Interview: Naomi Wolf on her new book, ‘Vagina’by Diana Wichtel
Naomi Wolf’s epiphany came after her pyrotechnic orgasms became fizzers.
‘We’ve launched the vagina in London,” announces Naomi Wolf down the phone from the UK, “and it’s doing very well.” That must be one of many unlikely sentences she finds herself saying these days. “Exactly,” she says, amiably enough. She sounds exhausted. That’ll teach her to go around capturing the cultural moment. Her latest book, Vagina: A New Biography, had the commentariat at the title. Whatever now, Naomi? There’s been a hail of excruciating puns by journalists who should know better and a blitz of media attention, some expressed in gales of disbelieving laughter. But then Wolf has been regularly polarising opinion since 1991, when her first and arguably best book, The Beauty Myth, brought her barefaced, bankable brand of “third wave” feminism to the world. She revealed her early sexual experience in Promiscuities; her pregnancy tribulations in Misconceptions. The Treehouse recounts life lessons from her father, a “wild old visionary poet”.
Vagina, her eighth book, is about new neuroscience that, claims Wolf, establishes a “profound brain-vagina connection”. “Women are wired to be potentially multi-orgasmic, so the vagina is a tremendous mediator of positive mind states for women,” Wolf tells me, in a breakneck speech – even she calls it a “rant” – about oxytocin, dopamine, pleasure and the patriarchy. There are bucketloads of science in Vagina. Who knew female rats have a clitoris that can be stimulated by a scientist wielding a tiny brush? There’s more arcane research. Wolf visits a London tantric sex guru, Mike Lousada, who specialises in the disturbing-sounding “yoni-tapping” and greets clients with “Welcome, Goddess”. Words, Wolf believes, that can have a measurable beneficial effect on women’s physiology. “When you say, ‘Welcome, Goddess’, I’m not saying that’s an easy thing to incorporate into anyone’s life, and you may not want to use those words, but it turns out that women respond,” she insists. “It’s to do with bad stress and women’s autonomic nervous system. They shut down when they’re not being given words of appreciation.”
The book proposes the “Goddess Array”, a rather spontaneity-sapping list of things men should do to please their partners’ autonomics – stroking, eye-gazing, etc. Though even Wolf wasn’t up for Lousada’s yoni massage. “The nice Jewish girl in me once again drew the line,” she writes. All of this has Ariel Levy, in her New Yorker review, invoking 50 Shades of Grey’s “inner goddess” and declaring, “If my vagina heard a potential partner murmur, ‘Welcome, Goddess’, she would turn to me and say, ‘Get us out of here, now.’” “I agree with you, as a writer, my options sucked,” sighs Wolf, of her “Goddess”. “What other word can you give me that means the ultimate in self-respect for women?” she demands. Beats me. We can only be grateful no one is proposing going back to the bad old days when men expected to be treated as gods.
You have to ask. Does Wolf get the “Goddess” treatment at home? “As a courtesy to the men in my life, I don’t talk about my intimate life with them beyond what has been signed off on when I wrote the book,” she says briskly. She will say that even a girl brought up by hippyish parents in groovy Haight-Ashbury has learnt things she never knew about anatomy, love and … laundry. “The data document why, if a husband drops dirty laundry on the floor … it’s going to directly affect her ability to get aroused.” Welcome, Goddess; goodbye soiled undies.
A PELVIC PINCH
Wolf has always taken the second-wave dictum that the personal is political particularly … personally. Vagina is framed by the epiphany she had when, despite being happy with a new partner, her normally pyrotechnic orgasms became fizzers. “… the usual post-coital rush of a sense of vitality infusing the world, of delight with myself and with all around me, and of creative energy rushing through everything pleasure”, she writes. It seems her pelvic nerve was pinched. She had an operation and regained her full post-coital Mardi Gras. During the ordeal she “began literally bargaining with the Universe, as one does in times of great crisis” and vowed to write a book if she could get her mojo back. That’s … personal. “It’s certainly true that my personal medical challenge led me to the research that is the headline in the book, especially the brain-vagina connection. But I wouldn’t over-exaggerate that,” she instructs. “The whole rest of the book is about everybody’s anatomy.”
