At a café in Manhattan’s West Village, about 10 minutes into our discussion of her latest book, Vagina: A New Biography, Naomi Wolf is attracting attention. The female student sitting across from us is visibly intrigued, angling closer to understand the context of a conversation peppered with words that rarely make their way out of gynecology seminars. “I have to get used to talking about this sort of thing in public,” says Wolf, who has never been one to shy away from controversy.
Back in April, the 49-year-old author of 2002’s international best seller, The Beauty Myth, and one of The Guardian’s most outspoken social critics, put a name to the suspiciously jingoistic treatment of the U.S. military in Katy Perry’s “Part of Me” video: advertising. She also used her column to respond to the backlogged issue of female rape in the military, only recently brought to the foreground in Kirby Dick’s documentary, The Invisible War. She’s been one of the media’s loudest voices of dissent against what has been dubbed America’s War on Women, the series of antiabortion bills that have spread across the country like wildfire, and this fall, she tackles the subject of an equally contentious set of myths centered on the vagina.
A beleaguered word to begin with, “vagina” notably caught heat this June, when Michigan State Representative Lisa Brown was chastised for saying it aloud on the House floor during an argument about a bill that threatened access to abortions in her state. (“I’m flattered that you’re all so interested in my vagina, but no means no,” said Brown, rejecting the bill’s proposal before being told to “respect the decorum of the House.”) In cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir, Are You My Mother?, the author asks, in response to first hearing the word, “Can a word convey distaste for its own meaning?” From these and similar cases, it’s clear that the vagina, both the word and the organ as symbol, is in dire need of reclamation, and who better than Wolf to be its champion?
Vagina: A New Biography is an exhaustive and nearly definitive study, drawing conclusions from the wide and diverse annals of science, art, history, and myth. But as deliberate as its core theme—the neurobiological connection of the brain to the vagina—appears, it came to Wolf by accident. In 2009, an old spinal injury started affecting her pelvic nerve, which, in treatment, led to a series of fascinating conclusions. “When I was researching for the book, I made discoveries about new neuroscience findings confirming the vagina and the brain are part of the same system, there’s this direct feedback loop between the vagina and female states of confidence creativity, focus, motivation, sense of transcendence, sense of connection, and bonding,” says Wolf. “The neurotransmitters involved are dopamine, opioids, and oxytocin. To me, the big news is that it’s not just about a sex organ, but rather female consciousness itself. When you realize that the vagina is the mediator of these feminist mind states, then you get why it’s been targeted for the history of patriarchy. It’s not about disgust for the vagina, or horror at female sexuality, but about targeting courage, confidence, and creativity in women.”
From Vagina’s analysis of Gertrude Stein’s book of prose, Tender Buttons (a metaphor for the clitoris), to the feminist poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay, to the “vaginal illiteracy” of the organ as rendered by porn, a broad cultural history is mapped out, leaving virtually no stone unturned. One of the most interesting trappings of Wolf’s discoveries is what they mean for the increasingly popular concept of a non-gendered brain. Against the academic tendency to, as Wolf puts it, “theorize gender as just a place in the air,” the findings of Wolf’s book bring into the conversation the very real question of a gendered brain.
“We have this idea that male and female sexuality are kind of similar—they’re not,” she says. “The mind-body opposition, which descends from the Greeks, suggests that the mind tries to master the body like a charioteer mastering horses. And it kind of got injected into the Western world when the Church Fathers started mortifying the flesh.” History, of course, has played one of the largest roles in perpetuating this binary. “For much of recorded history, the vagina was sacred. And then you can see this trajectory of shame and disgust being assigned to it,” says Wolf, referring to the grip that Western religion has notoriously held over discussions of female sexuality. “The Victorian medical establishment began when women started becoming enfranchised and educated, pushing for more rights, and it created this discourse about how respectable women don’t have desire, and it medicalized the vagina. It medicalized the female sexual response in very brutal ways. We’ve inherited a lot of this shame that suggests owning your sexuality debases you as a woman in some way.”
Nowhere is this more salient than in sex education classes—possibly thanks to the ineptitude of the immutable curriculum, or to the oft-expressed conservative desire to do away with the program altogether. When I told Wolf about my own experience in sex-ed, where I was taught about the Fallopian tubes but left without the faintest idea of what a period was, she was justifiably surprised. “Are you serious?” Wolf says. “That’s horrible! And they never teach you about pleasure. It’s always the Fallopian tubes. Did they ever show where the clitoris was?” They did not, nor is that any great shock. But the very fact that it doesn’t shock more of us is one of the problems Vagina strives to agitate and address, and with any luck, something that it will have the power to change.
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Photography by Zed Clemens