NAOMI Wolf is gracious when being photographed. She’s had her chin tilted, her hair tweaked, her wrap unwrapped and re-wrapped. She has been seated, standing, blinded by the sunlight and baffled by how to tilt her nose to the camera while keeping her eyes focused in the opposite direction.
Now the request is for her to look serious. It’s proving difficult.
“Think about the book you’ve written that everyone’s talking about,” prompts the photographer.
Wolf beams. “Think about yourself,” she adds, looking for the elusive command that’s going to help Wolf find earnest somewhere in the middle distance. Her smile just gets wider.
“You look like you know something I don’t,” she says, defeated. And funnily enough, that’s pretty much the proposition of Wolf’s new book, Vagina: A New Biography. What Wolf knows is how her vagina works. Her question, though, is this: why did it take her until now to find out?
For the last three years, Wolf has been exploring the vagina – what we call it, how we talk about it (or don’t), how it functions, what it likes, what it most definitely doesn’t like. The result is a book – part-memoir, part-cultural history, part-neuroscientific exploration – that aims to reinvigorate understanding of women’s sexual desire and pleasure.
The basic proposition is this: Wolf asserts that there is a direct connection between the vagina and the brain. More than this – “The vagina is the delivery system for the states of mind we call confidence, liberation, self-realisation and even mysticism in women.” She argues that if vaginas are loved, respected and well cared for, women will be confident, creative, happy and fulfilled. If not, the opposite is just as true. Never one to indulge in understatement, she says the vagina is “a gateway to, and medium of, female self-knowledge and consciousness”.
The starting point for Vagina – as it has often been in Wolf’s work since her emergence into the lion’s den of contemporary feminism with The Beauty Myth in 1991 – was personal. Wolf realised her orgasms were somehow less satisfying than they had once been. Gone was the post-orgasmic bliss “full of colour and light” she had previously experienced, and instead there was a dullness, a loss of sensation. Several specialists later, she learned her vertebrae were crushing part of her pelvic nerve. The specialist who would, with the help of a metal plate screwed into her back, free Wolf’s trapped nerve to allow full feeling to return, told her during a consultation that “the genitals connect to the lower spinal cord, which in turn connects to the brain”. This explained why both Wolf’s physical and emotional response during orgasm had diminished. He [Dr Coady, “New York’s pelvic nerve man”] added that “every woman is wired differently”.
“I almost fell off the edge of the exam table in my astonishment,” Wolf writes. “That’s what explained vaginal versus clitoral orgasms? Neural wiring? Not culture, not upbringing, not patriarchy, not feminism, not Freud?”
Vagina was published only a matter of days ago in the UK, and already the debate is raging. Much of the most vituperative criticism was written based on excerpts. Wolf has misconstrued the science. Wolf has set the feminist movement back. Wolf is a narcissist. Or she has failed young women. Or she’s just plain wrong.
When I ask about these early responses to her eighth book, I’m a little surprised by her serenity, but maybe it’s borne out of experience. “I try not to pay too much attention because with all of my books everyone talks and then it becomes the conventional wisdom.” She shrugs slightly. “And then I hear from readers, which is what I really care about. This book has definitely got the warmest welcome, overwhelmingly, of all of my books.”
I can’t lie, there were moments while reading Vagina that I guffawed, moments I frowned and moments when my eyebrows shot up to near my hairline – that’s what happens when you realise you’re learning entirely new facts about your most intimate body parts in your late 30s. Did you know the clitoris (which Shirley Conran once quipped most men of her generation believed to be a hotel in Greece) is actually one end of the sexual organ, the other of which is the G-spot? Nope, me neither.
I don’t agree with all that Wolf writes, I don’t find my own understanding of gender and sexuality to be entirely compatible with hers, but did the book make me think? Yes, unquestionably. Did it inform me? Yes, irrefutably. And as for the tricky bits, what better way to iron them out than over a breakfast table in Wolf’s London hotel?
