One Guardian reviewer asks whether Wolf's new biography "Vagina" reveals a true female existential crisis or merely shares biased, personal information.
A couple of years ago, Naomi Wolf signed up to write a book about the vagina. “I was euphoric, in creative terms … At the same time I was anxious about grappling with such a strong social taboo.” A friend of a friend – “an impresario whom I will call Alan” – throws a party for her in his loft, “a pasta party at which guests could make vagina-shaped pasta”, an idea Wolf says she finds “funny and sort of charming” though “not a thematic twist I would have chosen for myself”.
At the party, “there was a slightly ominous, mischievous stir” from the kitchen, where guests have been hard at work: “Flowery or feathery, fluted or fanned, each small sculpture was detailed and different: lovely little white objects against a hand-painted blue Italian ceramic tray.” “I call those ‘cuntini’, says Alan, laughing.” “My heart contracted,” Naomi responds. Next, she hears a sizzle. “I got it: ha, sausages … The room had become tense.” Then comes the salmon. “I flushed, with a kind of despair,” she writes, adding that the evening as a whole left her so upset, she was unable to write a word of her vagina book for the next six months. “I felt – on both a creative and a physical level – that I had been punished for ‘going somewhere’ that women are not supposed to go”, she writes.
“A Rorschach with legs” is what Natalie Angier calls the vagina in her superb Woman: An Intimate Geography (1999). “You can make of it practically anything you want, need or dread.” And the same is true, surely, of this sorry tale. Different readers will have different cringe-points, different places in the story at which they start shouting “Whoah!” You may be appalled at the thought of a book called Vagina in the first place. How backward-looking, how attention-seeking, can a 21st-century feminist get? You may be fine with vaginas in a book title, less so as a shape of pasta – most people avoid close-up genital chit-chat in mixed culinary situations, and there are obvious reasons for the taboo. You may find the pasta in theory, as Wolf did, “sweet” – a quick google brings up vagina cupcakes, pink felt vagina knickers, a commercial range of tricolore pasta from Naples cut in genital shapes – but it’s the c-word that upsets you, or the sausages, or the fish. Personally, I particularly disliked the “impresario whom I will call Alan”, and the “hand-painted blue Italian ceramic tray”: ugh boasting, ugh sentimental, ugh ugh. I’m not keen on the post-party six-month trauma either. If you’re a big enough show-off to have a vagina-pasta party in the first place, I kind of feel you’ve abjured your right to victimmy tender-plantdom. No doubt that says as much about me and my hangups as it does about anything else.
“I was aware,” Wolf reports, that when she told people about her topic, “many people had immediate, probably measurable physical reactions.” Some “smiled immediately, beautiful heartfelt smiles”. Others “looked frightened or disgusted, as if I had suddenly produced from my handbag a trout”. Neither covers my own reaction, though it was closer to Monty Python fish-slapping than the heartfelt-smiling thing. I admire, of course, the force-of-nature whorls in the paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe, the magnificent White Hole by Rohan Weallaens in his show with Sarah Lucas, currently showing at Sadie Coles HQ Off-Site. But Judy Chicago and her Dinner Party, Eve Ensler and her Vagina Monologues – it’s wretched stuff, po-faced and self-righteous, all the very worst bits of 1970s feminism rolled up in a tube.
It’s not that it isn’t possible to do really excellent work with lots of vaginas in it. Angier‘s survey, for example, is the book I’d give free to every schoolgirl if I was Michael Gove. Catherine Blackledge’s much-overlooked The Story of V (2003) is lucid and thorough, and has some amazing illustrations. On the vagina as symbolic object, The Female Thing by Laura Kipnis (2006) is a sharp, funny, leftwing, Freudian essay about the many ways in which “having one of these things instead of one of the other things … invariably structures the female experience here on earth”. Most recently, Florence Williams writes in Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History (Norton, 2012) about how the life of organs commonly thought of as private is always socially and environmentally conditioned, by the fantasies in the ether around them, by the chemicals they absorb.
