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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 a former deputy editor of the New Statesman, who is now a staff writer on the Atlantic. She is the author of Difficult Women: A History of Feminism in 11 Fights (Jonathan Cape).

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