Vagina: A New Biography, by Naomi Wolf (HarperCollins, 384 pp., $27.99)
When the going gets tough, the idea of going back to the womb has irresistible connotations of perfect peace and contentment, an asylum in the original sense of the word where we are cushioned in silence and rocked in an effortless motion by the golden waters of a gently lapping magic pool.
Naomi Wolf’s new book makes going back to the womb sound more like going through a car wash. We are knocked down by streams of gushing hormones, we slip and slide on slick layers of lubrication, we are thrown to the floor by violent throbbing, we collide with G-spots, we are challenged by a clitoris demanding “Who goes there?” and yanked in by a cervix with a strength more often found in bar bouncers.
If you thought there was nothing new to say about female sexuality, you don’t know Naomi Wolf’s gift for saying nothing new about anything. In her 1991 bestseller, The Beauty Myth, she revealed that attractive women are luckier than homely women. A human shoehorn, she used her subsequent fame to ease herself into the role of political consultant in the 2000 presidential race and reveal that Al Gore has the personality of a tree. She took charge of his wardrobe and revealed his true nature as a resplendent autumnal tree by making him wear socks in warm, earthy colors and teaching him to cross his legs so that they showed.
Now she has uncrossed her own legs and written the life and times of her vagina.
She begins with the announcement that, at age 46, the earthmoving vaginal orgasms she had always enjoyed had stopped, leaving her, the poor thing, with nothing but clitoral orgasms. Next she developed back trouble, so she consulted a bone specialist and learned that an early accident had made some of her vertebrae weaken and press in on her pelvic nerves, specifically those leading to her vagina — but not those to her clitoris. This was causing her present orgasmic troubles. As her doctor explained, some women’s pelvic nerves branch more in the vagina; others more in the clitoris. “Every woman is wired differently,” he said.
Wolf says she almost fell off the examining table in her astonishment. “That’s what explained vaginal versus clitoral orgasms? Neural wiring? Not culture, not upbringing, not patriarchy, not feminism, not Freud? . . . Was that all there was to it? Nerves?” We can almost hear her thinking, There goes the sex-book industry, but she did not think it for very long. Nothing if not resourceful, she comes up with a career-saving solution on the same page: “I am a walking control group for the study of the effect of impulses from the pelvic nerve on the female brain. Because of how scanty information is on this subject, I feel I owe it to women to put down on paper what happened next.”
What happens next is the scientific cover story that books like this need to pass for serious studies. Reading it is like being picked up in a laboratory. She hits on the pituitary, the amygdala, and the hypothalamus (your lobe or mine?) and then, when she has everybody settled in, she mixes and serves her hormone cocktails: oxytocin, prolactin, opioids, and the Singapore Sling of womankind, dopamine, which she calls “the ultimate feminist chemical in the female brain.”
Once we are over the science hump, we learn that dopamine produces not only ecstatic vaginal orgasms but everything a woman needs to make it in a man’s world: confidence, assertiveness, rebelliousness, and the courage to identify, transcend, and conquer the enemies of her personhood. For women in the arts, dopamine brings a burst of inspiration and creativity such as they never knew they had. Wolf produces the usual suspects — Charlotte Brontë, Edith Wharton, Elizabeth Barrett Browning — but she is not content with the energetic “awakening” experienced by a woman falling in love for the first time. She wants nothing less than a vagina awash in dopamine, and for this she turns to Anaïs Nin.
Seeing the name “Anaïs Nin” on a page is like seeing a funnel cloud in Kansas: You know what’s coming. Nin, writes Wolf, “revered the vagina” and “contributed the first extended female sexual voice to the canon of English literature” (my italics). It’s impossible to quote Nin in a respectable venue but Wolf’s summary of her will give you an idea: “Her stories reveal in tender detail all the delights of the sexual feast that constitute the Goddess Array (which I explore in the last section of the book) — gazing, stroking, admiring, lubricating, melting, opening, and so on.”
It should be noted that when Wolf says “vagina” she might be referring to the whole feast, so to speak. She uses the word to mean not just the birth canal but any one of the parts that might be on her mind at any given moment: labia majora, labia minora, outer labia, or even the pubis — the exterior mound, actually a bone, that (male) porn authors of the Sixties called the “mountain of Venus” and invariably described as “oleaginous” and “lubricious” even though the oleo and the lube never get up this far.
Our suspicion that Wolf has developed a monomania on the female genitalia solidifies into certainty when we come to her glossary on what these formerly private parts are called in various cultures, countries, and languages the world over. Gloria Steinem did the same in her book on self-esteem, translating the word into everything from ancient Incan to Swahili, but Naomi Wolf comes up with an unbeatable teaching moment. In present-day Australia, the female pubic area is called “mappatas” or “tasmap.” Now get out your atlas and look at the map of Australia. Off the southeastern tip lies the delta-shaped island of Tasmania — a perfect triangle, just like that which lies under the thongs of the girls on the beaches.
Wherever this obsessed author looks — there it is again! The early Christian symbol of the fish, if turned upright with the head at the top and the branched tail at the bottom, resembles the uterus and the Fallopian tubes. The Egyptian craze in 1920s interior decor emphasized the triangular pyramid. The spread-out-butterfly motif in stained glass, geometry books full of deltas . . . She seeks it here, she seeks it there, she finds it nearly everywhere: Naomi Wolf has turned the vagina into the Scarlet Pimpernel.
Far from saying anything new, this oleaginous mess of a book is a reprise of the feminist heyday of the Seventies, which Wolf calls “a pretty good decade for the vagina.” Much of it reads like The First Sex (1972), by Elizabeth Gould Davis, who claimed that in the era before recorded history, people worshipped goddesses, matriarchy reigned supreme, and women, the dominant sex, dropped their babies in birth buckets during pit stops at the chariot races while passive, adoring males chewed on umbilical cords like beef jerky.
At least a few feminists of the Seventies wrote well, but Naomi Wolf is a very sloppy stylist. Two brief examples will suffice: “The G-spot is actually part of the clitoris — the back of the clitoris, essentially — which in turn turns out to be much bigger.” And: “By lowering their blood pressure, men’s stroking the women they love regularly can even help protect the women from heart disease and stroke.”
All this is not to say that Wolf’s book is entirely worthless. In fact, one section of it is priceless: the story of her experience with the Tantra man. Tantra is a system of vaginal healing wherein sympathetic male practitioners restore traumatized vaginas by gazing lovingly into them, murmuring to them, and gently massaging them. It sounds like the kind of service advertised in sleazy personals but it is not illegal and the practitioners are viewed as trained professionals, possibly because so many sex-research institutes have sprung up that activities like Tantra are assumed to qualify for government grants.
Wolf interviewed a London-based Tantra man for the Sunday Times. “He had worked intimately with the vaginas of hundreds of women,” she notes, so a year or so later she wanted to see him again to ask about some new findings. One visit led to another, and one thing led to another, until she was “in a state of — yes — oceanic bliss.” They didn’t have sex; he just gazed at her tasmap, or talked to it, or whatever (she doesn’t exactly say); but it worked. She left his studio on “a dopamine high.”
On her last visit, matters reached a point of no return. “I was in bed with an attractive stranger and there was no way to pretend that what he was proposing would not be a form of sex. The nice monogamous Jewish girl in me once again drew the line.”
Wouldn’t you know it? She’s a Tantra tease.
– Florence King can be reached at P.O. Box 7113, Fredericksburg, VA 22404