Many critics and readers, including many feminists, have welcomed my book Vagina: A New Biography. Some critics, though -- feminists too, of another kind -- are accusing me of a form of contemporary heresy.
Vagina is an account of the latest neuroscientific and other findings that markedly update our understanding of female sexual desire, arousal and orgasm, at a time when conventional wisdom about female sexual response is arrested in research from Masters and Johnson, decades-old; at a time when, even in a hypersexualised society, 30% of American women self-report not reliably having orgasms when they wish to; in a year when 2,000 British women with normal labia requested labiaplasties. Surely reporting on fresh information about female sexual response is an obviously feminist thing to do?
But these critics' contention is that this reporting is "essentialism" -- that I am re-grounding gender "back" in the body, which is a contemporary feminist-theory sin. To mainstream readers, this argument may seem arcane. So a primer: some contemporary feminist theory's primary orthodoxy asserts that gender is always, everywhere, entirely "socially constructed" -- that is, only real in the mind or in social attitudes.
But critics who attack me from this position don't seem to know how recently their position was created in feminist intellectual history. The "essentialism" versus "gender theory" wars emerged only belatedly, in the 1980s, as legal activists sought to downplay any potential biological differences between women and men in pursuit of equal treatment in the workplace and, elsewhere, academic feminists were inspired by post-structuralism to create a discipline that cast gender as existing only as a social norm.
But the radical new findings on which I report have to do with the female body and with female sexual response. The new findings are updating our understanding of female pleasure and the mind-body connection in women on many levels. Some new findings are important for understanding the harm of sex crime more fully, and others have to do with the numbing effects of porn on desire. In a time when porn co-opts young men's and women's responses, is it "feminist" to withhold new data about its potentially addictive nature and depressive effect on a habituated libido?
Should we not know about this data? I come from the feminist school that believes knowledge is power. Knowing about the science of the brain-vagina connection -- a concept that is not my construction but rather an everyday fact for the scientists at the forefront of this research - simply means we are willing to engage with the modern world; the brain-body connection is being thoroughly documented in hundreds of ways, from cardiovascular health research to the role of stress in illness.
Problematically for my critics, this book is not an opinion piece or a polemic; it is mostly a survey of this new science. These critics, to truly carry their points, can't simply attack me -- they really need to take issue directly with the findings of the dozens of studies that I cite.
Their hostility towards looking at any new neuroscience of female sexuality and at any data on the mind-body connection is unsustainable -- and will only, as time goes on, make some feminist theory seem more and more out of touch with contemporary human learning.
I would say, too, that this particular critical attack on Vagina -- as somehow abandoning feminism's "higher agenda" by giving women new information about such "trivial" issues as their sexual responses, arousal and orgasm -- is remarkably historically shortsighted. I am actually standing not in opposition to feminism but squarely in one (temporarily submerged) intellectual tradition, part of a long tradition of women who saw the empowerment of women as being linked to their having good, solid and fearlessly presented information about their sexuality.
My critics show some historical amnesia; because a robust feminist tradition of pro-sex information defined a long tradition of feminism until the 1970s -- dating back to 17th-century midwife Jane Sharp and through to Victorian physician Elizabeth Blackwell, motivating contraceptive activists of the 1920s Marie Stopes and Margaret Sanger, and reaching a high point in the second wave.
In that era, pro-sexual-awareness feminists added the speculum to encounter-group activities so women could see what they looked like. Germaine Greer looked at biology and culture in The Female Eunuch and insisted, in a 1970 essay, Lady, Love Your Cunt. Judy Chicago made her confrontational Dinner Party -- a piece of artwork that represented famous women in the archetype of various vaginal images. Lesbian activist Tee Corinne made a vagina coloring book; Betty Dodson made movies showing various vulvas and teaching women to masturbate; Shere Hite insisted (to familiar howls of outrage) that the Freudian model of vaginal intercourse alone was not enough to please two-thirds of women. And a generation of women's health and sexuality activists created revolutions - from which we still benefit - in sex education, women's reproductive rights, and access to information about desire and pleasure. Pussy Riot and Lisa Brown of the Michigan state house are surely descendants of this inspiring tradition, which defied ridicule and sometimes prison to empower women sexually.
By writing frankly about female desire and shining a light on the now well-established brain-vagina connection and the new science of female pleasure, am I departing from the greatest feminist tradition or honoring it? I believe it is the latter. Perhaps, unlike some of my critics, I have learned to trust my readers. By confronting the body I am not saying women are just the body. Rather I am respecting my readers' intelligence: some situations are socially constructed, some are biologically based, and my readers are smart enough to assess their world moment by moment.
The feminist mission remains the same, even in the light of new data about the vagina, female desire and the female brain. New data should not derail us from fighting for a world in which all individuals are valued equally, and all differences treated with respect. Yet if we are to have intellectual integrity we must not flee from new insights but engage with them. I for one prefer to look at the new evidence directly, not avert my eyes from it -- knowing that the truth always empowers -- and meanwhile to keep up the age-old fight for women's freedom.
This piece originally appeared at The Guardian's Comment Is Free.