Book review: Vagina: A New Biography

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Publication Date: 
Mon, 2013-07-01

In the second part of the book, she recounts the history of the vagina through the lens of conquest and control. She traces an origin of the vagina as sacred which became profane, controlled, and regulated in the Victorian era. Now it has become released as a modern free vagina that has a voice as in the “Vagina Monologues.” These chapters are effective and engaging in plotting out several lines of vaginal history. In the traumatized vagina, she eloquently traces how sexual trauma has an impact on the brain, and her evidence is compelling. The holistic approach to trauma is important. The idea of holding trauma in the vagina and working to release that trauma is described and explored in detail. As a feminist psychologist I am concerned about the ethical practices and the potential for exploitation of therapies aimed at releasing vagina trauma. It may be something for women to think about in relation to their own traumas and may be helpful to some women but how is this practice made safe for women? In leaving this section of the book, I still question the leaps made from vaginal trauma to brain injury to a loss of meaning in life and I remain skeptical.

In the third section Wolf describes several competing theories around the vagina, articulating that words always do more than just describe; they also define and create social realities.  She describes emotional reactions to the jokes about rape and discusses how the ubiquitous rape culture is damaging to women’s overall sense of well-being. She invites us to pay more attention to our reactions to the words around us. In closing this section she takes on the vagina as portrayed in pornography and explores the irony of how the sexiness is taken out of what was supposed to be a “great liberator of libido.”

In the fourth and final section Wolf elaborates her answer to the question she posed at the outset of her journey. What the vagina wants and needs is something Wolf terms the “Goddess Array.” This chapter is a series of instructions and elaborations on how to create the optimal orgasmic potentials for male/man and female/woman sex. She aligns with evolutionary theorist Helen Fisher in stating that women’s natural state is not monogamous but rather evolved to need many lovers. According to this theory adulterous women are evolutionarily more successful and women will by their very nature seek out lots of different mates at different times of the month. She cautions males to step up and get into the “Goddess array” before they lose out or drive their women into another male’s arms. Admittedly I struggled with the grand premise of Wolf’s narrative, “Now that we know that the vagina is a gateway to a woman’s happiness and to her creative life …” it seems our work demands we also have the right kind of sex.

I chaffed at the “heterosexual as the norm” structure of the entire section. However, I did find it helpful to have the details of the Tantric sacred spot massage or G-spot elaborated. She describes it as the ”yoni-nadi”… ”found inside … on the pubic bone … curl your finger back against her pubic bone,  there is erectile tissue there that swells up. About 2 square inches of it.”  Some of the details of the basis of communication and connection to our lover through gazing and holding made a lot of sense as did the research about releasing oxytocin through stroking. But the leaps made from this evidence to “heterosexual as the norm” and the sacred spot or G-spot to altered vaginal consciousness were too simplistic to take seriously. I was unsure if I should be amused or aghast at some of the statements waxing eloquent about the benefits of ejaculated sperm into the vagina to make the orgasm extra special and to promote the extra pair bonding that happens when you take in ejaculation and absorb it into your body. The section on page 325 that describes how “You will inadvertently drive her crazy if you ignore the Goddess array” is spectacularly simplistic as it aligns stereotyped heterosexual practices with female embodiment and mental health.

In the end, I am critical of and I reject what this book does in terms of further reinforcing gender stereotypes that harken back to traditional values that a woman just needs a good man to nurture, take care of her, and make her feel special, especially in the bedroom. Wolf has some interesting perspectives on sexual stereotypes around female frigidity, and inorgasmia (the inability to experience orgasm) in heterosexual encounters. While I can agree that anything, including orgasm, that releases neurotransmitters that heighten my sense of well-being will likely contribute to a psychological expansion as described in the book, I disagree with the logical leap that it therefore gives me unique yoni (vagina) consciousness. The writing is amusing and engaging but in places repetitive and, because of how it reinforces gender stereotypes, is likely rejected by queer theorists. I suspect this book has received intense push back. A strength of the book is the reference list; critical readers can research their own evidence for interpretation. Overall, Vagina is still a worthwhile read and I invite you to assess for yourself the non-queered cultural feminist thesis at the core of this book.

Colleen MacQuarrie, Ph. D., is an Associate Professor and Chair of the Psychology Department at the University of Prince Edward Island in Charlottetown, PEI.