Vagina: A New Biography
By Naomi Wolf
Ecco, 400 pages
For decades, the clichéd image of the Western male’s midlife crisis has been an aging, randy man roaring around town in a red sports car with his comely young secretary beside him. It only seems fair, then, to note that this stereotype has a female counterpart, albeit one far more likely to garner a lucrative book deal than the male: A woman—usually upper-middle class, well educated, and approaching 50—who suddenly realizes that something is missing in her life. Although these thoughts might have been prompted by a particular crisis (the end of a marriage, a health scare, the sudden appearance of an attractive pool boy), said woman is never described as selfishly fleeing adulthood but rather as embarking on a Journey of Self-Discovery. This journey inevitably points eastward and almost always involves the embrace of some form of mysticism, a Yoda-like guru, a punishing yoga regime, or all three.
The latest traveler on the path to enlightenment is the feminist writer Naomi Wolf, whose cultural-gynecological memoir, Vagina: A New Biography, purports to solve eons of female trouble by taking a look at something close to home: her lady bits. As with all self-appointed mandarins, however, what she discovers there is something far from ordinary. “The more I learned, the more I understood the ways in which the vagina is part of the female brain, and thus part of female creativity, confidence, and even character,” Wolf writes.
The book begins with Wolf’s own post-coital ruminations after a bout of less-than-mind-blowing sex. She realizes to her horror that this deficiency had been present for some time. What was wrong? Why wasn’t she having transcendent experiences with her partner? Well, as it turns out, Wolf had a medical condition involving her pelvic nerve that was eventually resolved with back surgery. Many women might have been grateful for the return of their physical and sexual health and called it a day. Not Naomi Wolf. Instead, she found herself moved to ask: “Does the Vagina Have a Consciousness?”
Her attempt to answer this and other existential questions about female sexual anatomy leads her to examine everything from ancient goddess worship to modern neuroscience to the vagaries of the porn industry. Alas, Wolf has always had problems with overreach in her work (in Misconceptions, a book about childbirth practices, she compared her own caesarean section to the experience of Christ on the cross), and this book is no exception. By page four, she is arguing that the vagina is “essentially, part of the female soul.”
But it is her devotion to what she calls the “Goddess Array” that fuels much of her narrative. The Goddess Array is Wolf’s shorthand for “that set of behaviors and practices that should precede or accompany lovemaking” and which will ensure proper stimulation of the “Goddess Network”—her euphemism for women’s sexual pleasure regions. As Wolf tells it, if we are female, we have buried within us an awareness of “the Goddess” that, if we embrace it, will allow us to pursue multiple orgasms so that we can become “a radiant part of the universal feminine.”
To a woman with an awakened Goddess Network, evidently, everything looks like a vagina. Wolf sees it as the basis for female creativity and claims that artists such as Edith Wharton were transformed only after availing themselves of ardent lovers. She intimates the touch of the vagina on Wharton’s post-1908 writing—her “prose becomes richer and more tactile”—after Wharton’s affair with Morton Fullerton and finds clear signs of “a vulval setting” in scenes from George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss. As Wolf frequently reminds us, “The vagina is the delivery system for the states of mind that we call confidence, liberation, self-realization, and even mysticism in women.”
Like all artists, however, the vagina is highly sensitive to criticism. Cruel euphemisms can “create environments that directly affect women’s bodies,” Wolf argues, and “words about the vagina can either help or hurt actual vaginal response.” As usual, Wolf’s own experience is her guide: She describes how she was wounded “on both a creative and a physical level” after a well-meaning friend threw her a celebratory party that featured tiny vagina-shaped pasta that he playfully called “c—tini.” Wolf found herself unable to write for six months. On another occasion, when some male acquaintances discussed rape in words too harsh for Wolf’s sensibilities, she “felt the pain of the words cutting again, like a scimitar, ripping into what I can only describe as my energy field.” Unfortunately for the reader, permanent writer’s block seems not to have been a side effect in this case.
Instead, we follow Wolf to London to meet “the world’s nicest former investment banker turned male sexual healer,” a Tantric practitioner who charges hundreds of dollars an hour and becomes Wolf’s “resident adviser for all things yoni,” as he refers to the vagina. Her guru is, for lack of a better phrase, a vagina superhero—that is, if he didn’t exist, Naomi Wolf would have had to invent him. “A man can become enlightened just by gazing at the yoni,” he tells a besotted Wolf, and by this he does not mean watching hours of free porn online. Lounging in his candlelit studio, which, she notes approvingly, is piled with pillows and shrines to Hindu goddesses, Wolf spends a long time breathing deeply and staring into her guru’s eyes. “I don’t generally have intercourse with my clients unless it is extremely therapeutic,” he reassures her, and he confesses that although he is not himself a Catholic, he once saw an image of the Virgin Mary in a woman’s vagina.