Indeed. The insight that had Wolf almost toppling off her gynaecologist’s table – “If femininity resided anywhere, I would say it resides there, in that electric inward networking extending from pelvis to brain” – seems unsurprising. Isn’t every body part connected to the brain? “That’s why they call it the central nervous system,” observed the Guardian’s Jenny Turner. We hear about happy vaginas, depressed vaginas, vaginal despair … There’s so much anthropomorphising you begin to think of the vagina as the sort of Disney woodland creature of sex organs. Other conclusions require a vertiginous leap of faith. “Some people have seen as sloppy thinking claiming the vagina is part of the soul,” noted Jenni Murray on BBC Radio’s Woman’s Hour. “You know what? I never said that. That is a Guardian headline,” replied Wolf. Yet in Vagina she writes: “To understand the vagina properly is to realise that it is not only coextensive with the female brain but is also part of the female soul.” Hmmm.
Wolf writes that after certain moments of heightened sexual pleasure, “a Universal or Divine Feminine” can be accessed. The vagina’s experiences, she declares, “can – on the level of biology … help unleash female creativity”. In a New Yorker website discussion, Ariel Levy was sceptical. “Jane Austen – was that a happy vagina?” Still, Wolf has captured something of a paradigm shift in progress, vagina-wise. “Yeah, we’re sort of in a historical Pussy Riot moment,” she says. “Women are getting it that the shaming of the vagina is always a metaphor for the larger shaming of women. The controlling of the vagina is always a metaphor for the larger controlling of women.” When Wolf drops the neuro-mystical palaver, there’s useful information to be had. And it’s all very taboo-breaking, if there still is a taboo so long after Grey’s Anatomy introduced the “vajayjay” to primetime, along with blithely transgressive carry-on in everything from Sex and the City to Girls.
Still, there’s work to be done when Democratic state senator Lisa Brown can be barred from the Michigan State House for naming a body part. And well done Naomi Wolf for getting Jeremy Paxman to intone “vagina” on BBC’s Newsnight. But isn’t there a danger that she’s re-mystifying and re-fetishising the vagina – replacing a phallocentric discourse with something vagina-centric? “So, that wouldn’t be the end of the world from my perspective,” purrs Wolf. She has quite a nice laugh when she locates that other essential organ of pleasure, her sense of humour. But the question makes her tetchy. “I guess I’m a little bit impatient with this kind of line of criticism because to me it shows a lack of imagination.” I’m just saying that not everyone will go with her on all of this. “That’s totally fine. I guess I should rephrase that. It shows a lack of careful reading.” So the question is not unimaginative, just stupid.
"LITTLE HANDMADE VULVAS"
This was always going to be awkward. Wolf wants to talk about the science; I want to talk about (apologies) the “cuntini party”. Wolf recounts how a friend, “Alan”, threw a party to celebrate her book deal. Pasta in the shape of “little handmade vulvas” was created by guests. “’I call those ‘cuntini’, he said, laughing, and my heart contracted,” writes Wolf. There were sausages and, the final straw, salmon on the menu. Devastated by this “olfactory insult”, Wolf got writers’ block for six months. She has, I feel obliged to say, some peculiar friends. “Yeah. Look, he’s definitely a prankster. I had never been to a party like that either, believe me.” The point she was making comes back to science. “Every single day women hear jokes about their vaginas or satire of their sexuality or jokes about rape,” she says. “The role of the autonomic nervous system and stress response in female sexuality and creativity shows that even words can be harmful to us over time if they’re directed aggressively or demeaningly at the vagina.” Still, six months. “It wasn’t just that party, obviously. It was that I knew I was doing something that is considered a social taboo.”
Wolf writes of another party, on a boat. Her friend Trevor said he preferred reading war stories. Someone remarked there was no sex in those. “There’s rape,” blurted two of the men. Wolf went below, lay on a bunk and wept. “I felt the pain of the words cutting again, like a scimitar, ripping into what I can only describe as my energy field … I was in touch with my own ‘pelvic emotions’, I suppose …” I put it to her that things that are powerful, scary, even sacred often find an outlet in transgressive humour. “Look, what can I say?” She’s sounding impatient again. “I think this is a very, very, very important set of new information that my daughter’s generation deserves to have. For 5000 years women have been bullied by cultures targeting, mocking, controlling and violating their vaginas. At a certain point we have to stop running and take a stand.” You wonder if, post-Vagina, she’ll get many party invitations.
