexuality activists created revolutions - from which we still benefit - in sex education, women's reproductive rights, and access to information about desire and pleasure. Pussy Riot and Lisa Brown of the Michigan state house are surely descendants of this inspiring tradition, which defied ridicule and sometimes prison to empower women sexually.

By writing frankly about female desire and shining a light on the now well-established brain-vagina connection and the new science of female pleasure, am I departing from the greatest feminist tradition or honoring it? I believe it is the latter. Perhaps, unlike some of my critics, I have learned to trust my readers. By confronting the body I am not saying women are just the body. Rather I am respecting my readers' intelligence: some situations are socially constructed, some are biologically based, and my readers are smart enough to assess their world moment by moment.

The feminist mission remains the same, even in the light of new data about the vagina, female desire and the female brain. New data should not derail us from fighting for a world in which all individuals are valued equally, and all differences treated with respect. Yet if we are to have intellectual integrity we must not flee from new insights but engage with them. I for one prefer to look at the new evidence directly, not avert my eyes from it -- knowing that the truth always empowers -- and meanwhile to keep up the age-old fight for women's freedom.

This piece originally appeared at The Guardian's Comment Is Free.
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Published on September 12, 2012 06:08 • 318 views

October 22, 2011

Mayor Bloomberg is planning Draconian new measures to crack down on what he calls the "disruption" caused by the protesters at Zuccotti Park, and he is citing neighbors' complaints about noise and mess. This set of talking points, and this strategy, is being geared up as well by administrations of municipalities around the nation in response to the endurance and growing influence of the Occupation protest sites. But the idea that any administration has the unmediated option of "striking a balance," in Bloomberg's words, that it likes, and closing down peaceful and lawful disruption of business as usual as it sees fit is a grave misunderstanding -- or, more likely, deliberate misrepresentation -- of our legal social contract as American citizens.

Some kinds of disruption in a free republic are not "optional extras" if the First Amendment governs the land, as it does ours, and are certainly not subject to the whims of mayors or local police, or even DHS. Just as protesters don't have a blanket right to do everything they want, there is absolutely no blanket right of mayors or even of other citizens to be free from the effect of certain kinds of disruption resulting from their fellow citizens exercising First Amendment rights. That notion, presented right now by Bloomberg and other vested interests, of a "disruption-free" social contract is pure invention -- just like the flat-out fabrication of the nonexistent permit cited in my own detention outside the Huffington Post Game Changers event this last Tuesday, when police told me, without the event organizers' knowledge and contrary to their intentions, that a private entity had "control of the sidewalks" for several hours. (In fact, the permit in question -- a red carpet event permit! -- actually guarantees citizens' rights to walk and even engage in political assembly on the streets if they do not block pedestrian traffic, as the OWS protesters were not.)

I want to address the issue of "disruption," as Bloomberg is sending this issue out as a talking point brought up on Keith Olbermann's Coundown last night: the neighbors around Zuccotti Square, says Bloomberg, are feeling "disrupted" by the noise and visitors to the OWS protest, so he is going to crack down to "strike a balance" to address their complaints. Other OWS organizers have let me know that the Parks Department and various municipalities are trying to find a way to eject other protesters from public space on a similar basis of argument.

Please, citizens of America -- please, OWS -- do not buy into this rhetorical framework: an absolute "right to be free of disruption" from First Amendment activity does not exist in a free republic. But the right to engage in peaceable disruption does exist.

Citizens who live or work near protest sites or marches have every right to be free of violence from protesters and they should never be subjected to destruction of property. This is why I am always saying to OWS and to anyone who wants to assemble: be PEACEFUL PEACEFUL PEACEFUL. Be respectful to police, do not yell at them; sing, don't chant; be civil to pedestrians and shop owners; don't escalate tensions; try to sit when there is tension rather than confront physically; be dignified and be nonviolent.

But the First Amendment means that it actually is not up to the mayor or the police of any municipality, or to the Parks Department, or to any local municipality to prohibit public assembly if the assembly is peaceful but disruptive in many ways.

Peaceful, lawful protest -- if it is effective -- IS innately disruptive of "business as usual." That is WHY it is effective.

