Essays

The Feminist Hate-Read Book Club Reads Naomi Wolf’s Vagina: A New Biography

By posted at 6:00 am on September 24, 2012 27

Introduction
coverIn the weeks since Naomi Wolf’s Vagina: A New Biography was released, feminists have enjoyed a rare moment of widespread agreement: This book, without a doubt, is awful.

In the New Statesman, Laurie Penny explained how and why “this sort of excuse for feminism” hurts women. In the New York Review of Books, Zoë Heller was so scathing, a friend of ours who hasn’t read the book said he thought, “This can’t possibly be a fair account of Wolf’s thesis because it would entail — among many other things — that Wolf doesn’t know what the nervous system is.” (It was a fair account.) Jaclyn Friedman declared in The Prospect, “The book collapses under the weight of a breathtaking narcissism: If it doesn’t apply to Naomi, it doesn’t exist.” And at The Nation, Katha Pollitt wondered if “opinion-mongering, black-and-white thinking and relentless TMI are the price of remaining a world-class celebrity feminist.”

Meanwhile, a shady cabal of feminist writers were conducting a week-long roundtable discussion of the book, occasioned by the following e-mail conversation:

Kate Harding: Hello, internet feminist friends. Would you like to join me in a group hate-read of Naomi Wolf’s Vagina?

Roxane Gay: God, yes.

Michelle Dean:  Let’s all suffer together!

Jess Zimmerman: I’m good at hating stuff.

Nicole Cliffe: In.

Who Are These People?
Nicole Cliffe is the books editor at The Hairpin, and writes The Awl‘s monthly Classic Trash feature. She has a lot to say about Edith Wharton and Doctor Who.

Michelle Dean is a journalist and essayist who lives in New York and writes for a variety of publications including the New Yorker’s Page Turner, Slate, Salon, and The Awl.

Roxane Gay’s writing appears or is forthcoming in Best American Short Stories 2012, Virginia Quarterly Review, The Wall Street Journal, Salon, The Rumpus, American Short Fiction, Prairie Schooner, and others.)

Kate Harding has been ranting on the internet since 2005, most notably at now-retired blogs Broadsheet and Shapely Prose. She recently launched a new blog, Don’t Get Raped. She apologizes to Nicole and Jess for cutting a vagina-TARDIS joke below.

Jess Zimmerman writes mostly about science and cute animals at Grist, and yells about feminism on Twitter. She has written about ladybusiness and books (and dogs) for xoJane, and about ladybusiness and Doctor Who for ThinkProgress.

Mostly observing were Feministing Executive Editor Samhita Mukhopadhyay, Jezebel Deputy Editor Dodai Stewart, and Big Girls Don’t Cry author Rebecca Traister, (who flatly refused to read it from the outset). Exclusively observing were Tomorrow editor and writer Ann Friedman and Amanda Hess, plus Salon’s Irin Carmon. The Feminist Hate-Read Book Club was going to be a lot bigger, but then nobody really wanted to read the fucking thing, basically.

Background
If you’ve read any reviews at all, you already know that Naomi Wolf stopped having toe-curling orgasms, discovered she had an injured pelvic nerve, had surgery to fix it, and set out to tell the world about the little-known “Brain-vagina connection.” You know it contains bad science (a doctor friend tells Naomi he has an unproven hunch that sexual assault survivors have more balance problems than other women, and she turns around and offers his anecdata as Serious Scientific Support for her thesis); downright anti-scientific bullshit (she speaks highly of a “tantric sex master” who offers “yoni massage” to traumatized clients); and a vagina-themed dinner party (where pasta was referred to as “cuntini”) that so offended Wolf’s delicate yoni, it wouldn’t let her write for six months.

coverYou should also read at least Pollitt’s first paragraph, which covers Wolf’s public transformation from author of The Beauty Myth to the kind of person who A) has visions of herself as “a teenage boy who saw Jesus,” and B) has repeatedly used her status as an internationally known feminist and self-styled rape expert to cast doubt on the Swedish women who’ve accused Julian Assange of sexual assault. Among other things.

Oh, and here’s a fact-check on the science.

The Part Where We Make Vagina Jokes
Zimmerman: There should be a prize for the person who can work the most puns into her review. Don’t muff this opportunity, you eager beavers!

Cliffe: Oooh, I’m going all Shakespearean and seeding it with references to “country manners.”

Dean: But if we put too many vagina-insulting puns in, we may find that we cunt write anymore.

Harding: Look, I’m not going to pussyfoot around the subject or clam up just because of this theory — obviously full of gaping holes — that invoking its name might snatch my ability to write. Come, now.

Zimmerman: Gee, spot the crotchety one!

Dean: Y’all, this is getting heated. Here, have a biscuit.

Anyway
Gay: The folds of Naomi Wolf’s Vagina are very slick, which is to say the book was waiting at my apartment when I got home from work. The most important question, really, is, what is our girl Naomi smoking and why won’t she share? I mean!

Harding: And how long has she been smoking it? Did she dive off the rails at some point when I wasn’t looking, or was she always this bad?

covercoverI’m 37 now, and I was 16 when The Beauty Myth came out. Shameful confession: Despite being a body image activist, I never read the whole thing. (I did read Promiscuities and Misconceptions at the time they came out, and liked both.) If I went back and read those old books, would they hold up, or would I cringe as hard as I do at my own high school journals?

Traister: I am of the school that believes she was only ever really a feminist thinker by chance and accident, in that her narcissism intersected with feminism for The Beauty Myth (and MAYBE Promiscuities) but that essentially her thinking and writing has mostly been downright anti-feminist (insofar as it’s only self-interested and exhibits no regard for other women and their issues, priorities, or perspectives).

Harding: I do recall being amazed and a little furious at the way she talked about pregnancy making her no longer hot in Misconceptions. “I was suddenly both fat and obviously another man’s property, so no one hit on me anymore. IT WAS HORRIBLE. This is the unspoken feminist issue of our time!” (I paraphrase.) I was like, “Didn’t you write The Beauty Myth? And wasn’t that about… really not this?”

