Book Review: “Vagina” by Naomi Wolf

Naomi Wolf is a well-established third-wave feminist known for her book The Beauty Myth. In 2012, she came out with a new biography centered both in and around her lady parts. The book was not well received. Katie Roiphe of Slate said of Vagina that, “I doubt the most brilliant novelist in the world could have created a more skewering satire of Naomi Wolf’s career than her latest book.” So, with that in mind, I didn’t set out to fall in love. I listened to Vagina in an audiobook format, and it was a strange journey.

Cover of Vagina by Naomi WolfThere is a mixture of the scientific and the spiritual as Wolf drags you into her doctor’s office, through laboratories where researchers stimulate rat vaginas, and into the intimate offices of healing sex therapists. All this in a search for the lost ability to see colors when she comes, and the way she describes afterglow sounds more like a trip on psychedelics. I mean, really. When she accomplishes her goals and her orgasms return with ferocity, she describes it in such sweet prose that I think I may have diabetes:

“¦I looked out of the window at the trees tossing their new leaves and the wind lifting their branches in great waves, and it all looked like an intensely choreographed dance, in which all of nature was expressing something. The moving grasses, the sweeping tree branches, the birds calling from invisible locations in the dappled shadows seemed again all to be in communication with one another. I thought: it is back.

This may have more to do with me than Wolf, but a book that flips between a medical discussion of the pelvic nerve and pop-culture-tantric exploration of the yoni as the center of the female, she calls the vagina a “goddess hole,” makes me a little ill at ease.  There is a lightning fast shift between medicine and science in Wolf’s biography, and I am not sure it is something with which either community would really feel comfortable.

As I mentioned, I did listen to the book, which made some of the discussion of Wolf’s scientific discoveries difficult for me to grasp – I prefer to consume my figures through visual means. However, the voice actor pronounced vagina “vah-gyn-a“ in sort of a breathless tone that was too much for me to handle – I would cringe every time. If this book interests you, I suggest you buy the print version.

In her journey for the return of orgasms in Technicolor, Wolf discovers (early in the book) that all women are wired differently, which accounts for the differences in women’s ability to feel pleasure. That’s a pretty big revelation, and one I had never heard before. Yet, after several long flowery minutes on the unique snowflake-ness of every vagina, the rest of the book does not seem to keep this differentiation in mind. She uses her experiences in life as the model for which all women could follow. Being a biography, this egocentricity makes sense, but then why devote so much time discussing uniqueness at the beginning?

My favorite part of the book was the revelation that the entirety of our lady part has no name. As Wolf herself says, the there’s vulva, clitoris, and vagina but they are the most superficial surfaces of women’s anatomy. How have we not named the whole (pardon the pun) of the female sex organ? Wolf also writes very compellingly about the damage that rape does to a woman – damage that goes well beyond the physical discomforts. Her writing here was meaningful and poignant and I would have loved to see material like this have its own book.

Overall, diving into Wolf’s vagina made me uncomfortable (I bet I am late to the party on that joke). This may have more to do with me than with her, but I find a book that centers an entire life on your genitals to be disturbing. I don’t think we should be ashamed of our vaginas but I don’t know if I need to demand that my boyfriend acknowledge the goddess in my yoni. Further, the vagina-mind connection Wolfe speaks of sounds more like something that should be on a b-reel horror film, or science fiction. Blorg-vagina, anyone?

The book is both an exhibitionist cry for attention (hey, everyone look and think about my vagina, and my amazing orgasms for hours) mixed with a lot of fancy science which basically explains something that we already knew. Sexual satisfaction is a part of overall well-being for a woman, and being appreciated means that you are more likely to accomplish both.

6 replies on “Book Review: “Vagina” by Naomi Wolf”

“How have we not named the whole (pardon the pun) of the female sex organ?”

Hmn, wouldn’t the term be genitals/genitalia?

From this review, and others, Wolf’s book seems like an exercise in self-indulgence. If she wants to consider her vagina to a goddess called yoni, then good for her. The idea of the vagina being the “centre of the female” feels wrong on many levels. When it comes to non-erotic writing about vaginas, vulvas, orgasms and all else in that area, I still think Mary Roach’s “Bonk” is utterly fantastic.

The scientific community certainly is not ok with it.

Wolf is asking us to believe that both the quick-dip pop-science press and an extremely attentive and rather bawdy science blogosphere have overlooked a substantial body of “truly revolutionary” findings in neuroscience, consciousness studies, and sexuality — all closely watched, red-hot disciplines beloved of university public relations officers — that insist on a sharp revision of female sexuality.

There’s nothing “neurobiological” about it – well, no more so than anything else in life. Everything we feel, think or perceive affects the brain – that’s how we feel, think and perceive. Everything is neurobiological – try doing anything without a brain, if you don’t believe me – so it’s misleading to focus on particular incidents as being somehow more neural, and therefore more real, than others.

as an anthropologist who has read and taught extensively on the adaptiveness (or not) of female orgasm, I found myself extremely disappointed in Wolf’s interpretation of her experience, and how she took her white, straight, privileged core values and assumed they must be the same for all women.

Not all women have the same orgasms. Not all women get their rocks off from the same things. Not all women like men, or vaginal penetration, or any sex whatsoever. Not all women can have sex or orgasms due to injury. An extension of Wolf’s idea that this profound vagina-brain connection make us more spiritual would be that those who cannot or choose not to have orgasms for various reasons, or those who identify as asexual, are less spiritual and less in touch with, as she states in her introduction, their “female consciousness.”

The brain and female sexuality are extremely complicated — and reducing them to simplistic formulations that deny women their humanity fails to do justice to either feminism or science. Properly contextualized, neuroscience can add to our knowledge of sexuality, but not if it’s twisted to support sexist ideas about women as “animals” who are so addicted to love that they become zombies.

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