It is day 3 of “Vagina Week” and today we hear from Ashley Baggett who discusses Wolf’s mysterious “mind-vagina” connection and the problematic analysis of Victorian medical history.
In reading Naomi Wolf’s Vagina, I could not help but focus on the immense problem with, among many things, the “mind-vagina connection.” She argues that an intense connection exists between the female mind and her vagina, a connection so deep that women’s sense of self, creativity, etc, are essentially controlled by their vaginas. My first reaction when I came across that phrase was to throw the book on the floor. Serious ramifications exist for such a claim, and as a self-proclaimed feminist, Wolf should have been aware of this. After I calmed down, I retrieved the book from the corner of the room and tried to give her the benefit of the doubt, but I found my initial response to be repeated over and over again. I wanted to scream “how can she not see this argument has been made already but to the detriment of women?!?”
For this reason, I paid particular attention to the chapter titled “The Victorian Vagina: Medicalization and Subjugation.” Wolf’s depiction of the Victorian Era is woefully lacking. Granted, she is not a trained historian, but even still, an argument is not proven by being selective with sources. Wolf left out crucial information- perhaps unintentionally- that complicates her tidy narrative of the “subjugation of the vagina” and thereby women. Someone, somewhere should have had the wherewithal to refer her to Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz’s Rereading Sex. While the Comstock laws and the Victorian ideal attempted to restrict female sexuality and uphold a passionless view of “real” women, the ideal did not depict reality, not completely. Free love, birth control, and physiological reform advocates did push for a better understanding of women and their sexuality, but they didn’t enthusiastically embrace it. Also, not all sexologists had such a puritanical view of female desire as Wolf seems to argue. She cited Havelock Ellis- a well-known sexologist who tended to be on the more liberal side, but was still wary of female sexuality. Yes, he focused on motherhood as the ideal fulfillment of women and contended that female sexuality was passive, but, Wolf simplifies Ellis too much in order to make him support her neat linear depiction of Victorian suppression of female desire. Ellis did not believe that adult women should have only vaginal pleasure. He, moreover, stated that a woman was the “sexual equal of man” and masturbation was not entirely bad. Not to mention, Magnus Hirschfeld, Clelia Mosher, or Katharine Bement Davis should have been considered in Wolf’s discussion about the turn of the twentieth century’s understanding of sex and female sexuality since Mosher and Davis, for example, conducted their famous studies of women’s sexuality proving “normal” women did have (gasp) sexual desire. With this bit of knowledge, Wolf’s depiction of the facts becomes questionable. Her claim that “virtually the only two discourses in which the vagina appeared in public or private commentary….[were] medical discourses about ‘respectable’ women’s vaginas and pornography or punitive legislation aimed at ‘bad’ women’s vaginas” is just plain wrong.
Furthermore, Wolf chastises Victorians and social purists who attacked masturbation and yet provided vulva massages for the so-called disease “female hysteria.” She does not recognize that, in their logic and scientific reasoning, turn-of-the-twentieth-century doctors believed sex and a “real” orgasm could not occur without penile penetration. So inducing a hysterical paroxysm through manual stimulation did not translate to female pleasure (even as ridiculous as that may presently sound). The irony of her critique gets worse than a simple misunderstanding about scientific history. She herself upheld penile penetration as necessary for a “transcendental orgasm”- the vaginal orgasm that produces creativity in women and makes them see “brighter colors” according to Wolf. I could not wrap my mind around such glaring hypocrisy.
Her prerequisite of penile penetration for these “transcendental orgasms” has serious implications for women. Despite claiming women have nerves differently situated (some women having more in the vagina, some with more in the clitoris or anus), Wolf essentially undermines women with non-vaginal orgasms. So are women who prefer clitoral orgasms deficient? Will they not have better creativity, get in touch with their “Goddess,” and see brighter colors? Apparently so, according to Naomi Wolf. This need for a penis places Wolf in tough spot, particularly when considering lesbianism. Are women who engage in same-sex relationships just out of luck? Are they lacking this supposedly complete oneness with themselves that only an earth-shattering vaginal orgasm with a “virile man” can offer? Wolf’s discussion of LGBTQ issues was limited to saying that’s another topic for another book that needs to be written. The fault here, again, is focusing too much on the vagina and not seeing the consequences of her argument.
Her mind-vagina connection and frightening “cult of the vagina” becomes even more problematic if she would have placed her proofs in a different context. Yes, women have a nervous system that makes the vagina sensitive. Yes, women have physiological reactions in sexual intercourse. Yes, stress can cause all sorts of problems in the body. But, Naomi Wolf is so focused on the vagina and proving her argument that she does not see the larger picture. Humans have a nervous system that extends throughout the body, not just to the vagina. While the pelvic nerve is important to addressing some forms of sexual dysfunction, it is not the only nerve in the body or the only nerve that when damaged causes serious physical problems. Also, women (and men) suffer from PTSD resulting from other traumas rather than just sexual assault. Intimate-partner violence survivors, for example, can experience many physical problems, such as decreased libido (“vaginal grief” would be Wolf’s phrase for this), anxiety, digestive issues, etc. The mind-vagina connection seems less special and less of a legitimate argument if looked at from this angle.
Look at all those nerves and connections!
I kept hoping she would address the mind-vagina connection that developed in the late nineteenth century and show her argument as radically different. She did not. The result? She helps to uphold a biological determinist view of women; woman is defined by her vagina. Somewhere I am sure misogynists applaud this book and will use it to buttress their beliefs saying- “See! Even a feminist says women are controlled by their reproductive organs!” Wolf went so far as to state that women have a higher rate of “low levels of desire” which leads to less sex “and that is the unacknowledged secret behind many divorces and even behind many male infidelities.” Let that sink in…. Does she realize that she- in so many words- said women’s lack of sex with their partners makes men cheat and and creates divorce?!? Of course, sexual intercourse is important, and the lack of it can impact a relationship. But Wolf’s statement is going too far and is to the benefit of misogynists and those who want to blame women for problems.
And everything else too apparently!
I’ve come down hard on Naomi Wolf’s Vagina (as I think I should). She is recognized by many as a major voice in feminism, but her book is not a feminist manifesto. The public needs to be aware that her view of the vagina and this mind-vagina connection is not an idea embraced by all men and women, for good reason. Part of the tragedy of this all is Wolf obviously had a medical condition that impacted her self-esteem and sexual experiences. She seems to have used the book as a therapeutic agent to come to terms and work through her pelvic nerve problem, which is good individually for her, but that fact does not mean it was worthy of publication. The mind-vagina connection has already been made and found wanting. Wolf did not change that.