The Soviet Union was brought down by peaceful mass protest that blocked the streets and filled public squares. Many white residents of Birmingham Alabama in the 1960s would have said it was very disruptive to have all these African Americans marching through Birmingham or protesting the murder of children in churches. The addresses by Dr. King on the Mall were disruptive of the daily life of D.C. King himself marched without permits when permits were unlawfully applied. It is disruptive to sit at a whites-only counter and refuse to move and be covered with soda and pelted with debris and dragged off by police. It disrupted the Birmingham bus system for African Americans in the Civil Rights movement to organize a bus boycott. It is disruptive when people refuse to sit at the back of the bus.

When Bonus Marches -- thousands of unemployed and desperate former veterans who had been promised and denied their bonus checks in the Depression, which they needed to feed their families -- camped out for months on the Mall in D.C. and sat daily (when this was possible) on the steps of Congress, they won, eventually, because of the disruption. Some of the power of real protest, which is peaceful and patient and civil but disruptive, comes from the emotional power of the human face-to-face: all those Congresspeople had to look those hungry men in the eyes on their way to legislate the decision about the bonus.

Most of us need to remember, or learn for the first time (since this information is usually concealed from us) that the First Amendment, and the Constitution in general, supersedes all the laws of municipalities in violation of the constitution, as stated in the 1925 Gitlow v. New York ruling. So the First Amendment supersedes the restrictive permit laws now being invoked against protesters. The First Amendment was designed to allow for disruption of business as usual. It is not a quiet and subdued amendment or right.

Indeed, our nation's founding was a series of rowdy and intense protests, disrupting business as usual for tax collectors and mercenaries up and down the eastern seaboard. Even after the establishment of the new nation massive, highly disruptive protests of various laws, Congressional actions, and even of foreign policy were absolutely standard expressions of political speech, and whether they liked the opinions expressed or not, these protests were spoken of by Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Washington and others -- some of whom themselves were the subjects of these protests -- as part of the system they had set in place working, and the obligation of American citizens.

Dr. King, when asked about disruption, said that the disruption caused by peaceful protest is good and healthy in a society, because it is the result of festering problems that need to be addressed and that are buried being brought into light to be dealt with constructively.

But I would want to remind OWS, and any protesting group, that peaceful and dignified disruption of business as usual is very different from violence, anarchy or rioting, which must always be avoided. This is why I keep telling OWS and others: be peaceful. Don't march in a militaristic way. Don't cover your faces or let anyone with you cover their faces. Bring old people. Bring kids. Bring instruments, form bands of musicians and singers. Don't fight. Don't destroy property.

If neighbors complain about mess, bring brooms (as the Egyptians did) and clean up, not just the park but the whole neighborhood. Bake cookies FOR the neighbors. Be the good examples of civil society that you want to spread. Bring whole families (good job with that family sleepover in Zuccotti Park last night). I would go further: emulate the Civil Rights movement and wear your Sunday best at key times when you protest. Wear suits and dresses when it is practical, or wear red, white and blue when conditions are rougher. Bring American flags. Bring the Constitution. Don't give the narrators any excuse to marginalize you because of the visuals or because of any individuals' erratic or anarchic behavior.

My grandma, Fay Goleman, died last year at 96, at just around this time of year. She loved this county -- LOVED this country -- and I felt her memory very strongly when I could not physically move out of the arresting officer's way last Tuesday. She was born to refugees from the Czar's Russia, and she knew what police and military intimidation of free speech and free assembly meant. Dr. Goleman, who was barely five feet tall but who had an enormous spirit, marched decade after decade for seventy years: she marched for peace; against the nuclear bomb; for civil rights and so on. She spoke up at town councils and served on local government commissions and believed that people had the responsibility to govern their own communities and to take action and not just complain. She always wore hats and white gloves when she marched, and she held herself in that context with great lady-likeness and civility.

This formality was partly to honor the great gift and great occasion that is the American gift of free assembly. And she always said: "Activism is the rent we must pay for the privilege of living in a democracy. Protest is how you pay your civic rent." (Tiny as she was, she also had no patience for people who were willing to be deterred from the path they knew was right by bullies.)

