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The Vagina Travelogues

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NAOMI WOLF
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Friday: I get a glimpse of my life ahead for the next little while. American publishers send authors their copies of books in big boxes labelled with the title. My doorman approaches me in the lobby, gesturing with some consternation at a three-foot cardboard box marked, "Vagina." "Is this yours?" he asks.

Saturday: Getting ready to fly to the UK for the launch. Two excerpts have run already, in the Times and the Guardian. My inbox is full of emails from the UK -- all adding to the growing mass of emails I received from women throughout the West about the dearth of information on sexual-health issues that affect them.

A young woman transitioning surgically from female to male -- whose neural anatomy was never explained to her by her doctor -- tells me that she got more information about her body from my book than she had from her physicians; a woman from an organization for women who have a rare disorder -- genetically female but born without fully developed vaginas -- explains to me that the bias in pediatric surgery is toward building up "underdeveloped" penises in intersex babies, and that the male-dominated profession doesn't care as much about researching vaginas; so many of the women in her support group suffer bad medical outcomes.

Legendary AIDS researcher Larry Kramer points out that at the forefront of AIDS research, there are mysteries about the transmission of the AIDS virus in the vagina because -- few scientists want to study the vagina, or research is underfunded. Finally many emails arrive from UK women who have had back injuries, even as minor as slipped disks -- and have sexual side effects -- who tell me that the NHS doctors are perpetually telling them they are hysterical.

Monday: An interview in the hotel cafe with the perceptive and dynamic Jane Czyzselska, editor of Diva. We have a bracing and far-ranging conversation about the vagina as a contested political symbol, about the shame so many women -- gay, straight and bisexual -- have about their desire and sexual responses, about the need for more data on lesbian and bisexual arousal and orgasm (the databases are slim indeed, but strong reader interest in this issue means i will be explaining these themes in the next edition), and about my years growing up in San Francisco, seeing how for gay and lesbian people, reclaiming a marginalized and mocked sexuality and bringing it into language was an essential part of their liberation -- a movement which is a model for me often and in this project as well.

At the BBC Radio studios I have my first interview with a man, Sean Moncrieff, the charming Irish host of Newstalk. We have a lovely, informative chat about the new neuroscience about female arousal and orgasm, how it can help the 30% of Western women who report low desire or trouble reaching orgasm when they wish to, and what lovers of women may wish to learn from it. I am impressed that there is nary a giggle from Moncrieff or a pun, as he manages to say, several time quite straightforwardly, that extremely tricky word, "vagina." (I have learned that inadvertent giggling and seemingly equally uncontrollable punning seem to be reflexive for many male interviewers, no matter how well-intentioned -- I empathize, it is a tough word for me to say in public still too, though I have had more time to acclimate, as have my editor and publishing team, as "vaginas" fly about the office with no one by now batting an eyelash.) One of the delights of the interview is that with an Irish accent my title sounds a bit, to my American ears, like "vajoina."

Tuesday: To my surprise, Jenni Murry, with whom I have had any number of cozy chats in the past, starts scolding me as soon as I sit down for Women's Hour. "Critics accuse you of fuzzy thinking for saying the vagina is part of a woman's soul!" she snaps. This was actually a Guardian headline. She then says: "You defended Assange!" This is a distressing and inaccurate conflation of my defense of his free speech rights to publish state secrets with what sounds like a defense of sex crime. I correct the record, but by then we have little time to talk about the new neuroscience of female arousal, desire and orgasm -- and I leave struck by how challenging it seems to be to just spend eight minutes simply addressing female sexuality on its own terms. If there is new and very much not-conventional-wisdom scientific information about how women do and do not become aroused and reach orgasm, how is that not worth discussing -- in an hour devoted to women, in particular?

That night, on heavyweight news show NewsNight, Jeremy Paxman starts scolding me as soon as I sit down. He accuses me of defending Assange, making the same mistake. I try to talk about the new scientific data that shows how deeply rape imprints the brain and even the body. It is a struggle to get four minutes focused on the latest neuroscience of sexual trauma in women. I gather that we were going to do a segment on the book itself -- but then it was changed to Assange. I wonder why a man keeps being dragged in to a discussion of what should be the news a bout female arousal and desire on its own terms -- and start to speculate that it is more comfortable for our culture to talk about rape than women's desire and pleasure.

Wednesday: Lunch, arranged by my editor, with some of the most talented women writers in Britain -- a marvelous intellectual Rogue's Gallery of women: Kate Figes, Kate Muir, Natasha Walter, Katharine Viner, and Susie Orbach, and the insanely witty Bedisha. Natasha Walter, who is now working with London-based refugee women, points out sadly that the issues they flee from -- female genital mutilation, child marriage, rape as a weapon of war -- are the very issues the UK judiciary does not take seriously. This dismissiveness hampers their struggles for asylum. I think sorrowfully about how the dismissive, silencing and mocking attitudes to the vagina that I wrote about -- are alive in the struggle of these vulnerable women, and having life and death consequences.

