Naomi Wolf, who launched a million interesting conversations 20 years ago with her thought-provoking best-seller "The Beauty Myth," has ventured boldly into delicate ground with "Vagina: A New Biography."
In this exhaustively researched, if somewhat anecdotally written, readable and interesting book, Wolf paints a distressing picture of modern women, who suffer from not only depression and loss of desire, but sexual bullying and verbal and physical violence that damages their spirits and impairs their ability to live full, creative, impassioned lives.
While the issues Wolf outlines must be examined and discussed, this book, growing as it does from Wolf's somewhat privileged, intellectually sharp and yet frequently credulous point of view, must be regarded as just a start.
Although the title expresses a laser-like focus on a single structure, Wolf means all the female sex organs, paying much attention to what she learns are closely related anatomical parts - the spine, nervous system and brain.
With only occasional detours into denseness or jargon, Wolf's book is the equivalent of college-level seminars on women's private parts, including philosophy, anthropology, chemistry, biology, literature, sociology, theology and both ancient and modern history. Wolf also provides an explicit analysis of linguistics, cataloging and analyzing culturally popular terms from Shakespeare and Chaucer to online message boards.
Some might wonder if the female sex organs need a biography, especially in a time of pervasive oversharing about anatomy, desire and other once-private topics. The answer is in the shockingly ignorant comment of Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin, who recently opined that "legitimate rape" rarely causes pregnancy because "the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down." Akin claimed he had heard about these magical powers of the vagina and uterus from doctors, at least one of whom does trumpet this nonsense.
So yes, the vagina needs a biography, one rooted in science rather than myth. But is this the book it deserves?
Wolf begins "Vagina" with an extremely personal story, about a mysterious sexual and emotional numbness she felt in 2009, when she was 46. She gradually realizes that she is missing "the usual postcoital rush of a sense of vitality infusing the world, of delight with myself and with all around me, of creative energy rushing through everything alive." Physical numbness is followed by emotional numbness; depression, then despair.
Doctors say she may be suffering from compression of pelvic nerves - ones Wolf never knew existed, much less affected female sexual response. Finally, she is diagnosed with a degenerative spine disease, worsened by a long-forgotten fall onto her back. During her exams, one doctor almost offhandedly remarks, "Every woman is wired differently. ... That accounts for some of the differences in female sexual response." Wolf writes, "I almost fell off the exam table in my astonishment. That's what explained vaginal versus clitoral orgasms? Neural wiring? Not culture, Not patriarchy, not feminism, not Freud?"
I suspect that the only person more surprised than Wolf at this point is every single reader, who will be awestruck that 1) Wolf is so concerned about which exact part of her body is leading the sexual charge and 2) it would never have occurred to her that not only is women's anatomy different from men's, but that there is variation among women. Has she noticed the variety in every other single part of the human body, from nose to toes, as well as taste and preferences?
As bright, analytical and verbal as Wolf is, she comes across as fairly naive here.
She writes of this discovery, "This was a much less mysterious and value-laden message about female sexuality: it presented the obvious suggestion that anyone could learn about her own, or his or her partner's, particular neural variant as such, and simply master the patterns of the special way it worked."
Similarly, her main theme, which she arrives at slowly after surveying opinions, expectations and assumptions about the vagina, is the simple and widely understood fact that women need more than the quick sex that satisfies men. She calls the set of behaviors that activate the female nervous system for sexual pleasure "the Goddess Array," although she immediately demurs, "I don't mean to summon up in your mind crunchy-granola, 1970s images of pagan Goddess worship on all-female retreats in state parks, nor am I intending a simplistic, pop-culture shorthand for self-esteem."
This is not the only swipe Wolf takes at first-wave feminists, whose understanding of the cultural obstacles they faced, some so subtle as to be almost invisible to most of the population, was far more trenchant than hers. It's surprising that while Wolf devotes page after page to a depressing analysis of the verbal oppression of women, she busts out the "crunchy granola" shorthand to draw a line between her modern sex-positive self and the hairy, dirty, man-hating hippies who were our foremothers.
To determine what women want of the options being offered in 2012, Wolf immerses herself in the somewhat creepy world of Tantric sex workshops with strangers and "sacred sexual healing" offered for $150 an hour by a London "yoni guru." Being a "nice monogamous Jewish girl," she refuses the guru's offer of a "yoni massage" and keeps her clothes on. He gazes into her eyes for an extended period, then, he explains, projects his male energy into his fingers and traces the meridian lines of energy in her body. "Within thirty seconds I was in a state of - yes - oceanic bliss," she writes. "Within five minutes I was laughing, and within ten minutes I was in an altered state." She leaves his "seductive little bedroom" an hour later, "flushed and beaming."
At the end of her book, when Wolf lists specific suggestions evocative of a breathless magazine covers ("15 Ways to Satisfy Any Woman") it becomes clear that this book's target audience is male. Sadly, her astonishingly trite solution to the pervasive sexual problems of half of the world's population is reduced to the banal accoutrements of modern courtship, including soft music, candles and flowers. The "Goddess Array" has gone by many names through the centuries, from chivalry to basic human respect.
Still, Wolf's book - usually interesting, occasionally inspiring, sometimes infuriating - has opened a vital cultural conversation. Let's hope that in future dialogue, men are not seen as the sole solution to women's culturally inflicted woes.
Vagina: A New Biography
By Naomi Wolf
381 pages, $27.99
Anne Neville is a News staff reporter.