Review: “Vagina: A New Biography” by Naomi Wolf
Naomi Wolf tried vainly to deflect feminist criticism of her new book, Vagina: A New Biography in an interview with Amanda Hess of Slate.
Why has Wolf's silly book inspired so much feminist pushback? Because we’re sick of religious conservatives trying to reduce us to our sexual organs. It’s bad enough when it’s a Republican senatorial candidate pontificating about “legitimate rape.” But it’s even more galling when the conservative in question is hailed as a major feminist thinker and her religion is Pop Tantra.
Like Todd Akin, Wolf preaches that women can only be fulfilled through rapturous surrender to our biological-cum-mystical destiny.
Akin and his cronies want to reduce women to their wombs. Wolf wants to reduce us to our vaginas. My colleague Sady Doyle sees Wolf’s daft brief for vagina worship as essentially harmless. If Concerned Women for America published this book, I'd agree.
If reactionaries are going to reduce us to our reproductive organs, they might as well reduce us to the fun ones. But pelvic essentialism is dangerous, whether it’s about babies or pleasure, and doubly so when it’s being peddled as feminism.
Like her counterparts on the right, Wolf uses a mix of anecdote, pseudoscience, and religion to convince women that they’d better conform to gender norms for their own good.
Wolf’s favorite stereotype is that women are dependent and men are autonomous. She believes that in order to be happy, fulfilled, and creative, women need men to dote on them. The vagina is the wellspring of female creativity, Wolf believes. In order to be sated, it needs a lot of romantic, time consuming sex from a man who brings flowers.
Wolf criticizes Second Wave feminists for teaching women can be sexually fulfilled without men. She accuses us young feminists of selfishly acquiring sexual pleasure the way we acquire designer shoes. She never misses a chance to make a snide comment about vibrators. Oddly enough, Wolf heartily approves of women who pay big bucks for orgasms from Mike Lousada, a washed up London investment banker who reinvented himself as a “sexual healer.” Evidently, it’s okay to pay for sex if eye contact is included in the price.
Wolf claims to have discovered a heretofore unknown brain-vagina connection after she lost sensation in her vagina due to a pinched nerve in her back. Her clitoral orgasms remained as strong and pleasurable as ever, but she lost the feeling of transcendence that used to follow her vaginal orgasms. After back surgery, her vaginal sensation and her poetic “Technicolor” orgasms returned. (This sounds eerily like the specious Freudian idea that vaginal orgasms are somehow more enobling than clitoral orgasms, though Wolf swears she's not refighting that war.)
After talking to a few friends, who also enjoy orgasms, Wolf concluded that the vagina is "the delivery system for the states of mind we call confidence, liberation, self-realization, and even mysticism in women." Women’s oppression, she argues, can be reduced to vagina oppression.
Like the rest of her book, Wolf’s account of her medical troubles is full of careless mistakes. This anecdote is the anchor for the book, so it’s incumbent upon her to get the details right. She states that the pelvic nerve exits the spinal cord at S5, which it doesn’t. At times she seems to mix up the pelvic and pudendal nerves.
These may sound like small things but Wolf purports to be a biographer of the vagina. If a biographer of Abraham Lincoln mixed up the Lincoln-Douglas debates with the Gettysburg Address, could you take anything she said seriously?
Wolf has had a rocky relationship with empirical evidence ever since she botched 18 of 23 statistics on anorexia nervosa in her bestselling first book, The Beauty Myth, dramatically inflating the death rate from the disease.
In Vagina, Wolf advances what I call the Blue Balls Theory of Feminine Malaise. Dopamine is important for all kinds motivated behavior, and good sex can be energizing. From these banal observations, Wolf jumps to the unsupported conclusion that chronic sexual frustration causes the entire dopamine-based motivation system to collapse, resulting in a loss of motivation inside and outside the bedroom. As neuroscience journalist Maia Szalavitz explains, dopamine is important for a wide variety of motivated behaviors, but frustration of one drive does not crash the entire system.
