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A goddess-shaped hole in Naomi Wolf's new work

Vagina: a New Biography - review.

Vagina: a New Biography
Naomi Wolf
Virago, 416pp, £12.99

Naomi Wolf wants to talk to you about her vagina. If that makes you uncomfortable, bale out now, because this book is both unblushing in its anatomical precision and unashamed in gesturing to all manner of mystic woo-woo about the froo froo. Despite the repeated invocations of cutting-edge scientific research, the smell of patchouli pervades throughout: there are sentences such as “the vagina may be a ‘hole’, but it is, properly understood, a Goddess-shaped one”. Brace yourself.

Wolf’s journey began in 2009, when sex began to lose its sparkle for her. “After love-making . . . I would see colours as if they were brighter; and the details of the beauty of the natural world would seem sharper and more compelling,” she writes in the opening chapter. “But gradually, I became aware this was changing. I was slowly but steadily losing sensation inside my body.” While sex still felt good physically, it had lost its “poetic dimension”. The cause, she discovered, was compression of the pelvic nerve caused by a degenerative spinal disease. Her vertebrae had slowly collapsed, crushing some of the delicate nerve tendrils that are essential to female sexual pleasure. One branch remained unaffected, meaning Wolf could reach orgasm from clitoral stimulation, but the one that connected her vagina to her brain had “gone dark”. That explained why she still felt pleasure from sex but not the transcendental glow that had made her feel energised and fully alive. This personal backstory – as well as providing a read-me hook for an often heavy-going book – is a microcosm of Wolf’s style throughout.

The frontiers of western science are represented as underscoring the ancient insights of mystics, preferably eastern ones (a chap who does “non-sexual yoni massage” at his Chalk Farm flat crops up a few times). Although it doesn’t seem too unreasonable to suggest that a chronically bad sex life can affect your overall mood, often the science and self-help make uncomfortable bedfellows, resulting in sentences such as “this is why I call dopamine the ultimate feminist chemical”.

Wolf’s main argument is that the shame and hate directed at the vagina in modern western culture have impaired the lives of millions of women. “One American woman in three reports that she is suffering from too-low levels of sexual desire, and for one woman in ten the absence of desire is so severe it is clinically diagnosable,” writes Wolf. Even in our sex-drenched culture, there seems little appetite for confronting, let alone treating, this widespread malaise. (Then she undermines herself by calling it an epidemic of “depressed vaginas”.)

At its best, this book has real insights about the way in which girls and women are told to regard their vaginas as dirty, smelly and ugly, and how liberating it would be if we could learn something from cultures where female genitalia are respected, even celebrated. The 16th-century Islamic classic The Perfumed Garden has a healthier range of adjectives to describe the vagina than most modern teenagers; while Tantric teachings provide a more female-friendly “script” for sex than most porn films. (Wolf shows a rare moment of scepticism when at a Tantric workshop discussing female ejaculation; her description of the teacher had me in fits of laughter: “‘I have never squirted,’ she said with some hauteur. ‘I have released lots of amrita, the nectar of the Goddess.’”)

Similarly, the section on the use of mass rape in war zones to dispirit and control the female population is both tragic and insightful. Wolf notes that many of the rapists are young boys, forced at gunpoint to violate women, so there is little question of them being sexually fulfilled. She also points out the incidence of penetrattion with bottles, bayonets and other objects. “Rape is a strategy of actual physical and psychological control of women, traumatising via the vagina as a way to imprint the consequences of trauma on the female brain,” she concludes. It’s a more sympathetic view than the “all men have the potential to be rapists” approach and seems more likely to be true.

The book’s trouble starts when we move into the wider argument about respecting the vagina. Wolf’s own experience of a dimmer world without full sexual pleasure leads her to believe that creativity and the coochie are intrinsically connected (tell that to Jane Austen). This results in an absolutely absurd scene, told without a hint of irony, where an acquaintance called Alan throws a party in his loft apartment to celebrate her signing the book deal. Alan invites the guests to make vulva-shaped pasta but then ruins everything by sweeping in to announce these shapes are called “cuntini”. But it gets worse. “I heard a sizzling sound. I looked to the kitchen: the sound was coming from several dozen enormous sausages, ranged in iron skillets on the big industrial stove. I got it: ha, sausages to go with the ‘cuntini’. I noticed that the energy of the mixed-gender crowd was now not simple.” Alan’s coup de grace is the addition of salmon fillets to the feast: “Again. I got it. I got the joke. Women are smelly.” The whole incident traumatises Wolf so much that she “could not type a word of the book – not even research notes – for six months”. There you have it, anti-feminists; all this time you’ve been calling us ugly and hairy and lesbian, and you could have just invited us over and made a delicious but insufficiently supportive buffet.

Reading this book left me downcast. Has the Naomi Wolf I loved in The Beauty Myth really drowned in a soup of psychobabble about “energies” and “activating the Goddess array”? It seems so. The science was not engagingly presented, the transcendentalism left me cold, and the remedial advice – that men should pay more attention to their female partners’ pleasure and maybe give them a nice surprise once in a while – is banal in the extreme.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 10 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Autumn politics special

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.