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Vagina by Naomi Wolf
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Sep 12, 2012

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The Vagina Myth
Jaclyn Friedman
September 11, 2012
The American Prospect

Naomi Wolf's yoni worship isn't just silly—it's dangerous.

This summer, Michigan state representative Lisa Brown was banned from the House floor when she dared to say the word “vagina” in a debate about proposed restrictions on abortion. Just three weeks ago, Todd Akin revealed what many Republicans believe: If you get pregnant, it can’t have been rape. It’s been a year of politicians trying to force women to have medically unnecessary transvaginal ultrasounds, and “personhood amendments” granting one-celled organisms more rights than women, as long as the cell resides in the woman’s uterus. If there ever were a cultural moment crying out for an impassioned defense of the vagina, it would be now. It’s beyond unfortunate, then, that Naomi Wolf’s new book Vagina: A New Biography is such a failure.

Vagina: A New Biography
By Naomi Wolf.
Ecco Press, 400 pages, $27
Wolf is best known for her 1991 text The Beauty Myth, but more recently has made headlines for claiming that penetrating a sleeping woman represents a “model sexual negotiation” and saying that rape victims should lose their right to anonymity if they report the crime to authorities. She was inspired to write Vagina by a personal medical crisis, in which her sexual response was diminished by what turned out to be a mild form of spina bifida. Using her intimate journey back to sexual health as the frame of reference, the book’s core argument is that “the vagina and the brain are essentially… ‘one whole system,’ and that the vagina mediates female confidence, creativity, and transcendence.”

What starts as a biology lesson quickly evolves into an evangelist text. On her magical mystery tour of female sexual biology, Wolf cherrypicks and misinterprets research to support her conclusion that “G-spot” orgasms are better for women than “clitoral” orgasms (though she seems to also know that the G-spot is actually a part of the clitoris), and that having as many of these special orgasms as possible is what enables women to be creative, ambitious, emotionally available, and spiritually enlightened. The rest of the book explores the ways that men and less-enlightened feminists have harmed women’s ability to have this particular kind of orgasm, and offers her recommendations for how more of us can experience it. Her prescription: We should all worship the vagina as a goddess, and men should be nicer and more tender to their women. Wolf ‘s big finish is her conclusion that “our species’ original sin was deviating from our earliest tradition of reverence for the feminine and for female sexuality” and that “waves of tragedy—for women, for men, and for a now unbalanced, now plundering civilization … [follow] from this original alienation.” Throughout, she writes with the fervor (and overwrought prose) of a would-be-prophet who believes she has discovered a previously unknown truth that must be shared with the world.

Much ink and many pixels will be spilled about the biological determinism that underpins Wolf’s central thesis, and for good reason. Most people understand that it’s insulting to men to suggest that they’re helplessly beholden to the impulses of their sex organs, or that their character is reliant on their sexual satisfaction. It should be no different for women. It also makes no sense. What of the many women whose spina bifida can’t be cured like Wolf’s was? Does their diminished capacity for Wolf’s favorite orgasm really diminish them as people? Surely celibates, women with abusive partners, cisgender men, and all manner of people not having spiritually mindblowing “high orgasms” (her term) regularly prove themselves capable of remarkable creativity, ambition, and love.

If Wolf had written a personal memoir called My Vagina, this self-indulgent tunnel vision could be, perhaps, excused. But she’s presenting it instead as a Universal Theory of Women, and that’s both offensive and dangerous.

The book collapses under the weight of a breathtaking narcissism: If it doesn’t apply to Naomi, it doesn’t exist. Despite the title, this is a book explicitly and exclusively about straight vaginas. Lesbians and bisexual women? They’re a mystery to her, beyond the scope of the book. Women of color are rarely referenced, appearing mostly as victims, goddesses, or Josephine Baker. Women who don’t have vaginas, and people with vaginas who aren’t women? Never heard of ’em. Nor does she bother to define key terms like “female body,” “female brain,” or “femininity,” since clearly her understanding of the phrases is universal. If Wolf had written a personal memoir called My Vagina, this self-indulgent tunnel vision could be, perhaps, excused. But she’s presenting it instead as a Universal Theory of Women, and that’s both offensive and dangerous.

