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Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Naomi Wolf Talks Criticism, and Yes, Vaginas

Posted By on Tue, Sep 18, 2012 at 7:30 AM

click to enlarge wolf_cover.jpg

When I went to study cadavers at UCSF, we had the opportunity to touch, hold, and examine a number of organs in the human body. We passed around hearts and lungs like foreign fruits. When it came time to take a look at a 47-year-old woman's vagina, sliced vertically so that the black hair framed its perimeter, we didn't touch it. Not because it was gross, but because it would have been gratuitous. It would have been more than a social faux pas, beyond insensitive. It was simply a moment of grace. We all have vagina stories that could kick off a book like Naomi Wolf's Vagina: A New Biography. My first six pages would center around that 20 seconds of viewing the dissected vagina in the cadaver room at UCSF and then ejaculate into my own unabridged stream of stories, with plenty of self-conducted research and conversations with -- why not? -- doctors, scientists, psychologists, mystics, spiritual leaders, and really anyone, because even for those of us who don't have a vagina, we all have ideas about them.

In Vagina, Naomi Wolf claims her new book gives scientific evidence that vaginal health and mental health are biologically linked. Her first six pages are about the spina bifida that caused her to suffer reduced orgasmic pleasure and sparked her research and theories. "The nerve was crushed and then fixed. I recovered completely. There was recovered range of sensation, and recovered states of mind," she says, describing the "six pages of this personal medical experience," as hard for her to write.

"I am honest with my readers," she says. And she is. She theorizes that creativity and confidence are linked to the well-being of our vaginas. "I'm not saying that when your vagina is well-treated that there's a magical substance that is creativity. When a woman is empowered to think with anticipation (rewarding and fulfilling orgasms as she defines them) there is dopamine; it's a neurotransmitter that leads to assertiveness and sociability, similar to cocaine. The very shy become confident, risk-taking and so-on. Dopamine is political. And these are not my words. There's the question, 'Are you being mystical?' No, I'm not being mystical."

Unfavorable reviews such as in The Nation say Vagina is both unscientific and unfeminist. I'm glad for the controversy -- it gets people reading. Vagina is a conversation, after all, about one person's experience and ideas about vaginas. She happens to be a renowned political writer, but that part doesn't really matter. Vagina is not perfect, and may be improperly marketed. Still, Vagina is an informative ode and a killer story, and we have no business writing it off.

Wolf says, "Informing women about their bodies is always a feminist act." And Wolf, using her experiences and personal research, is informing. Vagina is feminist because it is a personal gesture valuing vaginas. In the book, Wolf may at times put the vagina on a pedestal, such as in her wanderings into Tantra, spiritually fetishizing the vagina in a way that I personally find as extreme as denigrating it. But the work is full of flavor. Wolf calls the book her "427 pages of science and interviews and documentation," explaining "the mind-vagina connection." Wolf says, "In this book, I'm not defining the vagina the way it's medically defined, the introitus, the 'place inside' place. I think we need to re-define the vagina -- clitoris, labia, perineum, anus -- pressure points that don't even have a name. We should be seeking to re-define 'vagina'."

Re-defining "vagina" is something female-bodied, female-identified and/or gender non-conforming queers have been running off zines about since the '90s, shutting down Kinkos and every other unsuspecting copy machine all over the world. Queer, trans, and gender non-normative writers are still stirring up zines re-defining "vagina," such as Fucking Trans Women, which discusses the penis as a large clitoris. Vagina is published not independently but by HarperCollins, by famous heterosexual political theorist Naomi Wolf; naturally the book is hetero-normative at times, describing women as love addicts for "bad boys" who reflect their darkest desires, and shunning porn because its existence makes it impossible for women to hold male attention. She also doesn't love "nerve-dulling" vibrators, which produce inferior orgasms. Is she breaking ground in "re-defining" "vagina"? Sure she is, as she sees vagina. Many nearly-faceless and nameless survivors and activists have been "re-defining the vagina" since the first orgasm. The word needs constant re-defining, as flexible and ever-changing as its inhabitants.

Wolf enraptures with pieces of the vagina's U.S. and world history, such as in early 20th century African-American blues: "Metaphors for the vagina in the blues tradition include jelly, jellyrolls, sugar and candy, seafood, frying pans, butter churns, bells, buns, and bowls. In blues lyrics, women are not victimized by having vaginas, but they are generally portrayed as being in full possession of their own sexuality and liking their vaginas. African-American women's sexuality had been brutally owned and traded by others for four hundred years, but in spite of -- or perhaps because of -- this, the sexuality of women in blues lyrics is emphasized as belonging to the women themselves." Wolf also talks about the vagina's history with Western Europe, China, India, and Egypt, in religious and literary texts, and in terms of the "Goddess" and the vagina as yoni.

At the used bookstore where I work, we are required to shelve all incoming books in their proper place. A copy of Vagina was in this weekend's stack; often, new good reads are bought, devoured, and donated to us. Would Vagina go in Science? No, it's not a scientific book. Medical? No, it's not a medical book. It would go in Sexuality.

While there has been much criticism of Vagina, there have also been proponents. "There has been a broad range of support across the spectrum," says Wolf. "My book won the Nielsen Trade Bestseller Nonfiction after one week out in Britain." And for good reason. It's a strong, ideas-driven, theorizing, feminist, strangely metaphysical, offbeat book. It tries, unsuccessfully, to have all the answers. But I appreciate it for the story alone, and for the questions it leaves us with.

Naomi Wolf appears Sept. 20 at 7 p.m. at the Jewish Community Center, 3200 California (at Presidio), S.F. Admission is $15-$30.

For more events in San Francisco this week and beyond, check out our calendar section. Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF and like us on Facebook.

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Rose Tully

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