She taught me that activism and petitioning government for redress of grievances is not a choice if you live in America. If you are American, it is an obligation. The Founders did not give this task to us as an option, but rather demanded it as an obligation: we are compelled by their social contract in the Constitution to protest and engage in free assembly when government has stopped listening to us. That is why the First Amendment comes first: everything else flows from it and is built upon it.

You can borrow my Grandma Fay's example and memory, if it is helpful: I am sure she would not mind and, indeed, would probably get a kick out of it. But you can also borrow Gandhi's or Dr. King's, for that matter, who made enormous disruptions -- the biggest of disruptions -- of daily life in Birmingham and D.C. and Delhi and in the brokerage houses of the London financial markets -- with the great discipline of peacefulness and nonviolence.

Bloomberg is flat wrong, and he doubtless knows it but hopes you won't notice: New Yorkers have no right to be free of any disruption from the peaceful but disruptive free-speech actions of their fellow citizens, and how New Yorkers lawfully and peacefully assert their First Amendment rights is actually not up to him. There is a higher authority than Michael Bloomberg, or than the NYPD, or even than the guy in the white shirt who signaled to his colleagues to handcuff me earlier this week when I stood peacefully on a sidewalk, obeying what I had confirmed to be the law: and that higher authority is called the Constitution of the United States of America.
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Published on October 22, 2011 13:03 • 183 views

September 1, 2011


NEW YORK -- As I listen to the news coming out of England after the recent wave of urban riots -- and as I read Robert Douglas-Fairhurst's compelling new biography of Charles Dickens, Becoming Dickens -- life and art seem to be echoing each other.

In the wake of the riots, British Prime Minister David Cameron has proposed reviving children's courts, urged harsh sentences and orange jumpsuits for convicts, and floated even more odious ideas. For example, convicts could be intentionally exposed to public harassment through cleanup assignments, and their families, who have not committed crimes, could be evicted from their state-subsidized housing. Cameron is also testing arrests for Facebook comments, the suspension of social networks, and more lethal power for police.

In Dickens' England, the judiciary was not independent, and newspapers were subject to state censorship. Kids (like Oliver Twist) were punished in ways designed to break them; poor people convicted of relatively minor offenses were transported to Australia, or given publicly humiliating forms of punishment; police had unchecked and violent power over the poor.

I am not endorsing leniency for looters and thugs; but we already know where the raft of punitive legislation that Cameron is proposing, and his efforts to exploit civil unrest to clamp down on civil liberties, would lead the country.

Likewise, we already know what an England without a social safety net -- where the poor have no hope and no mobility -- looks like. Public education barely existed for the "lower orders" 150 years ago, and university was a fantasy for them -- as it could well be again, with tuition fees set to triple under Cameron.

In Becoming Dickens, Douglas-Fairhurst, rejecting recent "poststructuralist" literary theory, reexamines Dickens and his England within their historical and political contexts. This approach yields valuable insights -- and not a moment too soon. Such "historicist" interpretations of Victorian London have also appeared recently in the fascinating current exhibit at the Wellcome Collection, "Dirt: The Filthy Reality of Everyday Life," and in Bill Bryson's new bestseller, At Home, which examines the social history surrounding a Victorian curate's manor.

The renewed interest in Victorian social history -- what people ate and wore, who worked for whom, etc., as opposed to the history of battles and "great men" -- may not be a coincidence. Western capitalist societies, especially the United Kingdom and the United States, are currently in the process of spooling time backward to the pre-Victorian era, for the benefit of a small group of elites that excludes the working and middle classes who benefited most from the Victorians' social, economic, and political reforms -- let alone the poor.

As a result, it has become urgent to remember that it was the later Victorians who recognized modernity's moral dimension, originating almost every kind of public reform that we now take for granted as the mark of a civilized society.

Early Victorian reality -- destitute street children, raging cholera epidemics, and mounds of uncollected "night soil" in the streets -- was a highly "privatized" reality. In the 1830's, as Douglas-Fairhust movingly demonstrates, boys and girls who came from economically vulnerable families could find themselves unschooled and working 18 hours a day in blacking factories, like the 12-year-old Dickens.

