Naomi Wolf. Photo: Getty Images
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Laurie Penny on the problem with Naomi Wolf's vagina

This sort of ‘feminism’ has nothing to do with changing women’s lives.

I have spent a disturbing few days with my nose buried in Naomi Wolf's Vagina. Naomi Wolf's Vagina is warm and inviting, but seems to lack depth. Naomi Wolf's Vagina is over-exposed. Naomi Wolf's Vagina is crassly attention-seeking. Naomi Wolf's Vagina is available in all good bookshops. There is something fishy about . . . no, actually, can I stop now? Are we done? Good.

The new book by Naomi Wolf, author of The Beauty Myth, seems positioned to provoke endless genital wordplay, so it's best to get all of that out the way before we move on. Vagina, as has been observed across the mainstream reviewing press this week, is a very silly book. It is, not incidentally, a very silly book whose author is currently engaged in a one-woman campaign to deny anonymity to rape victims and persuade the world that the charges of rape and sexual assault of two women currently facing Julian Assange are contemptible. The fact that Wolf's highly publicised new work claims to offer a thrilling new feminist take on - among other serious issues - rape, means that we cannot help but address the two together.

Naomi Wolf has done great damage by using her platform as one of the world’s most famous feminists to dismiss these women’s allegations. In one throat-closing 2010 article, Wolf placed her name, picture and reputation behind a title dismissing the serious charges against the Wikileaks founder as mere persecution by 'the world's dating police'. In an excruciating performance last week on Newsnight, the author managed to shoehorn a plug for her book into a discussion of whether or not “no always means no”. The fact that that question is seriously being raised on Britain's pre-eminent current affairs show, by no less a media presence than Jeremy Paxman, should be a signal that this is no time for fannying about, much less for having spectacular breakdowns all over the limited space the mainstream press affords so-called women’s issues.

Vagina has already received a drubbing from a spectrum of feminist voices. The best so far have been delivered by Zoe Heller at the New York Review of Books, the wickedly acidic Suzanne Moore at the Guardian, Jenny Turner, also at the Guardian, and the New Statesman's own Helen Lewis. Almost all have mentioned, because how could you not, the scene with the pudenda-shaped handmade pasta - the 'cuntini' served to the the author at an upscale dinner party in New York that end up sending her into a nervous fit which leaves her unable to write for six months. She tells us that this is because of the wondrous, not-at-all-basic-highschool-science 'brain-vagina' connection, which is for some reason more mystical than, say, the brain-elbow or brain-big toe connection. It's all a bit wacky races.

The book claims to be tackling a social taboo that was dealt with, and dealt with better, in Eve Ensler's Vagina Monologues two decades ago, and in the process it achieves just the opposite. It has given public intellectuals a legitimate reason to have a good old laugh at female genitalia for the first time in years, somewhere in between Wolf’s description of dopamine as a 'feminist' neurotransmitter and her retreat to a Greek island to feel the divine energy of the she-goats butting in the fields and undulating bloody hills. It's beyond parody, and it makes a parody of mainstream feminist debate. Barely two chapters in, it dawns on you by dreadful stages that the author's self-delusion is such that she really does believe her personal problems in achieving mind-blowing orgasms to have universal application to the future of womankind.

The neurotic ego at play here might be snicker-worthy for anyone who feels they have no stake in the contemporary feminist conversation. For anyone else, for anyone who believes there's still a buggerload of work to do, for anyone who grew up with a copy of The Beauty Myth on their bedside table and dreamed of a better world, for anyone who - let’s be blunt - actually respects women, all women, as human beings for whom biology is not destiny, Vagina isn't funny at all. It's just upsetting. It's upsetting to see a prominent feminist having what can only be described as a dramatic public meltdown, and to see that meltdown indulged as relevant to contemporary debate, as if those promoting and giving space to this book could not tell the difference between sub-hippy burnishing of stale taboos and actual, useful feminist argument. You know, the sort that still has the power to terrify the stuffed shirts in power.

And there's the rub. It feels like we are meant to laugh at this book, or to loathe it, or both. It feels like that’s the point. That seems to be the point of so much feminist publishing right now - to provoke without challenging, to create spectacle without creating solutions to the real and pressing problems facing three billion women and girls across the world because of their gender. The point of this kind of celebrity faux-feminism seems to be, if you’ll permit me to bastardise the late lamented Douglas Adams, not to challenge patriarchy, but to distract attention away from it.

