I was circling LAX last week, waiting for a friend to deplane from New York, when a call from an NYC area code lit up my cell. “Hey!” I shouted in the phone’s direction, balancing it on my knees to avoid police detection. “Um, hi,” a gentle voice on the other end replied. “This is Naomi Wolf?”
Hearing Wolf’s voice on the other end of the line (she was calling to arrange details for our interview the next day) felt strangely familiar, probably because I have been listening to Wolf speak for my entire adult life. I was 6 years old when 1991’s The Beauty Myth vaulted her to feminist icon status. By the time I had gained some semblance of my own feminist consciousness, the book’s argument—that impossible physical demands on female bodies force women to work a “third shift” in service of the beauty industry—had become so culturally pervasive, it felt more like conventional wisdom than star-making insight. Driving away from the airport with my friend in tow, we talked about how, as twentysomething feminists, we felt both closely aligned and oddly removed from Wolf’s work. “By the time I heard about the book, I feel like I’d already learned all of that stuff from the Internet,” my friend told me. “It was like, ‘No duh!’ ”
Wolf’s new book—Vagina: A Biography—is unlikely to inspire a similar cultural revolution. The wide-ranging vaginal probe jumps off from Wolf’s own medical journey to reclaim her transcendent “Technicolor orgasms,” surveys the scientific literature on female sexuality, then draws the conclusion that a previously undiscovered “vagina-mind connection” (no duh) stretches beyond neuroscience to make up a “part of the female soul” (just … no). “I think it’s really interesting to note that it’s gotten some of the best reviews of my career, and of course the most hostile,” Wolf tells me when we meet for coffee the next day.
Mostly, though, they’ve been hostile: The effort has been dismissed as silly, self-parodying, childish, and scientifically inaccurate. Its argument is essentialist (“having discovered that every woman is sexually unique, she proceeds to write 300 more pages arguing that they are all the same,” Katha Pollitt wrote in The Nation), its aesthetics dippy (“it’s lucky vaginas can’t read,” Pollitt added). And those weaknesses compound upon one another. Wolf defines a woman’s suite of sexual needs as “The Goddess Array,” describes the vagina as a “Goddess-shaped” hole, and says that her study sheds light on the experience of “the Universal or Divine Feminine.”
But Vagina’s contents are not universal—in the book’s introduction, Wolf notes that she’s focusing primarily on the “exploration of heterosexual women’s physical and emotional interactions with men,” and suggests that “the physiology of lesbian and bisexual eros” and the “lesbian and bisexual mind-body connection” deserve “books of their own.” Vagina is, like much mainstream feminist literature (and this article, too), written from the perspective of a white, straight woman.
When I bring this up, Wolf takes issue with the characterization of herself as “straight”—she says she doesn’t “believe in those categories,” though she employs them throughout the book—and says that Vagina’s nonexistent exploration of lesbian, bisexual, and trans sexuality is the result of larger structural inequalities, not her specific feminine perspective. “There’s nobody proposing, ‘let’s study lesbian sexuality, bisexuality, transgender issues, let’s study intersex.’ You can’t fund it in America,” she says. “I was trying to be honest about the nature of some of the data I was looking at. … I didn’t want to tokenize. Female sexuality is so complex that there should be books and books and books about all aspects of it.”
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.