It is officially “Vagina Week” here at Nursing Clio. Carrie Adkins, Adam Turner, Ashley Baggett, Rachel Epp Buller, and Cheryl Lemus will each post their thoughts about Naomi Wolf’s new book, Vagina: A Biography, dissecting some of Wolf’s claims about vaginas, orgasms, and female sexuality. Please consider posting your own thoughts in the comments section!
Carrie Adkins kicks off “Vagina Week” with an overall analysis of Wolf’s book:
Naomi Wolf’s Vagina: A New Biography begins with the author’s personal journey to reclaim the transcendental orgasms that had once infused her world with color and beauty and joy. Lest readers misunderstand and think her orgasms were lost entirely, Wolf hastens to explain that her “clitoral orgasms were as strong and pleasurable as ever.” She continued to enjoy plenty of satisfying sex; it just didn’t feel quite as “poetic” anymore. Devastatingly, “colors were just colors – they did not seem heightened after lovemaking any longer.” Naturally, this loss of dramatic, mystical post-orgasmic bliss compels Wolf to despair, panic, bargain with God, and, finally, seek medical treatment.
Wolf makes an appointment with her gynecologist (incidentally, can you imagine that appointment? “Yes, doctor, I’m having lots and lots of fantastic sex, and plenty of orgasms too, but the colors! They just don’t seem as bright anymore!”). Eventually she learns that she does have a medical problem: a spinal injury is compressing a branch of her pelvic nerve. She undergoes surgery, and – spoiler alert! – her sex life is almost immediately reinvigorated with those poetic and emotional dimensions that she has been missing so terribly. “As my lost pelvic sensation slowly returned,” she writes triumphantly, “my lost states of consciousness also returned. . . . I began again, after lovemaking, to experience the sense of heightened interconnectedness, which the Romantic poets and painters called ‘the Sublime’: that sense of a spiritual dimension that unites all things – hints of a sense of all things shivering with light.”
Good for her, I guess. Don’t get me wrong; I’m happy enough for Naomi Wolf that her orgasms make colors seem brighter again, though I’m not sure we all needed to read about it. And if that’s all that Vagina claimed to be, just an account of Wolf’s rediscovery of her sexual Sublime, well, that would be fine – weird, but fine. It would be sort of like if one of your slightly crazy, hippie-dippy great aunts decided to publish some overly-detailed musings about her sex life. Silly, perhaps, and full of awkward over-sharing, but harmless.
Instead, Wolf uses her personal experience with her vagina as a springboard to write a purportedly academic book – alternately “scientific” and “historical” – about the vagina. She contradicts herself and changes the definitions of her terms so frequently that defining the precise contours of her arguments can be nearly impossible (example: she suggests that she wants to make the vagina, specifically, important again after decades of American feminists cruelly subordinating it “to the more glamorous clitoris,” but later, she says that when she refers to the vagina, she means everything between a woman’s legs, including the clitoris). Basically, though, her main points seem to be that the brain is directly connected to the vagina (Shocking, right? Is the brain not connected to everything?), that the vagina has a “consciousness” (Did you know that your vagina can feel grief? Me neither!), and that when women have the kind of transcendental orgasms that Wolf experiences, they are more vital, more creative, more . . . everything. They are Goddesses.
Fortunately, we at Nursing Clio are devoting the entire week to discussions of Vagina, so I do not have to cover all of the biggest problems with Wolf’s work here today. I am leaving Wolf’s extremely questionable use of “Science!,” for example, to Adam Turner, who will post his thoughts on the book tomorrow. For now, I want to examine a few of the issues that bother me the most about Wolf’s perspective on female sexuality.
First of all, Wolf does exactly what she claims she will not do: she smashes women’s varied individual experiences all together into one idealized, essentialized version of womanhood. And guess what? Coincidentally, that version of womanhood looks just like Wolf, acts just like Wolf, and expresses herself sexually just like Wolf. As Katha Pollitt argued perceptively for The Nation, “having ‘discovered’ that every woman is sexually unique, [Wolf] proceeds to write 300 more pages arguing that they are all the same, i.e., just like Naomi Wolf.”
Pollitt’s criticism is valid, and it points to one of the most troubling aspects of Vagina. For one thing, none of Wolf’s “science” or “history” (I insist on continuing to use the obnoxious scare-quotes because Wolf does not do either science or history competently) seems to include bisexual, lesbian, transgendered, or asexual women. Her introduction offers a rather formulaic cop-out, which suggests that lesbian and bisexual vaginas deserve books of their own, but the bottom line is that Wolf’s “Goddess” is heterosexual. And whether Wolf intends it or not, there is absolutely a value judgment there – she suggests no possible path, really, for non-heterosexual women to become Goddesses. Or single women, for that matter. Indeed, according to Wolf, “a happy heterosexual vagina requires, to state the obvious, a virile man.”
So we all need to be straight, and we all need to have big strong men in our lives to give us technicolor orgasms and make us creative and spiritual and vibrant and alive! And if we don’t, well, we are simply not our brightest, shiniest Goddess selves. We are not able to access the Sublime. In Wolf’s vision of female health and happiness, men determine how women feel about the world and about themselves. This is not just my overly sensitive interpretation of Vagina. In what may be the dumbest, most ridiculous part of the book, Wolf explicitly writes: “Straight men would do well to ask themselves: ‘Do I want to be married to a Goddess – or a bitch?’” She then tells these straight men how to induce “orgasmic trance states” in their wives and girlfriends, how to hug and cuddle and romance them, how, in short, to make sure they become Goddesses – not bitches.
At this point, you might be saying to yourself, “whoa! Wait. Isn’t Wolf a feminist?” The answer is yes. Or no. It depends which page of Vagina you are currently reading, and whether she wants to characterize herself as a feminist leader looking to emphasize the beauty and depth of female sexuality or as a woman living in a “postfeminist” world (whatever that means) looking to separate herself from clitoris-worshipers and promiscuous pleasure-seekers, who have abandoned the truth of sacred vaginal sexuality in favor of a superficial brand of sexy fun.
Historians of sex and gender have noted the persistent, problematic tendency to define women by their sexual and reproductive organs. Wolf herself criticizes this inclination in various forms –for example, when it manifests itself in “the brutality and punitive nature of masculine gynecological practices” during the nineteenth century. How can she not see that she is doing precisely the same thing? If our vaginas are “conscious,” if they are responsible for our overall health and happiness, if they are necessary for our creative work and for our inner peace . . . well, then we are defined by our vaginas.
While I was reading the book, I joked to some friends that it reminded me of watching an infomercial. Wolf tends to state the fairly obvious, but she does so with an odd, exclamation-point-laden enthusiasm. Rats can feel sexual pleasure? Wow! Why was this not on the news? Women are all wired differently, with different specific sexual preferences? Why were we not informed?!?! Everything now makes sense! The problem, of course, is that no amount of earnest infomercial-style exclamation is going to make me want to buy what Naomi Wolf is selling – a troubling, oversimplified, inaccurate conception of female sexuality and of womanhood in general.