When Naomi Wolf’s Vagina came to town

This article was originally written for the Brighton Feminist Collective.

Naomi Wolf bounced onto the stage of the Brighton Dome’s studio on Friday night with a wide grin, expressing her excitement at being in Brighton “with such cool people.” She wants to talk to us about her new book, Vagina: A New Biography, warning us: “I’m still getting used to talking about such personal things in public. So if I blush or take my time, bear with me!”

That’s the problem with Vagina: it’s just a little too intimate, a little too personal, and, going by the reaction of many feminists to the book, not political enough. Unlike many of her younger contemporaries, Wolf has not learnt an important lesson from the history of the movement: extrapolating the ‘female experience’ from one white, able-bodied, heterosexual, wealthy woman is an exercise in political blindness. The first section of her book (and most of her talk on Friday night) boils down to this: her orgasms are pretty good. For a while they weren’t so good any more, and her doctor discovered her pelvic nerve was being compressed by her spine. Now she’s all better, and after reading up on neuroscience, she wants to tell us all about the profound ‘brain-vagina connection’ that makes the vagina the ‘centre of the self.’ Wolf is a firm believer that really great orgasms are essential to women’s emancipation, because dopamine, a neurochemical involved with reward, is a “feminist chemical” produced during orgasm.

Unfortunately, the neuroscience Wolf enthuses about may not be as conclusive as she believes, as this collation of neuroscientists’ responses to her talk demonstrates. Wolf is not an expert, and neuroscientists are eager to point out the dangers of making linear cause and effect relationships between a neurochemical and a specific emotion (like ‘dopamine produces assertiveness’). Quite apart from that, Wolf’s argument hinges on the reader accepting phrases like ‘the feminine soul,’ ‘the Goddess array,’ and ‘the Universal and Divine Feminine,’ language which is interspersed throughout the book but which she pointedly avoided during her talk in Brighton, saying “I guess words like that sound odd to British ears.”

Not just British ears; I think the French would have something to say about that too. Simone de Beauvoir famously explored in The Second Sex the way that the myth of the ‘eternal feminine’ serves to undermine and subjugate women, who are portrayed in a male-dominated world as ‘Other,’ strange and exciting, exotic creatures with complex sexual desires and unfathomable motivations. Vagina is ostensibly an attempt to de-mystify women’s bodies and their sexual lives, but serves only to play into the patriarchal constructs Beauvoir identified decades ago.

As well as this explicit language, Wolf also tends to display her attitude in the adjectives she uses to describe the female – ‘lovely’ comes up far too often, as does ‘magical,’ and although ‘delicious’ only appeared once it did make me hiccup in shock – in stark comparison to her descriptions of the male orgasm, which is ‘linear,’ their wiring ‘simpler’ and ‘grid-like.’ How convenient that our nervous systems so cosily match social gender stereotyping.

The anti-feminist implications of the way Wolf has expanded her own relationship with sex to encompass half of the human population should be obvious to anyone. If the vagina is at the heart of the universal female experience, then trans women will never achieve true womanhood. Neither will asexual or celibate women. Nor women who find sex painful, unenjoyable, or simply not very important. Lesbian, bisexual and queer women were not mentioned once. In so many ways, Wolf’s enormous privilege shone through not only as a heterosexual, cis woman, but in other ways too, like when she enthused about her New York apartment (which has a doorman), her education (Yale was name-dropped as her alma mater) and her gynaecologist (who happens to be a world expert on pelvic nerve disorders). Laurie Penny’s snark that the main message of Vagina is that “private doctors are wonderful if you can afford them” seemed rather apposite.

I wanted to like Naomi Wolf, because she was so eager to engage and share with the women in the audience. It is, however, hard to admire any self-proclaimed feminist who theorises in such essentialist terms, and who seems determined to ignore marginalised women who may need her help more than the largely white, middle-class audience at the Brighton Dome.