Gay: She’s really one of those magical thinking writers who wants you to forget her previous body of work with each new book. Fascinating.

coverCliffe: I re-read The Beauty Myth recently, and it’s still okay, although dated, and then I re-read Steinem’s Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, and it’s just as great as ever. She came to talk at my college reunion, and instead of being “hey, ladies, look how much better things are now!” she was this hardcore “your feminism must be intersectional and we need to talk about poverty and debt relief in the developing world” force, and totally bitched everyone out. It was great.

Dean: Gloria Steinem came to my law firm and she hugged me and compared me to Portia.

Naomi Wolf came to my law firm and began reciting 9/11 conspiracy theory.

First Impressions
Gay: I love what they did with the back cover, vaguely alluding to Wolf’s “work” because they couldn’t get great review clips for this book. Adorable!

coverThe most bizarre thing is how Wolf reduces female sexuality to the vagina. It’s so…. like, I don’t know, but Freud would approve.

Dean: Nah, Freud eventually abandoned the seduction thesis and as such ended up disconnecting from the body, no? Isn’t that what In the Freud Archives is all about?

Gay: I don’t know. I’m not well read on Freud. It just sounded fancy.

Dean: I am not either, just on JANET GODDAMN MALCOLM.

Zimmerman:
photo (57)

Gay: Fannie Flagg was all about the vagina goddessness well before Wolf came to it.

Dean: I was thinking the book sounds like Naomi Wolf’s version of the Matrix, where the Matrix plugs into our pelvic nerve. Yeah?

All Right, Let’s Read the Damned Thing
Zimmerman:
 I’ve been mostly avoiding reviews, so I didn’t fully realize that Wolf doesn’t just reduce female sexuality to the vagina — she reduces the entire female experience to the vagina. To be a fully-realized woman in any area of your life, you need world-changing orgasms provided by attentive men who lick your ass while you eat chocolate, or whatever (I haven’t gotten to the specifics of the “Goddess Array” yet). All of which is presented with a heavy salting of “I know it’s not PC to say women only reach their full potential when they’re getting really good orgasms from solicitous men, but I am a TRUTH-TELLER and this is SCIENCE.” Which works a lot better when you don’t ignore major scientific facts such as everything we know about the brain.

Gay: We also need to talk about the overwhelmingly heterosexual stance she takes, practically erasing queer women. It’s really quite something.

Zimmerman: Right, vaginas are only properly activated by penises, by means of some kind of cervical toggle switch.

Dean: I think that all of this is a function of the essential narcissism of work like this. I want to be hard on Wolf and will be hard on Wolf, but the truth is, the way she universalizes and politicizes her personal experience here as that of “women” is of a piece with the rise of a lot of personal essaying on sexuality among young hetero white women I see right now, and it would be unfortunate to me to critique her for this without mentioning she’s hardly outside the mainstream in doing so.

Zimmerman: It makes me embarrassed on Wolf’s behalf. If it weren’t legitimized by being 300 pages with endnotes and published by HarperCollins, a lot of Vagina would basically read like stoned dorm-room revelations.

“Dude, my vagina is huge.”

Gay: I agree with Michelle about this trend of young, straight white women essaying on sexuality as one or more of the following: self-expression, fast attention, “internet fame,” etc. and it often seems like these young women think this is the only way to move through the world as a writer.

In Vagina, Wolf takes this to the extreme. She also makes it seem like if you’re not having vaginal orgasms that open up your world, thinking, soul, pores, and whatnot, you’re doing it wrong. It’s really disconcerting.

Harding: Roxane, you were saying on Twitter that this book is actually not just ridiculous and snarkworthy, but dangerous?

Gay: I do think this book is shamefully irresponsible. Once I calm down from saying, “What the fucking fuck in all fuckity is this bullshit,” I will have deeper thoughts.

Harding: What keeps striking me is that Wolf seems not to have read any new feminist thinkers since herself. It’s like her big revelation is, “Second-wave feminism didn’t get everything right!” — and she has no idea that she is the last putative feminist intellectual on earth to discover this. (“If you liked this, you’ll love Wolf’s next book: WHITE FEMINISTS ARE PRETTY RACIST SOMETIMES.”)

For instance, page 100: “So is all rape about sexual aggression or male neurosis? Or can the sustained cultural presence of rape also or even instead, at times, be about reprogramming women…to be less brave, less secure, less robust in other ways, and to go through the rest of their lives, potentially with a less stable sense of self?”

What I omitted there was the phrase “at a core physical level.” Because if you remove her bizarre vagina über alles theory, the rest of it demands no response more elaborate or eloquent than “Doy.” (Well, and “No” to the first question.)

I mean, she actually writes, regarding rape as a tool of warfare, “There was nothing about the rapes, with these injuries, that seemed sexual to me…” Wait, you mean rape might not be all about sex? Go on!

cover(Of course, she also admits she’s “basing part of [her] argument” on William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience, from 1902. So maybe I should just be happy she’s not using pre-suffrage literature to build her feminist straw womyn.)

Zimmerman: That’s for sure one of the dorm room moments — “oh my god, you guys, what if rape is NOT JUST ABOUT SEX?” Well hallelujah, Naomi, you have just solved the problem all feminists struggle with until they’re about 22 and read some books.

And where this gets dangerous, instead of just gross, is when Wolf looks at the psychological damage from rape, and speculates that it’s worse than the psychological damage from any other injury because of some magical property of the vagina, the key to a woman’s soul. But I’d hazard that it’s worse because it is psychologically damaging to be treated as though you are nothing but a vagina. Ahem.

Harding: I also can’t get over the way she spews woo and science (however dubious) in the same breath, over and over, assigning equal credibility to OB/GYNS, neurologists, “energy healers,” and Tantric sex masters.

