In 2007, Naomi Wolf warned us that the specter of fascism was haunting America. The radical Right was set to become a homegrown American version of the brownshirts. The free press was withering under a steady stream of disinformation and newspeak. A craven cabal of political elites was bullying the voting public into submission with cries for endless war. There were only a handful of patriots, in Wolf’s estimation, actively stemming the authoritarian tide. To increase their numbers and bolster the democratic cause, she published Give Me Liberty in 2008. The subtitle was A Handbook for American Revolutionaries, and Wolf devoted hands-on chapters that showed readers everything from how to start a boycott to the ins and outs of launching a politically themed blog.
Wolf’s newest book, very much by contrast, is a sharp lurch into the personal-is-political territory pioneered by second-wave feminism. In Vagina: A New Biography, Wolf doesn’t pause to mention if the ominous jackboots are still marching, or if the fight to keep America from devolving into a military junta has been won. But the evidence on offer in her, um, anatomy of the female pleasure center suggests that, at a minimum, the crisis in democratic politics has tapered off enough for her to indulge in a bit of below-the-navel gazing. Unfortunately for her readers, the gaze is shallow and dull. The book’s contents would be insulting were they not so silly. Here, for instance, is her précis for understanding her subject as a portal to the “Goddess” in daily female experience, as well as a sweeping characterization of the spiritual benefits of deeper engagement with one’s ladyparts:
When women realize the spark of the Goddess in themselves, healthier, more self-respecting sexual behavior follows. The vagina serves, physiologically, to activate this matrix of chemicals that feel, to the female brain, like the Goddess—that is, that feel like an awareness of one’s own great dignity and great self-love as a woman and as a radiant part of the universal feminine.
The vagina may be a “hole”; but it is, properly understood, a Goddess-shaped one.
Got that? If not, Wolf lays out the unconvincing particulars across the many self-involved pages of Vagina. By her account, virtually all meaningful advances in feminist thought stem from a more self-aware and satisfying vaginal life. Wolf does not, however, say whether having more fulfilling vaginal orgasms will help women on their path to equal wages, more political power, and greater control of their reproductive rights. And this oversight is one the book’s more exhausting qualities—even more tiresome than the anecdotes of the all-female retreats with college students in state parks, tantric-sex seminars (“Goddess, may I enter?”), and tales of nonsexual vaginal massages. Wolf, who once hired herself out as a Democratic political consultant, is here almost completely silent on any subject that vaguely resembles realpolitik. It’s an especially curious elision given how widely she aired her alarm over what she took to be America’s loosening grip on freedom; it’s hard to account for Vagina: A New Biography on the same CV that boasts Give Me Liberty. In sizing up the alleged boons of vaginal liberation, Wolf refuses to acknowledge the actual levers of oppression that subjugate bona fide vagina owners in this country today.
This might be forgivable if Vagina was more of an autobiography: a self-helpy sexual memoir, meant like Chicken Soup for the certain sort of woman who likes to read about her “Goddess-shaped hole.” (Talk about a beach read!) But Vagina is instead dressed up like a serious political tract with all sorts of utopian notions of healing the world, and the psychic wounds of all the world’s women, through the patented Helen Gurley Brown panacea of more and better vaginal orgasms.
This quest, indeed, makes up the bulk of the first half of Wolf’s book.
As she explains to her reader-confessors, Wolf stopped having vaginal orgasms for a while. She was still having good sex, of course—with the occasional high-intensity clitoral orgasm. But something was missing: The “poetic dimension” of her vaginal orgasms had vanished. “I had lost the rush of seeing the connections between things,” she laments. “Instead, things seemed discrete and unrelated to me in a way that was atypical for me; and colors were just colors—they did not pulsate after lovemaking any longer.”
As a result, a good deal of Wolf’s daily life loses color as well. She gets depressed, and she can’t write; it’s as though all her creativity has seeped out of her body. She gets some tests and some X-rays and discovers that due to a spinal problem, her pelvic nerves are damaged. A doctor explains that one of the nerve branches in Wolf’s vagina had gone dark because of pressure exerted on a nerve from her misshapen spinal column—and as a result, the requisite pleasure signals were not getting to her brain. The doctor goes on to explain that women have fundamentally different sexual wiring than men do: Some women have more nerve branches in their vaginas, some have more in their clitorises, some have more in their perinea or at the mouths of their vaginas. And as a result of these scattered clusters of responsive nerves down south, women experience a far vaster range of sexual response than the penis-lugging population does.