One charge levelled at the book has been that it reduces women to a body part. “I think it’s nonsense criticism, if you’ve read the book. I’ve spent 23 years advocating for women’s rights in every arena. So I think that my motivation is well-established.” No one was questioning her motivation, I say, getting a little impatient myself. “Okay, what I would say to that is that I don’t have a lot of patience with that hesitation, as an intellectual.” She invokes Germaine Greer. “She wrote an essay called Lady, Love Your Cunt in 1970. She never made the mistake of splitting off women’s brains from their bodies in order to please patriarchal critics.”
In a way, that’s the point. Some of what Wolf is saying sounds so familiar. Yoni massager Lousada tells her, “I don’t generally have intercourse with my clients unless it is extremely therapeutic.” Yikes. You can’t help but think of the Victorian doctors, immortalised in the movie Hysteria, who massaged women with “nervous conditions” to “paroxysm”. Isn’t it the same thing? “Let’s be very clear about a couple of things so as not to misunderstand each other,” says Wolf. “I don’t advise women to go to Mike Lousada. … I’m not saying go have tantric sex … I’m looking at a group, very empirical, that have very high rates of positive outcomes for women who selfreport both sexual healing and heightened responses, heightened well-being in other areas of their lives.” That wasn’t my question. Never mind.
THE JULIAN ASSANGE CASE
Possibly Wolf is feeling embattled. When she weighed in on the Julian Assange case, she ended up in the media, debating what constitutes appropriate behaviour in bed. She’s had a bit of flak, as have others who have supported him. “Again, please let me be clear. I’m not defending Julian Assange. I have no idea what happened between Julian Assange and these women,” she says. “My point, having worked with rape survivors for years, is that no other woman in Sweden who has been raped is being given anything like this kind of energy in prosecuting their cases.” She believes the women and Assange should have their day in court. “Obviously. But it should be a single standard of justice.”
Back in 2004, Wolf was criticised by some when she outed her sometime Yale professor, Harold Bloom, over an incident 20 years before. “I don’t know what you’re reading!” says Wolf. “But it’s true there was some criticism in Britain, which often influences Australian coverage.” I’m not in Australia, but never mind. In an exposé for New York magazine on “sex, secrets, and Ivy League denial”, Wolf wrote about how Bloom came to the house Wolf shared with one of his assistants for dinner and to read some of her poems. They eventually found themselves alone. “The next thing I knew, his heavy, boneless hand was hot on my thigh,” wrote Wolf. She vomited into the sink. “You are a deeply troubled girl,” said Bloom, who packed up his sherry and left. “Again, let me stress the piece I wrote wasn’t about me and Harold Bloom. It was an exposé, a piece of investigative journalism.” As for those who thought she shouldn’t have named him, she has … no patience. “Any teacher who is in a position of authority who abuses their authority should know that there is a possibility that the person they’re choosing to abuse will become an investigative journalist and report what they did.”
Wolf is nothing if not proactive. Not long after the launch, she’s writing in the Guardian, giving a serve to those of the sisterhood who have criticised Vagina. She insists the sniping doesn’t hurt. “I’ve been called names so many times. At first with every book there will be some people who are outraged and then it quickly becomes conventional wisdom. I have so much support from a global readership. How can lucky can I be?” she says smoothly. It’s all in how you look at it. “My dad, who really apprenticed me as a writer, always said there are two things: the life of the writer and the career of the writer. You have to pay absolutely no attention to the career of the writer and only care about the life of the writer.” Perhaps that’s what is so tricky about Wolf’s canny, confessional oeuvre. In her case, the life of the writer is the career of the writer.
In The Treehouse, Wolf writes, of her father: “He believes that the heart’s creative wisdom has a more important message than anything else.” Since her orgasm crisis, the creative wisdom is transmitting ferociously from points further south. Some will scoff. Some will want to have what she’s having. Either way, she’s making headlines again. As she says, how lucky can she be?
VAGINA: a new biography, by Naomi Wolf (Hachette, $36.99).
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