Actual quote: “The female sexual organ… is being proved by new science to be far more complex and far more magical than the utilitarian thrusting totted up by Masters and Johnson can account for…”

PROVED BY SCIENCE TO BE MAGICAL. That is basically the deranged thesis of this whole book, right there.

Dean: I had to stop reading here:

rapestaysin

Apparently the only way to retrieve one’s rape from one’s vagina is to hire a strange man to massage it and refer to it as a yoni. Hmm, all these years of rape counseling and psychological research, wasted, because we won’t succumb to the charms of the nicest former investment banker in the world.

Gay: That’s actually where I stopped too. “Rape stays in the vagina,” is so… infuriating. I threw the book and stared at it angrily for quite. some. time.

I do not understand how a book like this is allowed to be published. The broad, dismissive statements she makes about rape victims are so offensive. The section on the women of Sierra Leone is patronizing in that way certain white women love to patronize as if by simply conjuring the African continent, they are demonstrating their global awareness.

She also seems to project a great deal. When she’s talking about the women in Sierra Leone, she makes a lot of assumptions, based on the narrowness of her mind, about the look in their eyes, their general outlook, and the motivations of their rapists.

I cannot pretend to understand what goes through the mind of men who use rape as a weapon of war but she wants to turn their motivations into some mystical bullshit because for her, women’s lives are centered around their vagina. She’s no better than… a misogynist! I simply cannot understand how this book exists.

Zimmerman: Oh man, combining this fucking chapter with Wolf’s comments about Assange just gave me a really skin-crawly image of a Naomi Wolf-led Rape Legitimacy Panel, which would evaluate your rape claims based on eye light, soullessness, ability to stay standing when pushed, and generally whether you still have some rape stuck in your vagina or not.

Harding: I was also just getting to that point of wondering how a book like this makes it all the way through the publishing process. I’m having way less fun laughing at it than I thought I would, because it’s so fucking shameful.

The line about sexual assault survivors in Sierra Leone having “soulless” eyes stopped me cold. That is just not something a white American ever needs to say about African people, even if it’s only to illustrate that their vaginas are broken. By systematic rapes.

Also, her whole theory of the real tragedy of rape being a traumatized vagina suggests that rape victims who don’t have vaginas should be A-OK…?

Gay: And she suggests that once a woman has been raped, she is essentially mentally damaged.

I will not deny that rape has very lasting effects for many women but it’s like she wants to think of women who have been raped strictly as victims. She gives the impression that women (and men) who are raped cannot transcend their victimhood and this is something both feminism and the mental health industry have worked against for like the past thirty years.

Harding: YES.

This is the yoni massage guy, btw. By whom I am so utterly disgusted, I am shaking right now.

yonidude

I mean, the thought of telling rape survivors they should pay a shady-as-fuck professional fingerer to cure their broken vaginas is bad enough, but here he is describing a typical “healing” session:

Once they feel safe enough to move from “freeze” to “fight or flight,” they are likely to be moving also from numbness to pain or masking orgasms, absolute rage — they may start yelling at that point, or revisit the trauma, but this time with a different outcome. They might shout, this time, “Get your fucking hands off me!” Memories may surface. They move into “flight”: sometimes the legs will involuntarily start kicking.

Sometimes the legs will involuntarily start kicking.

But wait! “Eventually intimacy doesn’t retraumatize them.” OH, GOOD.

(Update: And as Katha Pollitt points out in The Nation, “It is unclear what separates Lousada from the Victorian doctors Wolf disapproves of, who genitally massaged their frustrated women patients to orgasm.”)

Gay: I will tell you this. I think this yoni massage is total bullshit. He is a male escort and there’s no shame in that but trying to dress that in new age healing is absurd.

I also know that if I had to choose between some creepy ass vaginal massage as a means of healing from trauma given by this guy with a 1986 haircut and, say, death, well, I have lived a good life.

Dean: I just showed his picture to Maura Johnston and she started to sing “Kiss from a Rose,” FYI. #icant

Harding: Also: HE SAW THE VIRGIN MARY IN A CROTCH. (p. 123)

Dean: About publishing, I think perhaps people have too exalted a view of the mainstream publishing process. The risk, contractually and industry-culture-wise, is on the writer as far as accuracy and thoroughness of the information goes. Editors give writers fairly healthy leeway from what little I know; it’s not like they read the studies themselves, or even really test the arguments against logic in most places. It obviously depends on the editor and the type of book. But one assumes everyone knows what they are getting with Wolf at this point, and sort of leave her to her own devices.

coverCliffe: Having returned from my plunge into the book, and in firm agreement with the political objections and criticisms above, I would like to add that the vagina is completely unimportant as A Concept, which, oddly enough, I had not internalized until I read an entire book about it. Two, if you count The Vagina Monologues, which I did not particularly enjoy, but could appreciate as a series of personal narratives, you can have a compelling personal narrative about your vagina. You can have a compelling personal narrative about having been born a woman without a vagina. I fully support the rights of women who were born without vaginas to decide that it is fundamentally important to their well-being to acquire one surgically.

I am not an evo-psych person, not even a little bit, but I AM an atheist who is reasonably relaxed about The Void We Stare Across (zerooooo pun intended), and as a result, this book just made me want to grab her and say: it is a fucking gap in your body which evolved to vent menstrual fluid and infants and to give you enough physical pleasure so you might get conned into the latter.

I’m not a vagina/brain scientist (and this article suggests Wolf is not either) but it is not A Concept, it’s more like your armpit than it is like your soul, and I think if one MUST write a cultural history of a body part (I await the Sack Chronicles with bated breath), it does not follow that you need to say, unblinkingly, a series of made-up things and wave your hands and say GOSH SO MANY DIFFERENT THINGS TO DIFFERENT PEOPLE! IS IT A POMEGRANATE OF DELIGHT OR A CAVE OF DESPAIR?

So much woo.

