Hello There Vagina! - Lucy Ellmann
As anyone who’s seen that dispiriting film, Hope Springs, will have gathered, the world is full of sexually frustrated women. According to Naomi Wolf, there’s an ‘epidemic’ of female sexual unhappiness in the West. The Victorians were bad enough, dishonouring both male and female sexuality by persuading people that women don’t want or need sex. But things are worse now – porn and its addicts have reduced female pleasure to a caricature of irrelevance, and made female ejaculation the new G-spot! You may have mastered both the vaginal and clitoral orgasm, girls, but if you can’t ejaculate a bit as well, you’re nobody.
A woman’s work is never done.
In her earlier book, The Beauty Myth, Wolf argued that the invention of photography had an adverse effect on women’s self-confidence: just when they were starting to campaign for a little equality, women were bombarded with so many images of themselves they were never the same again. Instead of rising up and demanding their rights, they became slaves to beautifying and corseted themselves into fainting fits and uterine prolapses. Out of this came the beauty ‘myth’, as she rather peculiarly put it, a ‘collective reactionary hallucination resulting in the diet industry, cosmetics industry, cosmetic surgery industry and porn industry’.
Now it’s the vagina that’s under attack, in the latest backlash against feminism: Vagina focuses on the debilitating effect sexual repression has had on female creativity, well-being and power. Despite the availability of vibrators and Chippendales, women aren’t getting what they need. Wolf identifies our culture’s determined disservice to female sexuality, and – rightly, I think – links it to disdain for the environment, and for life itself: ‘five thousand years of shaming [female sexuality], stigmatizing it, controlling it, subduing it, splitting it off from women, from men, compartmental-izing it, insulting it and selling it. Great dislocations and alienations in civilization… have followed…and the results are everywhere around us.’
The fanny, vagina, front bottom, or mapotazi (map of Tasmania) is not often spoken of. It’s such a well-kept secret, most girls don’t even know what they’ve got and think there’s something wrong with them when they take a look. Women can’t think, don’t think, feel forbidden to think about the vagina – this is taking modesty to a severely inhibiting level. Far from being a source of pride and pleasure, the vagina is an embarrassment, an inadequacy and a mystery, a forbidding no-man’s land. Possession of one is widely considered something of a disaster. Proof of this ranges from female infanticide to the recent raping of 400,000 women in Congo, as well as the everyday ridiculing of the vagina that we are all expected to pass off as banter. When working in Hollywood, Roseanne Barr dreaded joining male colleagues at the writers’ house ‘because there would be a “stinky-pussy” joke within three minutes.’ The BBC seems to extend the same warm embrace of institutionalized sexism to its female employees. These are signs of an unfortunate lack of respect – when what vaginas really respond to is veneration.
We would all be a lot happier if we would only learn to love the vagina. To help us in this task, Wolf offers hyperbole, and a lot of cherry-picked statistics and scientific studies. Rats did their bit here – she’s overly enchanted with animal experiments, most of which seem to involve ruining the orgasms of female rats. But there’s also a human pheromone study she cites, in which men had to gather sweat from their armpits during various stages of sexual excitement. Then ‘nineteen women smelled the men’s “aroused” and “unaroused” sweat pads while they themselves underwent brain scans.’ Some party! Wolf enthusiastically offers herself as guinea pig too, basing a good half or so of the book on her own life or, as she cloyingly puts it, her ‘journey’.
The whole enterprise started as the result of having a back problem that was impairing the intensity of her orgasms. In despair, Wolf goofily vowed to write a book about it all if she was ever cured – which she was, so here it is. Her major finding? That all women are ‘wired’ differently, and therefore respond differently to sexual stimuli. (Is this news?) Wolf also ‘discovered’ that the vagina is connected to the brain. From this she deduces that all attacks on the vagina are also attacks on the female psyche. ‘If your goal is to break a woman psychologically, it is efficient to do violence to her vagina…Rape, properly understood, is more like an injury to the brain than a violent variation on sex.’
Rape has certainly been used by oppressors, colonists, controlling husbands, TV presenters and millions of bog-standard misogynists as a means of deflating and dis-empowering women. Wolf argues that the trauma of rape has lasting physical repercussions: curious problems can show up years later, including dizziness, high blood pressure, and gait and balance irregularities (you can literally push a rape victim over more easily than a woman who’s never been raped). Rape ‘switches off the light’ in women, often permanently – it subdues, silences and restrains them, making it a handy tool in war.
When, instead, we could be gazing, admiring, melting, opening, going into trances and feeling ‘oceanic’! Women are ‘designed to receive pleasure, and experience triggers to orgasm, from skillful caressing and rhythmic pressure…over many, many parts of their bodies. The pornographic model of intercourse…goal oriented…and focused on stimulation of maybe one or two areas of a woman’s body…is just not going to do it for many women, or at least not in a very profound way.’
