Reading Vagina: A New Biography, Naomi Wolf’s self-parodying ode to female genitalia, one wonders what’s happened to a writer who was once one of feminism’s freshest voices.
In 1991, Wolf published The Beauty Myth, a classic that’s helped many young women navigate between their resentment of our culture’s punishing physical ideals and their often excruciating desperation to live up to them. She argued that as women gained more social, economic, and political power, standards of beauty and grooming ratcheted up to oppressive levels, replacing earlier systems of control. This was before Brazilian bikini waxes became de rigueur, before proliferating celebrity magazines started stalking actresses who dare show makeup-free faces in public, before the boom in cosmetic labiaplasty. If anything, Wolf’s debut is even more relevant two decades later.
It’s also more relevant than anything she’s written or said since. Wolf has had many incarnations in the ensuing years, each more puzzling than the last. She was a $15,000-a-month adviser to Al Gore’s presidential campaign, famous for urging him to wear earth tones and to assert himself as an “alpha male.” In 2006 she made news for telling Scotland’s Sunday Herald about a vision in which she, in the form of a teenage boy, encountered Jesus leading her to a spiritual mission to help “women remember what’s sacred about them or what’s sacred about femininity.” Then she detoured away from mysticism to write about the imminent arrival of fascism in America, a fear that led her to call the Tea Party “a prescient effort to constrain overweening corporate and military power in national government.”
Now she’s back to sex and religion, with a book arguing that the key to women’s self-expression and transcendence lies between our legs. The vagina, she writes in her introduction, “is not only coextensive with the female brain but also is part of the female soul ... a gateway to, and medium of, female self-knowledge and consciousness themselves.” A woman, in this formulation, basically is her vagina.
It shouldn’t need pointing out that plenty of misogynists believe the same thing. Vagina may intend to celebrate and empower women, but it has a reactionary way of treating them as slaves to biology. “For women to really be free, we have to understand the ways in which nature designed us to be attached to and dependent upon love, connection, intimacy, and the right kind of Eros in the hands of the right kind of man,” Wolf writes.
The impetus for Vagina, Wolf informs us early on, was a crisis in her own sex life. It was 2009 and she was in love with a man who sexually satisfied her, but something was awry. “To my astonishment and dismay, while my clitoral orgasms were as strong and pleasurable as ever, something different than usual was happening, after sex, to my mind,” she writes. She realized she was missing “the usual postcoital rush of a sense of vitality infusing the world, of delight with myself and with all around me.”
This sounds disappointing. For Wolf, it was a dark night of the soul, “like a horror movie.” Late one frantic night, she writes, “I began literally bargaining with the universe, as one does in times of great crisis. I actually prayed, proposing a deal—if God (or whoever was listening; I would go with anyone who was willing to take the call) would somehow heal me ... I would write about it if there was the least chance that what I had learned could help anyone else.” Hence, this book.
It turns out that a back injury was compressing Wolf’s pelvic nerve. She had surgery, sex became sublime again, and her depression lifted. “Was this cause and effect a freak of my own weird subjective neurology and biochemistry—or was this an insight generalizable to all women?” she asks. It’s a rhetorical question. The answer, of course, is the latter.
And so she embarks on a journey to explore the mind-vagina connection. Some of what she finds is obvious, for example that sexual trauma is psychologically debilitating, and that chronic stress dampens libido. From there, she extrapolates wildly to suggest that any disrespect shown the vagina renders women dysfunctional. She describes, for example, a poorly conceived dinner party thrown in honor of her book deal. Guests were invited to make vulva-shaped pasta; then the host served sausage and, in a crude allusion, fish. It left her not just irritated but creatively paralyzed, unable to write a word of Vagina for a full six months. “I understand better now what constituted the connection between the visual ‘comedy,’ the olfactory public insult, and my fingers unable to type,” she writes.
One almost has to admire Wolf’s audacious solipsism, her imperviousness to mockery. This is a book that uses words like “yoni,” “energy field,” and “the Goddess Array” in complete earnestness. That last phrase is Wolf’s term for a set of behaviors that men should use to dote on the women in their lives, lest their vaginas force them to act like harpies. “Straight men would do well to ask themselves: ‘Do I want to be married to a Goddess—or a bitch?’” writes Wolf. “Unfortunately, there is not, physiologically, much middle ground available for women.”
Wolf believes she has found evidence for her theories in the Tantric tradition. She sets out to study this complex esoteric practice not by going to India but by taking a weekend workshop in a Manhattan hotel and by profiling one Mike Lousada, a London-based investment banker turned vaginal masseur. Although Wolf does not let him engage in “yoni-tapping”—his phrase—with her, she clearly becomes a believer. After a Skype chat with him, she writes, “Somehow the world seemed shot through with hope, and with a glimmer of something like illumination.”
In the end, perhaps the most embarrassing thing about Vagina is its Orientalism. When Wolf lauds Tantra for its “answers to the question of how female sexuality was best understood,” it’s roughly akin to pronouncing on imperial Japanese culture after taking a karate intensive at the YMCA. In reality, while Indian Tantra involved ritual sex and goddess worship, it has almost no relation to the New Age feminist sex therapy Wolf describes. As Wendy Doniger, one of the premier scholars of Indian religion, writes in The Hindus, “[T]here is no evidence that actual Tantric women were equal partners in any sense of the word.” Tantric rituals, she writes, were largely “designed to benefit people who had lingas, not yonis.”
Wolf, it seems, has written at length about a medieval Indian religious movement without bothering to read a single credible book on the subject. A similarly cavalier approach is at work throughout Vagina. It could be that she learned the wrong lesson from The Beauty Myth’s success. Generalizing from her own preoccupations, she was able, in that book, to tell a story with wide and enduring resonance. Perhaps the experience led her to overestimate the value of her intuition and epiphanies. Even with a subject as intimate as the vagina, not all wisdom lies within.