Naomi Wolf Defends Vagina
The feminist author answers her critics. Sort of.
For now, though, her book will do. “This book is for everybody, and women of all sexualities are reading and using it,” Wolf tells me. “This book was absolutely written without proscription. The only proscription in this book is for men who live with women to treat them nicely”—a noncontroversial proposition we can all get behind. Wolf may believe that the “lesbian and bisexual eros” require their own independent investigations, but she nevertheless sees her own book as such a universal survey of female sexuality that all criticism of it becomes an effort to silence the discussion of women’s bodies in general. (Or as Wolf wrote in the Guardian, “Surely reporting on fresh information about female sexual response is an obviously feminist thing to do?”) “I do believe in giving women information,” Wolf tells me. “They’re grown-ups, and they have free will, and they can do what they want with it.”
To Wolf, criticism of her choice to couch that information in hippie-dippy terms like “The Goddess Array” has also been used to suppress discussion of female sexuality. The concept of “transcendence,” she says, is based in a long literary tradition, and though it “can be seen as a mystical term, it’s also a clinical term.” She is not actually “making a claim for some dimension of reality that exists outside of the brain.” Instead, she’s calling on the gods in a literary attempt to push back against 5,000 years of human history, in which the vagina has been “demeaned, debated, debased, and stigmatized,” she says. “I chose the phrase ‘The Goddess Array’ flippantly, I suppose, because it’s like, ‘fuck you.’ Seriously!” The coinage was an attempt to “carve out a space for women where they feel a radical sense of self-respect,” she says. “Is that coinage working for everybody? Obviously not. But if you have a better word for radical female self-respect, please tell me, because it does not exist.”
That’s pretty much how my conversation with Wolf went down: If you don’t like Naomi Wolf’s book about the vagina, write your own. And if you don’t like the words she uses to describe it, define it yourself. In fact, Wolf herself has already set to work rewriting her own book, addressing what she describes as “misreadings” for future print runs. “In the next edition, I’m going to be incorporating a lot of interviews with lesbian and transsexual women, because even though there’s not a lot of science behind the data, there’s certainly really strong interest,” she says.
Writing about the language of human sexuality is “an imperfect process always, because it’s inviting people to a newer conversation, a bigger conversation,” Wolf says. She hopes many other women join her in the effort. “ ‘Vagina’ has been taken away from us, which is why I feel like I’ve gotten so much criticism. Because I’m saying, ‘Fuck that shit.’ We have to name, we have to own, we have to speak in the first-person-sexual when it’s appropriate, we have to interview other women about their sexual experiences when it’s appropriate, we have to be sexual subjects and not sexual objects, and we need to create names for our own experience,” she tells me.
Though I don’t disagree with her that we women should be vocal about our sexuality, Vagina is a little late to the game. If the Beauty Myth was released just before beauty-industry deconstructions blew up, Vagina is hitting shelves, asking us to accept our vaginas, well after we already have. Then again, yesterday’s radical feminism is today’s mainstream revelation—the book has been a hit with Kathie Lee Gifford, who had trouble even pronouncing the term “vagina” when Wolf visited Today, and Joy Behar, who used it as an opportunity to discuss how she gets turned on when her husband swats at bats in the attic.
So, yes, there remains a need to widen the conversation around female sexuality, desire, and yes, vaginas—but it would certainly help for future authors to get a little bit more specific, and to perhaps address a younger generation of women who read a lot of Wolf’s book as a given. One good thing about Vagina, though: Now the most obvious title is already taken.
Amanda Hess is a writer and editor in Los Angeles. She blogs for DoubleX on sex, science, and health. Tweet at her @amandahess.