This encounter with the guru offers the only narrative surprise in the book, for it turns out that for all of her self-proclaimed boldness, Wolf is a Tantric tease. When it comes time for her to disrobe and have her nonsexual yoni massage, she refuses her therapist’s ministrations, noting, “The nice monogamous Jewish girl in me once again drew the line.” Like her guru, I was left a little miffed at her sudden Victorian spasm of prudishness. Having spent hundreds of pages listening to her describe various “flowerings” of the female body and her own supposed fearlessness in tackling the topic, I wanted a slight vicarious thrill. My vaginal docent failed me.
Perhaps this is because Wolf has always positioned herself as the guru—the bold feminist eager to mentor the next generation (she helped found something called the Woodhull Institute for Ethical Leadership), and she is clearly well-intentioned in her desire to see women be happy. She oozes empathy for those she believes are undersexed and underappreciated, and one can hardly fault her for wanting women to experience pleasure.
But like the zany aunt who goes on a bit too long about her herbal cures for hot flashes, Wolf sometimes overestimates her audience’s tolerance for her supposedly groundbreaking wisdom. For example, Wolf compares Vagina to William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience; in fact it might be more profound, for it is unlikely William James could ever have boasted about his book, as Wolf did about hers to a reporter for Elle magazine, that “people have broken up after reading it.” By the end of the book, I half expected Wolf to argue that the vagina should be declared a world heritage site that, like the Dolomites, must be both protected and thoughtfully explored by visitors enlightened by her tutelage.
Wolf’s books are always driven by her own experiences. What is happening to me? has been the leitmotif of her work since she wrote The Beauty Myth more than 20 years ago. Unfortunately, Wolf’s desire to answer this question for herself ends up leading to conclusions that she feels have universal application—in other words, to essentialism. (One wishes that, instead of suffering from subpar orgasms, she would contract malaria and go in search of a cure. That, at least, might benefit a large swath of the world’s women.)
Wolf mistakenly assumes that because we possess vaginas, we are just like her, and throughout the book she makes references to women’s lives as if they mirrored her own. Women in her book are always “facing their easels or their journals,” not waiting tables or pulling a second shift at Walmart. They have both the time and the disposable income to pursue yoni massages and Tantric sex workshops, and few of them appear to be taking care of aging parents or young children.
Wolf’s blind spot is starkly revealed when she embarks on a fact-finding mission to a non-Western country. Instead of seeking out endangered frogs on a rain forest eco-tour, she seeks out endangered vaginas among a group of women in a refugee camp in Sierra Leone. There is something disturbing about her over-solicitous questioning of these women, many of whom had been brutally raped during wartime, and her linking of their trauma with Western women’s inability to tap their inner goddesses.
And for all of Wolf’s pretensions about the shocking nature of her subject (she informs the reader that many of the findings she has uncovered “have not been widely reported,” implying a portentous conspiracy against the vagina), its material is familiar to anyone who watched episodes of Sex and the City 15 years ago. The four female leads of that show had frank (and far funnier) discussions of depressed vaginas, Tantric sex workshops, and sexual dissatisfaction before Naomi Wolf appeared on the scene as the vagina’s great avenger.
They also had a more sympathetic understanding of men. For if a well-tended-to vagina is woman’s potential liberator, then it is also, in Wolf’s rendering, a source of a lot of unpaid labor for men. Their role in Wolf’s hierarchy of pleasure is clear: Relegated to the role of sensitive sexual task rabbits, they must kowtow to the Goddess Network of their partners. “To enter the transcendental state that takes the female brain into ‘high’ orgasm, you absolutely need to feel safe; safe from ‘bad stress,’” Wolf admonishes. A woman cannot be expected to respond to a sexual overture “if her lover has recently been verbally disrespectful, or has failed verbally to soothe ‘the Goddess in her.’?”
Dinner and a movie won’t do it, gentlemen. Now you must be attuned to the vaginal pulse so that you can “prepare the parasympathetic nervous system to do its magical work.”
As for foreplay, a term Wolf loathes, she reports that after interviewing her friends, they experience the “thump” of the “vaginal pulse” when their mates do things like remember to buy cat food. “Bring home a rose. Make the restaurant reservation. Tidy the bedroom. Light the candle?.?.?.?gaze into her eyes, stroke, don’t snap,” etc. etc. Wolf’s endless to-do list for heterosexual men exudes a bossy humorlessness; meeting its requirements would surely lead not to mutually enjoyable sex but to severe performance anxiety.
There is nothing wrong with encouraging thoughtfulness between partners, of course, but since Wolf’s argument is that the vagina is the portal to women’s spirituality, creativity, and soul, and given that she frequently endorses the values of civilizations that “worshipped the goddess,” her pleasure principle looks a lot like a one-way-street—one with a very large stop sign at the end of it for men who don’t get on board with the goddess-talk. Naomi Wolf is simply leaning on the age-old threat: Do as we say or we will withhold. In Wolf’s world, the pudenda’s answer to the patriarchy ends up being more Lysistrata than laid-back modern goddess. If this book is evidence of the brain-vagina connection at work, then I am afraid I must endorse the wisdom of a more modern theatrical character, Henry Higgins: Why can’t a woman—or at least those, like Wolf, who purport to speak for us—be more like a man?