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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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Ukip needs Nigel Farage to stand in the Stoke by-election

Despite becoming a global political celebrity, the party's former leader has been waiting 25 years for this moment to win a Commons seat. 

When Ukip's 20 MEPs - back at school today in Strasbourg to elect a new EU President - wave (no fists please) at each other today at lunch across the various dining rooms of the EU Parliament, their main subject of interest will not be the eight candidates they will be voting for by secret ballot to replace bearded German socialist Martin Schulz.

For the record, these eight MEPs include four Italians (the favourite is centre-right 63-year-old Antonio Tajani, a former Italian air force pilot and EU insider regularly seen at the best tables of VIP watering holes like the Stanhope Hotel in Brussels), two Belgians, a Romanian and, yes, a Brit. Thats's 66-year-old Jean Lambert of the Green Party. But nobody in Ukip really cares. The party has the worst attendance and voting record of any political party in the EU - ranked 76 out 76.

Electing a new EU president today in Strasbourg is not nearly of so much concern to Ukip MEPs as the upcoming by-election in Stoke - not the least as quite a few of them (especially representing the Midlands) will be thinking of standing. The central Midlands seat of Stoke Central is a dream seat to have come up for Ukip just as Theresa May is setting out her 12-point "clean Brexit" plan stall.

Ladbrokes still have Labour 4/5 favourite with Ukip 9/4. It's worth a bet as the stakes are so much higher for Ukip if they lose. If they do, many will ask whether Ukip really can supplant Labour in 2020? 

With the prime minister making it clear today in her Lancaster House speech that her government want a hard Brexit, this presents a potential dilemma for Ukip. If the Tories deliver a clean Brexit with no membership of the single market, or EEA, then does the purpose of Ukip "holding the Tories' feet to the fire" over Brexit become less relevant? 

If Ukip alternatively wishes to re-invent itself as the new working class party of the north and Midlands, it will need to show that it can beat Labour - now at its lowest ebb under Corbyn - in key seats like Stoke. Ukip know this and are very good at their by-election ground game with veteran by-election campaign managers like Lisa Duffy as good as any strategist. In Stoke, expect a full expeditionary force of Ukip's colourful and Falstaff-like army of by-election activist troops - arriving by train, coach and foot - to campaign and out manoeuvre Corbyn's New Left Red Army. 

Stoke Central is probably the most important by-election for Ukip since Heywood and Middleton in 2014 which became a watershed moment for the party. Even Ukip was taken off-guard by the result. Without much cash and without campaigning with the full Ukip army zeal, they lost by just over 600 votes and got a recount. 

Looking back, Heywood was a pivotal moment in Ukip's short history. It was the moment the party realised that its future lay not so much in persuading Disgusted with Dave of Tunbridge Wells to vote for Nigel, but rather with disaffected Labour voters wanting something down about immigration that they saw was changing the very face and identity of their local towns, estates and cities. 

But can Ukip really win Stoke? Well, they really have to try as this is their best chance they might get for a while. Which means that the really interesting question being asked by Ukip MEPs today to Paul Nuttall is "Are you running?" The deadline for candidates on the party's Approved Candidates List to put themselves forward is 4pm on Wednesday 18 January.

So far Nuttall's official line - as told to the Daily Express - is that he is not ruling out standing. As a no-nonsense northerner himself (a working class boy from Bootle in Merseyside who played "junior", not professional, football for Tranmere Rovers), Nuttall would appear to be an ideal working class candidate to empathise with the voters of such a socially dispossessed pottery town.

As Chris Hanretty, a political scientist at East Anglia University wrote in the Guardian: "If Ukip doesn’t win, or doesn’t run Labour close, that calls into question its ability to win parliamentary seats...it would suggest that the referendum, far from being a staging post on the road to supplanting Labour, might signal Ukip's peak." 

Ouch. But Hanretty has a point: if Nuttall stands and fails to win in a working class Midlands seat where 69 per cent of the electorate voted to leave, it does raise issues about how much impact can make on the Westminster electoral landscape should there be a snap election in the next few months as a result of repeated constitutional challenges to Article 50 (the Supreme Court ruling is expected to be announced this week) and legal challenges such as the Article 127 challenge brought by the pro-EU pressure group British Infuence, now postponed until February.

This case revolves around the claim that Parliament must be consulted not just over the UK's exit as a EU member but also (and separately) its exit from the European Economic Area (EEA) – and by definition from the Single Market. In her speech today, Theresa May made it clear that the UK will be leaving the Single Market, so this challenge is unlikely to go away. All this political jousting and legal posturing is likely to make for quite a political circus when the Stoke by-election date is announced (usually within three months of an MP dying or standing down). Should Ukip not win this by-election prize fight - or give Labour a very bloody nose and lose by a few hundred votes as they did in Middleton and Heywood in 2014 -  it would certainly be damaging for Ukip. 

Not the least if the party's leader and chief general (an MEP commander for the north west) chooses to stand himself. But Nuttall is faced with a tricky dilemma. If he stands and loses, the idea that that UKIP is the new party of choice for working class former Labour voters in the North and and Midlands may not look so convincing. Yet if Nuttall doesn't stand and the party puts up another strong candidate who goes on to win like deputy chairman Suzanne Evans (born in the Midlands) or West Midlands MEP Bill Etheridge (who has a strong personal following in the Black Country and industrial Midlands), then Nuttall's own position as leader of a party with two MPs could be frustrated. 

So it is going to be an interesting day for Ukip in Strasbourg that's for sure. Ukip is a strange party in that two of its most senior and high profile politicians - deputy chairman and Health spokesman Suzanne Evans and the respected former Ukip mayor candidate Peter Whittle (culture spokesman and excellent film critic for Standpoint) are not even MEPs although Whittle is proving to be an adept member of the London Assembly.  