Wolf’s book, however, is something else again. Yes, it does a bit of science, and a bit of cultural history too. But mostly, it doesn’t need to, because Wolf has found a magic key. “The vagina and the brain,” Wolf has discovered, are “essentially one network, or ‘one whole system'”, though at the moment, not a lot of people know this, apart from “scientists at the most advanced laboratories and clinics around the world”. Taken together, this “profound brain-vagina connection” forms “a gateway to, and medium of, female self-knowledge and consciousness”, mediating “creativity and transcendence”. You thought Angier was laying it on a bit when she poeticised the vagina as “a pause between the declarative sentence of the outside world and the mutterings of the viscera”? Well, for Wolf it channels “a sensibility that feels very much like freedom”. Or if that’s too much to deal with, just look on it as “essentially part of the female soul”.
This discovery, Wolf writes, “started as a historical and cultural journey, but quickly became ‘personal and necessary'”. In 2009, she says, when she was 46, her life was outwardly great (aren’t they always in this sort of story) – “emotionally and sexually happy, intellectually excited, and newly in love”. And yet – as is the convention – “something was becoming terribly wrong”. In her 40s, she explains, Wolf had felt her experience of orgasm deepen and become enriched, leading her to “see colours as if they were brighter” and “the connections between things” more distinctly. In 2009, though, “this was changing. I was … losing sensation inside my body.” Worse, her sense of the “poetic dimension” was disappearing too. “Things seemed discrete and unrelated to me … and colours were just colours.” She gets depressed and then despairing: “It was like a horror movie, as the light and sparkle of the world dialled downward and downward.”
It turns out that Wolf has trapped a nerve in her lower back, between the lumbar region and the sacrum. Normally, this “pelvic nerve” carries messages between the brain and the clitoris, cervix and vagina, but in Wolf’s case, because of the neural damage, the messages from the vagina were cut off. And yet, she still orgasms from her clitoris, no problem. “Every woman is wired differently,” her specialist explains. “Some women’s nerves branch more in the vagina; other women’s nerves branch more in the clitoris … That accounts for some of the differences in female sexual response.” “I almost fell off the exam table in astonishment,” writes the author. “That’s what explained vaginal versus clitoral orgasms? … Not culture, not upbringing, not patriarchy, not feminism, not Freud?”
Once she has picked herself up again, Wolf organises her argument round two main strands. Science, she discovers, has been making lots of progress in understanding the physiology of female sexuality, but nobody tells us about it. “Why didn’t they tell us in eighth grade? … It’s changed my whole sense of how we’re put together,” as she said to Emma Brockes in the Guardian this week. But also, this vagina-brain connection has an emotional, even spiritual dimension – “a ‘hole'” that is “Goddess-shaped”, no less. She gets surgery to put her back right, and finds her full-spectrum orgasms restored, and with them, the mystical intimations. “The moving grasses, the sweeping tree branches, the birds calling from invisible locations in the dappled shadows … I thought: it is back.”
The first part of the book is called “Does the Vagina Have a Consciousness?” Wolf’s evidence includes neuroanatomy – “your dreamy autonomic nervous system, or what scientists call the ANS” and neurochemistry – “the dopamine, oxytocin and opioids released by (the) orgasm, which in turn affect (the) brain”. The take-home is basically that just as sensation runs from pelvis to brain, so it runs the other way as well, meaning that “gestures, touches, kisses and words aren’t extras. They are integral parts of the activation of the female ANS.” In other words, Wolf thinks that the sort of sexual pleasure the modern woman is encouraged to seek is far too wham-bam to release women from what she sees as a widespread “existential depression”, an “An Epidemic of Female Sexual Unhappiness”.
Much of this “sexual suffering” Wolf thinks has been systemically imposed on women, across the world and down the centuries: rape and genital mutilation, military, judicial and ritual. “If you are to subdue and suppress women, and in such a way that they come to do it to themselves …. you must target the vagina.” There’s also an interesting bit on the threat posed to the “happy heterosexual vagina” by internet pornography. The evidence isn’t entirely there yet, but Wolf’s argument that heavy porn use seems to follow an addictive pattern, desensitising users to images of violence and causing them to lose interest in affectionate sex with a partner whose name they know, seems increasingly plausible. Though I’m not sure about the impresario-I-will-call-Alan foodie spin: “The mass-produced, fast-forward, pornographic vagina is to the real vagina what highly processed or GMO food is to slow or organic food.”
