Naomi Wolf's Blog

June 6, 2016

Blackfish forced SeaWorld to announce that it would discontinue its orca-breeding program, effectively phasing out its orca captivity. That is good, but it is not enough to protect orcas at SeaWorld in the future, or orcas that are or might later be held in other locations.
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Published on June 06, 2016 01:40 • 74 views

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 • 375 views
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.
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Published on April 03, 2014 03:55 • 37 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 • 301 views
I keep learning more eye-opening information about my fellow human beings as I travel around the country talking about Vagina: A New Biography. The adventures continue.
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Published on November 01, 2012 03:57 • 19 views

September 26, 2012

What do I take home from my week in the UK, talking 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.
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Published on September 26, 2012 09:25 • 27 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 • 387 views
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.
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Published on September 12, 2012 02:07 • 16 views

October 22, 2011

Michael 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.
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Published on October 22, 2011 09:03 • 6 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 • 145 views