Byline: Michelle Goldberg
Naomi Wolf's prayer for a better orgasm.
Reading Vagina: A New Biography, Naomi Wolf's self-parodying ode to female genitalia, one wonders what's happened to a writer who was once one of feminism's freshest voices.
In 1991, Wolf published The Beauty Myth, a classic that's helped many young women navigate between their resentment of our culture's punishing physical ideals and their often excruciating desperation to live up to them. She argued that as women gained more social, economic, and political power, standards of beauty and grooming ratcheted up to oppressive levels, replacing earlier systems of control. This was before Brazilian bikini waxes became de rigueur, before proliferating celebrity magazines started stalking actresses who dare show makeup-free faces in public, before the boom in cosmetic labiaplasty. If anything, Wolf's debut is even more relevant two decades later.
It's also more relevant than anything she's written or said since. Wolf has had many incarnations in the ensuing years, each more puzzling than the last. She was a $15,000-a-month adviser to Al Gore's presidential campaign, famous for urging him to wear earth tones and to assert himself as an "alpha male." In 2006 she made news for telling Scotland's Sunday Herald about a vision in which she, in the form of a teenage boy, encountered Jesus leading her to a spiritual mission to help "women remember what's sacred about them or what's sacred about femininity." Then she detoured away from mysticism to write about the imminent arrival of fascism in America, a fear that led her to call the Tea Party "a prescient effort to constrain overweening corporate and military power in national government."
Now she's back to sex and religion, with a book arguing that the key to women's self-expression and transcendence lies between our legs. The vagina, she writes in her introduction, "is not only coextensive with the female brain but also is part of the female soul... a gateway to, and medium of, female self-knowledge and consciousness themselves." A woman, in this formulation, basically is her vagina.
It shouldn't need pointing out that plenty of misogynists believe the same thing. Vagina may intend to celebrate and empower women, but it has a reactionary way of treating them as slaves to biology. "For women to really be free, we have to understand the ways in which nature designed us to be attached to and dependent upon love, connection, intimacy, and the right kind of Eros in the hands of the right kind of man," Wolf writes.
The impetus for Vagina, Wolf informs us early on, was a crisis in her own sex life. It was 2009 and she was in love with a man who sexually satisfied her, but something was awry. "To my astonishment and dismay, while my clitoral orgasms were as strong and pleasurable as ever, something different than usual was happening, after sex, to my mind," she writes. She realized she was missing "the usual postcoital rush of a sense of vitality infusing the world, of delight with myself and with all around me."
This sounds disappointing. For Wolf, it was a dark night of the soul, "like a horror movie." Late one frantic night, she writes, "I began literally bargaining with the universe, as one does in times of great crisis. I actually prayed, proposing a deal--if God (or whoever was listening; I would go with anyone who was willing to take the call) would somehow heal me ... I would write about it if there was the least chance that what I had learned could help anyone else." Hence, this book. …