In making her case for the vagina-as-destiny, Wolf ignores profound cultural realities. She asserts—without sarcasm—that, nowadays, “women can do ‘whatever’ they wish sexually and be ‘bad girls’ with little stigma,” a “fact” that would come as a surprise to women of color, Sandra Fluke, and any female survivor of sexual assault. She insists that women who are alienated from their sexuality or unsatisfied with their sex lives lack only male partners with better skills, as though misogyny, poverty, and any number of other structural oppressions don’t exist. She draws on ancient cultures to prove that the vagina's right place is as an object of worship, though these same cultures also believed the sun revolved around the Earth. She’s even untroubled by the fact that many of the ancient traditions she cites so credulously valued the vagina for the ways it supposedly benefits men. (“In Taoist sexual texts, women were understood to emit medicinal fluids from various parts of their bodies … The man’s goal for the sake of his own health was to stir the release of these precious fluids.”)

Wolf’s self-absorption also produces terrible journalism. She may have had her pelvic nerve cured and her Technicolor orgasms restored, but she still suffers from a profound lack of curiosity. She is given to sweeping generalizations about gender. In a typical passage, Wolf asserts that “in some senses having to do with consciousness … sex for women is a different thing altogether than sex is for men.” She provides scant evidence for this assertion, nor does she consider counterexamples. What about intersex people? Do women who are sexually attracted to women really have different neurobiology from straight women? She’s silent on the matter, though she's happy to assert that what straight women need is for men to bone them (Wolf would have me say "make love”) lest they turn into harpy shrews. (These are seriously the only two options she provides: “Straight men would do well to ask themselves; ‘Do I want to be married to a Goddess, or a bitch?’ Unfortunately, there is not, physiologically, much middle ground. Either they are extremely well treated sexually, or else they become physically uncomfortable and emotionally irritable.”)

Like a New York Times trend piece, she relies heavily on the anecdata of the privileged, informally polling her friends, students at Oxford, and Anaiis Nin to support her pet theories. The following exchange with therapist Nancy Fish needs no context whatsoever, as it serves as a template for nearly every exchange in the book: “What I am really teasing out is whether your clinical experience confirms what is right now just an intuition for me, with some science to hint in that direction,” prompts Wolf. Fish replies, “I definitely think based on my clinical experience that what you are saying is very, very valid.” Never is Wolf led down a path that contradicts her expectations. Never do two experts or two scientific studies have conflicting findings. Even her many informal surveys of friends of friends on Facebook turn up no examples of anyone whose lived experience challenges Wolf's worldview. Wolf's road to vaginal discovery has only two bumps: the medical condition that kicked it off, and the occasional man who does or says something anti-vagina, causing Wolf to have to lay down and have a good cry, or suffer months of writers block. (Women never say anti-vagina things in Wolf’s world, presumably because, in her world, women are vaginas.)

It’s as if Wolf is Rip Van Winkle, having fallen asleep shortly after The Beauty Myth was published in 1991 and only waking up in time to tell us we should all be having sex like she does.

It’s no surprise, then, that everyone from antiquities experts to sex scientists have been challenging the rigor of her research. My area of expertise is feminism, so I found her review of feminist approaches to sexuality particularly galling. It’s as if Wolf is Rip Van Winkle, having fallen asleep shortly after The Beauty Myth was published in 1991 and only waking up in time to tell us we should all be having sex like she does. She seems bizarrely unaware, for example, that Natalie Angier wrote Woman: An Intimate Geography in 2002, even though was a New York Times bestseller and was a finalist for the National Book Award. Having devoted an entire chapter to Victorian England’s relationship with the vagina, she reduces all feminist thought and activism on the subject since the early ’90s to one paragraph. Instead of citing work like Angier’s or other feminist achievements from the last two decades—the Riot Grrl movement, bell hooks’ trilogy on love and sexuality, Slut Walks, and the SisterSong Reproductive Justice Collective—she invokes contemporary straw feminists who want to “glamorize the clitoris” at the expense of the vagina and insist that all liberated women “fuck like men,” whatever that means. Thank goodness Wolf has finally arrived to reveal the truth about our bodies to us.

Ultimately, what would Wolf have us believe about our bodies? It’s hard to tell. She claims to want to undo the ways in which women are reduced to their genitals, but spends most of her project telling us that as goes the vagina, so goes the woman. In the first chapter, she goes into great detail about the ways different women’s neural wiring can result in a wide range of sexual preferences and responses, but then spends multiple chapters later in the book credulously quoting Tantra advocates, who say things like “For some women, the lightest touch of a feather can be orgasmic. But most women in this culture need a lot of friction-based stimulation, which suggests that there is loss of sensitivity for them.” She suggests that we’re hardwired to like rape fantasies and rough sex, but tells us we shouldn’t indulge in them because we’ll get addicted and ignore our somehow equally hardwired need for safe, tender, gentle lovemaking with a committed guy. So, we’re all biologically predisposed to get off differently, but if we want friction or kink we’re damaged?