The author estimates that up to 1/3 of U.S. women are suffering from what she calls "vaginal depression." Having regular orgasms? Don't think you're immune. If you're not having Wolf's prefered brand of high orgasms, you're still at risk. For the uninitiated, high orgasm takes place in Latin with candles and incense and none of that "every man his own priest" bullshit. I'm kidding about the Latin but Wolf is very serious about the candles and incense.
Maybe we don't deserve equal pay because we're all a bunch of sad sacks.
Wolf assumes that women are more sensitive to sexual deprivation than men. Her theory goes like this: Women are multiorgasmic, so they release more dopamine, more oxytocin, and more endogenous opiates. Dopamine is thought to play a role in addiction. Ergo, women are born love and sex addicts who need regular hits of man love to avoid devolving into shrewish drones.
It’s disconcerting when a feminist author seems to be channelling sexist stand up comics: “Straight men would do well to ask themselves: ‘Do I want to be married to a Goddess—or a bitch?’” Wolf writes, “Unfortunately, there is not, physiologically, much middle ground available for women.”
Yet by Wolf’s own account, most American women are chronically sexually dissatisfied, and many aren’t having orgasms at all. Multiple orgasms aren’t the norm even for sexually satisfied women. So, how can a capacity that is rarely exercised explain a supposedly universal gender difference?
Wolf firmly believes that all women need dovey-dovey Tantric sex on the regular order to keep their dopamine systems in working order.
Wolf casts neuroscience as a morality play where “the ultimate feminist chemical” dopamine squares off against serotonin, a stooge for the patriarchy. “Serotonin literally subdues the female voice, and dopamine literally raises it,” Wolf solemnly intones. Actually, both serotonin and dopamine are essential for physical and emotional well-being. Drugs that raise serotonin levels can lift depression and restore energy and vitality to depressed women.
Be advised that anyone who tries to pin one label ("good," "bad," "love," "sex," "depression," "addiction"...) on a major neurotransmitter is a hack who's trying to sell you something. All major neurotransmitters and hormones have multiple roles.
Wolf’s remarks on oxytocin are the mirror image of Christian abstinence activists who distort oxytocin research to scare women away from premarital sex. According to abstinence propaganda, oxytocin is released during sex, so women who have orgasms before marriage will burn out their oxytocin circuits and render themselves unable to love their future husbands or babies.
Wolf maintains that oxytocin is women’s “emotional superpower” that also predisposes us to be love addicts. Moralists have always tried to scare women off casual sex by warning them that they will inevitably get emotionally attached and have their hearts broken. Oxytocin talk puts a pseudoscientific gloss on that hackneyed advice. It’s not just a stereotype, it’s science!
The fact is, oxytocin research is in its infancy and we don’t know enough to draw any sweeping conclusions about how we should live our lives.
One of the more bizarre theories in Wolf’s book is that the vagina is biologically vulnerable to name-calling. You see, the vagina and the brain are connected. If the vagina isn’t happy, it sabotages higher brain function. Wolf recalls how her brain was grievously wounded by a male friend who served her vulva-shaped “cuntini” pasta and salmon. She suffered from writer’s block for six months as a result. (It's funny how the wrong menu is a paralyzing brain wound for Wolf, but she was happy to dismiss the women who accused Julian Assange of rape of trying to call in police over a "bad date.")
To add one more mistake to Wolf’s litany of errors, she screws up the philosophy of J.L. Austin in an attempt to make her vagina insult theory sound weightier than it is. She claims that insults to the vagina are “performative utterances.”
Austin coined the term to describe certain kinds of ritualized statements that don't really have truth values. If you say “I christen this ship The Goddess Array,” you christen the ship by saying so. It's not true or false. Either it works or it doesn't, depending on whether you have the authority to name that boat in that way.
Wolf mistakenly claims that any statement that has an effect in the world is a performative utterance. “Your vagina smells like salmon,” will certainly provoke a reaction, but it’s not a performative utterance. It has a truth value.
Any kind of stress, including prolonged verbal abuse, can dampen sexual function as part of a general shift towards fight-or-flight. What Wolf doesn’t seem to understand is that stress affects nearly every system in the body, in both men and women.
If Wolf’s logic were valid, you’d think that snide comments about the brain would be the most devastating of all. Try telling someone their cerebral cortex is too wrinkly or their hippocampus is too pendulous. They’re probably going to be more bemused than insulted.
