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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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.