The title of Naomi Wolf’s latest, Vagina: A New Biography, promised great things, to my mind. I envisioned the book taking aim at the stigma, use and abuse of the female sex organ throughout history, both physically and ideologically, and why we still think of it as ugly, dirty, alien and taboo.
Vagina certainly analyses this for the bulk of the middle part of the book, talking about the actual chastity belt (p. 143) and the “similarly constructed device” called a “scold’s bridle”, “made of iron and leather, locked around a talkative or argumentative woman’s head” to “gag her mouth” (p. 144). Here, we see that the vagina has been a metaphor for the female voice, insinuating that headstrong and opinionated women are also “loose” women. Wolf goes on to mention William Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus and the heroine “Lavinia’s mouth and vagina are both assaulted in repeated acts of silencing and control” (p. 144). When it comes to sexual assault, it seems not much has changed, then.
Wolf also touches on hysteria, which literally derives its meaning from the Greek word for uterus, hystera, but for the most part, Vagina is an excruciatingly heternormative and cisgendered look at what it means to be a woman. Wolf may claim that erotic literature such as 50 Shades of Grey portrays women as having “no existence separate from her vagina” (p. 178), but Vagina essentially makes the same statement: if you’re not having vaginal orgasms (presumably via the penetrative properties of a real, live penis!) and your “Goddess Array” (the things a woman needs to experience her best lovemaking: foreplay, respect, help around the house, understanding. On a side note, the nod to the “Inner Goddess” really is just like 50 Shades!) stimulated, you’re just not a real woman.
“… [I]t comes as no surprise, then, to discover that many women find that vibrators alone or masturbation alone do not do exactly what lovemaking does for them emotionally” (p. 74)
“This ideology [women don’t need men] does nothing to help women of any sexuality understand why, often, the vibrator and a pint of Häagen-Dazs are pleasurable but that other longings for connections can remain strong” (p. 75).
Ladies without access to a peen, you’re out of luck: vibrators, ice cream and a rom-com won’t cut it. ’Cause isn’t that what all miserable single women resort to in between boyfriends?
Going back to loud mouth=loose vagina, it would seem the reverse is also true, as an uptight vagina also begets an outspoken woman:
“Straight men would do well to ask themselves: ‘Do I want to be married to a Goddess—or a bitch?’ Unfortunately, there is not, physiologically, much middle ground available for women. Either they are extremely well treated sexually, or, if solo, treat themselves well sexually—or else they are at risk of becoming physically uncomfortable and emotionally irritable” (p. 301).
We just can’t win.
Wolf also talks about the sympathetic and automatic nervous system and how stress contributes to unsatisfactory sex lives:
“Marital counsellors tell women and men to talk through their problems; fertility doctors send men into rooms to masturbate and then they inject the semen themselves into the vaginas of women who are suffering from irregular periods or with low fertility levels. Again, if you understand the profound nature of the animality of women, you see that these practices are incomplete. Marital counsellors should start by telling men to hug women; to stroke if the women are open to that; to take women, if they are willing, ballroom dancing. Fertility specialists should make sure, before anything else, that women are getting well and regularly cuddled and brought to orgasm by their men” (p. 314).
Coming from someone who insinuated that the women who accused Julian Assange of rape were “honey trapping” him, this sounds awfully like a “legitimate rape” apology…
Because we’re such paranoid creatures obsessed with talking our feelings out, “[t]his, I believe, is why so many marital fights take place just when both members of the couple have entered the house after a day’s work—her brain is agitated and desperate to talk things through, which is how it calms down and feels better, while his is desperate to have some downtime doing nothing, or in front of the TV, which is how his brain calms down and feels better” (p. 319). I don’t know about the rest of you ladies, but my brain tends to work the opposite of how Wolf says it should: after a particularly mentally grueling day, I need to veg out in front of the TV and speak to no one. Kind of like Carrie feels when Aiden moves in with her in that episode of Sex & the City.
But maybe us modern, Western women are just living with too many distractions in our lives that prevent us from connecting with our partners, our “Goddess Arrays” and whatever else Wolf thinks we’re lacking. Maybe we’d be better off in the Third World?
“In virtually every culture outside the West, many women spend some time, usually on a daily basis, only with other women (and children)… While women in these societies face immense hurdles and inequities, they often seem to be much less irritated with the men they live with than women tend to be in the West. (I am not addressing here physical abuse.) The burden is not on the husband to somehow, heroically, alone, fill that deep neural need for talk, which his brain chemistry makes difficult to impossible” (p. 320).
Speaking of the Third World, women often give birth at home there (through lack of access to medical practitioners, not necessarily by choice), and hardly anything goes wrong *cue sarcasm*!
“A low-stress environment of soft lighting, soothing music, caring attendants, and the loving presence of family, all actually helped the female body birth a baby, and then feed a newborn, successfully, in clinically measurable ways. Many studies also confirm that stressful hospital birthing environments, in which women in labour are hooked up to intravenous devices, or to fetal monitors that consistently shows false-positive ‘fetal distress’, causes so much ‘bad stress’ in the mother that the stress itself biologically—not just psychologically—arrests labour contractions and inhibits lactation” (p. 34).
Not all Wolf’s points are ignorant ones: she does talk about porn use and modern relationships, scientific studies about the Pill and how it affects the way women physically respond to their significant others and, as I said above, the parts where Wolf discusses the vagina throughout history are quite informative.
However, I kind of wish she had’ve continued the vagina’s “biography” throughout the rest of the book, instead of harping on about her own experience with her retarded pelvic nerve, the luxury operation she underwent to correct it, and that a vagina that’s getting a lot of penetrative action resulting in vaginal orgasms makes for a more creatively fulfilled owner.
Related: 50 Shades of Grey by E.L. James Review.
Image via The Age.