Once upon a time, journalists were discouraged from mentioning genitalia in print. If you wanted to do so, you needed a compelling reason, and about 300 editors had to sign off on it. Meetings would be held. Layers of bureaucracy would be invoked. Style manuals would be wielded.
Then one day near the end of the 20th century, a woman named Lorena Bobbitt took up a knife, and there was no way to describe which part of her husband she went after without using the word “penis.” And so writers began to use it. Penis, penis, penis! We were like preschoolers; you couldn’t stop us.
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?
A man I know calls Wolf a “passionate bore with delusions of grandeur.” This is not unfair. She has written this book to put women in touch with their anterior and posterior walls; to explicate the meanderings of the pelvic nerve; to make it clear that women have nerve branches all over the place, down there, but in different places for different women, so they shouldn’t feel bad if what worked for their partner’s last girlfriend doesn’t work for them — it’s nothing to be ashamed of. This is a good message, but Wolf’s earnest narcissism is such that you feel sorry for her doctors, who find themselves subjected to wild epiphanies and long interrogations, something health insurance doesn’t reimburse for.
She travels far and wide consulting literary texts, sex researchers who work with rats and a self-appointed investment-banker-turned-yoni-masseur who makes women happy, for pay, in his London clinic. She attends workshops where men who are “not at all conventionally attractive” aspire to make up for what they lack by mastering the Goddess Array. It would seem she puts more labor into journeying than into writing. Science writing is hard, and so is erotica, I guess, and so is literary criticism, and what she gives us is a mishmash. Oh, and thinking hard is also hard.
The journey is a valid one, even so. You can laugh at her ecstatic revelation that the vagina is connected to the brain and that each influences the other — duh! — and you can question her estimates of how many women are unsatisfied and despairing, which rely on a smattering of studies and anecdotes, or the online surveys about euphoria and self-confidence from her Facebook community, which it seems to me is not necessarily representative of womankind. But the points she makes do bear making. If a woman is unhappy and stressed, or feels unloved and disrespected, she will be less sexually responsive; and if she feels cherished and appreciated, she will be more responsive and even, Wolf argues (more dubiously), more creative and productive.
She wants to figure out why this simple idea has not resulted in universal fulfillment. She wants to know how we can have been through all this, the sexual revolution, the pill, the Hite Report, the moment when every woman sat down and looked at her cervix with a mirror, and yet women — and men — are not as blissed out as one might expect. We are in a world, she argues, where the woman is still expected to please the man more than vice-versa; where female sexuality is shamed or exploited more than it is celebrated or catered to. A world where boys and men download porn when what they should be downloading are instructional videos.
At times, she journeys far indeed — to countries where rape and genital mutilation are a routine part of war and peace, a violation that is, she argues, not so much sexual as a way of traumatizing the brains of a whole gender — a form of mind control. I found that argument persuasive. Yet there are aspects of the human condition she largely ignores. Such as the fact that not every woman is straight. There is little talk about the lesbian vagina or whether women as lovers of women are models of tender attentiveness or have shortcomings of their own.
Her takeaway is this: When men are nice to women, and woo them, even well into a relationship, much good tends to come of it. She warns that if you “snap” at the woman you live with, it will affect her physically; expressions of irritation do not please the vagina. Basically, she’s making an old-fashioned argument for courtly love.
What she wants to say is: Men, show some effort. It’s not that hard! “Make the restaurant reservation.” Work, work, work, and you are more likely to encounter a happy vagina, vagina, vagina. That is actually how she ends the book: with the words “vagina, vagina, vagina.” Somehow, by the time you get there, this does not come as a surprise. And you find you’ve gotten sort of used to it.
A New Biography
By Naomi Wolf
Ecco. 381 pp. $27.99