Vagina: A New Biography

I’m not sure what I expected from Naomi Wolf’s “Vagina”; I certainly didn’t think it would be so satisfying, so revelatory, that I’d recommend all my friends have a go at it, despite its dryness.

Wolf’s primary thesis in a nutshell: The vagina is wired to the female brain. As a result, after a top-shelf orgasm (i.e., dopamine-releasing one) a woman is more creative, confident, and sociable (while a woman deprived of sexual satisfaction will find life increasingly meaningless, intimidating, and joyless). In order to attain these orgasmic heights, she must feel fully safe and relaxed (because of the way the autonomic nervous system works); and that requires a set of behaviors Wolf deems the “Goddess Array,” more familiarly termed “foreplay.” Because “our culture’s conventional model of [heterosexual] intercourse . . . is quick, goal-oriented, linear, and focused on stimulation of perhaps one or two areas of a woman’s body,” “the Western sexual revolution sucks. It has not worked well enough for women.” On the other hand, “Tantra . . . is . . . a form of applied neuroscience.”

According to one of Wolf’s sources, “‘A man takes four minutes to reach orgasm on average, . . . a woman, sixteen minutes.’” I always thought women take longer to get revved up; Wolf’s revelation that the reverse is true – and women need the time to wind down – is rather mind-blowing. (“Many women learn to have . . . four-star never-ending orgasms, by actually directing themselves to relax and lose consciousness . . . rather than tensing up and focusing on sexual thoughts or fantasies . . . .”) Another shocker: while men are pretty much wired the same sexually, each woman is different; thus, as a woman “how you climax and . . . whether you climax easily or not” is “largely due to basic neural wiring” not other explanations that “heap[] vast unnecessary guilt and shame on millions of women” (and men). Trudging through Wolf’s rather long and periodically boring (yes, even considering the subject matter) tome yields lots of other unexpected scientific findings like “pornography leaches men’s virility” and “an episiotomy will sever a sexual nerve system.”

In parts two and three, Wolf spends a lot of time tracing historic perceptions and treatment of the vagina as well as engaging feminist theory (e.g., “Th[e] male-model ideal of not-caring, take-it-or-leave-it sexuality is . . . setting up yet another impossible ideal into which women are supposed to shoehorn their actual needs, at some violence to themselves,” and “We misunderstand women if we see their interest in romance as being only about the ‘other’; if a male or female lover can help a woman get to this trance state, that love is not just compelling to her because of the ‘other’: it is compelling to her because, through this sexual experience, she is awakening and engaging with profoundly important dimensions of her own self.”). If you’re short on time, skip these middle sections.

Part four returns to the modern bedroom and soars, discussing women and men’s “neurobiologically stressful” mismatch thanks to a woman’s desire for “deep interactive gaze” and verbalization while her partner “may feel perfectly companionable, while she begins to seethe, because side-by-side activity with eyes averted from each other is how men happily spend time.” For the typical heterosexual couple, at the end of the day “her brain is agitated and desperate to talk things through, which is how it calms down and feels better, while his is desperate to have some downtime doing nothing, or in front of the TV, which is how his brain calms down and feels better. She feels bored, thwarted, if he won’t or can’t just keep talking to her – and he feels invaded by her need to talk.” Wolf concludes, “To manage social arrangements, as we do in the West, in such a way that a woman has to get most of her touch, gaze, and attention needs met in the few hours after work, and by only one person – and, most implausibly of all, by a tired male person . . . , who just as desperately needs the opposite, for a while at least – is a recipe for conflict and frustration.”

The big payoff, however, comes in the form of the “Goddess Array” that Wolf assembles from surprising sources – like new evolutionary biology showing that women are predisposed to be attracted not to money and power but to “investment behavior” (that is, “behavior from men that indicates that they are cherished”) and studies showing the effect of women smelling their male mates’ armpits. What are these mystical tricks? “Bring her flowers, . . . dim the lights, . . . relax her,  . . . hug her, . . . cuddle her,  . . . take her slow dancing, . . . gaze into her eyes, . . . talk to her, . . . listen to her, . . . stroke, . . . don’t snap, . . . find her [G-spot,] then hang out there far longer than you think reasonable, . . . tell her she’s beautiful, . . . don’t be scary, but don’t be boring, . . . do whatever she likes to her nipples, . . . [and] ejaculate.” What’s that you say? The secret sauce in this recipe is not so secret? The real revelation is not what these “‘little’ gestures and flourishes, which are so often relegated to the category of ‘things that people do in courtship and stop doing in a long-term relationship’” are, but the fact that “[t]he latest science confirms that . . . those sexual or romantic ‘extras’ that are sort of nice to dole out to women but are not deemed essential – are in fact physically and emotionally fundamental to women’s vibrancy.”

That’s right, according to Wolf a woman is not lucky to receive such attention or pushy to request it; every woman deserves this treatment and one who is deprived of it is in a downright neglectful – and borderline sexually abusive – relationship. Her not-so-subtle message to men is that women won’t put up with it forever: “to keep a woman interested and faithful for life . . . never give up your role as seducer . . . .”

Wolf’s paradigm-shifting book doesn’t provide the rollicking good time of Caitlin Moran’s “How To Be a Woman”; rather, slogging through the book is hard work – normally a disqualifier for a positive review from me. Yet quite like an obese person discovering the gym, what seems difficult and annoying in the moment promises to provide enormous benefit for both the physical and mental health of readers and their partners. Please take the time to check out Naomi Wolf’s four-star “Vagina.”

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