Dean: I just want to note I’m having trouble getting through this, post the Terrible Rape Chapter. An editor should have stepped in and made this later stuff more narratively-driven. I wonder if some of these chapters aren’t chapters of her D.Phil thesis or something. They’re written in another voice altogether.

Harding: Oh, I’d bet money that’s exactly what the endless Victorian lit part is.

In other news, Sady Doyle reviewed it for In These Times, and her angle (besides “Boooorrrrring”) is that we’re all freaking out too much and trying to kick Wolf out of feminism because 1) Assange and 2) Impossible standards for feminist perfection. Or something.

I’m sympathetic to the basic argument — I don’t think one book should necessarily undo a history of good books, and we don’t want to be chucking people out of feminism willy-nilly — but I really think she picked the wrong peg for it.

First, as far as I can gather from my own reading and your comments, Wolf really only has one good book and a bunch of pretty crappy ones. Second: There is some fucked-up, retrograde, anti-woman, unscientific shit in here, and as with Sarah Palin, when you promote fucked-up, retrograde, anti-woman, unscientific shit, you actually do lose the right to call yourself a feminist, on grounds of “words mean things.”

Gay: I must say my response to this book has nothing to do with Assange (which I’m a little embarrassed to admit I didn’t know about until recently). As for impossible standards, if a desire for coherence, ethical discussions of rape, non-essentialist discussions about women that don’t reduce them to a body part, and cultural histories that sidestep flagrant narcissism are impossible standards for perfection, I am absolutely fine with that.

The critical response to Vagina has interested me a great deal. If you haven’t read the book, the criticism and the glee with which it has been offered seems a bit like a pile on.

Then you read the book.

Cliffe: I paid more attention to the Assange-based character played by Ryan Phillippe in the last season of Damages, but that’s probably because I now select news stories based on what my yoni wants.

Harding: Do I have to be the one who speculates that perhaps Naomi Wolf’s yoni wants Julian Assange?

Zimmerman: We should probably all be wearing these while we read.

vagtee

Stewart, suddenly moved to speak: omfg

Harding: I was born via c-section. Where’s THAT t-shirt?

Stewart: Hole in the market, heh.

Cliffe: I had a natural birth, which is 90% for suckers, 10% great (of which, 8% is bragging rights and 2% is effective pushing and rapid recovery for some people, not others), and I’m hearing a lot of echoes with the ridiculous nonsense about the wisdom of the female body that you have to put up with during pregnancy, birth, and breastfeeding.

Zimmerman: The incredibly boring/facile “My Summer Reading, by Naomi, Age 15″ section totally lulled me into letting my guard down, but I should have known it was going to get bad again because I hadn’t yet gotten to the famed “cuntini” scene.

As it turned out, that part was way less ridiculous and more offensive than I’d been prepared for. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it was ridiculous! Obviously! But it’s one thing to complain about someone giving you a nice meal that you interpret as being improperly laden with metaphor, and it’s another thing to follow that up by saying “I felt… that I had been punished for ‘going somewhere’ that women are not supposed to go” and then DESCRIBING FEMALE PROTESTORS DURING THE ARAB SPRING GETTING FORCED VAGINAL EXAMS FROM THE ARMY. WHAT THE FUCK. WHAT THE FUCK. “I was being punished for speaking up, and while we’re on the subject, here are some other women who had a similar experience! Truly do I understand their pain at being sexually assaulted by the military, for I was once served fish shortly after someone called pasta an off-color name.”

Traister: I am not sure I’ve ever felt more affirmed in a decision NOT to read something than I do right now.

Conclusion
Harding: 
OK, so, final thoughts. Did you make it to the end of the book, or give up? If you made it, is there anything really important that we’ve missed?

Zimmerman: Well, we haven’t yet gotten to the specifics of the Goddess Array! Thoughts:

– It is in a crazy order! “Don’t Be Scary” comes AFTER “Find Her ‘Sacred Spot,’ Then Hang Out There Far Longer Than You Think Reasonable.” NO. Don’t be scary FIRST.

– Apparently I am supposed to get a “vaginal thump” when my husband does things like buy cat food or talk to my grandma. Basically, this book makes me feel like I might be asexual.

– There is a subsection in the Goddess Array chapter labeled “Do Whatever She Likes To Her Nipples.” That seems like it’s on the right track! Inexplicably, though, the other sections are not titled things like “Talk To Her However She Likes” and “Do Activities You Enjoy Together.”

– The secret life of the male armpit. THE SECRET LIFE OF THE MALE ARMPIT.

Honestly, what the hell is this book. It’s like a Tantric yoga pamphlet fucked a seminar paper which fucked a self-help book which fucked an MRA forum, and then they all had a joyous vaginal birth.

Stewart:

 

 

Zimmerman: Hey, at least now they’ll have some blurbs for the paperback edition that are actually about this book. “Naomi Wolf’s Vagina is a perfect stocking stuffer.” — Courtney Love

Dean: I’ve been thinking about Sady’s piece and here is where I am with her: I think the New Agey-ness of this all is so easily mocked, but though I made those jokes too I’d actually be fine with a book that took these tropes seriously and discussed them seriously. I’m not an atheist, like Nicole, but even if I was, I think I would feel this way. I’m interested in the way people find meaning in their lives, and if there are women out there who really think their yoni (or whatever) is it, fine. I’m listening. I can be open-minded about that. And I think it would be wrong — and dare I say “anti-feminist,” though more on that in a minute — for me to just mock it emptily.

That said, this is not a book that takes this stuff seriously either. It is lightly researched not just scientifically, but also where the religious/meaning aspect is concerned. It doesn’t move out of the realm of very bare self-help. It doesn’t feel particularly raw or honest, either. The tone is weirdly arm’s length even in the sections where she talks about her own orgasms, which seem more like abstractions, in the text, than things that actually happened to her. The more I think about it, her ability to easily place her orgasms in a descriptive category is a bit… bizarre to begin with, but it’s the maneuver on which the whole book is founded.