Wolf leans heavily on evolutionary biology in an attempt to lend weight to her sloppy generalizations and heavy-handed social prescriptions. She argues that the elusive and unreliable female orgasm is really a screening mechanism to separate attentive mates from jerks. This is in stark contrast with another branch of pop Ev Psych that insists the world is overrun with jerks because women are hardwired to crave their sperm.
Wolf doesn’t even discuss the possibility that female orgasm might not be an adaptation at all. Why would she? It’s only the most controversial debate in evolutionary sexology today.
Wolf also tries to argue that pleasure points in the cervix and vagina prove that women evolved to depend more on men than vice versa. Because the vagina needs “the other.” Yet, the penis evolved to fit into the vagina as much as the vagina evolved to envelop the penis. If the existence of pleasure points in the vagina proves that women are hardwired to need men, the pleasure potential of the penis suggests that men are equally dependent upon women.
In a passage that would make Phyllis Schlafly proud, Wolf argues that the structure of the female reproductive tract excludes women from the Western ideal of the autonomous individual. Women’s genitals are hardwired to need “the other,” she writes, and therefore "the vagina and the cervix of even the most empowered women cannot choose autonomy so simply.”
It’s amusing that Wolf cites Tantra as a distillation of evolutionary wisdom. Whatever the recreational benefits of Tantric sex, from a strictly evolutionary POV, it is the most maladaptive religious practice since ritual celibacy. After all, Tantra teaches men to delay or deny ejaculation--which is pretty much the opposite of what evolution would recommend, if evolution were in the advice business. That just goes to show that there’s more to human flourishing than passing on as many of your genes as you possibly can. Wolf should take note.
Wolf keeps tripping herself up in the naturalistic fallacy. Just because evolution designed a system for one purpose doesn’t necessarily mean that people will be happier or healthier if they use it that way.
Wolf largely omits lesbian vaginas from her discussion. She says it’s because she didn’t want to be “politically correct” and lump all women’s experiences together. If she was worried about that, why did she call her book Vagina as opposed to Straight Vagina? More likely, she overlooks lesbians because their very existence is a challenge to her reductive thesis. If lesbians can happily opt out of their supposedly penis-centric evolutionary programming, presumably the rest of us can too. In that case, we don’t need Naomi Wolf to tell us how to live.
Ironically, Vagina is almost exclusively about sex for pleasure. The reproductive dimension of sex is discussed only in passing. Wolf argues that women are deluding themselves if they think they can “fuck like men” without romantic entanglements because evolution designed them to crave romance and connection at all times. Yet, Wolf takes it for granted that women can flout evolution’s logic when it comes to birth control without paying any psychological price. Indeed, reliable contraception is a precondition for the kind of uninhibited sex she extols.
If some women can be happy without babies, it stands to reason that others might be happy without men, or without romance.
Wolf’s message is dangerous because gender essentialism is flourishing on the left and the right, with ominous consequences for women’s freedom. On the right, we have hardline social conservatives who believe that a woman’s social and biological destiny lies in marriage and motherhood.
On the left, we have the totalizing cult of motherhood which teaches that women should not merely submit to their reproductive destiny, but revel in it. Women are told that if they’re in touch with their Inner Goddess, unmedicated birth will be pain-free, or even ecstatic. They’re told that vaginal deliveries and easy breastfeeding are badges of honor, not just lucky breaks of biology. As Jessica Valenti points out in her excellent new book, Why Have Kids?, women are even judged if they don’t experience an “emotional orgasm” of maternal love when their baby is born.
Wolf doesn't seem to realize the danger inherent in saying that evolution consigns women to certain roles. The right wingers have a much stronger evolutionary argument than she does. Evolution made women to have babies. That doesn't mean we should have them whether we want them or not. Even if we evolved to have a certain kind of sex, it doesn't follow that that we should stick to that kind.
Vagina paints an ugly picture of women as irrational, emotionally unstable creatures ruled by their genitals. Luckily, Wolf fails spectacularly to prove her case. This book should put to rest once and for all the myth that Naomi Wolf is a serious feminist thinker.