Author Naomi Wolf. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
It’s hard to keep up with Naomi Wolf. She wants women to take their sexuality back from the patriarchy—but she’s written in praise of Muslim veiling and Orthodox Jewish headscarves. In a notorious New Republic piece, she argued that pregnant women are indeed fetal vessels and blamed abortion on drunken sluttery. In the last dozen years she’s gone from paid adviser to the Gore campaign to Tea Party fan to champion of Occupy who made headlines by claiming on scant evidence that local arrests were organized from on high by the federal government. She waited decades to attack Harold Bloom in a New York magazine cover story for “encroaching” on her thigh when he was her professor at Yale, but today she thinks what rape complainants need is for their names to be made public—especially the names of Julian Assange’s accusers, whom she mocks as women scorned, frail Victorian flowers, or both. Even leaving aside the 2006 interview in which she described a vision of herself transformed into a teenage boy who saw Jesus, it’s been a long, strange twenty-one years since The Beauty Myth.
Perhaps opinion-mongering, black-and-white thinking and relentless TMI are the price of remaining a world-class celebrity feminist. In any case, that process has surely reached a nadir with Vagina: A New Biography. What a silly book!
By now the whole world knows that the story began when Wolf found her orgasms becoming merely clitoral, losing their “Technicolor” glow and feeling of oneness with the universe. Surgery for a trapped pelvic nerve fixed her right up, which led Wolf to her big “discovery”: like every other sentient part of the body, the vagina is connected, through the nervous system, to the brain! Furthermore, every woman’s wiring is different! No wonder a touch that thrills one woman doesn’t do much for another. That is actually a useful point: even today, women fake orgasms rather than ask for what they want, and men can be quick to judge if what worked with one girlfriend doesn’t work with the next. Unfortunately, having “discovered” that every woman is sexually unique, she proceeds to write 300 more pages arguing that they are all the same, i.e., just like Naomi Wolf.
Much dubious neuroscience and much foolishness follow. Dopamine, released by the brain-vagina connection, makes women more likely than men to be “love addicts”—and also mystics. The superior orgasms produced by “a virile man” (but not “the vibrator and a pint of Häagen-Dazs”) energize female confidence and creativity: look at George Eliot, Edith Wharton, Emma Goldman, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and, of course, Naomi Wolf. (She doesn’t quite know what to do with Gertude Stein. Lesbians get short shrift in these pages.) I dunno—the virgins-and-celibates team has some pretty heavy hitters: Jane Austen, Emily Dickinson, the Brontës, Florence Nightingale, Susan B. Anthony, Virginia Woolf. To say nothing of mighty nuns—Hildegard of Bingen, St. Teresa of Ávila, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz and all those super-energetic founders of orders and schools and hospitals. There’s something to be said for sublimation, as Freud observed.
The book gets loopier as it goes on. We learn that women think and feel through their vagina, which can “grieve” and feel insulted, for example, by slang terms (tell that to Pussy Riot). It is remarkable how Wolf’s feminism ends up in the same place as the old patriarchal idea that women are reducible to, and limited by, their reproductive systems. For Wolf, victims of rape and child sex abuse really are damaged goods. They never truly recover; they are all as traumatized as the women Wolf met in Sierra Leone, whose vaginas had been shredded by soldiers with bayonets. (Where does that leave Edith Wharton, whose wedding night was a marital rape?) The vagina may be built to withstand multiple childbirths, but apparently even a joke at its expense can shut women down: Wolf says she couldn’t write for six months after a male friend celebrated her book deal with a festive dinner featuring vagina-shaped pasta (“cuntini”) followed by salmon. It was the salmon that really did her in. Well, at least it wasn’t fish tacos. Or clams.
The vagina makes women need a lot of things more than men—like love and tenderness (Wolf attacks young feminists for defending casual sex). But what it most requires is what Wolf calls the Goddess Array: worship and pampering. For “evolutionary reasons,” she writes, “women need to be told regularly by their mates that they are beautiful—indeed, ‘the most beautiful’—in order to truly sexually release.” If you doubt that biology is destiny, just ask Teleflora: “Why will any control group of heterosexual women instinctively agree that they don’t want the guy who brings chrysanthemums, or carnations? Why does it seem to matter, erotically, if the flowers were ordered thoughtfully in advance, or picked up hastily at the deli down the street, and offered in their plastic wrapping?”
It is hard to believe evolution had much to do with these botanical requirements, or with the drawn baths, candlelight and other precoital attentions expected here of men.
In case your man is unwilling to become your personal spa attendant, there’s always North London’s Mike Lousada, an investment banker turned tantric “somatic therapist” who for a fee will massage your neglected yoni; if he thinks it will be “extremely therapeutic,” he’ll even deploy his lingam and have sex with you. Nice work if you can get it! It is unclear what separates Lousada from the Victorian doctors Wolf disapproves of, who genitally massaged their frustrated women patients to orgasm. For that matter, what separates him from a sex worker? A bit of Orientalist folderol, knowledgeably debunked by Michelle Goldberg in Newsweek, and of course that universal solvent of all things fraudulent and humiliating, religion.
It’s lucky vaginas can’t read, or mine would be cringing in embarrassment that Vagina is what millions think of as feminism.