It’s the terrible lightness of this book, in the end, that makes it so… bad, to me. And, though I guess I use the term loosely here, “anti-feminist.” I used to be rather programmatic about feminism, used to think it ought to contain certain base prescriptive rules. But what I found most frustrating on the level of lady-politics was that such a badly-edited, poorly-written, and indifferently-researched book was being wielded as a consumer tool to sell “feminism” as the “Naomi Wolf” brand. Katha Pollitt had that line in her piece about this being the cost of a “celebrity feminist” being a lot of TMI, but I would add “TME” — too much ego.

Increasingly, I don’t write explicitly as a “feminist” anymore, and that’s largely because it feels like it would be aligning myself with this kind of cynical claptrap.

Gay: I went into this book with a fairly open mind (really). I’ve only read The Beauty Myth so I still had a bit of goodness in my heart as I considered Naomi Wolf’s Vagina. I don’t mind that she has an alternative, vaginally-based spirituality or that she has vaginal orgasms that open up her creativity and generosity of spirit.

As I read Vagina, I went from bemusement to irritation to anger.

One of the biggest problems feminism faces is how all too often, the movement’s mission is defined by the public feminists with the loudest voices and furthest reach. The way feminism will be mischaracterized by the content of this book concerns me a great deal.

coverVagina is part memoir, part literature review, part inflammatory nonsense, part spiritual treatise instead of a biography or cultural history. I love cultural histories about niche topics. One of my favorite books remains Taking the Waters by Alev Lyle Croutier, about the history of bathing. I’ve read books about salt and dinner and breasts. I’m down with the genre.

There is very little resemblance to a cultural history in Vagina. One of the biggest weaknesses in the book is the sheer scope of the solipsism. Most of Wolf’s observations are dictated solely by her personal experiences and the kinds of orgasms she prefers. She makes loose associations with questionable science as if this might endow her with some kind of authority when it doesn’t actually work like that.

The thing about the vagina, at least in my experience, is that no two are alike. As such, writing a cultural history of the vagina is quite a daunting task. The female body is as complex as it is simple. I am fairly certain my vagina doesn’t do a fraction of the things Wolf’s is capable of, and I’m fine with that but I do think it shows how the subjectivity of desire and pleasure mean that it is inadvisable to make blanket, overly generalized statements about the vagina.  I remain deeply skeptical about the vagina-brain connection. The thinking behind the vaginal pulse throbbing when men are considerate is the same kind of thinking that leads to 0% fat yogurt and women dancing in commercials about cleaning products and this pervasive cultural notion that when a man watches his own child, he is babysitting while when a woman watches her child, she is parenting. On page 275, Wolf offers some examples of when women felt this magical vaginal pulse which included a father teaching his son to ride a bike, a husband giving up his pillow while camping, a phone call to a grandmother, and driving well on a rainy road. Apparently basic human decency will get a woman revved right up.

It is also troubling that so much of womanhood is reduced to the vagina and it’s intersection with virile men. One of the many things feminism tries to work against is the objectification of the female body but that’s just what Wolf does for more than three hundred pages.

I cannot pretend to understand the vagaries of publishing but it says something that a book like this, one that is so essentialist and dismissive of too many women’s experiences, was published.

And then there’s Chapter 6. I admittedly have a bit of a blind spot in this regard but Wolf’s biggest problem throughout Vagina, and particularly in Chapter 6, is that she was not careful. A couple years ago I wrote this essay called “The Careless Language of Sexual Violence” and it was an initial attempt to think through how we write about sexual violence both in fiction and nonfiction. How do we write about sexual violence without exploiting the experiences of people who have been violated in this way? The questions are still on my mind, but I keep coming back to the idea that we need to take care in the words we use and the why of the words we use. I was struck, throughout Chapter 6, and at other points in the book, with the utter lack of care Wolf used in writing about women, bodies, and sexual violence. Her approach was very much a surface approach, a very dated approach, and one that made some really sweeping assumptions about victims of sexual violence. I don’t think that kid gloves need to be worn but I do think serious consideration and smart language needs to be used. I do think there is an ethic that must be followed when framing the experiences of victims of sexual violence in ways that are meant to support a broader argument.

At this point, people are spending more time talking about the critical reaction to the book than the book itself and that says something rather disheartening about Vagina. I really wanted to have a lively discussion about Vagina. I hoped we could find some merit in the book even as we giggled and made some clever vaginal jokes. Instead, I found the book not only careless but infuriating and irresponsible and at times, just fucking silly. This is a cynical, cynical book and feminism and the vagina both deserve a better figurehead.

Zimmerman: Obviously this is all amazing, but because I can’t shut up about this book (seriously, ranting about Vagina has become my new party trick), I wanted to respond to one small part: Personally, I’m not in the least bit skeptical about the brain-vagina connection — of course your brain is connected to your vagina! It’s just that it is also connected to every other part of your body. The only thing that makes the brain-vagina connection more special is that Naomi Wolf has decided that it’s more special.

I’m anti-woo and would never deliberately read a book about spiritual vaginas and whatnot, but I wouldn’t really have a problem with such a book existing. But that’s not the book Wolf thinks she’s writing — she believes, or wants us to believe, that she’s writing a knock-down scientific argument backed up by firm evidence. And yet what she presents is isolated facts that she’s layered with her own a priori interpretation, then labeled as “data.” It’s like chipping some rocks off the coastline, setting them adrift in the ocean, stapling together some kind of ramshackle network of scaffolding between them, and saying you live in America. And furthermore that you want Congressional representation.

Cliffe: Exactly, exactly! It’s woo disguised as neuroscience, and it’s chock-full of pointless biological determinism, and it is frivolous on the topic of sexual violence. I wouldn’t buy a woo book about the vagina, but I also would feel zero need to criticize it in a public forum, or even to give it more than a second glance on my way to the cash register at Barnes & Noble.

Harding: Nothing to add. Thank you so much, everyone! You guys are tits.

