Karyn Polewaczyk on Naomi Wolf's Vagina

Getting Off and Getting Even

a review by Karyn Polewaczyk

Vagina. It announces itself, a magnum opus on female sexuality. We start, ironically, with the ending. Naomi Wolf's orgasms, once reliable, have mysteriously gone astray. The cause? A late diagnosis of spina bifida (a spinal disease typically discovered in infancy) that requires intensive surgery and rehabilitation.

Here, during Wolf's healing process, the reader believes she is sitting patiently with the author as she travels from physician to psychologist, tribal leader to tantric sex expert, drilling down to the deepest nerves to uncover basic elements of female anatomy. Sadly, no such luck. Instead she is tipped down a rabbit's hole that's laced by Wolf's tired, whimsical brand of feminism—including an entire section dedicated to the "goddess," which, Wolf prefaces, is for "ease of reference. . . a rhetorical space that does not yet exist. . . but which refers to something very real."

Wolf frequently refers to the "abused" vagina, both in a literal sense, in reference to politically conflicted regions of Africa where women often face fates of female genital mutilation and rape (or both); and a proverbial sense, questioning whether lab rats' own vaginas had ever been "slut shamed." She speaks of the single entity, the Platonic vagina, the ideal. The truth of the matter is, there is no one-size-fits-all description of the vagina. Wolf surmises that the vagina is not just a sum of body parts working in tandem, but is truly the woman, heart, mind and soul included.

This vapid summation, wonderfully controversial as it might be, does a disservice to women — and of course it removes trangendered women, as well as any women who've suffered from cancers of the genetalia, from the equation. Are their "vaginas" worth less than those Wolf cites — whole vaginas, no matter how abused or shamed — because the math doesn't add up? The intrinsic value of each part is worth more than the hole, sometimes.

But enough about Wolf's vagina-shaped cookie cutter. Let's get back to those goddesses. Throughout the book, Wolf cites groups of women, herself included, who feel most creative and powerful after experiencing orgasm via heterosexual intercourse with men who love and respect the vagina. It's not magic, Wolf admits. Nor is it spiritual. It's not even romance. No: it's the dopamine, stupid.

The same pleasure chemical released by the brain when a person (regardless of gender) exercises, eats certain foods, or uses certain drugs (like cocaine or amphetamines) is also released during orgasm. However, Wolf argues:

Just because these states are chemically mediated does not mean that they are not "real" self-love, "real" attachment to freedom, or "real" bliss. Those of us who are scientists often forget that the brain chemicals are vehicles for very profound human trusts.

Perhaps. But the author noticeably breezes past masturbatory orgasms, as well as homosexual sex, and even to intimate encounters that don't lead to orgasm but still satisfy both partners. There is little room for variation from the heterosexual, climax-oriented norm. The body, by the way — that is, the physiological apparatus — has no way of discerning an orgasm produced in part by a penis or one resulting from a litany of other objects (animate or not), just as it has no way to discern whether increased dopamine levels are the result of Sunday morning sex or a Sunday morning jog.

And what about the "vaginas" that have been loved and left by these men—these "pussies," "cunts" and "V-holes"? While other modern feminists, like Hanna Rosin, have pointed out the growing acceptance of casual sex and its terminology across gender lines, Wolf shuns the practice. She also predictably villainizes pornography and sex toys like vibrators, casting them off as items intended to desensitize the "vagina" rather than tools that some women use to enhance their sex lives:

Women are not wrong if they react instinctively — often jealously — against their partner's interest in porn, since pornography is actually, neurologically, a woman's destructive rival for her man's sexual capabilities.

This us-versus-them credo hurts Wolf's credibility the most: women are not a community, they bear no possible independent caring relationships (never mind the sexual); they are merely rivals for heterosexual mates. It is a dubious argument. The majority of her scientific evidence is anecdotal. and the whole thing reeks of misandry. Yet Wolf demands the reader's trust all the same, though it's painfully clear that this book serves not as a progressive feminist stepping stone, but as Wolf's personal soapbox upon which she can finger point and lay blame for her own misgivings.

Like much of Naomi Wolf's writing, Vagina is intended for consumption by educated, middle- and upper-middle-class white women who live in Western cultures—women like me, who benefit from laws which protect my reproductive rights. Women who will benefit from having an even stronger number of female representatives in their government after a landmark election. Women who are increasingly their families' breadwinners in our new economy. Women who own their sex and their sex lives. Women who must pause to consider what it means to be a woman in 2012 — women who cannot allow an opinionated lesson guide the way they write history. Unfortunately, Vagina delivers little more than small talk; it's a missed opportunity to drive the conversation surrounding women's sexuality forward.

Karyn Polewaczyk lives and works in Boston. Her work has appeared in the Weekly Dig, Jezebel, XoJane, Northshore Magazine, ELLE Reads, TomPeters.com and More.com, among others. Learn more at KarynPolewaczyk.com, or follow her on Twitter at @KarynPolewaczyk.

in this article

Vagina: a New Biography
by Naomi Wolf
Hardcover, $27.99
Ecco Press, 2012