Book review: Vagina: A New Biography

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Publication Date: 
Mon, 2013-07-01

BOOK REVIEW

Vagina: A New Biography by Naomi Wolf. New York: Harper Collins, 2012.

Review by Colleen MacQuarrie

Naomi Wolf creates a cultural feminist journey of personal discovery and drama through her tribute to the world’s oldest preoccupation: sex. The book is an exploration of questions surrounding sex: what do women need? What do we need to know? To do? And to be? Wolf argues for a holistic approach that integrates orgasmic experiences with the experiences of creativity, well-being, and “transformational consciousness” or self-awareness of your connection to the world and your understanding of who you are.

To make her argument, Wolf draws from ancient Hindu Tantric texts and from a psychology of the connection between mind and body (William James’ 1902 concept of “biological consciousness” described in his book, The Varieties of Religious Experience) She also links to theories of how our biology has created our social world, our understandings of gender and how we have evolved. She includes more recent neuroscience to describe brain activity during female orgasm together with theories of how consciousness is altered by the chemical messengers of the brain (i.e., neurotransmitters) released during orgasm. The points of evidence Wolf presents are interesting in and of themselves. However, my main criticism is with the stereotypes she uses to present her evidence.

A strength of the book is the honest earnestness of the female heterosexual-centered narrative the author weaves throughout the 333 pages of her exploration into vaginal awareness via heterosexual life. Unfortunately, Wolf reinforces a common belief that females are much more biologically driven than males:  “… the vagina is the delivery system for the states of mind that we call confidence, liberation, self-realization, and even mysticism in women.”  She easily slides into a sex = gender = orgasmic potential for female consciousness argument that equates man with logical and rational and woman with illogical and irrational, including the message that a woman can be made “crazy” if you don’t give her the right orgasms!

This book sidelines same-sex and transgendered sexualities. In other words, it is not a queered book. While the author tries to be inclusive of women who don’t have male sex partners, at its core this book reinforces heterosexual practice as the ultimate path to enlightenment. Wolf makes weak attempts to gesture to the “other” forms of sexual experience but this is neither effective nor authentic. The sidelining of lesbian sex or self-sex (masturbation) is a critical weakness in Vagina, and the book is mute about the experiences of transgendered people as they fall outside the worldview constructed by Wolf. With Wolf’s analysis, a transsexual woman, or transwoman, who had a vagina constructed for her would learn that she could not fully access what was essential about being a woman. The path Wolf creates is that vagina = nerve stimulation = orgasm = unique consciousness, and that some orgasms are better able to transport you to that euphoric space than are others. In this worldview, a transwoman would not likely ever experience Wolf’s transcendental orgasm and access to her ultimate creative force.

The first section explores the question “Does the vagina have a consciousness?” The association of our neural networks and the brain to consciousness is part of understanding of human being(ness). She describes with evidence the impacts of “… when women have good, satisfying sex—what I call ‘high’ orgasm: caring, attentive sex that activates the entire pelvic neural network and also intensely engages the ANS (autonomic nervous system)—they experience a major brain high.” However the central thesis of Wolf’s book is to interpret the evidence to build an argument that our vaginas have a direct line to our consciousness, and it does not appear to be a metaphor. I admit it was difficult to continue reading past this bizarre interpretation of the evidence. To do this, Wolf makes several leaps of logic from neural networks and brain physiology, to animal models and evolutionary theory to build her theory of unique vaginal input to human consciousness.

To support her central thesis, Wolf shares her own personal trauma of losing sensation in her vagina due to an injury to part of her pelvic nerve. Her pelvic nerve compression led to a depression she attributed to being deprived of orgasm. She details how the intricacy and the depth of women’s brain connections of their pelvic region connect to the physiology of orgasm; the releases of orgasmic hormones and neurotransmitters create feelings of euphoria and expanded connection to the world. She also goes on an exploration of the various ways that the vagina can be more fully enjoyed, including drawing from Tantric texts and bringing together the neuroscience of orgasm. This section is refreshingly written and likely valuable reading for anyone who wants a better explanation of variations in women’s orgasms. With evidence she explains how women have many variations on their neural networks so no two women are alike. Women have varying sensitivities of the clitoris and the G-spot which are connected. The book also attempts to disrupt the idea that some heterosexual women can’t have orgasms; instead what they have are ineffective (male) lovers.

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.