I can’t decide whether Naomi Wolf is legit insane or a secret genius. That’s probably not the most eloquent or informative way to begin a book review, but it’s honestly how I feel. I bought Vagina: A New Biography predominantly because I read The Beauty Myth a few years ago and I feel like it was pretty essential to the development of my feminism and monumentally changed the way I saw women and men in the public sphere. So I bought Vagina because this seemed like it might also deepen my thinking about my own body, and also I could learn a bit more about the history of vaginas. I also found out that Hannah, Lucy and Leena of the Banging Book Club were planning to review it in their next episode, and for once I wanted to actually be ahead of the curve.
Let’s dive straight in (yeah, there might be a lot of vagina/sex-based puns in this post…sorry not sorry). Vagina is a part-scientific, part-historical book which lays out almost everything about the vagina. From how it’s portrayed in society, to historical views about it, to the mental and emotional recovery of rape victims with specific reference to how their vaginas have been harmed. Wolf begins by telling us a few vital pieces of information that we need to know in order to read this book. She first discusses the use of the word vagina, which biologically refers only to interior canal. Despite this, Wolf says that she will use the word vagina to mean the entire sexual organ – to simplify discussion later in the book and because there is simply no word for the entire sexual organs of a woman. Whilst it sometimes does simplify her discussions, later on in the book this oversimplification actually causes more issues than it solves.
Wolf also makes it clear that she initially had issues in earlier drafts of the book and, after showing it to some of her LGBTQ friends, has since altered certain sections to make them more inclusive and representative of women who don’t identify as heterosexual or cis. I found this interesting. It’s often hard to write beyond one’s own experiences and Naomi Wolf is a straight, white, cis woman. I found it interesting and refreshing that she (just ten pages into the book) had admitted her failings to initially take into account those who fall outside of her own identity and took steps to rectify this.
After the introduction, Wolf gets straight to the point. The vagina, she says, is far more connected to the brain than we ever truly realised. There are nerve endings (perenial nerve) which end in the vagina and which are connected directly to our brains. Particularly to the part of our brains which release dopamine, and are linked to our creativity. This is the very basic premise of Vagina. The pseudo science which Wolf employs mainly consists of her own feelings of creativity and happiness post sex, the conversations with various tantric healers and from fringe scientists. I say pseudo science, because most of the statements that Wolf makes within Vagina rest on her own experiences of vaginal numbness – caused by a trapped nerve in her lower spinal column. She talks at length about visiting her gynaecologist, being unable to feel pleasure (or anything) during sex and that this lack of ‘penetration of the vaginal wall’ resulted in her inability to produced any creative content, or to be happy.
It’s an interesting hypothesis, but one that doesn’t really have any hard evidence behind it. I think it’s widely acknowledged that a vast many people (men and women) who enjoy sex often have post-coital euphoric feelings. However, Wolf is concerned primarily with the penetration of the vaginal wall, stating that this action is directly linked with the production of dopamine and the ability to be creative. Wolf, whilst criticizing the feminism of the 20th century which pitted clitoral vs vaginal orgasms against each other, actually does the very same thing. She talks about how, although many women enjoy clitoral orgasms, there is a deeper and better connection with the brain for women to have vaginal orgasms. That it is better for a woman to have those.
In one chapter, Wolf even goes as far to say that the use of sex toys is harmful to women, and should be discouraged. Wolf subscribes to ‘the goddess array’, which I’ll go into a bit more detail about later, and believes that in order for women to be fully engaged and fulfilled during sex there are certain things that need to happen. Things that only a penis can do, not a dildo. Wolf writes down the accounts of various women who claim that using sex toys has destroyed their ability to have “normal” sex (aka heterosexual penis/vagina sex).
