What's So Terrible About Calling Vaginas "Yonis?"


In the last several weeks, the mainstream feminist blogosphere has been destroying Naomi Wolf’s new book, “Vagina: A New Biography.” Much of the criticism centers around her central thesis that our brains and our vaginas are connected. Critics note that Wolf merely reprinted some Women’s History 101, relies heavily on questionable neuroscience that reinforces gender roles, and completely ignores gay and transgender people. 100% co-signed.

But what is causing the loudest chuckles is Wolf’s discussion of sacred sexuality, the “Goddess Array” and “yonis.”  And for me, that’s no laughing manner. While I’m glad, I suppose, that Wolf has found comfort and strength in this terminology, it is frustrating that it’s in the midst of such a myopic book and these ideas are gaining attention from a problematic source like Wolf. Thus those of us who yes, sometimes do use words like “goddess” and “yoni” are once again automatically relegated to a state of ridicule when they could be seen as a vital part of the community fighting back against patriarchy.

Full disclosure: I did not pay full price for this book. My reading consisted of an afternoon at Barnes & Noble reading specific full chapters, various excerpts, and taking notes to see what the fuss is about.

As I read the reviews and critiques of the book, I felt that mainstream feminist writers were jumping too quickly at the chance belittle ideas of “goddesses” and the Divine Feminine because in this case, it was coming from Naomi Wolf, once revered author of “The Beauty Myth,” turned rape apologist and slut-shamer. But the blame also lies with Wolf, who, in my mind, walks a fine line between appreciation of cultural beliefs and customs and appropriation to make a point and sell books.

Unfortunately, I can understand why. “The Goddess Array,” Wolf’s “set of behaviors a lover uses to arouse his or her partner,” builds on gender stereotypes and seems to be geared only towards committed heterosexual partners. (Naomi isn’t really down with casual sex.) She filled an entire chapter with jibber-jabber about women responding better to certain types of flowers (no cheap carnations), and extolling the virtues of pheromones and candlelight. Instead she could have said that genuinely being helpful and considerate, bringing things she likes (not just flowers!), telling her she is beautiful, and talking and listening may help a woman to be more emotionally open and lead to better sex. These are some of the same ways you can establish a deeper rapport with platonic friends too, men or women.

On the physical end, there’s nothing groundbreaking. She advises men to use a more sensual touch, follow her lead on nipple play, and spend more time with the G-spot. Basically, slow the fuck down and worship the body. Yes worship…you know, like a goddess.

There is a growing movement of women who resonate with “goddess” and define themselves as such. Wolf addresses this here:

“Why a Goddess? Goddesses are powerful, those around them hold them in reverence. Goddesses do not need to doubt themselves, their value or their allure—they can even be a bit self-absorbed—so they an allow permission to go on the trance journey inward…and goddesses are entitled, without anxiety or guilt or self-reproach, to high levels of attention and pleasure.”  

Though I like her definition, it isn’t why I decided to start Goddesses Rising four years ago with some sister friends, or why I go by “goddessjaz” on Twitter. I use “goddess” for my own reasons: in particular to push back against a patriarchy which belittles me daily and as a reminder of my own divine element. Besides, goddesses in myths aren’t always presented as omniscient and perfect beings--they make mistakes. But they do have power and agency, something women are frequently denied in our society.

That brings us to Wolf’s new affection for “yoni” which is Sanskrit for “womb,” “origin,” “source” and “vulva.” According to the book, “The Yoni: Sacred Symbol of Creative Power”:

the term yoni heralds from a culture and religion in which women have long been regarded and honored as the embodiment of divine female energy-the goddess known as Shakti—and where the female genitals are seen as a sacred symbol of the Great Goddess. Because Eastern Tantrics and other ancient cultures workshop the Divine in the form of a Goddess, the term yoni has also acquired another, more cosmic meaning, becoming a symbol of the Universal Womb, the Matrix of Generation and Source of All.

While she does talk about the significance of sacred sexuality in ancient times and in Taoism and Tantric practices, I don’t believe Wolf’s book truly honors the idea of the Divine Feminine. She discusses historical goddess worship merely as a pretext and entry point to her own theories. 

Many women I spoke with who actually use the word “yoni” (often interchangeably with other terms) proudly identify with the idea of their vaginas and wombs as creative and powerful sacred spaces. It’s not self-hate or faux spirituality to them: they see the vagina as more than a body part. They see it as a source of power. It’s a reminder that at one time it was worshipped, not politicized, regulated, and disrespected. What’s wrong with women feeling more empowered and less shameful of their yonis, vaginas, pussies, cunts--whatever they want to call it ? The words we use about ourselves are powerful. And most women who use words like “goddess” and “yoni” are not fans of rape apology as Wolf is.

Ancient Eastern spiritual practices are often appropriated by Westerners who are in search of “answers” or a new experience. That’s what we do in the West, we appropriate! However, many people, including myself, have learned to treat these and other traditions with respect, humility and awareness of context. Therefore, I won’t dismiss people’s safe sexual expression or the way people choose to identify themselves and their body parts, even in the context of this ridiculous book.
I don’t know Naomi Wolf or her motives for writing “Vagina.” I’m assuming she wants to make money, get attention and maybe overshare. Mission accomplished. It’s fair and necessary to acknowledge, critique and even laugh at the cringe-worthy moments, gendered stereotypes and scientific fallacies in the book. However, it’s disrespectful and ignorant to attack the spiritual beliefs of many women (and men) because of the flaws of the most recent messenger. Sady Doyle thankfully reminds us that even though the book is lame, feminists need not attack Wolf so viciously; we should be examining how we label and classify “bad” feminists.

If a bunch of women want to get together in a Manhattan hotel and willingly get their needs taken care of  in a safe space  by clothed men who have been “trained” to honor and worship the vag, then I support it. If women who have sexual trauma, or feel sexually blocked and frustrated, actually experience life-changing sexual and creative re-awakenings via a “somatic therapist” who does tantric massage at his house then I will cheer! Can we stop shaming people for their sexual choices? This could be considered a form of sex work and it is also what some would consider an expression of sacred sexuality.  

I’ve been in these “alternative” spaces and know people who actively participate; this is no joke to them. Mainstream feminism’s tendencies towards the judgmental too often negates the legitimate experiences of many. I bet many of those people who believe in sacred sexuality would identify as feminists and/or believe in equality between the sexes; they might even use the word “yoni.”

Between the reviews and the book itself, I feel reminded as to why me and many other women are less inclined to identify with “feminism” these days--trapped in the middle of arguments that leave no room for our spiritual lives. Lately mainstream online feminist discourse has become defined by a specific set of beliefs that make someone a “real” or “good” feminist. How are we making those distinctions? These ideals generally ostracize people with lesser representation like women of color, LGBTQ women, disabled people, and even us kumbaya spiritual folks. It’s becoming more of a dogma than movement. That’s how we lose people. When we discredit different spiritual beliefs, particularly the Divine Feminine, or divergent experiences of feminism even though we all believe in equality, then patriarchy wins. This goddess isn’t having it.  

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