Image via base2wave/Flickr





Share this article

More from the Millions

27 Responses to “The Feminist Hate-Read Book Club Reads Naomi Wolf’s Vagina: A New Biography”

  1. Edward Champion
    at 11:09 am on September 24, 2012

    I greatly dig all the contributors here, but this is an absolute waste of their time and intellect. Naomi Wolf has already received an avalanche of bad press from the likes of Germaine Greer, Zoe Heller, Ariel Levy, Suzanne Moore, and so forth. Every thinking person from here to Juneau knows that VAGINA is a stinker. Many of the points in this so-called symposium have already been made. So it serves little to no purpose to reinforce these obvious conclusions, which is especially criminal in light of the assembled talent, who really have better things to do. But then just about everyone in the literary world knows by now that C. Max Magee could not take a real intellectual chance if he had a gun to his head. Small wonder that places committed to true rigorous thinking like The LA Review of Books have stepped in. I’m looking forward to The Millions’s next “provocative” 20,000 word roundtable discussion about why Mitt Romney is a terrible presidential candidate or how religious fundamentalists are all CRA-ZEE!!!

  2. What We Missed
    at 5:00 pm on September 24, 2012

    [...] We Missed By Syreeta | Published: September 24, 2012 Glory be, a roundtable of lady writers read and hate on Naomi Wolf’s Vjayjay opus. I’m still *trying* to get through it (when I don’t throw the book across the room), [...]

  3. Katha Pollitt
    at 5:21 pm on September 24, 2012

    What is sad is that buried in this book is some kind of attempt to respond to a real problem, which is that there’s still a lot of shame around female sexuality, sex is still oriented toward male pleasure, many women have trouble asking for what they need in bed, or even in figuring out what that is, many women don’t have orgasms, Technicolor or not, nearly often enough and so on. The “Goddess Array” of vagina worship she proposes is so ridiculous– a missed opportunity to talk about real-life sexual relationships and how they can be made more exciting for women.
    Well, there’s always Mike Lousada! I’ll bet business has really picked up for him since the book came out.

  4. Mary
    at 12:46 am on September 25, 2012

    I hadn’t even heard of this book yet, but oh geez this post was super entertaining. I can not believe that photo of the tantric yoni massage guy!

  5. Emma L. E. Rees
    at 4:11 am on September 25, 2012

    If feminists critique Wolf’s book without acknowledging that it is a timely, important publication – even if it is flawed in places – then they’re doing one another no favours at all. Wolf has bravely articulated some crucial points about female sexuality – we need to give these credit and not just delight in the sick sport of criticising the book. You’re letting misogyny take a back seat because you’re doing the haters’ work for them. More here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/emma-l-e-rees/naomi-wolf-criticism_b_1893118.html

  6. Grace Lovelace
    at 11:35 am on September 25, 2012

    The narcissism and solipsism definitely did not come out of the blue in Wolf’s work. Look at the personal narrative that informs much of Misconceptions: No one is treating me like I’m important now that I’m a mom in the suburbs, AND THIS IS A HUGE PROBLEM FOR FEMINISM.

  7. Shelley
    at 11:38 am on September 25, 2012

    Nicole Cliffe at her site with the octopus looks like Aunt Beast.

    Remember her?

  8. Nathalie
    at 9:21 pm on September 25, 2012

    Although I obviously agree that Naomi Wolf’s book is terrible, something about this piece didn’t sit well with me. People made personal attacks against Wolf, like “Do I have to be the one who speculates that perhaps Naomi Wolf’s yoni wants Julian Assange?” I realize this is a rant and that people are angry, but I felt like this was a cyber version of catty high-school girls gossiping, and it makes their argument against Wolf less credible.

  9. PT Smith
    at 11:45 pm on September 25, 2012

    Emma,

    Why does a critique of a woman’s work have to be nicer, more welcoming, and based on gender-alliance than critique of a man’s work?

  10. Read at your own risk | Fangs and Clause
    at 9:41 am on September 26, 2012

    [...] like to interrupt my usual editorial babble with this little link. This article is rife with schadenfreude. It is completely unsafe for work, people with high blood pressure, and should [...]

  11. Eric
    at 9:47 am on September 26, 2012

    This is the funniest thing I’ve read in a while. The scibbled comments in the book killed me. Please make this book club a running feature, if it isn’t one already.

    I have no knowledge of this author or her book – I only know that this is very funny on its own terms.

  12. Lori
    at 11:00 am on September 26, 2012

    What is this about all these third-and younger-wave feminists being misogyinist because they all seem to be “Team Friedman” and not “Team Wolf?” (Reference: Their 2010 Democracy Now! debate on Julian Assange and rape) No wonder feminism is so problematic, divisive, and unwelcoming for women that truly need it! It is also no wonder that we are, in actuality, losing the “war on women.” I wish these younger women would explain their ridiculous hatred of Naomi Wolf with more clarity. I agree with the commenter that these comments of hatred are doing feminism NO favors at all. I happen to be almost 50, Wolf’s age, and for me, Wolf is all I have as any kind of a feminist “role model.” As someone who has little interest in sexuality as a form of pleasure, I cannot relate to these sex-obsessed younger feminists I keep running into in my web searches. In reality, sexual pleasure is not for everyone. I get my pleasure by reading, watching terrible TV and movies, not to mention observing the messy state of our society and culture where civility has now become all but extinct. I don’t need to express my pleasures with other people so intimately, when my core interests happen to be fighting for the rights to privacy in a world that is, I believe to be, disturbingly open and unprivate. I will judge Wolf’s book for myself when I do get around to reading it. My message to younger feminists is that when you really will grow up, you will come to realize that there is no excuse for misogyny at all. Spiritedly debating the issues matters, but character attacks are wrong, no matter how much you disagree with what others have to say.The world does not revolve around you and your like-minded friends and peers. Differences of opinions will exist as long as the human race exists. I prefer living in a world of differences than of everyone being all the same.