People who did not pay their creditors were sent -- with their families -- to debtors' prisons, as John Dickens, Charles' father, was for owing 40 pounds. Elderly people with no means of support died in rags in alleyways, while lower-middle-class families, with no unemployment insurance or welfare benefits, were perpetually in terror of illness or layoff, which would mean "ruin" and, possibly, being turned out into the street.

London in the 1830's was a city in which a third of women were servants and another third were prostitutes. A massive gap between the elites and everyone else ensured that the top echelons of literature, business, and politics were managed by the wealthy few, and that the talents that would emerge a generation later, in the wake of wider state-funded education, were suppressed. And this is more or less what all of England looked like without a social safety net.

In contrast, the later Victorians, from the 1850's-1880's, created major public works and public-welfare initiatives, including state-funded infirmary networks and compulsory primary education. They expanded a system of workhouses and poor relief for the destitute, built up municipal water and sewage systems, municipalized police forces, and oversaw public investment in landmarks that are still with us, such as the Thames Embankment and the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Likewise, with tens of thousands of street children entirely dependent for food on what they could scavenge or steal, the later Victorians established systems of orphanages. They commissioned the first epidemiological surveys to identify the source of cholera outbreaks -- which could wipe out half the population of a neighborhood in a matter of weeks -- and built new waterworks to stop the spread of the disease from the filthy Thames and tainted local pumps. They built the first major public hospitals at a time when home births and other home care spread contagion and death.

In today's advanced capitalist democracies, most citizens' obliviousness to this history serves elite interests; otherwise, many more people, if not most, would be screaming bloody murder at increasingly successful efforts to shrink the public sector.

As Cameron and other Western conservatives intensify their efforts to clear a path to the past, it is important to bear in mind that there is nothing novel or innovative about the absence of a welfare state and the privatization of basic services. We have been there already -- indeed, much of what is now being dismantled in Britain was built in the Victorian era because of appalling social conditions for most people. If today's conservative political forces remain in power, the dark, dangerous, and ignorant past is where England -- and other Western countries -- risks returning.

Naomi Wolf is a political activist and social critic whose most recent book is Give Me Liberty: A Handbook for American Revolutionaries.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2011.
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Published on September 01, 2011 10:25 • 114 views

July 7, 2011

It is hard to ignore how many highly visible men in recent years (indeed, months) have behaved in sexually self-destructive ways. Some powerful men have long been sexually voracious; unlike today, though, they were far more discreet and generally used much better judgment in order to cover their tracks.

Of course, the heightened technological ability nowadays to expose private behavior is part of the reason for this change. But that is precisely the point: so many of the men caught up in sex-tinged scandals of late have exposed themselves -- sometimes literally -- through their own willing embrace of text messages, Twitter, and other indiscreet media.

What is driving this weirdly disinhibited decision-making? Could the widespread availability and consumption of pornography in recent years actually be rewiring the male brain, affecting men's judgment about sex and causing them to have more difficulty controlling their impulses?

There is an increasing body of scientific evidence to support this idea. Six years ago, I wrote an essay called "The Porn Myth," which pointed out that therapists and sexual counselors were anecdotally connecting the rise in pornography consumption among young men with an increase in impotence and premature ejaculation among the same population. These were healthy young men who had no organic or psychological pathology that would disrupt normal sexual function.

The hypothesis among the experts was that pornography was progressively desensitizing these men sexually. Indeed, hardcore pornography's effectiveness in achieving rapid desensitization in subjects has led to its frequent use in training doctors and military teams to deal with very shocking or sensitive situations.

Given the desensitization effect on most male subjects, researchers found that they quickly required higher levels of stimulation to achieve the same level of arousal. The experts I interviewed at the time were speculating that porn use was desensitizing healthy young men to the erotic appeal of their own partners.

Since then, a great deal of data on the brain's reward system has accumulated to explain this rewiring more concretely. We now know that porn delivers rewards to the male brain in the form of a short-term dopamine boost, which, for an hour or two afterwards, lifts men's mood and makes them feel good in general. The neural circuitry is identical to that for other addictive triggers, such as gambling or cocaine.

