Getting into it: ‘Vagina’ is still a book about vagina

Pub date September 19, 2012
SectionSex Blog

If there is one thing that some feminists like to do, it is tell each other that they are not really feminist — or, judging from the Internet over the past weeks, that’s what newsmedia enjoys paying them to write about. Imagine that two competing “waves” at an NFL game crash into each other and their wavers begin hurling epithets involving biological primacy (“the wave’s appeal lies in the rolling motion of the womb experience!”) and unacknowledged privilege (“our wave does not rely on fancy running shoes for buoyancy, or expensive snack bar items for flourish!”) 

Naomi Wolf wrote a book called Vagina: A Biography, and is now being torn apart, bit by bit, by representatives of various feminist waves in nearly every vaunted publication in the land. I’m saying: she did write a book called Vagina, though.

Bongwater: Power of Pussy from DANGEROUS MINDS on Vimeo.

Recently, I did an email interview with Wolf about the merits of her book. I sent her the questions before most of the more scathing reviews of Vagina hit the Internet presses, so most of them revolved around which pieces of her research she found the most compelling. When asked to summarize the shortcomings of research publicized heretofore on vags, she wrote to me: 

It is stuck in the 1970s, when Masters and Johnson concluded that men’s and women’s sexual responses were basically the same proces (arousal, plateaue, climax, resolution) and when Shere Hite (admirably for the time) concluded that the vagina and clitoris were unrelated, and everyone thought the vagina has little innervation. 

New data show that women and men are very different in what arouses them and brings them to orgasm and that even their pelvic wiring is very different.

Men’s nerves in the pelvis and penis and fairly simple and regular — but women’s ‘pelvis innervations’ is like lace, compared to the male “grid.” There are neural terminio [sic] for women in the clitoris, as we know, but also in the walls of the vagina, the mouth of the cervix, the G-spot, the anus, the perineum — and every woman’s wiring is different! So the takeaway is that if you want to make a woman happy, whether you are male or female, you need to learn each woman’s patterns and responses anew and pay careful attention and engage is very attentive exploration. And listen to what she likes.

Read Wolf’s book and you’ll get an amazing lesson on female biology, and perhaps even more interestingly, the social history of the pussy. From ancient worship of goddess-whores up to references to the cunt in 20th century jazz in the US, this is stuff that really helps to contextualize our current struggles with those who would penalize us for having anatomy. 

Wolf visits 1900s dance routines choreographed by Lois Fuller in her exploration of the history of vaginal representation

But, as other reviewers have mentioned, she does founder a little when she starts hypothesizing. 

From a passage asserting that eye contact is important for sexual satisfaction: 

Page 299: “Might it be that some new mothers – starved of deep gazing from their husbands – are more at risk of being drawn into a charmed circle of mutual gazing with their babies, which leaves out the man?”

And on the loss of self-awareness during climax:

Page 284: “The findings could be read as hinting – not by any means confirming – that the ages-old fear that sex makes women into something like witches, or into maenads who have no moral boundaries at the moment of orgasm, may have a bit of truth to it.” 

No snap moral judgments made at the height of your climax, witches! You can imagine now, why people have been reacting poorly to some of Wolf’s “findings.” (I would love to see the owner of a penis make any kind of decision at all while climaxing. No really, send videos.)

Other charges leveled at Vagina have involved heterocentricity, although Wolf admittedly trys to explain why the book is focused on penis-loving women in her introduction. She says she thinks women of all sexualities deserve books focused on their vaginas. And next time she’ll do more, she said in the email: “in the next edition I will expand the info that there is for lesbian, bisexual, and transwomen, even given its scarcity, because of the extreme interest from my readers across the spectrum.”

I’m not denying the book’s got issues. But then, this weekend, as I lolled on Dolo’s Gay Beach shelf above that brave new Disneyland of a playground, I read my copy of Vagina. Muttering middle-aged men shot death glares at the spliff dangling from my fingers (I moved downwind as requested.)

And all of a sudden, I got weirded out. I think it had something to do with the big red “vagina” written in red cursive letters on the book I was reading. In Dolores Park, really! It felt like I was engaged in something untoward, and not to be dramatic but in that moment I realized that no matter the woman-stealing babies and witch-producing orgasms contained in the pages of Vagina, it is still: a feminist book. And a heavily-researched book about vagina, with history lessons on vagina, and a frank discussion of the importance of the female genitals.

Perhaps sadly, that’s still a big something. Not to get all maenad, but at Wolf’s upcoming SF dates I’d like to shake her hand and say thanks for putting it out there. 

Naomi Wolf

Wed/19, 7pm, free

51 Tamal Vista Blvd, Corte Madera


Thu/20, 7pm, $25-30

Jewish Community Center

3200 California, SF