Feminist thinker Naomi Wolf’s latest work, Vagina: A New Biography, which dropped earlier this month, draws on science, philosophy and cultural history to make the case that the vagina is central to women’s brain-power, creativity and psychological well-being. The tract also argues that the lady part needs to be lavished with praise and love, as if a goddess, from its male admirers in order to facilitate domestic bliss and maximize female power.
In 1991, Wolf wrote a searing first book, The Beauty Myth, that reignited feminist consciousness and helped usher in the third wave of feminism. Only 29-years-old at the time, she persuasively argued that the greater political and economic stature women achieve, the more pressure they’re under to meet ever-growing and impossible demands on physical beauty. This thesis, journalist Michelle Goldberg astutely observes in her recent review of Vagina, is even more relevant today given the run-of-the-millness of Brazilian bikini waxes and the freaky upsurge in cosmetic labiaplasty. Since that thunderous beginning, Wolf has written seven more books, including the boldly named Vagina.
While it’s garnered a flurry of reviews from publishing powerhouses—The New York Times Sunday Book Review, The New York Review of Books, The Economist, Slate.com—it’s been brutally and almost universally panned. But Wolf, with tireless fists of might, is not backing down. In an exclusive interview with The Slant, she provocatively challenges Ariel Levy’s biting critique in The New Yorker, Miranda Purves’ critical review in the September issue of Elle and Jemima Lewis’s spin in the U.K.’s Daily Mail:
The Slant: Let’s start with Ariel Levy. Did you agree with her assessment that Vagina “belongs in the same realm of erotic imagination as the Grey trilogy” [of E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey]? Do you think that your book is tapping into the Zeitgeist (as Levy says), and that it will appeal to the legions of women who responded to Fifty Shades of Grey?
Wolf: I think the comparisons are frankly a bit bizarre, especially coming from a serious literary critic. She is oddly, in my view, conflating two completely different genres. Fifty Shades, whatever you may think of it, is a work of fiction. Vagina is a piece of nonfiction reportage that investigates fact: especially the cutting-edge science of the last couple of decades that should radically update our understanding of women, desire, arousal and female orgasm. Vagina: A New Biography has scores of studies from peer-reviewed journals, including abstracts, and involved my visits to labs for eyewitness accounts of experiments, a summary of the literature reviewed by the top scientists and physicians in the field, and firsthand interviews with scientists on the pioneering edge of this research, so it seems like very fuzzy thinking on Levy’s part to assign such empirical data to the role of the imagination.
My book offers readers the science to account for very real aspects of their sexual lives such as what actually helps women’s heart rates and circulation escalate, boosting arousal; what really happens in the female brain during orgasm—as measurable on MRIs; the neurochemicals and hormones that are really released for women in states of desire and orgasm; the measurable changes in the autonomic nervous system for women who have been raped; and so on. Among other big scientific findings, it reports on a new anatomical discovery: a neural ‘arm’ in the female pelvis such that the clitoris is ‘north’ and the G-spot is ‘south,’ a finding that brought ninety per cent of women, who had both places stimulated at the same time, to orgasm—with strangers in lab conditions. Pretty important new data, I would say. This information is often eye-opening and it was startling for me too when I first studied it, so perhaps this strange critical impulse in some quarters to assign all of this science to the category of the imaginative is a way to deal at first with surprising or paradigm-changing scientific information.
The Slant: As a cultural critic, what is it about E.L. James’s books that speak to so many women and does Vagina fill a similar void?
Wolf: Is there a cultural moment in which women are finally grappling with the behind-the-scenes politics of the vagina? Certainly, and I am sure the popularity of my book is part of that courage that women are showing across the globe. From Pussy Riot [the feminist punk-rock group, three members of whom were jailed for staging an Anti-Kremlin song at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Russia] to Michigan Rep. Lisa Brown [the Democratic representative blasted by conservatives for using the word vagina on the House floor], women are at a kind of turning point at which I think they are interested in how to be sexual subjects, not sexual objects, and are interested in standing up—as the gay and lesbian movement did—to defend themselves against the routine mockery and abuse of their sexualities and even their sex organs. Vagina certainly is part of that discussion. Finally many women readers have found Vagina liberating (and even arousing) because it seeks to investigate female arousal and pleasure on its own terms. If women readers are interested in their own sexual selves and feel empowered to find out about and respect the search for what excites them, on their own terms, then I am happy to be part of that trend and am proud of my place in it.
The Slant: Levy also chronicles the battle between feminists who fought against pornography and those who sought unbridled sexual freedom, concluding that “in returning to the sexual body, the site of radical feminism’s last internal battle, Wolf ends up marshaling the worst arguments from both sides of the porn wars.” What’s your take on this assessment?
Wolf: “Returning to the sexual body”? That is, I must say, a nonexistent conceptual category that reveals a measure of wishful thinking—or, one might say, magical thinking—on the part of some feminist critics. Women outside of this small circle of feminist theorists, whose orthodoxy for thirty years is that the body is completely ‘socially constructed’—didn’t get that memo. They are living in their bodies as well as in their characters every day, dealing with relationships, loneliness, desire, loss of libido, menopause, pregnancy, feeling ‘beauty myth’ pressures, sexual harassment, rape, eating disorders, physical happiness, physical grief.
