Naomi Wolf and the Sacred Vagina
Oy Naomi Wolf. Why are we all still referring to you as some sort of feminist thought leader? I am very happy for you that you are having wonderful earth-shattering shivering mystical sex. You are correct that the vagina and the brain are, in fact, part of “one whole system” — the same way that the left hand and the brain or the nose and the brain are also part of one whole system (the human body, for the slower to catch on). I even think you’re probably correct that many women (most women?) could be having better sex, and that our own cultural constructions of sex (begins with a boner, ends with ejaculation) are not only centered almost entirely on male sexual experience and desire but also thwart female sexual pleasure and understand a woman’s experience with and desire for heterosexual sex only in relation to a man’s (assumed to be neutral, standard and true) definition and understanding of sex. All of that is bad for women, in and out of the bedroom. But here, as explained by a lovely reviewer in the New York Review of Books, is where you lose me:
The problem is that conventional models of heterosexual intercourse do not serve their needs. The “linear, goal-oriented” sex that predominates in the West does not take sufficient account of women’s extreme sensitivity to the emotional conditions in which sex takes place. Both pornography and classic second-wave feminism have tended to promote sexual technique as the key to female sexual satisfaction. Feminists in particular have tried to persuade women that they can “fuck like men, or get by with a great vibrator…and be simply instrumentalist about their pleasure.” But these, Wolf argues, are damaging myths. In order to achieve high orgasm, women need to feel safe and protected. (Ideally, they will feel “uniquely valued” and “cherished.”) They need atmosphere (candlelight, attractive furnishings, dreamy gazes) and “unique preparatory tributes or gestures” (flowers, drawn baths). It also helps a lot, apparently, if their male partners address them as “Goddess.”
These are not, Wolf emphasizes, the culturally specific preferences of a high-maintenance woman, but the biologically determined requirements of all women. In prehistoric times, it was dangerous for women to enter the disinhibited trance state of high orgasm when they were copulating “in the vicinity of wild animals or aggressors from another tribe,” so choosing sexual partners who would value them enough to protect them in an emergency was paramount.
This would seem a very flimsy speculation on which to hang an entire theory about women’s hardwired need for precoital schmoozing. One of its several problems is that it fatally exaggerates the obliviousness of the orgasmic woman. Anecdotal evidence suggests that a female in the throes of more than culturally adequate passion can snap to attention with astonishing rapidity if one of her children happens to wander into her bedroom, and the response time might even be quicker if the intruder were a woolly mammoth.
There is something really sweet about Wolf’s romance novel take on what constitutes good sex, and in a porn-heavy sex culture where rougher, badder sex is better, it’s nice to see Wolf put an alternate vision of good sex on the table.* But just like using evolutionary psychology to argue that women have evolved to protect themselves from rape or that men have evolved to prefer tiny-waisted young blonde blue-eyed women with large breasts (because obviously blonde-haired blue-eyed women have always been present and desired in societies all over the world for the whole of human histery) or that suicide bombers are always Muslim (seriously, science says so!) or thatblack women are “objectively” unattractive, it’s intellectually lazy to start with “I really strongly believe this one thing, so I will work backwards from that thing and come up with some evolutionary reason for it.” It’s a game that people play all the time, and I understand its appeal. Recognizing that human behavior, and especially human sexual desire, is undoubtedly some incredibly complex mix of biology and sociology doesn’t lend itself easily to a 500-word essay on the essential goddess in every woman. The biological and the cultural and the socialized and the experiential aren’t even close to separable from each other (given that our interactions with other humans and our cultural backgrounds and our experiences literally shape our brain, and are capable of healing it and damaging it and creating new pathways and destroying old ones, and that our physical bodies are also shaped and grown and impacted by forces outside of ourselves and our basic genetic make-up). This truth does not offer easy answers to tough questions. The recognition of this complexity necessarily requires that we admit we don’t know everything, and we don’t understand everything about how we came to be who we are, and we may have less control than we would like to believe — or we may have more control, which is terrifying in its own way.
Point being: It’s easy to take an observable phenomenon and come up with an evolutionary explanation. It’s harder to recognize that our very understand of evolutionary psychology is rooted in our own cultural assumptions and in our current place in the world and in our histories and in our understanding of the very small bits of information that we have access to. “X thing that we do now is caused by early humans doing Y” is almost always wrong.
And that’s where Wolf goes off the rails. She likes a particular kind of sex, and so she decides that she must like it because it’s now the cavemen did it. It’s embedded in her DNA. It’s not a preference, perhaps shaped by romance novels and Laura Ashley bedroom sets; It’s evolutionary. It’s “real.” An evolutionary explanation allows Wolf to understand her sexual experience as authentic in a way that other sexual preferences, ostensibly materialized out of thin air by pornographers, are not. It’s an answer that’s significantly more satisfying than “it’s complicated.”
Unfortunately, when it comes to sexual desire and the evolution of sex and physical arousal and orgasm and the body and the mind and the intersections between love and lust and sex and reproduction, it is in fact extremely complicated.
