The combining of science, culture and mysticism doesn’t add up to much in this new biography but leaves a gaping need for more – Review by Gerry Keane
‘Vagina’ by Naomi Wolf explores the connections between the Vagina, the female brain and female consciousness itself. She tells us she was inspired to write this book as a result of the recovery from a physical trauma and the discovery of an enhanced sexuality and her sense of self. Such is the scope of the work it is difficult to categorise. Described by its publishers as feminism /psychology, it is part cultural history, part biology, part New Age musings.
“Meet your incredible pelvic nerve” examines the physical science of arousal and begins promisingly, as does a chapter on the mental effects of sexual violence on the victim. The chapter dealing with pornography is an interesting essay in its own right, as a study of desensitisation resulting from an overexposure to porn.
Unfortunately, in all cases, the good work is undone by the use of shortcuts, errors and subjectivity. It is, perhaps, the shortcuts, that jar most. That which had previously been hypothesised becomes “now we know”. We are also told that, “the findings could be read as thinking” and elsewhere a hypothesis is supported although, “the causation was not yet proved”. Quoting a Daily Mail survey seems either to invite mockery or to suggest that there was no other source to support a supposition.
The recourse to New-Age thinking fills some gaps where explanations might otherwise be required. An “energy worker” asserts that “different quadrants of the vagina hold different kinds of blocked emotion”. The “female soul” is mentioned, as is “magic”, and women are described as being “more mystical” than men. “The Goddess” is name-checked repeatedly.
Much of this is dumbed-down feminism, something akin to ‘girl-power’. According to Ms Wolf, “no two women are alike”. This laziness abounds throughout. She states that “misogynist commentators had often suggested that brilliant women could not be sexual…”. We need only think of Catherine the Great to be reminded that women, acknowledged as brilliant, had their sexuality used against them. The use of Chastity Belts as oppressors of women is noted, though in fact they were largely a Victorian notion, little found today.
Ms Wolf contends that, before the rise of Judeo-Christian societies, Goddess worship was the norm in the Eastern Mediterranean and that females had a higher status than subsequently. This is not disputed; although errors such as stating that the Virgin Birth is a church construct not accepted until the fifth century and that the teachings of St Paul became synonymous with Christianity with the rise of the Holy Roman Empire somewhat undermine the point.
Some of the writing lapses into lyricism. The success of the ‘Fifty Shades’ series might have encouraged prose such as, “… soft light brown hair that falls to her shoulders” and “It was a warm breezy day as we gathered to talk in the living room of a cottage on an old farm”. What does it matter to us that the taxi was a “battered taxi”?
She touches on the notion that a male tantric sexual healer might be better described as a sex worker but goes no further which is a pity as it might have added a little depth to a work which was becoming reiterative. Too little time is given to procreation and a musing on the motivation of pleasure as a reward for sex. Where evolutionary biology is mentioned it is only to describe Richard Dawkins’ ‘The Selfish Gene’ as “old fashioned male-centred theories of evolutionary biology”.
Ms Wolf has given herself far too much to do here: physical science, New-Age mysticism, Sociology and expressing herself as a writer in addition to writing an engaging book have proved to be beyond her. I feel that an opportunity has been missed here. The need for a more learned text on female sexuality; alert to evolutionary biology, sexual selection and sociology remains. After ‘Vagina’ the need may be greater.