Book Reviews

Weirdly Wired Woman: A Review of “Vagina”

9780061989162_p0_v2_s260x420[Puns are almost completely unavoidable when discussing a book about vaginas, so please bear with me—and pardon any accidental (and purely coincidental) misspellings of “come”.]

When I was in elementary school (before I could figure out my dad’s overly simplistic codes for the parental locks and watch “Skinemax”), I’d stay up late to watch Howard Stern on E!. I loved that show not only because I thought Stern was a genius, for only a genius could have thought of a way to give a woman an orgasm over the radio (hint: subwoofer), but because there was always the chance that whoever was in charge of applying censor pixels would miss a nipple or two on any one of the hundreds of the man’s nude, female guests. (I also liked the Girls Gone Wild spots during the show’s commercial breaks).

I remember watching an episode with a segment that was, for reasons I can’t recall exactly (as if it matters), devoted to vaginas; as he was once preparing to … I guess survey (?) one or two naked porn starlets. Stern remarked that while some men are breast men, and others prefer legs, “me, I’m a vagina man.” To this day, whenever I come across vaginas in one way or another, this man and his TV show is what I think of.

When I saw Vagina: A New Biography on shelves at Barnes & Noble, I endearingly thought of Stern.

Fortunately, I’m not quite as simple minded as I used to be, and so, in addition to the Vagina Man, I was also reminded of my once astounding levels of ignorance when it came to sex and women. I was reminded of the sex talks my parents had never given me, and of the intimacy talks I would have never gotten anyway even if my parents had been the sort to give me a sex talk (honestly, I got more of a sex and intimacy talk from Dawson Leary’s dad). I was reminded of pornography, what is ultimately the default “sex education” for millennial men, and how its “lessons” almost always focus on dominance and technique rather than intimacy and empathy.

I was reminded how, starting with Stern, it had always been men teaching me about vaginas, and of how the average man ends up framing the vagina the same, detrimental way: through his own narrow angle—one of phallic superiority, of penetration, of scoring, and screwing.

That prevailing perspective, one that goes to the heart of sexism and its causes, chief among them the misunderstanding between sexes, is as big a societal problem as any, and that’s just one of a dozen reasons to take stock of Naomi Wolf’s new book. In Vagina, Wolf, a leading feminist author, activist and former Rhodes Scholar, explores “the mind-body connection in sexuality” and in the process touches upon feminine history (especially amongst 19th and 20th century female writers, like Browning, Eliot, Wharton, and Stein), physiology, psychology, sociology, and sexuality (she does a splendid job conceptualizing and delineating the consistencies between Western medical and “sexological” scientific discoveries and the principles and goals of Eastern Tantric spirituality). In the end, she interweaves it all into a nifty narrative of Her vagina: Herorgasms, Her arousal, and their role in determining Her well-being.

What I found most profound about the book is how it awakened me to my incomplete perception of women. What I’d admittedly been inclined to see as somewhat of a mere “glory hole” (particularly when I was much younger), Wolf and I’m sure many other young feminists see “the Goddess”—“a sense of the vagina, in relationship to [women] and [their] lovers, in the context of its actual neurological task of being a mediator and protector of women’s highest, most joyful, and most unbroken sense of self.”

The condensed excerpt below is from the first few pages, and admittedly, as I read them, having yet to realize where she was really going with Vagina, I found it all somewhat absurd, not to mention a little melodramatic. So like many an ignorant, dismissive, and somewhat sexist man in denial, I was already failing to take her seriously and was prepared to drop the book.

It wasn’t until I read a few pages more when I learned that Wolf had a certain physical condition (stemming from minor spina bifida) was pinching an important pelvic nerve that prevented signals from her vagina to her brain (which surgery later corrected). In other words, I didn’t know that physical blockage literally inhibited her from enjoying post-coital transcendence.

I didn’t know that the intricacies of the pelvic nerves branching from the base of a woman’s spinal cord coincide with multiple spots through which a woman can orgasm. I didn’t know that women are “wired differently” from one another, that “some are neurally [sic.] wired more for vaginal orgasms, some more for clitoral, and so on.” I could’ve figured that for the most part prior to reading this book, but not to the point of convincing stubborn old me from unfairly diminishingevery sexual problem anyone could ever have (including Wolf’s as described below) as simply being “all in the head.”

I mentioned having once been quite sexually clueless: we’ve all been there. The trouble is that many of us never leave, and in some cases, young men in particular are kept there. We can blame a great deal of that on porn—take it from this guy. Or better yet, take it from the young women we drag down with us, incredibly sexy yet regrettably vacuous girls like this.

Men would be well advised to read Vagina, a book that tackles female sexuality and subtly introduces men to feminism with research and reason—not coercion and hostility. Honestly, the only men who would bother to read books like this are the smarter, more empathetic among them, the ones who understand that there’s more to sex than what is typically presented by the likes of Brazzers and RealityKings. If there’s anything Wolf reinforces well with her feminist (and oftentimes purely scientific) framing of women, their genitalia, and what they’re genitalia shouldmean to them, it’s that there is significantly more to women than the way they’re homogeneously—and therefore misleadingly—framed for the viewing pleasure of horny, hard-headed men by insidious, and opportunistic men (neither of whom probably know any better).

♦ ♦ ♦

Excerpt from Vagina:

“I had always been able to have clitoral orgasms; and in my thirties, I had also learned to have what would probably be called ‘blended’ or clitoral/vaginal orgasms, which added what seemed to be another psychological dimension to the experience. I had always experienced a postcoital rush of good emotional and physical feelings. After love making, as I grew older, usually, after orgasm, I would see colors as if they were brighter; and the details of the beauty of the natural world would seem sharper and more compelling.

“… I realized one day, as I gazed out on the treetops outside the bedroom of our little cottage upstate, that the usual postcoital rush of a sense of vitality infusing the world, of delight with myself and with all around me, and of creative energy rushing through everything alive, was no longer following the physical pleasure I had certainly experienced. I started to notice that sex was increasingly just about that physical pleasure … I wondered: What is happening to me? …The internal numbness was progressing. I could not pretend I was imagining it. An emotional numbness progressed inexorably alongside it. I felt I was losing, somehow, what made me a woman, and that I could not face living in this condition for the rest of my life.I could not figure out, from anything I had researched, what could possibly be causing this incredibly, traumatic loss … I began literally bargaining with the universe, as one does in times of great crisis …

“With a heavy heart … I made an appointment with my gynecologist.” —Naomi Wolf

Originally published on PolicyMic (10/13/12).
Edited by Elena Sheppard.

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