Naomi's noo noo nonsense
If you thought it was what’s in your head that counts, think again. It’s what’s in your pants, at least in the world of Naomi Wolf’s Vagina. Louise Foxcroft dives in
Vagina: A New Biography by Naomi Wolf (Virago)
When Naomi's Wolf’s Vagina dropped through my letterbox I must admit I was quite taken aback. The accompanying press release shrieks that the book “radically reframes how we understand the vagina – and consequently, how we understand women”. Wolf had, apparently, uncovered “an increasing body of scientific evidence that suggests that the vagina is not merely flesh” but is neurologically connected to the brain: There is a brain-vagina connection! Who knew?
At one point Wolf would have us believe that discovering this bombshell, on a doctor’s examination table, led her to fall on then floor, which is either disingenuous, or plain daft. All this time, discovers the wide-eyed Wolf, it hasn’t been culture, upbringing, patriarchy, feminism or Freud that have dictated women’s sexual arousal and orgasms, but “basic neural wiring”. You’d never have guessed it, right, but pleasure and pain travel along the neurological network, and every woman is different.
The apparently “rarely talked about brain-vagina connection” is, Wolf claims, fundamental to female consciousness itself. She has done her research and tells us that once we have understood what scientists at the “most advanced laboratories and clinics around the world are confirming, that the vagina and the brain are essentially one network” then all the “seeming mysteries fall into place”.
Back in feminism’s glory days Gloria Steinem reminded us that there aren’t that many jobs that specifically require either a penis or a vagina, meaning it’s not what you’ve got in your pants it’s what’s in your head that counts, and now Wolf is telling women that, no, the brain-vagina connection is intrinsic to their creativity, confidence and even character. A “woman’s experience of her vagina” and her “sense of self” are one and the same thing. But is this interpretation of the nervous system so very different to, say, the notorious Victorian surgeon Isaac Baker Brown’s notion that female sexual arousal could lead to moral insanity (his speciality cure was the clitorodectomy) or to even earlier notions of women as being their reproductive organs?
There is some interesting neuroscience for the layperson in the book but it has to cuddle up with a lot of gushy stuff about Wolf’s transcendental orgasmic states. Much of the book is about orgasm – vaginal, clitoral, anal, nasal for all I know – aka the “neurology of bliss”, which is lovely, especially if you’re getting it (you might feel a tad less gooey if you’re not). But it’s a tricky line to sell, the one that says if a woman’s orgasms aren’t electric candy-coloured mind-blowers, then she’s not a “full woman” and, worse, she must have a diminished experience of the world. The message that if you are not having the mind-blowing climaxes Wolf is, then your world is just not as bright and, shiny and vivid as hers is not a guaranteed way to win sympathy in the reader.
The vagina’s experience, says Wolf, can boost or depress self-confidence, let loose or block creativity, and contribute or not to the “joyful interconnectedness of the material and spiritual world”. If you can unpack the sentimental maunderings on the “Goddess array” – which sit incongruously with the chapter on “The Traumatized Vagina” – and ignore the flowery stuff about clouds and honeyed Cotswold stone (it’s as if her vag had been wall-papered by Laura Ashley) you get her banal meaning: it’s the chemicals, stupid!
In another mind-blowing revelation Wolf reveals that language is important. She lists a load of slang words for vagina, approving, in a bout of preciousness, the “cute and non-threatening” fluffy kitty slang words of “girl-power”, but not the “awful” or “repellent … young male slang terms” that can actually create “bad stress” in the vagina (those pesky neural pathways again). But even the most vulgar and dirtiest of slang is part of Wolf’s “shining divine” whether she likes it or not, and her argument is undermined by the fact that some of the teenage boy slang is very inventive, one or two of them even quite funny (I liked "the snack that smiles back" for example). But neither Wolf nor her vagina has a sense of humour or any appreciation of the bawdy. The whole reverential Goddess schtick is a passion-killer and her resolutely unsexy earnestness is revealed in the scene where she gets melodramatically tense about a celebratory bowl of cunt-shaped pasta made by a male friend ("cuntini"! Yum yum!).
Wolf is serious and well-meaning, but do we want a reverentially well-meaning approach to our cunts, or one that smacks so much of the sacred? The cringe-making Goddess stuff is so ’70s, so old hat, it’s just not relevant these days and it doesn’t do modern feminism any favours. Vagina: A New Biography is undoubtedly clever and timely, combining the two hot topics of sex and neuroscience. It’s a magnificent piece of irony-free self-(or vaginal-) aggrandisement.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for vaginas. But all Wolf’s unnecessary Goddess malarky is enough to give anyone the willies.