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Naomi Wolf and Vagina: Getting Beyond the Criticism

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In the two weeks since Naomi Wolf released her new book Vagina: A New Biography, we've seen an endless number of personal attacks masquerading as critique and a denigration of the author's work, mental health and intelligence -- critiques no man would dare to make, lest he be accused of misogyny.

Most of the views articulated by 'feminist' journalists in mainstream publications in both the UK and the U.S. claim their worldview embraces a wider female demographic and that the subject matter of a vagina isn't worthy of serious consideration. They sneer at the credibility of the science and the author's ability to engage with it, yet they fail, on the whole, to be specific about what exactly the errors are.

Some believe that there are more important issues to deal with, such as the economy and the global plight of women in general. There's an expectation that Wolf's tome should have the answers to global gender inequality and be all singing and dancing. In other words, "why isn't her book about absolutely everything?"

There are some problems with this critical approach. One concerns how to appropriately engage with ideas in public discourse. Philosophical tradition uses the principle of charity, which tells us to find the best possible interpretation of what is written. If the writer seems to contradict herself, for example, the principle requires that you look for an interpretation of what she says in which she does not do so. You should apply the principle of charity when you are reading an author whose conclusions you strongly disagree with to avoid misreading or being personal. Used properly, this principle helps to avoid making weak criticisms of what you read and helps to produce better arguments.

On the contrary, if you totally agree with the writer's conclusions, to read critically, it's beneficial to play devil's advocate for the same end reasons. If it's a bit of both, apply both accordingly.

In the cover interview which appears in DIVA magazine's October issue this week, we interviewed Naomi Wolf at length to uncover the central ideas in the book that we consider interesting and important and which seem to have been lost under the mass of personal attacks.

Firstly, new or not, greater knowledge about our bodies can help us to be stronger in the world and less easy to control. Wolf posits that women who are in control of their sexual reward -- be it through self or partner love -- are more likely to be able to control other areas of their lives as a result. Some people may agree, some may disagree, but how can we test her theory out without knowing about it in the first place?

This seems obvious and perhaps intuitive, but the idea that having what we might call "amazing vagina experiences" that can help some of us unleash creative potential and be powerful in the world sounds like feminism to us. Even if it is old hat, it must have been buried somewhere, judging by the kinds of conversations we've been having recently about the apparently vexed issue of our vaginas.

Secondly, the now measurable impact of rape on the female brain as evidenced by neuroscience (and supported by previously-held knowledge about the negative effects of child abuse on brain development) is really important. Currently, the law on rape doesn't include the totality of how people are affected by this crime and indeed, victims are put on trial themselves. Any small step that could potentially increase rape conviction rates is definitely a feminist priority in this country. The 6% conviction rate is a shameful reminder of the gender injustice in this supposedly "civilized society" and a reminder of the work still to do.

The fact that Wolf is heterosexual and has been criticized for being heterosexist in this book brings up a number of issues, possibly interesting, possibly uncomfortable ones in relation to all non-heterosexual people. It isn't possible to explore these fully but the question for us is why would, say, a lesbian or a bisexual woman expect someone like Wolf to explain or account for her experiences when there is so little, if any, data available? Shouldn't we be taking a much less passive role as members of sexually diverse groups and actually do the telling? We should speak for ourselves and become the data. Wolf herself would love to hear all about it, should the research funders develop any interest. Vagina is a starting point on which to build more knowledge and understanding and should, we think, be so judged. It cannot encompass everything.

There's something quite sad about not treating the arguments of our fellow feminists in a generous way -- accepting there will be disagreements but being woman enough to be able to find points of fruitful connection.

Analyze and criticize the ideas, not the person, because to do so can lead to intellectual laziness and narrow-mindedness.