More surprisingly, she also blames “second-wave feminism”, ie, the work of the early-1970s Women’s Liberation Movement. In The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm (1970), she says, Anne Koedt argued that “Freud’s elevation of the vagina over the clitoris” was a “patriarchal plot” in order that women be “brainwashed into dependency on men”. An understandable move, Wolf thinks, but overstated, and with unfortunate consequences: “From the 1970s on, the vagina was recast as rather retro, housewifey and passé”, whereas the clitoris was “a glamorous, mini-skirt-wearingGloria Steinem”.
But mainly her target seems to be ordinarily lazy boyfs and hubbies, who, she thinks, have to try much harder when appeasing the “entirely different model of female sexuality” she dubs “the Goddess Array”. The quest takes her deep into the erotic texts of the Tantric, Tao and Islamic traditions. It takes her to a shabby hotel in Midtown Manhattan for a weekend workshop in “sacred-spot massage” run by “the surreally juicy” Caroline Muir (“While all of the women were conventionally attractive, many of the men were not at all”). It takes her to Chalk Farm in north London to visit Mike Lousada, “the world’s nicest former investment banker turned male sexual healer”, famous for having once stared at “the yoni” for so long, he saw an image of the Virgin Mary in it. If you want your own “sacred spot” expertly rubbed by Muir, Wolf tells us, the hourly rate is $250. Lousada, by contrast, charges only £100.
I read this book in utter bafflement. What is this big news that Wolf has to impart? Vaginas feel stuff, so yes, of course they must be packed with nerves; and nerves, we know, join up with each other at the spine to link into the brain. That’s why they call it the central nervous system; that’s what being human is all about. Feet, too, join up with the CNS – thus reflexologists, and why bunions are so painful. And so do the intestines, giving rise to the extremely interesting “Gut Feminism” of Elizabeth A Wilson at Emory University in Atlanta – digestive organs as “psychically alive”, “the enteric character” of mood, “how biology can be an ally for those of us building models of mind-body that tax the limits of Cartesian dualism”. In other words, the closer you look at attempts to argue that mind and body are not completely wrapped up in each other, the more you will see all sorts of connections, biological and symbolic and liminally teetering in between. “Having a body punctured by so many openings and canals,” Kipnis writes, “blurs the distinction between inside and outside, self and world. The apertures invariably take on emotional resonance … She’s so ‘open’. He’s a real ‘tightass’.” And of course the c-word, in all its abject force.
At the beginning of her Vagina book, Wolf says that her theory of “biological consciousness” comes in part from William James’s mighty The Variety of Religious Experience (1902) – “the issue of neurology as a substratum for these common mystical experiences”, ie, that particular brain-states may give people a feeling that they are, for a moment, in touch with God. After that, though, she doesn’t mention James again. Which is a pity, because one great thing about the James book is the way he doesn’t pooh-pooh these passing feelings, while also recognising that any individual attempt to “locate” them can only end in idiotic hubris: “We must frankly recognise the fact that we live in partial systems and that parts are not interchangeable in the spiritual life.” Those selfish genes with their shoulder-pads, grabbing evolutionary advantages for the alpha males; dopamine and oxytocin, gambolling like SpongeBob SquarePants round the reptile brain; the stories told by the popular-science writers can only ever just be stories, partial facts filled out with cartoonishly consoling fictions.
So yes, body and mind are completely part and parcel. But no, this doesn’t mean the connections are easy to conceptualise: neither goddesses nor Numskulls nor ghosts in the machine. Remember Wolf’s “astonishment” when her doctor told her that every woman’s pelvic wiring is slightly different? She should be more than astonished, I feel. She should be daunted and delighted at the great polymorphous cloud ahead of her, every individual equal and yet completely different – vagina and/or clitoris an