All these people have assumed the differences in vaginal versus clitoral orgasms had to do with how women were raised . . . or what social role was expected of them . . . or whether they were free to explore their own bodies or not . . . or free or not to adapt their lovemaking to external expectations—and you are saying that the reason is simply that all women’s wiring is different?
Yes, all women’s wiring is different, the doctor tells her gently. “Do you realize,” Wolf says in “astonishment” to her doctor, “you’ve just given the answer to a question that Freudians and feminists and sexologists have been arguing about for decades?”
By Wolf’s account, this news nearly knocked her off the exam table. She soon concluded that her doctor’s neurological account of sexual difference was the key to unlocking the centuries-long mystery of female sexuality. Small wonder, then, that it also proved to be the entire impetus for writing this book—a reason to explore the “mind-vagina connection,” as she puts it.
The social world Wolf elects to ponder in Vagina pretty much stops at her privileged exam table as well. The closest Wolf comes to allowing that women from different socioeconomic strata have different sexual hang-ups is a vignette from her brief recollection of visiting Sierra Leone in 2004 to interview rape survivors. In a tone of sweeping spiritual presumption, Wolf writes that
in spite of their individual courage, what was unmistakable was that aspects of their very souls, in some profound way, had been hollowed out of them. In any one woman, this dimming of vitality was notable; but when you saw this nation of drifting women, it was impossible to ignore. Something systemic had been done to them that had somehow, in a way unique to trauma, blunted them at the level of engagement, curiosity, and will.
Brief though this section is, it lays bare many exasperating features of Wolf’s strictly top-down sociological approach to her bottom-up physiological subject. Before diagnosing the spent souls of her informants, Wolf offers a lurid and gothic horror show of female amputees, gunfire victims, and diamond slaves—an exhibition that advances no real point besides reminding her readers of the far-from-revelatory news that rape is a very terrible thing that damages women’s bodies and minds. And beyond this bit of voyeuristic cultural colonialism, there’s the particularly insidious suggestion that these women have stopped shy of fully self-actualized spiritual life: Due to their damaged neural and vaginal wiring, they can’t truly connect with their “creative” selves.
With this hurried set piece of exploitation out of the way, Wolf adjourns to the main event—the fulsomely soulful windfalls of greater vaginal consciousness. And curiously enough, the women of engagement, curiosity, and will happen to be a lot like Wolf herself. They are creative types: authors, artists, and participants in a London tantric workshop. These are women with ample time and leisure to contemplate the vagina “in the context of its actual neurological task of being a mediator and protector of women’s highest, most joyful, and most unbroken sense of self.” One woman, a painter, describes how during a residency in Vermont she became very attuned to her vagina’s higher calling after she’d visited her husband “mid-residency” to get busy, as the kids say. The sex was hot and that, in turn, encouraged Wolf’s informant on a path of greater “self-love” and thereby supplied her with the motivation to pursue her artwork. This is just one among what feels like hundreds of asinine, mundane stories explaining that women, shockingly enough, feel great after they have great sex.
Not content to let this obvious point stand on its own, Wolf, typically, wraps up the story with some eye-rollingly obvious rhetorical questions: “Does really special sex, sex that engages the vagina, emotions, and body in very specific ways—ways that involve very concrete kinds of activation of the parasympathetic nervous system—actually lead to female euphoria, creativity, and self-love?”
Yes, Naomi—there is a sexually euphoric nervous system. But here’s another line of questioning for you: How do women in slums fuck? Do you think their orgasms are “poetic”? Do they feel as if their “creativity, confidence, and even character” have been depleted—as you’ve complained that yours were—because of their culturally influenced clitoral-biased orgasms? Have they found that the sexual revolution liberated their inner sexual goddess—or has it just straddled her with more neurosis and guilt? What vaginal pulse rate do they achieve while reading Anaïs Nin (whom Wolf excerpts as a kind of “stress test” for readers’ vaginas)?
Or perhaps these questions only apply, in real-world terms, to a very, very small group of gals who have the existential energy, personal downtime, and disposable income that allow them to ponder these sorts of things. These are the women who belong to a certain class stratum that rhymes with “witch.”
Natasha Vargas-Cooper is a freelance journalist based in Los Angeles. She last wrote about Norman Mailer and Marilyn Monroe for Bookforum.