Can we leave our bodies behind? Is it ‘feminist’ to urge women to do so? I think not. We frankly don’t have a choice about being embodied—I feel that it is important for women to feel as good as possible about their physical selves and drives and experiences—and many women don’t find it helpful for some kinds of feminism to explain away the sexual body as if it is trivial. The reason women are being targeted throughout the world—with female genital mutilation, child marriage, the use of rape in war—has to do with their ‘sexual bodies’ as Levy so Western-ly puts it. They don’t have the luxury of wishing these issues away. The young women I interviewed who are pressured every day by porn—the young men who self-report distress at being addicted to porn—the counselors for young teenagers who say that porn is making kids far more sexually aggressive—don’t deserve to have us turn up our feminist noses at the issue of sexuality today. And finally I find it offensive that some feminists are belittling the simple issue of women’s right to know more about their own sexual response and be more in control of what gives them pleasure. I think women are entitled to take their own pleasure seriously and to have the latest information about their own bodies and about their own arousal—let alone this powerful brain-vagina connection data. I think further that it buys into patriarchal values, frankly, to trivialize women’s interest in their own sexual response and sexual pleasure.
The Slant: The new editor-in-chief of Canada’s Flare, Miranda Purves, wrote a beautifully rendered, although mixed, review of Vagina: A New Biography in the September issue of Elle. Toward the end of her piece, she cites Adrienne Rich’s Of Women Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution to challenge the way she believes you use nature or biology to lock men and women into the very hierarchies your work attempts to dismantle. Here’s the passage that we’d love you to engage: “Like Wolf, Rich reads into history to goddess-centered cultures, which we know only from remnants of art and text. But [Rich] reveals how this history has been used to construct meaning out of nature where none inherently lies, thus separating women and men, with women wielding the private power of fertility and child-rearing, and man the public power of lawmaker. Devout feminist and lefty that she is, Wolf fails to truly grapple with essentialism’s shadow side, thereby bolstering a conservative agenda that would have us barefoot and pregnant.” What do you say to that?
Wolf: Again, I find the many misreadings of this very clear book quite odd. I never said anything like the paragraph above. It is a truly nonsensical conclusion spun out of thin air. What I did do is quote specifically: I looked at the cultural history of the vagina. I did not go to prehistory because that is ambiguous of course—no one knows what all those fertility figurines really mean—but the Sumerian and other early literature is perfectly clear: the vagina used to be considered sacred. The peculiar tendency of some feminist critics to assume I am endorsing something that I am simply reporting on is one of the sloppinesses, in my view, of some feminist approaches to a text. Inanna, a Sumerian goddess, is cited in Sumerian documents, as insisting that her vagina was beautiful and the source of wisdom; those are not my words or my opinion about Inanna’s vagina. Again and again I report on the history of the vagina in this book—Pythagorean sacred geometry saw the vagina shape as symbolically meaningful; go argue with the Pythagoreans. Pre-Christian Celts inscribed Sheela na gig figures, opening their labia, above their sacred structure—go argue with the Celts. Honestly.
Knowing our history does not diminish us but makes us stronger in current conditions. Now I certainly do report on the new science that shows some differences between men and women in terms of their sexual responses—even at the level of the brain. Should I not report on this because a patriarchal society wants to use any new data confirming gender differences against women? Again, this would be intellectually indefensible; patriarchy always wants to use whatever is discovered about women against women. So the proper response from a feminist intellectual is to report the facts—and fight any effort to use new data to diminish women’s role in society. But feminism insists we can’t look at cutting edge data that is being reported in bestsellers from such feminist scientists as Sarah Hrdy and Dr. Louann Brizendine—science that is only going to get more and more fully mapped, which will begin to make feminism seem more and more out of touch and it will look as if it wants to hide its head in the sand. Women are never disempowered by dealing with the truth, even if it’s a new truth; they are disempowered by hiding and letting themselves be defined by patriarchal limits on discourse.
The Slant: In a mostly laudatory review, the writer Jemima Lewis wrote: “I find it hard to believe, as Wolf does, that even mildly insulting jokes about female genitalia can injure women both mentally and physically, creating a tense or unresponsive vagina. And if sexual satisfaction is really so vital to female confidence, and creativity, how does one explain history’s many overachieving spinsters? Where did Jane Austen and Elizabeth I get their cojones?” What’s your response to this point?
Wolf: Again a wild misreading—one that a number of critics are guilty of. I make it very clear that you don’t need a lover to be a sexual person and that you can have a sexual relationship with yourself. Female masturbation releases all of these positive hormones and neurotransmitters as well and one of the women I cite as having had an apparent sexual awakening was probably a virgin her whole life—Christina Rossetti. Honestly, have these people never thought through the issue of self-pleasuring? As for her first point, again, this is not my opinion. I offer important and extensive new data on the role of relaxation and stress in female sexual response, and show a great volume of studies that prove that stressing women out with sexual threats and other forms of ‘bad stress’ can affect their health, their concentration and their own response in turn. There should be nothing surprising about this; the role of stress as a damager of health and mental wellbeing is well documented in the medical literature and I am simply looking at the data on sexualized stressors and offering the important new data to women of the role of stress in inhibiting—and relaxation in supporting—their bodies’ full capacities for pleasure.