Naomi Wolf's "Vagina" is full of bad science about the brain

Given that she's written a book about the vagina, Wolf seems to mention the brain a lot.

Naomi Wolf has a new book out. Here’s an extract. It’s proven controversial. I’m not going to discuss Wolf’s politics, nor will I mention the famous "pasta incident" as I don’t think I can write anything sensible about that event. I am however a neuroscientist, and for a book about the vagina, Wolf seems to mention the brain a lot.

So let’s see how brainy it is.

Words, when deployed in relation to the vagina, are always more than "just words". Because of the subtlety of the mind-body connection, words about the vagina are also what philosopher John Austin, in his 1960 book How to Do Things with Words, calls "performative utterances", often used as a means of social control. A "performative utterance" is a word or phrase that actually accomplishes something in the real world. When a judge says "Guilty" to a defendant, or a groom says "I do", the words alter material reality.

Studies have shown that verbal threats or verbal admiration or reassurances can directly affect the sexual functioning of the vagina. One suggests that a stressful environment can negatively affect vaginal tissue itself…

True of course, but it’s nothing to do with vaginas specifically. Threats, admiration and reassurances all influence our stress levels, and stress can affect the function of the vagina. But the same could be said for any other organ: stress also affects the heart, the stomach, and even the penis.

What’s more, the study Wolf linked to in support of her idea that “a stressful environment can negatively affect vaginal tissue itself” was in rats.

Moving on:

In 2010, male Yale students gathered at a "Take Back the Night" event, where their female classmates were marching in a group, protesting against sexual assault. The young men chanted at the protesters: "No means yes and yes means anal." Some of the young women brought a lawsuit against the university, arguing that tolerating such behaviour created an unequal educational environment. Ethically, they are in the right, and neurobiologically, they are right as well. Almost all young women who face a group of their male peers chanting such slogans are likely to feel instinctively slightly panicked. On some level they are getting the message that they may be in the presence of would-be rapists, making it impossible to shrug off immature comments, as women are often asked to do…

Yes, women faced with such behaviour may feel panicked.

That’s common sense.

There’s nothing “neurobiological” about it – well, no more so than anything else in life. Everything we feel, think or perceive affects the brain – that’s how we feel, think and perceive. Everything is neurobiological – try doing anything without a brain, if you don’t believe me – so it’s misleading to focus on particular incidents as being somehow more neural, and therefore more real, than others.

These women’s panic is neurobiological… but no more neurobiological than the events occurring in the brains of their abusers, who, presumably, experienced a pleasurable release of dopamine and other "happy hormones" and probably reduced stress levels to boot.

Does that mean it was OK? Of course not! Because the Yale incident is not about the brain.

It gets worse.

Sexually threatening stress releases cortisol into the bloodstream, which has been connected to abdominal fat in women, with its attendant risks of diabetes and cardiac problems; it also raises the likelihood of heart disease and stroke. If you sexually stress a woman enough, over time, other parts of her life are likely to go awry; she will have difficulty relaxing in bed, as well as in the classroom or in the office.

True enough, but all stress releases cortisol into the bloodstream, which has been connected to abdominal fat in both men and women… and so on. Stress is bad. I think we can all agree on that. Cortisol, in excess, is probably bad in the long term, although not many people realize that not having enough cortisol is also bad, indeed it’s a medical emergency and can kill.

What’s more, few know that "good" stress, such as physical exercise, also releases cortisol in most people, and people injected with high doses of cortisol often enjoy it (“the most common adverse effects of short-term corticosteroid therapy are euphoria and hypomania [the ‘high’ phase of bipolar disorder].”)

Cortisol’s complicated.

Wolf then writes:

This [stress-induced cortisol release] in turn will inhibit the dopamine boost she might otherwise receive, which would in turn prevent the release of the chemicals in her brain that otherwise would make her confident, creative, hopeful, focused – and effective, especially relevant if she is competing academically or professionally with you.

Stress and cortisol have repeatedly been shown to increase dopamine release. In some studies. Other studies show they decrease it. It’s complicated, in other words.

Dopamine is complicated, and really rather fascinating if you’re into that kind of thing. It acts on at least five different types of receptor, and what it does depends on the receptor type; there are four major dopamine “pathways” in the brain, one of which (the mesocortical pathway) is thought to inhibit another (the mesolimbic pathway) – and plenty of subdivisions beyond that.

Cortisol is, as we’ve seen, complicated too. Don’t get me started on surface vs nuclear receptors, mineralocorticoids vs. glucocorticoids, and the hypothalamopituitary axis. Unless you’re a neuroscientist, you don’t want to know. It’s not relevant. Neither is Wolf’s simplified version of it.

Finally, in an interview with Wolf, we’re told:

Part of Wolf’s investigation revolves around the various hormones and neurotransmitters activated in a woman's body during a "successful" sexual encounter, eg dopamine, "which boosts the chemical construct of confidence, motivation, focus, all of these feminist qualities. Goal orientedness. Assertiveness"… In the book, she writes, "dopamine is the ultimate feminist chemical in the female brain,"

If that were true, women with Parkinson’s could never be feminists, because that disease is caused by degeneration of the dopamine neurons. If that were true, feminists would be campaigning for the legalization of cocaine and crystal meth – at least for women – because those drugs boost dopamine levels.

