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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.