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.
Many thanks to Ashley Baggett’s analysis, who might be criticized only for being too polite.The problem with Naomi Wolf is that she is an idiot, and one of the worst things that has happened to public sphere feminism. Now that she’s gone totally off the deep end, it is important to not waste good discussion space trying to figure her out. It is a testimony to the times that a mediocre thinker-journalist such as Wolf gets more attention than serious thinkers such as Joan Williams, Shirley Chisholm, Angela Davis, Amy Goodman, Gloria Steinam–the list could go on and on with a range of younger, much more interesting women. Sadly, our media makes no connection any longer with even the immediate past: our “here today, gone tomorrow” culture has no use for history as a discipline to think with.
I couldn’t agree more with you. Thank you so much for your comment!
Hi Ashley, thanks, my partner also an historian, thought I was being a little too nasty so thanks for this! Gina (by the way, in my haste I mispelled my last name! It is Morantz-Sanchez.
On Wed, Oct 17, 2012 at 9:46 AM, Nursing Clio
Very true. It’s a shame (though I suppose not surprising) that extravagant claims like Wolf’s, though not grounded in even careful research or analysis, get more attention than quality work does. Do we chalk it up to hyperbolic claims being more “exciting,” or the fact that the sorts of claims Wolf makes jive so well with many people’s prior assumptions?
While I find Wolf’s reductionist stance on brain-biology interaction ridiculous, establishing a dichotomy of “self” and “body” is potentially equally harmful to women. There is a solid (and increasing) research base that establishes dysregulation of neuroendocrinology occurs, as in PTSD, and that it is associated with organic pain syndromes like chronic pelvic pain and functional disorders like hyperemesis. While it’s not as explicitly a “mind-vagina” connection as outlined by Wolf, dismissing this association out of hand because of the theoretical and political problems with it creates a situation where women are told that the very real pain they feel cannot be caused by the very real traumas they experienced.
Also, Havelock Ellis was anti-lesbian in the extreme, though he may have acknowledged non-procreative sex as a possibility for women, and using his work to support a model of woman-centered sexuality is problematic at best.
Meghan, I didn’t mean to imply there is a strict divide between body and mind. My intent was to show how Wolf’s argument is too extreme. Thanks for the comment.
See, I didn’t read Ashley, here, as trying to establish a clear dichotomy of “self” and “body.” Of course there’s a connection between the mind and the vagina; however, as Ashley points out, there’s basically a connection between the mind and EVERYTHING. And if you read Wolf’s book (not that I recommend it), it’s almost like she interprets the connection between the mind and the vagina as the vagina being in CONTROL of EVERYTHING. It’s silly. She uses some of the same research that you’re referring to, I think, but she does so very irresponsibly.
Great post, Ashley. I also don’t detect a dichotomy here — but I agree that such thinking would be harmful and, frankly, so oversimplified as to be ridiculous. I often think that the circular and complex nature of the brain-body interaction is something that people would readily agree with, until books like Wolf’s come out and it seems many people are more than ready to accept an overly simplified notion that one thing [vagina] can answer all questions. It is wildly irresponsible of someone like Wolf — who should know that many people trust her work and are (like so many of us) looking for advice about how to live, love, and be happy — to proclaim such simplistic and harmful “truths” without bothering to do real, careful research.
There are things in her book that are “true”: neurotransmitters are important to how we feel and act; our bodies (including vaginas, penises, toes, and stomachs) are inextricably linked to our brains as one system (how many times have you felt physically ill because you were nervous?); eye contact and good communication are beneficial to relationships. But the conclusions Wolf draws from these basic points are off-base and exaggerated.
The conclusions Wolf draws coincide precisely with my personal experience. However, I’m a woman, so that can be dismissed as irrelevant.
Esther, do you really feel like anyone here at Nursing Clio is dismissing you (or Wolf) because you’re a woman? I don’t see how you can possibly get that from Ashley’s post or from any of the Vagina Week posts. I don’t think anyone is doubting that some people will relate to Wolf and find that their experiences match hers; most of us have simply been arguing that her personal experiences don’t apply to everyone, that she is much too quick to generalize broadly based on very shoddy research, and that many of her statements have offensive implications for various groups of women (and men, too).
*Applause* In the Victorian era up till the mid-20thC gynecology was seen as the study of the whole woman, and all illness as arising from problems with the womb. Female circumcision was used to cure hysteria caused by masturbating, though this stopped when the main proponent was accused of blackmailing the fathers of girls he circumscised, an allegation which was unfounded. Women’s health and happiness was tied to the sexual organs, and yes, Wolf is making the same argument here. The only difference is that she sees masturbation as promoting health and happiness, while the Victorians took the opposite view.
Wolf’s book is taken too much from personal experience, as others have pointed out. It’s like me writing a book claiming that selling your virginity is empowering, feminist and helps you explore your sexuality and reject the repressiveness/sex-negativity directed at female sexuality. Yes, it has been all those things for me, but saying it would be like that for all women would be harmful and problematic. We all have our own challenges and find our own way. If you have a medical condition, your physical experience of your vagina could be an epiphany. But not so for others who don’t have similar conditions. And if you were raised in a sex-negative environment, sexwork can be an epiphany – but not so for others who don’t have similar experiences.
[…] that dysfunction gets treated are deeply political in nature. This is the case in arguments that praise the female vaginal orgasm as the hallmark of female sexual health. Before mutual satisfaction (as primarily, if not solely, […]