“It is the moment of the vagina, isn’t it?” Naomi Wolf says.
Folded neatly into a fading chair on the porch of her Millerton, N.Y., country house, she looks like the cat who just remembered milk exists.
“I mean, a reporter in Michigan sent me a picture of all these grassroots moms holding up big pink signs in front of the State House, where there was a debate over saying the word vagina on the House floor. There’s that amazing quote from Pussy Riot, saying that they’re trying to explain what pussy means and what riot means. What I heard them saying is that it’s not about the sex organ – they’re saying we’re not going to run, you’re not going to shame us. It’s an amazing moment.”
But it can’t be all that amazing to Ms. Wolf, who played the early nineties heroine of politically correct feminism to Camille Paglia’s villainness. Her 1991 bestseller The Beauty Myth ripped apart the beauty-industrial complex, examining sexuality and beauty as social constructs. Since then, she has written six books, including Promiscuities and Misconceptions, and is a prodigious political columnist for The Guardian and others. Her career has been a dual investigation of female sexuality and male-dominated politics, her persona exemplified by the fact that she was arrested at Occupy Wall Street in an evening gown.
And, just as the war on women’s bodies rages in America, with mandatory pregnancy tests proposed for girls in Louisiana high schools and for-real debates over “legitimate rape,” she has a new book called, yes, Vagina.
If anyone has seen this moment coming, it’s Ms. Wolf. But after hours of delivering full sentences in full paragraphs with total believability, she still manages to look both pleasantly surprised and mildly disturbed at the political climate in which she finds herself primed for a bestseller. Is it a change-maker, though? Thirty years after Germaine Greer issued a call to, uh, c-word power, will Ms. Wolf’s tamer Vagina rouse to action – or just arouse?
Vagina: A New Biography takes for its premise that the vagina, spine and brain constitute one holistic system, the roots of which, when well-nourished, blossom into confidence. Ms. Wolf leans on neuroscience, especially Jim Pfaus’s Concordia University studies of female rats and their surprising sexual cognition, but also flirts with literature and Eastern philosophy: Vagina begins with a quote from Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, the 1899 proto-feminist novella (and one hell of a love story). Chopin ends with her sexually awakened and maritally doomed heroine swimming far, far out into the ocean, “where no woman had swum before.”
There are three ways women seem to read this last line (I’ve never talked to a man about it):
1. You smile, because look how free she is. Look how she swims. She’s probably naked.
2. You’re a little unclear. Is she coming back?
3. You cry for an hour and refuse to eat dinner and drink, instead, a whole bottle of pinot because she was happy for like one minute and then she most definitely died ... and isn’t that always the price we pay?
If you’re a woman in the first or the second category, likely to call yourself either “optimistic” or “open-minded” and refer to the act of sex as “lovemaking,” you should read Vagina. If, like me, you’re in the third category, you could learn incredible things from Ms. Wolf’s book – or do you already know what your vaginal pulse is, and that the birth-control pill makes you smell men differently? It’s fascinating. But it may also make you want to rebel by watching porn.
Ms. Wolf will not say whether she thinks the heroine of The Awakening lives or dies. In Vagina, and in our interview, she is carefully non-prescriptive, gently suggestive and as inclusive as possible of her audience, i.e. straight, cisgendered Western women and the men who sex them. Lesbians, bisexuals, genderqueers: her book isn’t not for them, she says, but she can’t fairly represent all groups.
There is a lot Ms. Wolf is clear not to say. The book feels heteronormative to me, with an emphasis on penetration, cervical stimulation, and even the positive effects of absorbing semen. “But at no point do I say that heterosexuality is normal or the ideal,” she says, and she’s right. Later, when she gets into Tantra and mantras of the “you are beautiful” sort, Vagina feels a little stuck on tender loving monogamy. “People can do what they want and I don’t care,” she says. “But a lot of people have decided the hot, fast, porny cultural script isn’t fulfilling something profound in them, and have gone on this tantric journey. And I’m not proselytizing, I’m just noting.”
Okay, but: Ms. Wolf began working on Vagina when, at 46, spinal damage caught up to her and left her no longer able to have what she calls “high orgasms.” These she describes, variously, as oceans swelling inside, creativity flooding the core, consciousness both expanding and becoming temporarily extinct (as per Susan Sontag’s quote on “voluptuous yearning”). Compelling stuff, but her way of getting there leaves all manner of vagaries and vulgarities to be desired. At 26, I violently disbelieve in tantra as a path to anything except sleep.
Have I tried it? No. But neither has Ms. Wolf watched porn before condemning it, comparing it (in our interview) to the cigarette industry and speculating (in her new book) that mass addiction to it is the reason “all these” straight couples are having female-unfriendly, dissatisfying sex.
At least since The Beauty Myth, Ms. Wolf has been pro-men, pro-sex and anti-porn, making her a contradiction among both second- and third-wave feminists. Contradictory thinkers endure better than dogmatic ones; consider for contrast Katie Roiphe, the conservative power femme Ms. Wolf was often compared to in the 1990s. (Ms. Wolf has nary a bad word to say about another feminist. But on hearing of Ms. Roiphe’s Newsweek piece on Fifty Shades of Grey and the career woman’s need to be dominated, she makes a gagging motion.)
Yet for my generation, Ms. Wolf is not always convincing. In much of her work, including a 2010 Harper’s Bazaar essay on female rivalry, she posits a benign, sisterly feminism, and sends out a “why can’t we all get along?” plea. I think women fight because we’re half the world and still forced to share a smaller portion of power. We also fight because humans fight. It’s a question Ms. Wolf would never ask of Republicans and Democrats, and it reduces the complexity of feminism.
And while in The Beauty Myth she argued seminally and necessarily against the beauty-industrial-complex, she also set up the false binary of “real” and “ideal” women that persists in poptimistic Dove ads today. “The thin ideal is not beautiful aesthetically; she is beautiful as a political solution,” Ms. Wolf wrote. It’s powerful, but it’s not true, not least because some women are naturally very thin, and all women – no matter their dietary or surgical proclivities – are real. I feel she is making the same mistake in Vagina, taking a precious, sacred, lotus-flowery view of female sex that feels more like fantasy than most porn.
Still, there’s soft power and hard science in Vagina, and there is this political moment too. How long have men been said to keep their brain in their pants? And how often have women seeking power been granted merely powers, those mystical abilities of “female intuition” better described as thinking with our hearts? It will be thrilling indeed if Vagina makes us, too, think with our whole bodies, even if we are not throwing them into the fray.