In person, Wolf is warm and direct. She looks you straight in the eye. She has that north American habit of offering a commentary on what you do – “that’s a very big question”, “I’m glad that you mention that”, “I’m pleased that you noticed that” – but her answers are thorough and as clear as the complexity of the topic allows. She rarely loses her train of thought or hesitates; she is a polished performer. Before we even begin talking about the book, she makes sure to tell me she’s particularly pleased to be interviewed by a Scottish newspaper because of her “warm feelings for Scotland” – she lived in Edinburgh for three years in her 20s and still brings her two children for holidays when time allows.
Now 49, Wolf lives in New York, although she commutes to Oxford a couple of times each academic term as part of the doctorate she began while she was a Rhodes scholar, before The Beauty Myth was published. She grew up, the daughter of two academics, in the Haight-Ashbury neighbourhood of San Francisco, epicentre of the hippy movement and the nascent gay liberation movement. Somehow all these influences combine in Wolf’s writing and what you get is a slightly unwieldy intellectual style that yokes together Eastern philosophies and Tantra, talk of goddesses and spirituality, with a dose of hard science and her own brand of feminism, developed over a career of more than 20 years. It’s not always an easy mix.
Perhaps the most obvious sticking point of the book is that Wolf appears to row back from feminism’s long-held position that sex and gender are socially constructed rather than biologically given. Wolf takes women right back into their bodies. “For 23 years I fought to have women’s leadership, consciousness and intellectual seriousness given their due, so I think I’ve established my right to look at the body,” she says. The words are spiky, but Wolf is smiling.
“But I do think that one of the reasons this stuff is not well documented is that it’s a political minefield. Many writers, especially male writers, would have a hard time saying there’s this new study by Janniko Georgiadis that says in women the part of the brain that has to do with self-control and self-regulation goes quiet during orgasm. That’s a very problematic thing to usher into discourse unless you have impeccable credentials.”
Wolf contends that the idea sex and gender are socially constructed was liberating because it offered an alternative to the idea, promulgated by the Victorians, that women were just their bodies and therefore their brains were not important. “But then neuroscience happened,” she says. “Feminism, or any intellectual discipline, will be sterile if it refuses to look at what science is revealing and engaging with it.”
So is Wolf doing what her fiercest critics maintain and regressing into biological essentialism? Or is she arguing for a more comprehensive understanding using new findings in neuroscience to argue that women’s experiences, including their experiences of sex, are made up of what happens in their brains and bodies? “It’s a capitulation to patriarchy to stay there and not look at where the body and the mind intersect,” she says. “It’s as though, after 5,000 years of patriarchy saying your body is disgusting, your breasts are ridiculous, your vagina is the gateway to hell, we solve the problem by just living in theory. That doesn’t work because women still struggle with the shaming of their sexuality and their bodies. To me what’s very liberating and true is to look at mind-body interactions. And also I trust my readers not to be stupid – I’m not saying that women are just bodies, I’m not saying that all that happens in the brain is the mind-body connection. But I am saying, ‘Let’s look at where the mind and the body inform each other, let’s not be afraid to look at that.’”
The bottom line, she says, is that looking to neuroscience for new information about how our bodies work doesn’t alter what she believes feminism to be for. “The mission doesn’t change. The mission is still a world in which everyone is treated as if they’re equally precious and that values differences. If we’re always focused on that world then it shouldn’t scare us if science finds that women release more oxytocin when they’re being stroked than men do. So what? In a really fair, just world we’re not going to legislate that she can’t run a country because of all that oxytocin. And at the same time it helps us understand ourselves.”
For Wolf, neuroscience offers empowerment for women. It’s an important concept for her. Her book is about information, data and explanations based on her transformed understanding of herself. “I keep thinking I’ve been covering issues of sexuality for 23 years,” she says. “I grew up in a sex-positive environment, the culture is saturated with narratives of sex and yet I had no idea. Why don’t we know?”
In her book, she writes, “The vagina is not nearly as ‘free’ today in the west as we are led to believe – both because its full role is seriously misunderstood, and also because it is disrespected.”
For the naysayers who complain that Wolf shouldn’t be talking of such trivial things when there are more serious political issues facing women than the quality of their orgasms, there are a few things to bear in mind. One in three American women complain that they have a low libido. More than 2,000 labioplasty procedures were carried out on the NHS in Britain last year. There’s vajazzling and ‘beauty’ products designed to dye labias a more ‘aesthetically pleasing’ colour. In America recently a state senator was censured just for using the word ‘vagina’ in the House of Representatives. Clearly, all is not well.