This is pretty much where I began to question Wolf’s science. Her main hypothesis and subsequent ‘realisations’ seem to stem pretty much solely from her own sexual experiences, and a handful of carefully selected other women. She speaks to various ‘vagina specialists’ and gynecologists but far from basing her research on facts, she often speaks of a ‘feeling’ that she has had about the connection between vaginas and brains. There is also a huge implication here that women need sexual penetration from a penis in order to be fulfilled, wholesome and happy (we simply can’t manufacture this level of pleasure by ourselves) which alienates whole groups of women from the conversation.
Not only does this sweeping statement invalidate anyone who identifies as gay, lesbian or asexual but it also undermines women who do not enjoy penetrative sex. Wolf seems to simply say that you must be doing it wrong. Not only this, but do not try explore or create pleasure by yourself because it will endanger your ability to have heterosexual sex in the future.
Moving on, or sideways rather, to ‘the goddess’ array – Wolf stipulates that certain things need to happen before sex in order for a woman to become properly aroused and consequently get the most out of sexual intercourse. Some of these include touching, stroking, kissing (all standard practice, right?). Without this ‘goddess array’, which also includes smelling male body odour, women cannot become aroused sufficiently enough to have wholesome and fulfilling sex rendering them intelligent and creative. Basically, Wolf’s ‘vagina-brain connection’ means that we should all be having super great sex all the time, with at least 12 hours of foreplay in the form of stroking and touching beforehand.
Don’t get me wrong. I learnt a lot about my own body from this book and a whole lot about how women’s sexuality has been oppressed throughout history. I also learnt about how rape can be used as a military tactic – something which is prevalent but rarely talked about. Wolf’s chapter on her work with women in war zones who had been sexually attacked was illuminating and helped to put into context the larger discussions about rape and post traumatic stress – especially in volatile situations. Possibly the strength of Vagina is bringing those issues to a Western audience who have little to no understanding of them.
Whilst there are some genuinely interesting parts of Vagina, parts which I think everyone who has owned or known a vagina should read, there is also a massive amount of pop-science and misleading opinions disguised as facts. Wolf says herself that the opinions she expresses in this book may be construed as ‘not feminist’ – and I think that’s pretty spot on. It’s not that her views are anti-feminist, I’m pretty sure that feminism has dragged itself out of the 1970’s mindset ‘we don’t need any men at all’. However, it’s just incredibly problematic for Wolf to suggest that women truly and biologically need a physical penis in order to be happy, and that penis must be attached to someone who is able to spend 12 hours caressing them.
Vagina, though claiming to campaign also for those who don’t engage in heterosexual sex, manages to conveniently ignore anything that doesn’t support Wolf’s primary hypothesis. Like I said, it is an incredibly interesting read and my eyes have definitely been opened in some aspects. Sadly, though, it falls very short and is highly hypocritical in its methodology. Not to mention leading with the assumption that every woman’s sexual preferences perfectly mirror that of Naomi Wolf’s. Whilst there are some moments of revelation, most of is clouded in meaningless discussion about clitoral vs penetrative orgasm, the importance of ‘the goddess array’ and heteronormative assumptions about vagina needing a dick like humans need air. What’s wrong with using a dildo? According to Wolf, everything.
Maybe I am focusing too much on the negative – it’s true that these offhand (and baffling) comments form the minority of the book but they were enough to turn me off Vagina towards the end. It’s certainly worth reading for it’s critique of representations of the female sexuality throughout history, and the in depth analysis of rape in war zones. It’s also worth reading just for the fact that I’ve never had so much information about the female anatomy in one place before, inclusive of diagrams. Just take it all with a massive pinch of salt.
Sidenote: I actually think that my favourite part was when Wolf got so offended by a friend cooking her vagina shaped pasta and calling it ‘cuntini’ that she consequently couldn’t write a word of her book for months. Something to do with violent words about the female anatomy stemming the creative process… either way, I think the only phrase useful here would be ‘grow up’. Cuntini is objectively funny. And her mate obviously put a lot of effort into making it. Now where can I get the recipe…