Not long after, Eve Ensler’s play “The Vagina Monologues” came along, and it became necessary to name the female counterpart. Vagina, vagina, vagina. After a while, nobody cared. See? I can write this — vagina — and nobody will stop me. Editors will probably ask me to use it more often, for better search engine optimization.
Vagina! Vagina! Vagina!
Sort of boring, isn’t it? After a while?
Boredom is an operational word to keep in mind while reading “Vagina,” by Naomi Wolf. It is always an achievement when an author makes sex a chore to read about. To get to the end, you have to have a high tolerance for sentences that employ the word “incredible” not once but twice; for breathless descriptions of trendy brain chemicals such as dopamine and oxytocin; for the idea that the uterus can, in its own way, think. You have to tolerate the crying jags Wolf has when friends make mean jokes about the vagina, and the fact that she is always having interviews that make her “strangely validated and elated.”
You have to accept that learning about vaginas is a “journey,” even when it feels like a march. You have to weather anesthetizing phrases such as “autonomic nervous system” intermingled with New Age terms used with no apparent irony or self-awareness. You have to not laugh when she calls the vagina the “yoni,” invokes “Tantric practitioners” and uses “Goddess Array” to denote the sex instructions she recommends to men. If you can manage this, I would like to say that you will be well rewarded, but that might be going a little far.
She does have good timing. The vagina seems to be enjoying a vogue. You can hardly avoid vaginas; they are everywhere in the news. This is thanks in part to GOP lawmakers in Virginia, who this year pushed for a measure that would have required most women seeking an abortion to undergo a transvaginal ultrasound, a phrase that in the ensuing uproar became as common as “federal excise tax.” The vogue is also courtesy of vajazzling, Pussy Riot, Rush Limbaugh and a host of other cultural factors and thought leaders. So are we in a vaginal heyday or a backlash? Is it possible we are still ignorant about the basics, even though “Our Bodies, Ourselves” exists in a revised and updated edition for the new century? Do we need this book, “Vagina”?
Wolf thought so. In case you ever wonder how authors come up with book ideas, here is what happened: In her late 40s, Wolf noticed that despite the excellence of her lover, her orgasms had diminished in intensity. (See? I can even write that in a family newspaper now!) For much of her adult life, she reports, her orgasms had been so intense that the colors of the world were heightened afterward. Only now they weren’t. She saw a lot of doctors, and believe me, you meet them all in these pages. They figured out that something was wrong with her pelvic nerve, owing to a spinal problem, and she underwent back surgery. Along the way she vowed that if she had her old orgasms restored, she would go out there and report the hell out of the vagina and tell the world what she learned. “I feel I owe it to women,” she says. And guess what?