If Ukip win in Stoke, and Nuttall's name is not on the ballot, this could have political ramifications. There is a significant difference in Westminster powers and patronage in having two MPs in Westminster rather than one (as currently with Douglas Carswell with whom Suzanne Evans worked closely with as a Ukip member of Vote Leave, which was pointedly not the party's official designated Leave camp). With two MPs, Ukip becomes a party as opposed to a one man political solo show. 

If the newly-elected MP were to be, say, Suzanne Evans - one of the party's star performers on Newsnight and Have I Got News For You - Nuttall's power base as leader (no longer an MEP in 2020 after we exit the EU) might be diluted by another senior party member becoming a star performing Commons MP. 

So there is much at stake both personally and party-wise for Nuttall. Should Ukip be defeated in Stoke Central by some margin, this would be picked up by Tory and Labour strategists as offering evidence that Labour might not be wiped out by so many seats under Corbyn should May go to the country in say March or April to settle the Brexit mandate. Polls have been saying that under Corbyn Labour could lose as many as 80-100 seats should Ukip prove (with Stoke) that the party is, indeed, the number one threat to traditional Labour vote in the north and midlands.

Whatever happens in Stoke, the Tories won't win. They will be watching to see how the working class vote splits. This is why it is so improbable that May will attempt to call an 'early election' this year, even if the polls continue to show she would win by a landslide. 

The truth is she can't realistically call an election under the Fixed Term Parliament Act even if she she wants to. The Act (one of the worst legacies of the Coalition govt which many MPs want repealed) requires two-thirds of MPs to vote for going to the country - something that not even the most suicidally inclined of Labour MPs will be prepared to do as they will be joining MEPs in being out of a job. 

In the event that Labour take the view that a political blood bath - with Ukip the likely winner in many seats like Stoke Central - is the only way to purge the party of Corbyn, then they will also have to swallow the fact that May (if pushed into an election by troublesome, unelected peers) is likely to spike her election wheel with a manifesto pledge to abolish most of the powers of the House of Lords, as well as booting many of the eldest, most pompous and idle. Such a mandate for radical reform of our largely unelected Lords would hardly be difficult to secure. More blood on the carpet. 

In the event that the Supreme Court rules this week that Article 50 must be signed off by both the Commons and the Lords, any Lib Dem and Labour pro-EU zealots will know that any attempted Kamikaze-style amendments (which could technically delay Parliamentary assent for up to thirteen months) will be met with punitive retribution from Downing Street. 

Ukip only lost in Stoke to Labour's Dr Tristram Hunt in 2015 by around 5,000 votes - largely thanks to disaffected working class voters feeling that their once proud industrial "pottery" city - once a Victorian symbol of industrial creativity and production - had become a symbol of a working class British city in decline. Faced with immigration, housing and other social issues, Stoke voters have felt for some time that the pro-EU metropolitan leaning Labour Party has abandoned them.

Not so Ukip, which is exactly why Nigel Farage chose to stage a major Brexit rally hosted by Grassroots Out (GO!) last April at Stoke's Victoria Hall urging the good people to vote to leave the European Union.

Addressing the packed hall, against his political opponent Tory Chris Grayling MP, and Labour's Kate Hoey (herself a Leaver), Farage drew applause from the Stoke crowd when he said: "This is not about left or right – this is about right or wrong." Farage then started up the audience of hundreds in a chant of "We want our country back." 

In other words, Nigel he knows perfectly well that Ukip can win Stoke. Which leads to the obvious question in Strasbourg today: "Are you going to stand Nigel?" 

Officially, Farage has ruled himself out saying he wants to focus on his international and speaking, broadcasting and advisory career. But as Farage said after picking up the leadership reins after they came loose following the resignation of Diane James: "I keep trying to escape ... and before I'm finally free they drag me back". 

The truth is that in his political heart, I suspect Nigel must be going through a dark night of his political soul over whether he should have stood for Stoke Central. Or still can? In so many ways, he has been waiting over 25 years for this moment. By the time the all-important Heywood and Middleton by-election result came on October 2014 (Ukip share of the vote up 36 per cent), Farage had already committed to standing for the south of England seat of Thanet South - his seventh election campaign to become an MP. Had Nigel stood in the Heywood by-election, he probably would have won. 

All his Ukip parliamentary election campaigns have been in the South, South-West or Home Counties, beginning with Eastleigh in Hampshire in 1994 when he won just 952 votes. But the interesting trend to note is that in his last two attempts to get into the Commons,  he has doubled his vote each time. In 2010 election, standing in Buckingham he won 8,410 votes (almost the same number as I won taking votes of Midland labour voters in North Warwickshire in 2015). In 2015, Nigel got 16,026 votes in South Thanet. 

My point is that had Nigel Farage stood for a solid Labour Northern or Midlands seat in 2015, he may well have won then. Yes, Nigel has said that he wants to get his life back after his extraordinary years as the "Mr Brexit" Ukip leader - apparently now the subject of a Warner Bros Bad Boys of Brexit comedy biopic. 

But as somebody who knows how much the pull of the green leather Commons bench - the true seat of western parliamentary democracy - means to Nigel, I sincerely hope he will re-consider standing for Stoke Central. Yes, he wants to earn money and become a global political superstar. But it will certainly be something to think about as he flies through the night to take up his front row seat in Washington on Friday's inauguration. 

And just think, after what Nigel did for Trump campaigning in Mississippi, how could Donald Trump possibly not campaign for his Brexit friend in Stoke? Now that really would be political theatre.