Wolf does gesture at some real and urgent issues: The pandemic of sexual violence against women around the world; the misogynist microagressions that women have to negotiate daily; rampant media sexualization that goes along with a deep, silent river of female sexual dissatisfaction. It’s not that I don’t share some of Wolf’s alarm at the current state of sexual affairs. I wrote an entire book to help women reclaim our sexual agency. Rape is an ongoing public health crisis that’s treated as the status quo, as inevitable as the weather. Sex education in the US is a shameful shambles, and we’re all in desperate need of accurate and judgment-free information about our bodies and our sexual health. Meanwhile, we live in a deeply sexualized culture in which corporate media, politicians and religious leaders constantly tell women and girls that the most important thing about them is what they are or aren’t doing with their sexuality.

This sexualization has real consequences. It can impair girls’ ability to perform math and logic tasks and exacerbate eating disorders and depression. It creates in all of us, whatever our gender, unrealistic, often negative expectations about sexuality, alienating us from our genuine sexual needs and boundaries. Which is exactly why this book is so harmful: It’s just as sexualizing to sacralize vaginas as it is to demean them. Whatever Wolf’s intention, Vagina is just another billboard telling women and girls that the only thing that matters about us is what’s happening “down there.” We get no closer to a freer world when we worship one specific genital configuration or one particular kind of sexual experience. Real sexual liberation will only be achieved when we’re fooling around on a genuinely equal playing field.

About the Author
Jaclyn Friedman is author of What You Really Really Want: The Smart Girl's Shame-Free Guide to Sex and Safety, and editor of Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape. She is executive director of Women, Action & the Media, and a charter member of CounterQuo, a coalition dedicated to challenging the ways we respond to sexual violence.
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September 12, 2012 – Shelved

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message 9: by Isabelle (new)

Isabelle This is not even about vagina per se. The mind, body and spirit cannot even be separated. Her point of view must be taken with a grain of salt, just like everything else we read. Because in the end, it is just that: her point of view. You sound way too offended and like you are taking this personally, get over it.


The problem with Naomi Wolf's vagina
This sort of ‘feminism’ has nothing to do with changing women’s lives.

Naomi Wolf. Photo: Getty Images
I have spent a disturbing few days with my nose buried in Naomi Wolf's Vagina. Naomi Wolf's Vagina is warm and inviting, but seems to lack depth. Naomi Wolf's Vagina is over-exposed. Naomi Wolf's Vagina is crassly attention-seeking. Naomi Wolf's Vagina is available in all good bookshops. There is something fishy about . . . no, actually, can I stop now? Are we done? Good.

The new book by Naomi Wolf, author of The Beauty Myth, seems positioned to provoke endless genital wordplay, so it's best to get all of that out the way before we move on. Vagina, as has been observed across the mainstream reviewing press this week, is a very silly book. It is, not incidentally, a very silly book whose author is currently engaged in a one-woman campaign to deny anonymity to rape victims and persuade the world that the charges of rape and sexual assault of two women currently facing Julian Assange are contemptible. The fact that Wolf's highly publicised new work claims to offer a thrilling new feminist take on - among other serious issues - rape, means that we cannot help but address the two together.

Naomi Wolf has done great damage by using her platform as one of the world’s most famous feminists to dismiss these women’s allegations. In one throat-closing 2010 article, Wolf placed her name, picture and reputation behind a title dismissing the serious charges against the Wikileaks founder as mere persecution by 'the world's dating police'. In an excruciating performance last week on Newsnight, the author managed to shoehorn a plug for her book into a discussion of whether or not “no always means no”. The fact that that question is seriously being raised on Britain's pre-eminent current affairs show, by no less a media presence than Jeremy Paxman, should be a signal that this is no time for fannying about, much less for having spectacular breakdowns all over the limited space the mainstream press affords so-called women’s issues.

Vagina has already received a drubbing from a spectrum of feminist voices. The best so far have been delivered by Zoe Heller at the New York Review of Books, the wickedly acidic Suzanne Moore at the Guardian, Jenny Turner, also at the Guardian, and the New Statesman's own Helen Lewis. Almost all have mentioned, because how could you not, the scene with the pudenda-shaped handmade pasta - the 'cuntini' served to the the author at an upscale dinner party in New York that end up sending her into a nervous fit which leaves her unable to write for six months. She tells us that this is because of the wondrous, not-at-all-basic-highschool-science 'brain-vagina' connection, which is for some reason more mystical than, say, the brain-elbow or brain-big toe connection. It's all a bit wacky races.