At the Bristol Writers' Festival, I have a long and serious conversation with a young feminist college journalist, who speaks sadly about how many young women she knows are silent, or feel themselves silenced, in situations that are sexually coercive to them. We talk about the importance of claiming the right to use a sexual voice -- to tell one's story and to assert the right to say what one does and does not want; and that bringing the "yes" into language is as important to young women as being empowered to bring the "no" into language as well. At the end of the talk, she raises her hand and, in an audience of a couple of hundred people, asks for specifics on how she can have a certain kind of orgasm. And she gets answers -- not just from me but from others in the room. I see that these moments are related: her courage in expressing her interest and curiosity, and claiming the right to do so, will be related to her feeling that she has a voice in situations that may be threatening to her or disempowering to her. A Guardian critic accuses me of being "privileged" -- my poor brain turns that one over like a Rubik's cube, since, as I have the same job as she, on the same newspaper, I can only gather, try to reach another conclusion though I may, that we are of exactly the same social class.

Thursday: The Royal Institution -- a great night with a lively audience in an auditorium that is bathed, amusingly, in pink lights for the occasion. At one point, describing the revolutionary work of neuroscientist James Pfaus in Montreal, who has identified the role of female sexual desire in mate selection among lower mammals I ask the audience to raise their hands if they knew that all mammals have clitorises -- the only woman to do so, in an audience of 350 -- the only person, indeed -- is a scientist who studies lioness sexuality. A woman says on the way out, to a friend, "I will never look at my puppy the same way again!"

On a more serious note, a counselor for British middle-schoolers confirms from her own experience how their exposure to porn is degrading what they think of, as she puts it, as "normal behavior," and heightening sexual aggression as a norm. She also said that because of the pressures of porn, kids that age whom she counsels now see anyone in a steady one-to-one relationship as a loser.

Friday: Diva photo shoot: seems like a dream in the midst of all this gender war: a sunny morning in a Camden house, surrounded by beautiful and talented lesbian editors, photographers and others who put out the magazine. It is a relief to be in a community in which the idea of the politicization of the vagina, and the struggle over its meaning, is obvious and not even a startling idea. We have more talk about the reclamation of female desire. But not always dreamlike: we also talk about the stresses faced daily by lesbians even in London for simply expressing sexual or romantic affection in the street.

Then Brighton -- another great audience, with great questions. I meet the artist who created the Great Wall of Vaginas -- a sculpture designed to show how varying women are, and which is being turned down for display in every venue the artist approaches. Hilarious title, and not so silly an issue, when one considers the 2,000 women in the UK last year with normal labia who requested labiaplasties (doctors explain that the role of porn makes many women who are entirely normal feel that there is something wrong with them).

I hear, as I did in Bristol and at the London event, from dozens of women who want to know about menopause; about recovering from rape; about the effect of antidepressants on female libido (substantial) and the effect of birth control pills on female libido (huge). Fascinating information is shared, and by now I have heard many vibrant sixty-somethings tell an audience a variant of "use it or lose it" (which is backed up by the science as well). These women are interested in learning about their own bodies and responses whether they are in relationships or not; whether they are gay, straight, trans or bi. I am struck by how passionately British women are serious about learning more about their sexual health and take seriously that that is a feminist goal -- even as, to my great surprise, a number of feminists in the UK press (and soon in my own country) will deride this interest on the part of me and my readers. One critic will assert that feminism had "taken women beyond the body" and that this book takes them back. But the women I interviewed -- the ones in the audiences too -- didn't get that memo; they are in their bodies as well as in their thoughts and characters, and struggling with all the issues and seeking the pleasures that being physical, as well as intellectual, women involves.

At the end of the night I meet two beautiful young women who suffer from vulvodynia -- a pelvic nerve disorder that affects sixteen per cent of women at some time in their lives, according to Dr Deborah Coady. They are very young -- only 21 or 22. They say they have spent years seeking a diagnosis, and that the NHS doctors tell them they are hysterical.

What do I take home from my week in the UK, talking (and causing apparent outrage) about something as simple and valuable as the new science of female arousal and orgasm? It seems that female sexuality is still such a difficult and contested issue even to think about in mainstream media spaces.

Monday: In the US again, things heat up further. In one day, the online forums explode with epithets -- mostly from people who have not read the book. I am called insane, disturbed and a traitor to the sisterhood.

David Dobbs, in Wired, takes issue with the neuroscience in my book -- but has yet to actually read the book; Dr. Jim Pfaus, one of the researchers on dopamine and sexual arousal whose work I report on, dissects Dobbs' dissection and takes it apart. But in spite of the fact that every scientific assertion in Vagina is cited thoroughly and that all of my sources are peer-reviewed academic books or journals -- in other words, impeccable -- and are listed in full in the notes and bibliography, including abstracts, some in the blogosphere, who seem not to have bothered to look at this sourcing, decide that the heavily annotated book contains "bad science." This is so prevalent a meme in the face of hundreds of notes to the contrary that I start to wonder and I joke about lotuses, figs, etc. -- nothing of the kind to be seen though in the landscape. We look up at the dock where we are shooting and notice that we are surrounded by gigantic phallic sculptures and buildings.

A reporter cries when she interviews me. A reporter tells me that she read the book till two AM then texted her old boyfriend, explaining that she now knew why they broke up. A marvelous writer -- Patricia Bosworth -- describes to me what it was like to attend Betty Dodson's masturbation class -- for research -- in the 1970s, a mind-blowing narrative that makes our era look tame and prudish. A number of gay and straight men in their seventies email me asking more about the connection between their porn use and potency issues. A reporter tells sanguine since what I care about are the readers -- the book is selling -- and because I remember this same outrage when The Beauty Myth came out.

Home to New York. Another giant box with the words "Vagina" on it. "Do you need help with that?" asks my doorman politely.

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