  13. PT Smith
    at 11:22 am on September 26, 2012

    Lori,

    Same question I had for Emma, how is it misogynist to criticize a woman if you are a woman? Why do feminists all need to support each other, otherwise they are bad feminists. That standard holds back any movement, any philosophy.

  14. Michelle B
    at 2:28 pm on September 26, 2012

    @ P T Smith

    There’s no need for a critic to be nicer than they normally would or to support work that the don’t agree with, but the problem with this sort of behavior is that it reinforces the negative stereotype that women aren’t capable of professional work and that, if asked to evaluate something, it will become a catty echo chamber of red-scrunchy wearers venting their emotions and jealousies.

    There were certainly moments in this discussion when it threatened to be something like a real evaluation of Wolf’s work. For example, Gay’s critique about the importance of the nuance of discourse regarding victims of sexual violence. That’s a fair accusation and it is leveled at the work in question rather than framed as a personal attack.

    Sadly, moments like that are few and far between. Instead, we get personal attacks Wolf (assertions that she’s blinded to Assange’s crimes by sexual desire), arguments about guilt by association (there must be something wrong with the book if Courtney Love likes it), unrelated jabs (Wolf’s book must be flawed because she also is a truther and was personally indifferent to me), and other rhetorical moves best left to mid-level rant bloggers rather than thoughtful critics. All this reinforces the idea that women are all about the social links, personal history, and gut reactions rather than the intellect. They’re acting out a crappy stereotype.

    I would add that, beyond just acting like misogynist straw-women critics, they do further damage by digging up nearly every misogynist stereotype they can think of to destroy Wolf. Aside from the “blinded by desire” example I gave above, there’s the “just want attention” trope (trotted out by Gay), the repeated deployment of the hard science versus your touchy feely women crap stuff trope (whole class), the charge of insincerity (Gay, again, with the assist by Dean, who adds a classic charge of “egocentrism” to the mix), intellectual immaturity, “magic thinking,” and on, and on.

    I strongly suspect that none of the participants in this exercise are, by any stretch of the definition, misogynists. But by turning this whole thing into the equivalent of the “Queen of the Neighborhood’s Burn Book,” engaging in sub-pro behavior, and then constructing a target that’s an anti-feminist’s wet dream, they couldn’t have given misogynists a better article to point to if they were looking for an exemplar of the sad state of Internet Era, celeb obsessed, snap-driven pseudo-feminism.

  15. PT Smith
    at 4:03 pm on September 26, 2012

    Michelle,

    You say that there’s no need to be nicer, but then you make moves to take away whole swaths of criticism. Mockery of the absurd is just one of those, and that’s really a good, fun one that men are more than allowed, and more than expected to stand up to. The criticism of Wolf’s support of Assange was real, meaningful, and accurate. Tossing in the joke that she’s blind to the crimes because of sexual desire is exactly the type of joke that men are basically expected to engage in in most thinking spheres.

    The just want attention criticism is another one that has a legitimate place. A thinker becomes a celebrity, the books put out post-celebrity become louder, more attention-calling, and less coherent.

    The book proposes to have some scientific base. It trots out doctor anectdote as mattering because that is as close as science gets to supporting the ideas. It chooses pseudo-science as best. How is that not legitimate criticism? Can a woman who is poorly using science to back an argument not be called out on that?

    Besides, your criticims of the article fall into the same traps you are against them for. “gut reactions rather than the intellect.” How is that different than being against their criticism of Wolf’s pseudo-science?

  16. Michelle B
    at 4:55 pm on September 26, 2012

    @ PT

    First, I did credit the group with making some well-observed and serious arguments. The crew here rightly calls out several instances of Wolf passing off bad mumbo-jumbo as fact. However, just as much of the “hard science” rhetoric has little to do with the scientific validity of Wolf’s claims. For example, Cliffe’s evocation of science to rail on that the idea that vagina is just a biological fact and not A Concept (her caps) is not only not strictly scientific (biological facts and concepts are, to massage another thinker’s phrase and shove it in here overlapping magisteria and not mutually exclusive) but bizarrely ignores a significant body of work from Third Wave feminists showing how an intricate structure of biological facts and conceptual frameworks shape our understanding. Cliffe’s evocation of science there is simply an appeal to authority to reinforce a personal preference. She apparently doesn’t like people pondering what the social, philosophical, and spiritual significance of the vajayjay is – though such a task is, in and of itself, in inherently laughable, no matter how Wolf’s particular attempt might be.

    Secondly, men do regularly add in ad hominem attacks, off-topic jabs, claims of guilt by association, and similar things in their review. That just makes them crappy male critics. The argument that men are expected to act like jackasses does not, I think, make acting like jackasses a moral imperative nor do the professional failings of male critics justify lousy work by women. I would hope that we could aspire to something better than repeating the worst male criticism has to offer, only with a this-side-of-the-Plastics’-table twist to make it Feminist(TM).

    Finally, I’m all for mockery of the absurd. I just ask it be funny. If not funny, then please please please be brief. This, sadly, was neither.

  17. How to make the opera more interesting: Eat algae the singer grew on her face | Grist
    at 1:45 pm on September 28, 2012

    [...] Well, bad news: It’s not so much the future as the present. At the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Digital Design Weekend, an opera singer used her voice to feed carbon dioxide (for you non-science majors, it’s “what we breathe out”) to algae so that it would grow. Which is kind of vile. The carbon-dioxide-emitting opera singer controlled her pitch and volume to change the algae’s taste, which is also vile. And yes, the audience was encouraged afterward to “taste her song,” and yes, this unique opportunity and the phrase used to describe it are both upsetting, in a way that evokes walking in on your mother’s book club discussing that Naomi Wolf book about her cooch. [...]

  18. Society for Menstrual Cycle Research : » Republican Tampons, Period Music, and More Weekend Links
    at 9:41 am on September 29, 2012

    [...] you tired of Naomi Wolf’s Vagina? Pretty much everyone else is: The Feminist Hate-Read Book Club Reads Naomi Wolf’s Vagina. For take-downs of the bad science, see here and here and [...]

