10/22/2012 03:19 pm ET Updated Dec 22, 2012

The Courage of Naomi Wolf

Lately I've been fascinated by the question of moral courage: what it is, who possesses it. So often we see courage right under our noses, and fail to recognize it.

I think that's the case with Naomi Wolf, author of The Beauty Myth and, more recently, Vagina. Wolf has made a career of speaking her truth. Time and again she ventures into controversial territory, not only taking on sacred cows but also using a language not generally embraced by public intellectuals -- in her latest book she speaks of goddesses and, well, vaginas. She knows she'll be judged, even mocked. But she tells her truth anyway. How many of us can say that?

At this point, I should tell you that I've known Naomi Wolf for much of my adult life. That makes me biased, but it also means that I know something about her that's rarely discussed in the media -- the lengths she goes to, behind the scenes and mostly unheralded, to help other women. I have watched her mentor countless young writers -- edit their proposals, blurb their books, open her Rolodex She does these things matter-of-factly, expecting little in return besides the satisfaction of propelling more women into public discourse.

So I have watched with some dismay as critics have characterized Wolf's latest book -- a work clearly animated by her characteristic generosity of spirit and intellectual adventurousness -- as a frivolous ode to her own sexuality.

Wolf begins the book by sharing her own story. At midlife, she found herself suffering from a degenerative disorder of the spine -- a form of spina bifida that she'd probably had from birth without knowing it -- that profoundly diminished her enjoyment of sex. When finally she had surgery, her back healed and her pleasure returned. Equally important, after a conversation with her doctor, she had an epiphany -- that women's pleasure is partly a function of their neural wiring.

To which some critics have responded -- and I quote: "Duh."

But it's not duh.

Here's how Wolf puts it -- and this is the paragraph that informs the rest of the book:

"That's what explained [women's sexuality]? Neural wiring? Not culture, not uprbringing, not patriarchy, not feminism, not Freud? Even in women's magazines, variation in women's sexual response was often described as if it were predicated mostly upon emotions, or access to the 'right' fantasies or role playing, or upon one's upbringing, or upon one's 'guilt,' or 'liberation,' or upon a lover's skill. I had never read that the way you best reached orgasm, as a woman, was largely due to basic neural wiring. This was a much less mysterious and value-laden message about female sexuality: it presented the obvious suggestion that anyone could learn about her own, or his or her partner's, particular neural variant as such, and simply master the patterns of the special way it worked."

These are extremely intriguing and important points. Wolf goes on to argue that women are neurally wired to "face the fact, which is simply more obscured to men (though actually ultimately no less true for them)" that "connection, love, intimacy, and Eros is indeed bigger and stronger than anything else in the world." She suggests ways that women might realize the power of their sexuality to promote love and bonding. And she takes on postfeminism, arguing that today's women subscribe to a "male-model ideal of not-caring, take-it-or-leave-it sexuality [that is] setting up yet another impossible ideal into which women are supposed to shoehorn their actual needs, at some violence to themselves."

You may not agree with every plank of this. But as a writer, Wolf has always been both poet and polemicist. And in Vagina, she is doing what she has done consistently throughout her career: written from a high wire. She knowingly makes bold and controversial statements, and in the case of this book hopes they'll resonate with the many women -- nearly one in three, according to Wolf - who suffer from low desire or anorgasmia. She has started a conversation about women's pleasure -- a subject that is still -- still, after all this time -- rife with misinformation.

It's a discussion we desperately need to have, and I admire Wolf for igniting it.

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