In fact, if that were true, it would mean that the most complimentary thing you could say to a woman would be “You sound like you’re on crack!”

Naomi Wolf, you sound like you’re on crack.

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist. He blogs here

The cover of "Vagina: A New Biography" by Naomi Wolf

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist. He blogs here.

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The clever ideological trick that could save the Labour party

The Co-operative party could suddenly get a lot more popular. 

It’s do or die for the party’s moderate MPs, who have lost the fight for the soul of Labour and must quickly move on. 

The 172 Labour MPs who backed a no-confidence vote in Jeremy Corbyn earlier this year may not like their newly elected party leader much, but they loathe John McDonnell. 

So it is little surprise that one of them, John Woodcock, reportedly looked “sick to the stomach” when the Shadow Chancellor tenderly invited him for a cuppa in his office following the leadership election result at conference. Reading the tea leaves tells me those talks aren’t going to go well.  

Yet moderate MPs would do well to revisit McDonnell’s off-the-cuff comments from a few years back: “I’m not in the Labour party because I’m a believer of the Labour party as some supreme body or something God-given or anything like that,” he told a small audience in 2012. “It’s a tactic. It’s as simple as that. If it’s no longer a useful vehicle, move on.” 

Two feather-spitting former frontbenchers called for McDonnell’s resignation when these comments emerged in March, saying they revealed his Trotskyist tendencies. "The context (a hard-left gathering) and the company (which included Gerry Downing, expelled from Labour for his comments on 9/11) didn’t make for great publicity, no," a Leader’s Office staffer privately confesses. 

But McDonnell is right: There is nothing necessary, natural or divinely ordained about Labour’s existence lest it can get things done. Which is why the parliamentary Labour party cannot botch its next attempt at power. 

In the wake of Corbyn’s re-election, Labour MPs face a fork-in-the-road: fight this civil war until its bitter end - play the long game, wait until Labour loses the next general election and challenge Corbyn again - or start afresh. 

It is a bleak, binary choice, akin to a doctor delivering test results and declaring the illness is terminal as feared: the patient can go down fighting and die a slow death, notwithstanding a medical miracle, or instead take part in a pioneering new drug trial. This carries the risk of dying immediately but promises the possibility of life as well. Both options are fraught with danger.

The problem with the first option is that moderates have all but lost the party already. A poll reveals Corbyn won 85 per cent - 15 per cent among members who joined after he became party leader and lost 37 per cent - 63 per cent among those who were members of the party before the last general election. The result: victory by 119,000 votes. 

Corbyn has already announced he wants to give these foot soldiers far greater firepower and told Andrew Marr he had asked the NEC to draft plans for increasing the membership and including it in “all aspects of party decision making”. Labour is transitioning apace into a social movement: free of formal hierarchy and ambivalent about parliamentary power. 

So why wait until 2020? There is every chance that MPs won’t any longer have the power to challenge to Corbyn within four years’ time. If Momentum has its way with reselection and shadow cabinet elections, leading rebels may not be around to begin with. 

Even if MPs mount another leadership challenge, few believe organisations like Saving Labour or Labour First could put together a sizeable enough electorate to outgun Corbyn at the ballot box. He would be voted back in by a landslide. 

The alternative is for MPs to create a new centre-left force. The main plan under consideration is to join the Cooperative party, Labour’s sister party, and sit as a bloc of “double hatted” MPs, with their own policy agenda on Brexit and the economy. This new bloc would apply to the Speaker to become the official opposition. 

Plenty of MPs and members recoil at the idea of a semi-split like this because of the mixed message it would send to voters on the doorstep. "So you don’t have faith in Corbyn, but you’re a Co-op MP campaigning on behalf of his Labour?" Many believe a full-split would be worse. They fear being pitted against Corbyn-backed Labour candidates in local constituencies and splitting the left vote, opening the door to Ukip or the Conservatives in marginal seats. 

But if moderate MPs mean what they say when they warn of total electoral wipeout in 2020, risking a new centre-left grouping is intuitively worth it.  What do they have to lose? And how many more times can Labour’s moderates cry wolf - Labour "risks extinction", Sadiq Khan said yesterday - until voters call their bluff and tell them to quit complaining and fall in line behind their leader? 

While Corbyn’s polling remains disastrous, a Co-op/Labour party would boast a mandate of 9.3m people, a policy agenda in line with Britain’s political centre of gravity and a chance of becoming the official opposition: a risk worth taking in the face of electoral oblivion. 

A handful of battle-bruised MPs are talking about coming together. "Time to unite," a deflated Hilary Benn tweeted this weekend. There is a precedent for this: first past the post means the party has always been composed of uneasy coalitions of different groups - take the trade unionists, liberal cosmopolites and ethnic minorities of the New Labour years - and it is arguably no different now.  

Yet this is not about a coalition of diverse interests. It is about two parties within a party, each of which believes Labour is their rightful inheritance. Of the two, moderates are least likely to gain anything by engaging in an all out war. It is time they took a leaf out of McDonnell’s book and accepted it is time, regrettably, "to move on". 

Gabriel Pogrund is a journalist at The Sunday Times and a Google News Fellow 2016.