The addictive potential is also identical: just as gamblers and cocaine users can become compulsive, needing to gamble or snort more and more to get the same dopamine boost, so can men consuming pornography become hooked. As with these other reward triggers, after the dopamine burst wears off, the consumer feels a letdown -- irritable, anxious, and longing for the next fix. (There is some new evidence, uncovered by Jim Pfaus at Concordia University in Canada, that desensitization may be affecting women consumers of pornography as well.)

This dopamine effect explains why pornography tends to become more and more extreme over time: ordinary sexual images eventually lose their power, leading consumers to need images that break other taboos in other kinds of ways, in order to feel as good. Moreover, some men (and women) have a "dopamine hole" -- their brains' reward systems are less efficient -- making them more likely to become addicted to more extreme porn more easily.

As with any addiction, it is very difficult, for neurochemical reasons, for an addict to stop doing things -- even very self-destructive things -- that enable him to get that next hit of dopamine. Could this be why men who in the past could take time-delayed steps to conduct affairs behind closed doors now can't resist the impulse to send a self-incriminating text message? If so, such men might not be demons or moral ciphers, but rather addicts who are no longer entirely in control of themselves.

This is not to say that they are not responsible for their behavior. But I would argue that it is a different kind of responsibility: the responsibility to understand the powerfully addictive potential of pornography use, and to seek counseling and medication if the addiction starts to affect one's spouse, family, professional life, or judgment.

By now, there is an effective and detailed model for weaning porn-addicted men and restoring them to a more balanced mental state, one less at the mercy of their compulsions. Understanding how pornography affects the brain and wreaks havoc on male virility permits people to make better-informed choices -- rather than engage in pointless self-loathing or reactive collective judgments -- in a world that has become more and more addictively hardcore.

Naomi Wolf is a political activist and social critic whose most recent book is Give Me Liberty: A Handbook for American Revolutionaries.

This post originally appears at Project Syndicate

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2011.

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Published on July 07, 2011 07:47 • 295 views

June 6, 2011

Have two British academics found the key to why Americans keep being bombarded today with a discourse that highlights dramatic "emergency" events -- that then leads inevitably to legislation that chips away (or chisels away) at what is left of the Constitution? I believe they have. Dr. Stephen Morton and Dr. Elleke Boehmer, in their very important new book, Terror and the Postcolonial , show how today's headlines on CNN may have been crafted for use in India in the 1800s -- perfected throughout the nineteenth century -- and road-tested on unfortunate Irish citizens in the 1910s.

This weekend, in an Oxford lecture titled "Travelling Texts in a Time of Emergency", Morton demonstrated that the British "practiced" techniques for repressing populations in their colonies. His conclusions are deeply relevant, not just to a British colonial or post-colonial reality but to the American "Homeland."

He looked at an essay by Walter Benjamin, the "Eighth Thesis on the Philosophy of History." It is a 1933 essay -- very important timing -- in which Benjamin, who was watching the consolidation of European fascism, began to say: don't believe the language about "terror"; don't be fooled into the propaganda that the need for "a state of emergency" is an aberration, a response to genuine dramatic threats. Don't be taken in by it. "The tradition of the oppressed teaches that the "state of emergency" is a permanent historical tradition. The "state of emergency" exists permanently as a state of lawlessness -- it is not the exception but the rule." In other words, Benjamin saw clearly in 1933 that the German discourse of "Oh my God, things are really unstable, we need to suspend certain civil liberties for the sake of national security" was a hoax -- a historical constant always used by elites and always for the same reasons.

Prof. Morton went on to trace this practice -- of manipulating the words "terrorist" and propagandizing a need for states of emergency that lead to preventive detention, torture, suspension of constitutional rights and so on -- to many places in the British colonial regime. He noted that "terrorist" was a term the British often applied to local populations that were fighting for -- yes -- freedom from oppressive British rule. He pointed out that the "Bengal Suppression of Terror Act" of the 1900s, for instance, was aimed at local freedom movements. (The word "Terrorist" was first coined in reference to the French Revolutionary state.)