Campaigns for equal pay, equal division of labour, fair childcare and reproductive rights might be urgent and necessary, but are not new or sexy or particularly saleable. Feminism as spectacle, though - feminism positioned to titillate a reader's hate-glands - that does sell. It doesn’t even have to be particularly radical as long as it’s aimed right, as long as it whips up tension between the genders, as long as it collapses the political endlessly into the personal, and there are always clever women out there who can be persuaded to play the comedy feminist writer we all love to hate. Believe me, I know of which I speak.

It’s not just Wolf, although she seems to be the latest recruit. There’s Katie Roiphe, Liz Jones, Samantha Brick, and endless, endless others, women who cling to the belief that because writing about their sexual humiliations and personal anxieties seems to hit the spot with their bosses, that they are taken seriously. That the issues on which they touch - real issues of sex and power and suffering that actually do affect women everywhere on the most intimate levels - are actually taken seriously, rather than just set up to be laughed at.

 

The titillation of hate

This particular titillating hate-fest is good cover, as it so often is, for some really quite dangerous social misreadings. When it isn't gushing the Goddess Array from every orifice, the feminism preached in Vagina is profoundly reactionary. The fundamental conservatism of this book, like the fundamental conservatism of a great deal of what passes for hot-button contemporary feminism, will almost certainly pass unnoticed in the welter of fanny-jokes and fun-poking.

For a start, it's essentialist, and essentialism, as Moore notes in the Guardian, is always reactionary. There's little or no room in Vagina for models of sex and sexuality which are not straight, binary-gendered, monogamous and passive - phrases like 'a happy heterosexual vagina requires . . . a virile man' set the tone even as they set Andrea Dworkin spinning in her early grave. All women, in Wolf’s analysis, have vaginas, and those vaginas are the wellspring of divine femininity - no room, then, for any woman who is physically intersex, or transsexual, or who has one of the surprisingly common medical conditions which result in a person born with two vaginas, or with no vagina at all; still less room for the gender-queer, the androgynous, for asexual, women who don’t enjoy penetrative sex, women who do enjoy those rough, anonymous one-night stands that Wolf is so very down on, or for transsexual men. Vagina, then is that very modern thing: a handbook for priggish sexual conformity masquerading as a manual for erotic liberation.

Throughout Vagina, Wolf refers to something called the 'Goddess', a sort of wibbly-wobbly divine feminine energy that can be woken by appropriately angled vaginal massage and a nice bunch of flowers, a strategy known, and I really wish I were making this up, as the 'Goddess Array'. This 'Inner Goddess' idea is having a moment right now.

It crops up as a clunky motif in the wildly popular Fifty Shades of Grey series, in which the protagonist's 'Inner Goddess' responds to the virile attentions of the millionaire stunt-dick in a variety of interesting ways. As the heroine administers a simple blow-job, the reader is informed that her 'inner Goddess is doing the merengue with some salsa moves'. Imagery matters, even clunky, awkward imagery: in Wolf's hands, this weirdly retro goddess conceit becomes a manifesto, informing the female reader that no matter what her life may look like, no matter what gender inequities she may experience every day, there is something wonderful, special and mysterious about being a woman, and especially about being a woman receiving sexual attention from a man, that should be its own reward.

This is a well-worn strategy of benevolent sexism most commonly employed by religious patriarchs. In its most extreme form, telling women they're divine whenever they're not devilish makes the whole question of human rights becomes a little more moot. It overlaps worryingly with Wolf's reactionary, victim-blaming public stance on the Assange case: the woman might say no, but the Inner Goddess says yes.

Then there's the sudden five-page diversion to a women's rape shelter in Sierra Leone, plonked weirdly in the middle of the book like a vitamin pill on top of a cupcake. The women and men Wolf meets here, on a trip for western reporters organised in 2004, are not substantive figures in the book- she spends far longer interviewing a banker-turned-tantric-healer who specialises in massaging women to orgasm with special oils, flowers and incantations to welcome their inner goddess to a really great wank. The women in Sierra Leone feel like an afterthought, as they do in so many contemporary pseudo-feminist tracts, but they must be mentioned, even if that mention only draws into sharper focus the fact that the book's field of vision rarely leaves upper Manhattan.

This is how far too much contemporary liberal, upper-middle-class feminism understands power. There are Women Like Us - straight, white, wealthy professional writers and our circle of friends - and then there are Women In Africa, and never the twain shall meet as part of the same spectrum of structural violence and disenfranchisement. It's a dumb rich kid's understanding of class. It's a formulation designed to obviate the need for awareness of one's own place in any system of privilege and inequality, which is the only way in which Wolf's kind of feminism - the kind of feminism recognised as most important by everyone from book publishers to government ministers, the feminism of boardroom seats and bed-shaking orgasms- can retain any sort of relevance.