  19. Female Usurpers | Synthase
    at 3:42 pm on September 29, 2012

    [...] the publication of Hanna Rosin’s The End of Men, Liza Mundy’s The Richer Sex, and most controversially, Naomi Wolf’s Vagina, a spate of essays about gender and sex in the modern world has appeared. [...]

  20. Links 10/1/12 | Mike the Mad Biologist
    at 4:50 pm on October 1, 2012

    [...] you know the wheel has turned) Mitt Romney’s Real Agenda Telling people to leave finance The Feminist Hate-Read Book Club Reads Naomi Wolf’s Vagina: A New Biography The Geography of Nope ‘Will American Innovation Slow If We Go ‘Cuddly’?’ IS [...]

  21. Judith Harper
    at 3:58 pm on October 5, 2012

    Hey, I have an idea that might actually help women and girls of all ages. Why don’t you discuss books that advance the cause of equality in the workplace and in every other arena of American culture?

    You know, novels, plays, poetry, creative nonfiction, history, politics, sociology–the list is endless!

    No, I haven’t read Naomi Wolff–I’ve been busy helping young women in higher education figure out how they can make it.

    Let’s make a better future.

    Judith E. Harper

  22. Perspective « hardbound
    at 2:40 am on October 9, 2012

    [...] of Woman: An Intimate Geography the instructor for Mandatory Science could have assigned Vagina, by Naomi Wolf.    IntroductionIn the weeks since Naomi Wolf’sVagina: A New Biography was [...]

  23. Li Li
    at 1:38 pm on November 22, 2012

    I loved The Beauty Myth. So when I went to Powells and saw that Wolf would be giving a talk there soon, I wondered whether I’d be too nervous to go and see the woman whose book had spoken to me so much, way back when…

    And then, not without a certain sense of dread, I actually picked up one of the shelf copies of Vagina. In the name of any tree that was ever chopped down that shit might be writ upon leaves: oh my god!! Horrible! Horrible! I got through a few warbles in the Lousada section before throwing the thing back on the shelf lest people see me reading it. (Side note re Lousada–Real employment’s tough to get these days; if he manages to bring home the odd slab of bacon at the expense of a cadre of mind-blowing narcissists, I can sympathize infinitely more with that than with his Johns–er, Janes.)

    This reminds me of something similar that happened when I saw Any Woman’s Blues after loving Erica Jong through F of F, poetry, Save Own Life, etc. But with Erica it was on a much smaller scale, and after Blues, as she aged, she turned gracefully back to the wider world, not to mention the well-deployed word. I have no illusions that Naomi will do likewise, because she’s simply left too large a pile to clean up in 30-40 years. Also, Jong is an artist; Wolf positioned herself as a reporter.

    Which is, I think, unfortunate. When Wolf was young and less famous she was more diligent, and I never got the feeling that she wanted to hurt anyone. Still don’t–but oh my, how she has.

    Big news: women are affected by their hormones, and men are affected by theirs! It’s time for a chorus of “So what?” But what I’m really wondering is if antifeminists/the general public will decide we all just lose all sense in our forties–or all feminism dissolves into this excruciating spirituobabble. We need to disabuse them of that notion fast.

  24. On trans issues within feminism and strengthening the movement’s gender analysis
    at 3:53 pm on June 11, 2013

    [...] women in a way that is heterosexist and racist. I was told trans issues were cut for space from an incredibly long round table discussion about the book among a bunch of prominent feminists in media. Which is frankly ridiculous. As Jaclyn Friedman [...]

  25. Sobre questões trans dentro do feminismo e o fortalecimento da análise de gênero a partir movimento | Transfeminismo
    at 11:58 am on July 8, 2013

    [...] e racista. Fiquei sabendo que questões trans foram cortadas por motivos de espaço de uma mesa-redonda absurdamente grande sobre o livro entre um grupo de famosas feministas na mídia. Algo que é honestamente ridículo. Como Jaclyn [...]

  26. Jaclyn Friedman: clit big as the world | A Voice for Men
    at 5:01 pm on September 1, 2013

    […] was unsurprising because Friedman is a very unpleasant woman who brags about her membership in “a shady cabal” where not-being civil is Jaclyn Friedman’s way of […]

  27. Moe Murph (AKA "The Toast" Fan No. 1)
    at 1:08 pm on November 20, 2013

    Coming late to the party, but, wow, just wow:

    a.) This whole article and a lot of the pro comments have an unpleasant aura of “bitchy.”

    b.) Segment of “Li Li” comment But what I’m really wondering is if antifeminists/the general public will decide we all just lose all sense in our forties–or all feminism dissolves into this excruciating spirituobabble. We need to disabuse them of that notion fast.

    My take: women are apologetic enough already, f@k worrying about their notions.

    c.) How To Make Opera More Interesting “……upsetting, in a way that evokes walking in on your mother’s book club discussing that Naomi Wolf book about her cooch.”

    Blunt truth is, there are many people who would, regardless, of quality of the book, dismiss is as a book by “some b@tch talking about her cooch” de facto, trifling and amusing. Some of them commented here.

    d.) Michelle: “Finally, I’m all for mockery of the absurd. I just ask it be funny. If not funny, then please please please be brief. This, sadly, was neither.”

    Agree, this was lame. Reminded me of a pathetic girl fight in 6th grade that provides some fleeting amusement for the 8th Grade Boy’s football team until they have something to do that really matters.

    e.) Re a couple of interesting folks who took the time to come and comment with: “Every thinking person from here to Juneau knows that VAGINA is a stinker.:
    and “you tired of Naomi Wolf’s Vagina? Pretty much everyone else is” —- Classy….

Post a Response

Comments with unrelated links will be deleted. If you'd like to reach our readers, consider buying an advertisement instead.

Anonymous and pseudonymous comments that do not add to the conversation will be deleted at our discretion.