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.
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 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.