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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A new German law wants to force mothers to reveal their child’s biological father

The so-called “milkmen’s kids law” would seek protection for men who feel they have been duped into raising children they believe are not biologically theirs – at the expense of women’s rights.

The German press call them “Kuckuckskinder”, which translates literally as “cuckoo children” – parasite offspring being raised by an unsuspecting innocent, alien creatures growing fat at the expense of the host species’ own kind. The British press have opted for the more Benny Hill-esque “milkmen’s kids”, prompting images of bored Seventies housewives answering the door in negligées before inviting Robin Asquith lookalikes up to their suburban boudoirs. Nine months later their henpecked husbands are presented with bawling brats and the poor sods remain none the wiser.

Neither image is particularly flattering to the children involved, but then who cares about them? This is a story about men, women and the redressing of a legal – or is it biological? – injustice. The children are incidental.

This week German Justice Minister Heiko Maas introduced a proposal aimed at to providing greater legal protection for “Scheinväter” – men who are duped into raising children whom they falsely believe to be biologically theirs. This is in response to a 2015 case in which Germany’s highest court ruled that a woman who had told her ex-husband that her child may have been conceived with another man could not be compelled to name the latter. This would, the court decided, be an infringement of the woman’s right to privacy. Nonetheless, the decision was seen to highlight the need for further legislation to clarify and strengthen the position of the Scheinvater.

Maas’ proposal, announced on Monday, examines the problem carefully and sensitively before merrily throwing a woman’s right to privacy out of the window. It would compel a woman to name every man she had sexual intercourse with during the time when her child may have been conceived. She would only have the right to remain silent in cases should there be serious reasons for her not to name the biological father (it would be for the court to decide whether a woman’s reasons were serious enough). It is not yet clear what form of punishment a woman would face were she not to name names (I’m thinking a scarlet letter would be in keeping with the classy, retro “man who was present at the moment of conception” wording). In cases where it did transpire that another man was a child’s biological father, he would be obliged to pay compensation to the man “duped” into supporting the child for up to two years.

It is not clear what happens thereafter. Perhaps the two men shake hands, pat each other on the back, maybe even share a beer or two. It is, after all, a kind of gentlemen’s agreement, a transaction which takes place over the heads of both mother and child once the latter’s paternity has been established. The “true” father compensates the “false” one for having maintained his property in his absence. In some cases there may be bitterness and resentment but perhaps in others one will witness a kind of honourable partnership. You can’t trust women, but DNA tests, money and your fellow man won’t let you down.

Even if it achieves nothing else, this proposal brings us right back to the heart of what patriarchy is all about: paternity and ownership. In April this year a German court ruled that men cannot be forced to take paternity tests by children who suspect them of being their fathers. It has to be their decision. Women, meanwhile, can only access abortion on demand in the first trimester of pregnancy, and even then counselling is mandatory (thereafter the approval of two doctors is required, similar to in the UK). One class of people can be forced to gestate and give birth; another can’t even be forced to take a DNA test. One class of people can be compelled to name any man whose sperm may have ventured beyond their cervix; another is allowed to have a body whose business is entirely its own. And yes, one can argue that forcing men to pay money for the raising of children evens up the score. Men have always argued that, but they’re wrong.

Individual men (sometimes) pay for the raising of individual children because the system we call patriarchy has chosen to make fatherhood about individual ownership. Women have little choice but to go along with this as long as men exploit our labour, restrict our access to material resources and threaten us with violence. We live in a world in which it is almost universally assumed that women “owe” individual men the reassurance that it was their precious sperm that impregnated us, lest we put ourselves and our offspring at risk of poverty and isolation. Rarely do any of us dare to protest. We pretend it is a fair deal, even that reproductive differences barely affect our lives at all. But the sex binary – the fact that sperm is not egg and egg is not sperm – affects all of us.

The original 2015 ruling got it right. The male demand for reassurance regarding paternity is an infringement of a woman’s right to privacy. Moreover, it is important to see this in the context of all the other ways in which men have sought to limit women’s sexual activity, freedom of movement and financial independence in order to ensure that children are truly “theirs”.  Anxiety over paternity is fundamentally linked to anxiety over female sexuality and women’s access to public space. Yet unless all women are kept under lock and key at all times, men will never, ever have the reassurance they crave. Even then, the abstract knowledge that you are the only person to have had the opportunity to impregnate a particular woman cannot rival the physical knowledge of gestation.

We have had millennia of pandering to men’s existential anxieties and treating all matters related to human reproduction, from sex to childbirth, as exceptional cases meaning women cannot have full human rights. Isn’t it about time we tried something new? How about understanding fatherhood not as winning gold in an Olympic sperm race, but as a contract endlessly renewed?

What each of us receives when a child is born is not a biological entity to do with as we choose. It is a relationship, with all of its complexities and risks. It is something worth contributing to and fighting for. Truly, if a man cannot understand that, then any money wasted on a Kuckuckskind – a living, breathing child he could get to know – has got to be the least of his worries. 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.