Wolf may not be the first to argue that the vagina is misunderstood nor might her argument about the vagina-brain connection persuade everyone, but Wolf’s concern that improvement is required in the sphere of sexual well-being seems both welcome and timely. For example, on the growing concern about the long-term impact of the ubiquitous ‘pornification’ of culture, Wolf argues it is “basically hijacking the wiring of men and women ... without disclosure”.
“It’s not a moral position to say this,” she adds, “it’s a health issue. Young men are reporting delayed ejaculation, which is not good, and having trouble with erection because of this over-habituation to porn. They don’t have any other physiological problems that might explain it. And more and more women are saying they are becoming habituated to porn. Pornography is not liberating for us, it’s actually damaging.”
Wolf has used her own experiences as material throughout her career. In The Beauty Myth she spoke of anorexia, in Misconceptions she discussed her experience of pregnancy and giving birth. For Wolf, her willingness to share her personal experience is what allows her to connect with readers. For her critics it smacks of self-absorption. So why include her own story in Vagina? “I want to note for the record that it’s a few pages at the start of the book,” she says, “but I put it in there and I really thought about it. Obviously, my personal preference would have been to not put that in.”
I’m so surprised by this admission I interrupt to check I’ve heard correctly. “Of course,” she says, leaning forward slightly. “Of course.”
But there must have been a way to avoid including it? “I could’ve written this whole book, which is about this awareness, this absolute certainty about the brain-vagina connection, that the vagina and probably the cervix mediate states of consciousness. I could’ve presented all of that to a reader and not added an eye-witness account but it would not have been as strong journalistically because there would have been a missing source.
“I felt I owed it to my readers to tell them the truth about why I knew this to be true. My readers trust me because I don’t lie to them.”
In person, Wolf seems sincere. In print, her prose can be a bit much. The story of the party thrown by a friend ostensibly to celebrate the publication of Wolf’s book – at which he served vagina-shaped pasta named ‘cuntini’ and at which Wolf took such offence at salmon fillets also being on the menu that she developed writer’s block for six months – has already passed into the realms of comedy. Similarly, describing dopamine as “the ultimate feminist chemical in the female brain” is an easy soundbite that does little to augment her argument. Using terms such as “female soul” and “goddess” will also be a turn-off for some. “I deliberated long and hard about that language. I tried to be very clear,” she says, explaining that plenty of men before her have used similarly “vague terms to describe something that is indescribable in language by definition”. She offers Freud’s “oceanic feeling”, Wordsworth’s “trailing clouds of glory”, William James’s “experience of the transcendental”.
“Language is so impoverished and there is no other word that encapsulates radical female sexual self-respect. It doesn’t exist in our vocabulary. We don’t have a name for those things, and that’s part of the reason that women are suffering, because if you don’t name it then people don’t do it.”
In terms of what women might actually do, Wolf doesn’t offer any truly revolutionary suggestions. Feeling safe with your partner, respected and valued, is a good start. So too is non-goal-oriented, unhurried physical contact, including lots of stroking and quite a bit of eye-gazing. A former investment banker turned ‘tantric guru’ called Mike Lousada, from London, tries to entice Wolf with a bit of ‘yoni-tapping’ but, as she’s in a relationship, she declines. Still, she attests to the power of her experience with Lousada and speaks of the “goddess array” – activities that fully engage women’s complex biological and emotional sexual responses – with reverence.
I don’t doubt that Wolf is genuine in her quest to reframe issues of how women understand sexual pleasure and desire. And I don’t doubt that she is as she professes to be changed by her experiences. “What did I know? And I was well educated about these things. I didn’t know just basics of my own anatomy. I had no idea what is possible.
“We’ve been working with a model of female sexual response since Masters & Johnson [the 1960s] and Shere Hite [the 1970s] that is out of date,” she says, “it’s just not accurate.” Vagina is Wolf’s attempt to bring us up to speed. It won’t work for everyone, but then again, what does?
• Vagina: A New Biography (Virago, £12.99) is out now