Bad science aside — although Wolf’s book has a lot of bad science — she also relies heavily on gender essentialism and cherry-picked facts:
It would be interesting to know how Wolf explains the creativity of virgin artists like Jane Austen and Emily Brontë and Emily Dickinson, or the rapturous experiences of history’s actual women mystics (whose lives tended to be short on liberating sexual relationships). Whatever moral Wolf draws from the fact that Edith Wharton wrote The Age of Innocence after experiencing orgasms for the first time is surely rather undermined by the fact that Emily Brontë wrote Wuthering Heights after having no sexual intercourse at all. (She might have masturbated, of course, but Wolf specifically disqualifies masturbation as a method of achieving high orgasm: “A happy heterosexual vagina requires, to state the obvious, a virile man.”)
Apparently homosexual vaginas are simply constructed differently. And of course clitoral orgasms are not as evolved or mature as vaginal orgasms —Freud, as we all know, was a solid feminist.
Her writing about rape is similarly… concerning:
Naturally, physical attacks on the vagina have even more dire consequences. Rape is not merely a “sex crime,” or a form of violence, Wolf writes. It is a profound “injury to the brain,” from which a woman never fully recovers. Her experiences with female rape victims in Sierra Leone—women who spoke of themselves as “damaged goods” and in whom she saw a “unique dimming of vitality” quite distinct from that of any other war victim—have convinced her that rape destroys the female spirit in ways that other forms of cruelty, physical or mental, do not.
It is unclear how Wolf tells a uniquely dimmed vitality from the ordinarily dimmed kind. But if there is a special horror to the traumas these women have suffered, one suspects it has more to do with their sense of being intimately violated, with their gruesome internal injuries, and with the social stigma that attaches to them as rape victims, than with rape’s special ability to “hollow out” the female soul. It is odd that Wolf now sees rape in these terms, because only last year she appeared to take a very different line. When writing in the Guardian newspaper about rape charges against Julian Assange, she argued that his accusers should not be allowed to remain anonymous, on the grounds that such a dispensation mischaracterized rape as a “different” kind of crime. The convention of shielding rape accusers was, she noted, “a relic of the Victorian era…when rape was seen as ‘the fate worse than death,’ rendering women…‘damaged goods.’”
There is a strange hubris in Wolf’s claim to understand how all rape affects all women. It is the same hubris that compels her to instruct us on how all women need to be wooed, and how all women feel when they come. Wolf remarks more than once in this book that she has no wish to be “prescriptive,” but prescriptiveness, alas, is her compulsion. She won’t be able to rest easy until all of womankind has heard her gospel and has started having sex that is not just pleasurable, but worthwhile. Her refusal to acknowledge the heterogeneity of female temperament, of female sexual proclivity, of female desire, would be galling, if it were not so dotty. As it is, her willingness to position herself as a visionary sexual prophet inspires a sort of affectionate awe.
Wolf has always been willing to write prescriptive rules and then bend them for herself. And frankly if she wants to write a woo-woo book about her magic technicolor vagina, good for her. I would normally pay about as much attention to that as I would to a book about how a man’s magical penis turned him into Dorothy and took him to Oz and back — yay, good for you, but not on my reading list.
Unfortunately, Naomi Wolf is our magical technicolor vagina. She’s still widely listed as a leading feminist scholar / voice / writer / activist. And she takes scraps of feminist ideas that might actually be good and interesting and turns them into conclusory, lazy assertions with only the most tenuous evidence backing them up. For example, her assertion that rape threats or negative comments about the female anatomy have very real (negative) sexual consequences for women is interesting and probably true; but her explanation, which invokes some simplistic science about cortisol and stress-related hormones to argue that a friend’s ill-advised choice to serve vulva-shaped “cuntini” pasta at a party in Wolf’s honor caused her to have writer’s block so bad that she couldn’t even type up her own notes for six months, is so bizarre and shoddy that your average reader is going to disregard the whole thing as feminist hogwash.
It’s also — wait for it — hysterical. Or at least easily read that way. And given Wolf’s repeated emphasis on the brain-vagina connection, and her insistence that women are their vaginas and that the Sacred Feminine is situated somewhere between the labia and the cervix, her argument that a woman’s creativity and ability spring from between her legs is troubling. Because the flip side of that is that a woman’s miserableness or insanity or shrewishness or mania or depression is also a vagina problem (such a new idea!). And while certainly sexual function and sexual history and sexual satisfaction can impact mental and physical health, it’s awfully dangerous to suggest (as Wolf does) that more vaginal orgasms in guazey candle-scented bedrooms, and not SSRIs, are the proper cure for depression. And it plays into some awfully antiquated, misogynist ideas about women, all under the cover of feminist inquiry.
*Not saying that porny or rough or fill-in-the-blank kind of sex is bad; saying that a wider variety of options and understandings of what’s “good” for different people is good.