Biological determinism and essentialism have been the enemies of feminism over the years but the fact is that it is no longer credible to assume that everything is a matter of social construction or that differences are threatening. Science hasn't always been much more than myth or propaganda in some respects. For example, the medicalization of well-being -- i.e., the over-reliance of over-the-counter drugs for every so-called problem imaginable -- and the pathologizing of sexuality (homosexuality was considered a mental illness by the WHO until 1990) and women's 'sexual dysfunction' are all but a few examples of the way that erroneous beliefs based on so-called scientific data can blight our lives and the control we have over them. However, science can be progressive, too. We are products of evolution as much as our environments, and the development of subjects such as social neuroscience are a testament to this synthesis of ideas.

To make sense of how, why and who we are today, we cannot escape from the reality of having bodies. Current psychotherapeutic training reflects this, with a growing number of such academic courses incorporating the body and neuroscience into the curriculum.

And we must also remember that scientific data is not absolute or exact -- even scientists disagree about what data suggests or indicates and see the data as a springboard to forming an hypothesis. One needn't be a scientist to do this. Wolf's intention is to offer data and an original way to connect the dots of the neuroscience of women's liberation. Yes, there's perhaps a privileged assumption in Wolf's suggestion about long and languid candle-lit, tantric love-making which might only be available to those with time and money and who are in a monogamous, long-term relationship, yet this reductivist misrepresentation neglects to embrace her full message, which implicitly includes the whole array of what women want and doesn't have to rely on traditional, monogamous, or privileged relationships.

On the significance of the brain-vagina connection which many have ridiculed, Neurobiologist Dr. James Pfaus writes: "Judging from numerous quality of life studies done on men with erectile dysfunction who have had it treated, one could easily argue that the penis-brain connection has a major influence on the emotional and intellectual well-being of men. So I must ask why the same would not hold true for the vagina-brain connection."

As James Pfaus says in defending Wolf's book, her take on the role of neurotransmitters is consistent with much current thinking. Dr. Helen Fisher has argued that romantic love is a drive, not simply an emotion in human beings -- in other words, that humans are designed to love each other. This is her hypothesis based on the data she collected from heterosexuals in love. The problem here is that as Wolf herself freely acknowledges, research is heterosexist because very few people give a damn about gender and sexual minorities. Wolf is desperate to see this change. Few in the generally conservative milieu of laboratories wish to be associated with such research unless there is significant money to be made.

There are some interesting and important facts presented by Wolf, the first being that those female-identified women with biological vaginas (because there's no scientific data on those with constructed vaginas or trans men with vaginas yet -- more's the pity) have very individualized pathways to arousal, because it provides a scientific basis to rejecting a rigid way of looking at women's sexuality and questions the notion of sexual dysfunction and the mythologies around orgasm that left many feeling inadequate or shameful. It is liberating to know that we are wired in this unique way, but this doesn't determine everything in women's lives; it helps explain our sexual diversity.

Disavowal of women's' sexual bodies seems to be reflected in much of the criticisms and represents a profound disconnect between our intellectual and physical lives. A long-held patriarchal Judeo-Christian idea that the female body is dirty and flawed and must be transcended (i.e., intellectualized) seems prevalent still, generating this somewhat anorexic, bloodless and fleshless debate about the body. Is it so bad that in discussing the body we may need to be subjective?

The October issue of DIVA, our annual Naked issue, may be our most controversial yet. In the spirit of 1970s lesbian activist Tee Corrine who created the 'Cunt colouring book' to celebrate the variety of female genitalia, we asked readers to send us images of their vulvas, which artist Chi Chi Parish turned into watercolours -- apparently the photos were considered too risky to print. So to avoid frightening the horses, for the first time in our 18-year history we are bagging the issue, which suggests that the moral climate appears to be growing more conservative.

As DIVA went to press we heard that Naomi Wolf's book had been censored on iTunes, reproduced as V****a. We have our own issues with Apple's "family friendly" policy, as those who read DIVA in digital format will discover. It's ironic that Apple considers the word "vagina" to be offensive, since it's the place from whence families are created.

There is finally something that needs to be said about the sometimes totalitarianism inherent in feminist thought that seeks to dictate a checklist of what is and what isn't valid or important for women to discuss.

Do we need a righteous vanguard that disempowers us by deciding and thinking for all women? We think not.