Legal scholar Albert Venn Dicey pointed out in 1883 that martial law is "anomalous to the law in England" and a sign of a totalitarian state or a terrorist state. In spite of this ideology that Britain is a constitutional democracy, Morton said that British Colonial governments have all used emergency legislation to suppress colonial uprisings. They allowed the Colonial governors to develop torture, preventive detention, the maintenance of "order" by force, the denial of rights to subjects. The "state of emergency" operated "as a traveling concept for global counter-insurgencies, reiterated in different colonial authorities" around the world. Even more disturbingly fascinating, he made the case that British authorities would "practice" certain kinds of repression on Ireland between 1900 and 1922 -- and then "export" these practices overseas. So in Ireland at that time, "subversive" material was criminalized in newspapers, and so on. The "state of emergency' in that period -- for Ireland, not for Britain as a whole -- "was the rule, and the application of the Constitution the exception."

Morton went on to say that the "causative" emergencies for the "state of emergency" were often manufactured, for example in Malaya; that the ostensibly "dramatic character of these emergencies made them appear spontaneous rather than systemic"; and the strategy was the same for the imposition of Martial Law.

I've looked, as readers may know, at various fascist and totalitarian regimes, to get a handle of what the US was up to in terms of the erosion of our civil liberties. But I did not look at British colonialism in relation to the systemic development of the deployment of "state of emergency" policies to suspend US Constitutional rights, and I should make that connection now. It seems clear to me from this lecture and from other research that the architects of the suppression of our rights have probably studied British colonial rule as well as other repressive regimes.

Why would this historical source be especially useful for them? Because Britain, like America, as a putative constitutional democracy, can't just say, "Okay, now we are a police state, and we are suspending the Constitution." Britain in that period, like the United States today, needed to maintain its own ideology as a "free" nation, an exporter of human rights and democracy, around the world, to all these benighted brown peoples. So Britain needed to develop a discourse of rationale -- hence the "state of emergency" discourse and the reliance on whipped-up "dramas" to justify a seeming exception to constitutional democracy that is actually the rule.

I think we should pay close attention to what Walter Benjamin tried to tell readers in 1933 -- and really take in what Professors Morton and Boehmer are alerting us to today: "states of emergency" have a long historical record of being manipulated by elites, for repressive purposes that have nothing to do with the always "dramatic" rationales that are used to justify them; and British colonial rule was a laboratory of the very tactics and the same soundbites that we are seeing at home now in the United States. The past is prologue.
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Published on June 06, 2011 07:56 • 91 views

May 27, 2011

So this blog post is titled: "My Sex Life with the TSA". Because I am getting a LOT of action from them.

I went through JFK this past week. As usual, I request not to go through the backscatter machines. And as usual, they tell me that SINCE I mentioned it at all, they have to give me a "pat-down."

Well, without flowers or candlelight or even a nice dinner, I am led into a highly visible corner, after quite a wait for a "female officer". They did ask if I wanted to go somewhere private but I would have felt even MORE uncomfortable NOT in a public setting.

A very attractive African-American woman in her mid-twenties was tasked with searching me. So of course, a skanky male traveler -- white, mid-forties, affluent -- decides to stand around and watch.

As this nice young woman goes through the whole procedure, I asked her -- as I always ask TSA officials -- if their training had explained to them WHY this process was necessary or what purpose it served. She said, "No," and her female colleague standing nearby also said "No."

Interestingly, the procedure is quite highly eroticized. She kept saying "Now I am going to touch your sensitive area." Which made me think that at least a generation of young women are going to learn where their clitorises are through our US tax dollar, which certainly has a social benefit.

But as she was engaged in quite thoroughly going through this process, the skanky white affluent male traveler, who was now done with his own security process, was HANGING OVER THE EDGE of the low barrier, perfectly relaxed, enjoying the scenario! And commenting: "Hey, can I have you pat me down?" "Hey, its always big hairy men with hair on their knuckles patting me down... I want you to pat me down... can I participate? I'll sign a waiver!" Swear to God.

So this poor woman -- shades of the DSK cleaner, but harassed this time by the State -- is being sexually degraded by the process she has to go through; sexually degraded by a passenger; and I feel rather sexually degraded too, by the process put in place by the State.

Finally I say sharply to him, "That's enough!" and the two women look at me in surprise.

"We thought he was with you!" they say.