The book claims to be tackling a social taboo that was dealt with, and dealt with better, in Eve Ensler's Vagina Monologues two decades ago, and in the process it achieves just the opposite. It has given public intellectuals a legitimate reason to have a good old laugh at female genitalia for the first time in years, somewhere in between Wolf’s description of dopamine as a 'feminist' neurotransmitter and her retreat to a Greek island to feel the divine energy of the she-goats butting in the fields and undulating bloody hills. It's beyond parody, and it makes a parody of mainstream feminist debate. Barely two chapters in, it dawns on you by dreadful stages that the author's self-delusion is such that she really does believe her personal problems in achieving mind-blowing orgasms to have universal application to the future of womankind.

The neurotic ego at play here might be snicker-worthy for anyone who feels they have no stake in the contemporary feminist conversation. For anyone else, for anyone who believes there's still a buggerload of work to do, for anyone who grew up with a copy of The Beauty Myth on their bedside table and dreamed of a better world, for anyone who - let’s be blunt - actually respects women, all women, as human beings for whom biology is not destiny, Vagina isn't funny at all. It's just upsetting. It's upsetting to see a prominent feminist having what can only be described as a dramatic public meltdown, and to see that meltdown indulged as relevant to contemporary debate, as if those promoting and giving space to this book could not tell the difference between sub-hippy burnishing of stale taboos and actual, useful feminist argument. You know, the sort that still has the power to terrify the stuffed shirts in power.

And there's the rub. It feels like we are meant to laugh at this book, or to loathe it, or both. It feels like that’s the point. That seems to be the point of so much feminist publishing right now - to provoke without challenging, to create spectacle without creating solutions to the real and pressing problems facing three billion women and girls across the world because of their gender. The point of this kind of celebrity faux-feminism seems to be, if you’ll permit me to bastardise the late lamented Douglas Adams, not to challenge patriarchy, but to distract attention away from it.

Campaigns for equal pay, equal division of labour, fair childcare and reproductive rights might be urgent and necessary, but are not new or sexy or particularly saleable. Feminism as spectacle, though - feminism positioned to titillate a reader's hate-glands - that does sell. It doesn’t even have to be particularly radical as long as it’s aimed right, as long as it whips up tension between the genders, as long as it collapses the political endlessly into the personal, and there are always clever women out there who can be persuaded to play the comedy feminist writer we all love to hate. Believe me, I know of which I speak.

It’s not just Wolf, although she seems to be the latest recruit. There’s Katie Roiphe, Liz Jones, Samantha Brick, and endless, endless others, women who cling to the belief that because writing about their sexual humiliations and personal anxieties seems to hit the spot with their bosses, that they are taken seriously. That the issues on which they touch - real issues of sex and power and suffering that actually do affect women everywhere on the most intimate levels - are actually taken seriously, rather than just set up to be laughed at.

The titillation of hate
This particular titillating hate-fest is good cover, as it so often is, for some really quite dangerous social misreadings. When it isn't gushing the Goddess Array from every orifice, the feminism preached in Vagina is profoundly reactionary. The fundamental conservatism of this book, like the fundamental conservatism of a great deal of what passes for hot-button contemporary feminism, will almost certainly pass unnoticed in the welter of fanny-jokes and fun-poking.

For a start, it's essentialist, and essentialism, as Moore notes in the Guardian, is always reactionary. There's little or no room in Vagina for models of sex and sexuality which are not straight, binary-gendered, monogamous and passive - phrases like 'a happy heterosexual vagina requires . . . a virile man' set the tone even as they set Andrea Dworkin spinning in her early grave. All women, in Wolf’s analysis, have vaginas, and those vaginas are the wellspring of divine femininity - no room, then, for any woman who is physically intersex, or transsexual, or who has one of the surprisingly common medical conditions which result in a person born with two vaginas, or with no vagina at all; still less room for the gender-queer, the androgynous, for asexual, women who don’t enjoy penetrative sex, women who do enjoy those rough, anonymous one-night stands that Wolf is so very down on, or for transsexual men. Vagina, then is that very modern thing: a handbook for priggish sexual conformity masquerading as a manual for erotic liberation.

