Book review: Vagina: A New Biography

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Publication Date: 
Mon, 2013-07-01


Vagina: A New Biography by Naomi Wolf. New York: Harper Collins, 2012.

Review by Colleen MacQuarrie

Naomi Wolf creates a cultural feminist journey of personal discovery and drama through her tribute to the world’s oldest preoccupation: sex. The book is an exploration of questions surrounding sex: what do women need? What do we need to know? To do? And to be? Wolf argues for a holistic approach that integrates orgasmic experiences with the experiences of creativity, well-being, and “transformational consciousness” or self-awareness of your connection to the world and your understanding of who you are.

To make her argument, Wolf draws from ancient Hindu Tantric texts and from a psychology of the connection between mind and body (William James’ 1902 concept of “biological consciousness” described in his book, The Varieties of Religious Experience) She also links to theories of how our biology has created our social world, our understandings of gender and how we have evolved. She includes more recent neuroscience to describe brain activity during female orgasm together with theories of how consciousness is altered by the chemical messengers of the brain (i.e., neurotransmitters) released during orgasm. The points of evidence Wolf presents are interesting in and of themselves. However, my main criticism is with the stereotypes she uses to present her evidence.

A strength of the book is the honest earnestness of the female heterosexual-centered narrative the author weaves throughout the 333 pages of her exploration into vaginal awareness via heterosexual life. Unfortunately, Wolf reinforces a common belief that females are much more biologically driven than males:  “… the vagina is the delivery system for the states of mind that we call confidence, liberation, self-realization, and even mysticism in women.”  She easily slides into a sex = gender = orgasmic potential for female consciousness argument that equates man with logical and rational and woman with illogical and irrational, including the message that a woman can be made “crazy” if you don’t give her the right orgasms!

This book sidelines same-sex and transgendered sexualities. In other words, it is not a queered book. While the author tries to be inclusive of women who don’t have male sex partners, at its core this book reinforces heterosexual practice as the ultimate path to enlightenment. Wolf makes weak attempts to gesture to the “other” forms of sexual experience but this is neither effective nor authentic. The sidelining of lesbian sex or self-sex (masturbation) is a critical weakness in Vagina, and the book is mute about the experiences of transgendered people as they fall outside the worldview constructed by Wolf. With Wolf’s analysis, a transsexual woman, or transwoman, who had a vagina constructed for her would learn that she could not fully access what was essential about being a woman. The path Wolf creates is that vagina = nerve stimulation = orgasm = unique consciousness, and that some orgasms are better able to transport you to that euphoric space than are others. In this worldview, a transwoman would not likely ever experience Wolf’s transcendental orgasm and access to her ultimate creative force.

The first section explores the question “Does the vagina have a consciousness?” The association of our neural networks and the brain to consciousness is part of understanding of human being(ness). She describes with evidence the impacts of “… when women have good, satisfying sex—what I call ‘high’ orgasm: caring, attentive sex that activates the entire pelvic neural network and also intensely engages the ANS (autonomic nervous system)—they experience a major brain high.” However the central thesis of Wolf’s book is to interpret the evidence to build an argument that our vaginas have a direct line to our consciousness, and it does not appear to be a metaphor. I admit it was difficult to continue reading past this bizarre interpretation of the evidence. To do this, Wolf makes several leaps of logic from neural networks and brain physiology, to animal models and evolutionary theory to build her theory of unique vaginal input to human consciousness.

To support her central thesis, Wolf shares her own personal trauma of losing sensation in her vagina due to an injury to part of her pelvic nerve. Her pelvic nerve compression led to a depression she attributed to being deprived of orgasm. She details how the intricacy and the depth of women’s brain connections of their pelvic region connect to the physiology of orgasm; the releases of orgasmic hormones and neurotransmitters create feelings of euphoria and expanded connection to the world. She also goes on an exploration of the various ways that the vagina can be more fully enjoyed, including drawing from Tantric texts and bringing together the neuroscience of orgasm. This section is refreshingly written and likely valuable reading for anyone who wants a better explanation of variations in women’s orgasms. With evidence she explains how women have many variations on their neural networks so no two women are alike. Women have varying sensitivities of the clitoris and the G-spot which are connected. The book also attempts to disrupt the idea that some heterosexual women can’t have orgasms; instead what they have are ineffective (male) lovers.