You can't help but anticipate, though, that the substantial discursive problems with Wolf's philosophy are going to be lost, for most readers, somewhere between cuntini and the Goddess Array, which sounds like a terrible tambourine band playing to an audience of burned-out hippies in a field on a wet afternoon in 1973. Except more commercially viable.

This is what feminism has become, for certain cynical souls who commission books and magazine articles and newspaper confessionals. It’s just another sexy way to stoke controversy. Set up a woman to be hated, set up a woman to open her heart and legs and blame men for everything and she'll bring in the readers like nothing else. (One of the few parts of Vagina to which I could really relate was the section in which Wolf discusses her email inbox, which is apparently stuffed with rape-threats, death-threats and graphic, violent sexual fantasies sent to her by random perverts and haters). This sort of set up has little to do with caring about women and everything to do with feminism as spectacle: the gorier and more simplistic the better.

Take a look at the online opinion pages of any major newspaper or magazine which publishes rankings of 'most shared' and 'most commented' articles and you will see that any piece which features sexism, sexual violence or gender, particularly if it mentions sex or attacks men in the title or standfirst, gets the hits, the comments, the shares. And yet somehow we still seem to be fighting a defensive war against attacks on reproductive rights, on equal pay, on childcare. The titillation of hate sells books and newspapers, but it doesn't lift hearts or change minds.

The sad thing about Vagina, the sad thing about this sort of excuse for feminism in general, is that in its anxiety to shock it totally misses the real, terrifying challenge that the ongoing fight for women’s right to control their own bodies, their own destinies and their own future truly represents. Let me explain.

 

Pussy And The Bitch

There's a dirty joke they've told in the playground for a few years now, and it goes something like this. Little Jimmy comes home from school one day and tells his father that the boys have been using two words he doesn't understand. One of them is 'pussy', and the other is 'bitch.' What do those words mean, daddy? The smiling paterfamilias gets a magazine down from the shelf, opens it to the centrefold, and draws a circle. 'Well, little Jimmy, everything inside the circle is pussy. Everything outside the circle is bitch.'

For some reason, this nasty little piece of ephemera bobbed to the surface of my memory when I began ploughing through Vagina. Because cunts, of course, are still contentious, but not for the reasons Naomi Wolf thinks. There is an element of metonymy at play here: somehow the state of the modern vagina, hairy or trimmed or shaven or surgically altered, satisfied or unsatisfied, happy or unhappy, comes to stand in for everything that's wrong with the state of womanhood. That this has long been the case in the eyes of the patriarchy - hide it, clean it, shave it, cut it, you're disgusting, you stink! - is no reason for bourgeois feminists to replicate the fascination. No matter how much easier it may be to say 'don't cut my vagina' than it is to say 'don't cut my public services'.

Writing about one's vagina has become shorthand for a style of feminist writing where the personal being political becomes an excuse for the political to collapse at every stage into the personal. Direct challenge to the structures of patriarchy is no longer acceptable in mainstream debate, and contemporary feminist writers have largely ceased to introduce those struggles to economic analysis, because the call for sexual revolution and the call for financial justice have not yet been integrated in the 21st century.

Instead - we talk about our vaginas, because that, despite Wolf’s seeming desperation to be iconoclastic, is all we’re really allowed to talk about. We turn our frustrations into mere lifestyle issues, relegated to the women's pages, the advice columns, not real, substantive issues - the gynaecological overwhelming the socio-political as if they hadn't ever been contingent. Women make ourselves a side issue. We talk about the pussy, and not the bitch. The pussy has problems, but the bitch has an agenda.

The truth is that you can't separate the pussies from the bitches. The real problem with vaginas is that they tend to have women attached, women who are far messier, needier, hungrier, angrier and goddamn smarter than those scary little pockets of flesh we have tucked between our legs. We don't have to stop talking about our vaginas, but if we're serious about changing the world for women, we need to start speaking with other lips about power, abuse and oppression.

Our autonomy and freedom are being attacked on all sides by a neoliberal consensus that venerates sexual repression and the bourgeois family even as it celebrates fiscal feudalism and cuts vital services for women and children. We must not allow our agenda to become castrated, sliced back, tidied away into permissible areas of discussion. We have no time for public feminist debate to degenerate into a titillation of hate. There are some of us out there who are still angry for all the right reasons.

There are millions of women out there for whom merely being snuggled, brought presents and having our goddess array expertly tickled - Wolf’s prescription to heal all ills, including those of Sierra Leonian rape survivors - isn’t going to cut it. Fascinating as it may be to watch Naomi Wolf disappear up her own vagina, we’ve had too many centuries of being fobbed off with flowers and appeals to the inner goddess to fall for that again. The vagina can monologue, but it takes a cunt to throw a brick through a window.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.