Throughout Vagina, Wolf refers to something called the 'Goddess', a sort of wibbly-wobbly divine feminine energy that can be woken by appropriately angled vaginal massage and a nice bunch of flowers, a strategy known, and I really wish I were making this up, as the 'Goddess Array'. This 'Inner Goddess' idea is having a moment right now.

It crops up as a clunky motif in the wildly popular Fifty Shades of Grey series, in which the protagonist's 'Inner Goddess' responds to the virile attentions of the millionaire stunt-dick in a variety of interesting ways. As the heroine administers a simple blow-job, the reader is informed that her 'inner Goddess is doing the merengue with some salsa moves'. Imagery matters, even clunky, awkward imagery: in Wolf's hands, this weirdly retro goddess conceit becomes a manifesto, informing the female reader that no matter what her life may look like, no matter what gender inequities she may experience every day, there is something wonderful, special and mysterious about being a woman, and especially about being a woman receiving sexual attention from a man, that should be its own reward.

This is a well-worn strategy of benevolent sexism most commonly employed by religious patriarchs. In its most extreme form, telling women they're divine whenever they're not devilish makes the whole question of human rights becomes a little more moot. It overlaps worryingly with Wolf's reactionary, victim-blaming public stance on the Assange case: the woman might say no, but the Inner Goddess says yes.

Then there's the sudden five-page diversion to a women's rape shelter in Sierra Leone, plonked weirdly in the middle of the book like a vitamin pill on top of a cupcake. The women and men Wolf meets here, on a trip for western reporters organised in 2004, are not substantive figures in the book- she spends far longer interviewing a banker-turned-tantric-healer who specialises in massaging women to orgasm with special oils, flowers and incantations to welcome their inner goddess to a really great wank. The women in Sierra Leone feel like an afterthought, as they do in so many contemporary pseudo-feminist tracts, but they must be mentioned, even if that mention only draws into sharper focus the fact that the book's field of vision rarely leaves upper Manhattan.

This is how far too much contemporary liberal, upper-middle-class feminism understands power. There are Women Like Us - straight, white, wealthy professional writers and our circle of friends - and then there are Women In Africa, and never the twain shall meet as part of the same spectrum of structural violence and disenfranchisement. It's a dumb rich kid's understanding of class. It's a formulation designed to obviate the need for awareness of one's own place in any system of privilege and inequality, which is the only way in which Wolf's kind of feminism - the kind of feminism recognised as most important by everyone from book publishers to government ministers, the feminism of boardroom seats and bed-shaking orgasms- can retain any sort of relevance.

You can't help but anticipate, though, that the substantial discursive problems with Wolf's philosophy are going to be lost, for most readers, somewhere between cuntini and the Goddess Array, which sounds like a terrible tambourine band playing to an audience of burned-out hippies in a field on a wet afternoon in 1973. Except more commercially viable.

This is what feminism has become, for certain cynical souls who commission books and magazine articles and newspaper confessionals. It’s just another sexy way to stoke controversy. Set up a woman to be hated, set up a woman to open her heart and legs and blame men for everything and she'll bring in the readers like nothing else.

message 7: by Lily (new) - added it

Lily Wow, what a great review!

message 6: by Tiffany (new) - added it

Tiffany Maple Thank you Voila for this review. I will not be reading it nor supporting Naomi and she thank herself and her "reactionary" feminism. Very dangerous indeed.

Viola Yes check out "the other naomi" - Naomi Klein (No Logo, The Take, Shock Doctrine etc) who is more interesting I reckon.

Sara I don't get why would this be dangerous at all. I like some stuff you said about how is too over the top when worshipping the godess vagina, and you sure know where to disparage a book. Now, even though I never had a G-spot orgasm, I felt very empowered by the idea that we are a whole and that the way we experience our sexuality should not be discarded. I find this book important because it told me that my sexuality is important.

Viola See also Tee Corinne's sex educational "Cunt Colouring Book"

message 2: by Randie (new)

Randie Naomi and this book is full of sexist,gender myths,gender stereotyping harmful cr*p!

message 1: by Alanna Jane (new) - added it

Alanna Jane I have just started listening to this audiobook, and I actually must disagree with you. There is a whole section at the beginning outlining her definitions of "female", "male", "sex", and why she has primarily focused on a straight perspective. She says that queer and trans views are out of her scope as a cisgender, hetero woman and that she believes that queer people deserve an entire book to themselves, written by someone with more profound knowledge on the subject than her own. She says she didn't feel qualified to speak for queer folk. Perhaps you missed this part, but I found that it was important.

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