The story of Naomi Wolf’s “Vagina” starts with Naomi Wolf’s vagina.
At 46, in a loving relationship, veteran of years of good sex, she began noticing that her orgasms were less profound and satisfying. Sex was still good, but she “no longer experienced it in a poetic dimension.”
Eventually Wolf’s doctor diagnosed a damaged nerve, which was repaired surgically; still, the crisis sent her on a journey to confirm her instinctive feeling about the “brain-vagina connection” and resulted in this book. Here, Wolf examines the history of how women and men have regarded female sexuality, how they’ve responded to it in art and literature, and how the personal and political coexist, sometimes uneasily, in our feelings about the vagina.
At its best, “Vagina” attempts to reclaim and reframe earlier visions of women’s sexuality and sex organs — Wolf writes stirringly about the near-mystical respect accorded by early cultures to what the Sumerians called the “lap of honey.” Her breakdown of the “[a]luring holes, beautiful boxes, and valuable treasure chests” that serve as codes for female genitalia in Victorian fiction is wonderful, as is her tour of loving, often humorous references in blues songs that praise a woman’s body for its sweetness and strength.
Of the sexual revolution, which she disparages for its anti-Freudian rejection of the vaginal orgasm (and championing of the clitoral), Wolf writes: “The post-1970s ‘reclamation’ of female sexuality . . . is quite mechanical. It is not about the spirit. It is much debased.” Of the contemporary feminist stance that privileges sexual freedom, including an embrace of pornography and promiscuity as sex-positive choices for women as much as for men, she argues that “a nation of masturbating people who are looking at screens rather than at each other . . . is a subjugated, not a liberated, population.”
At one point, citing research regarding different types of orgasm, Wolf quips that “feminists may not like this.” It’s a strange line coming from a writer often identified as one of the most important voices in modern feminism — sometimes called Third Wave feminism. Yet it reflects a persistent undercurrent in this book, focusing mostly on the myriad benefits of truly Goddess-like sex, in which Wolf positions her arguments as challenges to earlier waves of feminists.
True liberation, Wolf contends, for women rests on an understanding of the connection between sexual fulfillment and emotional, spiritual, and mental satisfaction. The experts she cites here, which include gynecologists, neuroscientists, and a Tantric guru, agree (to lesser and greater degrees) that women, whether they know it or not, “experience the vagina as integral to a core self.” Orgasm floods the brain with chemicals, including dopamine and oxytocin, that boost creativity, love, and energy, while rape and other sexual trauma can leave a woman wounded not just physically, but spiritually and intellectually. In one of the book’s strongest sections, Wolf asserts that we must stop looking at crimes such as rape as “deviant acts perpetrated by random perverts” and instead see them as “a strategy of actual physical and psychological control of women.”
The liveliest parts of Wolf’s book aren’t particularly new, and those parts that are most original are muddled and odd.
“I suspected,” Wolf admits toward the end, “that a book about the vagina would be a book about something much greater and different.” When she revisits the rich literary and cultural history around female sexuality, she is right. But when it comes to feminism, many Goddesses may find they don’t need her critique.