Maybe there should be a sequel to Hope Springs (Victoria Falls?), in which Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones go see a Tantric specialist, and Jones learns to bring flowers home from work, look deeply into Streep’s eyes, stroke her during arguments, and spend at least fifteen minutes on foreplay.
According to Wolf, most of the names we’ve got for the vagina produce ‘bad stress’ in the female mind, shutting down optimism and imagination. She notes the negativity of Shakespeare’s ‘nothing’, the dismissiveness of gash, slit, snatch and twat, the offensiveness of fish (tuna bap, bearded oyster, hairy fish pie), animal (beaver, pussy, panty hamster), and junk food references (vertical taco, sausage wallet, badly packed kebab). But I don’t think cunt is such a bad word.
As Wolf admits, it has fine origins in ‘ken’, ‘kin’, and ‘cunnilingus’. It’s become an insult simply because most words for the vagina do, in the West. No ‘jade curtains’ here, no ‘golden lotus’ – all we’ve got are Velcro triangles and squish mittens.
There’s stuff of real value in this book, but it’s wedged between idiocies. Wolf resents it when a friend organises a party in her honour, at which he deliberately mocks her new vagina project by serving vulva-shaped pasta he calls ‘cuntini’, with sausages: Wolf felt her own creativity blighted for six months as a result of his tactlessness. But the drama of this noodle episode wilts under its own insignificance. At another point, she’s down in the dumps, in the cabin of a sailboat, silently crying about flippant remarks about rape made on deck. ‘I excused myself to go down into the hold. I lay down on one of the bunks…I took deep breaths…I felt the grief of it.’ Why didn’t she just say something, throw the men overboard, issue a Mayday call?
In a way, women are lying on bunks all over the world, silently crying about sexual harassment. As Frank O’Hara told Lana Turner: get up.
She has no sense of humour. Things that other people might find only slightly irritating or even amusing, are for Wolf tiny emblems of something much bigger and ghastlier, which gives them their weird glimmer of importance. Yes, the cuntini, the rape jokes, Dick Cavett’s rudeness, Har-old Bloom’s candle-lit pawing of her thigh, etc., ARE connected to misogyny in some way. But there are so many worse examples in the world, these forays into Wolf’s past seem absurd. The woman’s just not using her noodle.
Autobiography marred The Beauty Myth, and Misconceptions is heavy with details of Wolf’s two deliveries (one bad, one better). She uses First Person testimony as a way of emphasizing things, tying threads, or moving the argument along. Annoyingly, her only hold on common feeling is through her own experiences, often smugly played out in ‘a little cottage upstate’. It’s padding. There’s far too much about her ailment and op in Vagina, and her ‘journey’. To write, ‘I learned on my journey…’, is both putrid and self-aggrandising – who does she think she is, Moses? Lady Godiva? Maybe if she spent a little less time on the ‘journey’ and a little more time writing it up…
The personal is not always political – sometimes it’s just dull. Do we really need to know Wolf’s romantic status, to understand how orgasms work? It’s like getting trapped in a corner at a cocktail party with the Ancient Mariner. Extract the solipsism, the statistics, the confusions and conflations, the repetitions, the epiphanic boy-oh-boy wonderment, the WOWs, the WHATs and the incredibles – along with all talk of the amygdala or the vagina’s soul and its ‘gorgeous’, transcendental, Goddess Array (a favourite term of Wolf’s) – and Vagina could have been half the length and twice as good. But maybe there’s been enough shaving of vaginas already.
The book is also much less radical than it could be: Wolf has mellowed worryingly since writing The Beauty Myth, and she doesn’t write terrifically well. For someone concerned about the way we’ve all been bullied by Beauty, Wolf’s oddly compliant with that convention of American nonfiction of describing the appearance of everyone you consult: ‘a statuesque woman in her early forties’, ‘a youthful-looking scientist with an energetic demeanor’, ‘a surreally juicy-looking, witty blond woman…her hair curled in wild tendrils…her toes…painted shell pink.’ She even describes Montreal for us, ‘the relaxed and intellectually curious city’. Where’s all the vehemence that formerly carried her prose along, even if never elegantly? And how about those multiple adverbs, often two at a time. Once I found five:
‘The [available] models of female sexuality are simply extremely physically, emotionally, and existentially unsatisfying.’
But it’s when she dwells on oxytocin that I really lose interest. Romantic love, Wolf tells us, has ‘three different chemical components: lust, composed of androgens and estrogens; attraction, driven by high dopamine and norepinephrine levels and low serotonin (this accounts for mood swings in early courtship); and finally, attachment, made up of oxytocin and vasopressin.’ Okay, so every emotion can be reduced to chemicals – but must it be?
VIRAGO, 400 PP, £12.99, ISBN: 9781844086887