"Never seen him before," I comment. And we all have a moment of bonding, being women in a state of complete skanked-at-ness.

Brought to you by the United States Government.
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Published on May 27, 2011 07:46 • 277 views

April 12, 2011

Al Jazeera correspondent Ayman Mohyeldin is on a victory lap in the United States -- or rather, Al Jazeera is sending him on its own victory lap.

After all, Mohyeldin is a modest guy, despite being one of Al Jazeera's best-known reporters -- and clearly a rising international media star.

Al Jazeera has good reason to gloat: it has a new cachet in the US after millions of Americans, hungry for on-the-ground reporting from Egypt, turned to its online live stream and Mohyeldin's coverage from Cairo's Tahrir Square.

So now Mohyeldin is in the US for three weeks of media events -- there will even be a GQ photo shoot -- having become well known in a country where viewers are essentially prevented from seeing his station.

The network has been targeted by the US government since 2003, when former vice president Dick Cheney and former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld described it as tantamount to an arm of al-Qaeda.

Two of its reporters were later killed in Baghdad when US missiles hit its office. Al Jazeera and others voiced suspicions that the channel's reporters had been deliberately targeted.

And, to this day, Al Jazeera, which, together with BBC News, has become one of the premier global outlets for serious television news, is virtually impossible to find on televisions in the US.

The country's major cable and satellite companies refuse to carry it -- leaving it with US viewers only in Washington, DC and parts of Ohio and Vermont -- despite huge public demand.

So Al Jazeera is sending its news team around the US in an effort to "mainstream" the faces of this once-demonized network. And Mohyeldin can sound like Robert F. Kennedy: when the cry rose up from Tahrir Square hailing Mubarak's abdication, he commented, "One man stepped down and eighty million people stepped up."

The station's US push could hardly be more necessary -- to Americans. By being denied the right to watch Al Jazeera, Americans are being kept in a bubble, sealed off from the images and narratives that inform the rest of the world.

Consider the recent scandal surrounding atrocity photos taken by US soldiers in Afghanistan, which are now available on news outlets, including Al Jazeera, around the globe.

In America, there have been brief summaries of the fact that Der Spiegel has run the story. But the images themselves -- even redacted to shield the identities of the victims -- have not penetrated the US media stream.

And the images are so extraordinarily shocking that failing to show them -- along with graphic images of the bombardment of children in Gaza, say, or exit interviews with survivors of Guantanamo -- keeps Americans from understanding events that may be as traumatic to others as the trauma of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

For example, the leading US media outlets, including the New York Times, have not seen fit to mention that one of the photos shows a US soldier holding the head of a dead Afghan civilian as though it were a hunting trophy.

So, for America's sake, I hope that Al Jazeera penetrates the US media market. Unless Americans see the images and narratives that shape how others see us, the US will not be able to overcome its reputation as the world's half-blind bully.

Indeed, Egyptians are in some ways now better informed than Americans (and, as Thomas Jefferson often repeated, liberty is not possible without an informed citizenry). Egypt has 30 newspapers and more than 200 television channels.

America's newspapers are dying, foreign news coverage has been cut to three or four minutes, at most, at the end of one or two evening newscasts, and most of its TV channels are taken up with reality shows.

I met Mohyeldin before a recent public appearance in Manhattan. His analysis of the Egyptian revolution, and others in the region, is that the kind of globalized media to which Americans do not have full access created the conditions in which people could rise up to claim democracy.

He points out that, "People are aware of their rights from the internet, from satellite TV -- people are watching movies and reading bloggers. This was a revolution of awareness, based on access to fast-traveling information. The farmers, the peasants in Tahrir Square, were aware of their rights."

Americans have a hunger for international news; it is a myth that we can't be bothered with the outside world. Maybe Americans will rise up and threaten to boycott their cable and satellite providers unless we get our Al Jazeera -- and other carriers of international news.

We would then come one step closer to being part of the larger world - a world that, otherwise, will eventually simply leave us behind.

Naomi Wolf is a political activist and social critic whose most recent book is Give Me Liberty: A Handbook for American Revolutionaries.

This article first appeared on Project Syndicate.
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Published on April 12, 2011 19:14 • 117 views