Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Naomi Wolf Talks about Sex ; Her Latest Book Tries to Spark Debate, but Early Reviews Are Harsh

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Naomi Wolf Talks about Sex ; Her Latest Book Tries to Spark Debate, but Early Reviews Are Harsh

Article excerpt

People are talking about the new book "Vagina," and the talk has been nearly universally damning.

"Who gets to say it? Who gets to own it? Who gets to say what happens to it?"

Naomi Wolf is talking about her vagina. So are scores of other people, though they are mainly talking about "Vagina," her new book, and the talk has been nearly universally damning.

"A shoddy piece of work, full of childlike generalizations and dreary, feminist auto-think," wrote Zoe Heller in The New York Review of Books. Ariel Levy asked in The New Yorker, "Is it going too far to say that Ms. Wolf's book, which clearly belongs to the same realm of the erotic imagination as the Grey trilogy, is itself a kind of pornography?"

Meghan Daum wrote in her column in The Los Angeles Times that "Vagina" is "bad news for everybody who has one," while in her 2,700- word excoriation in The New York Times Book Review, Toni Bentley called it "scattered" and "humorless."

About the only solid defense of the book seems to come from a yet- unpublished piece to which Ms. Wolf alerted this reporter, in the British lesbian magazine Diva ("truly liberating," wrote its author).

Is this the fall of the onetime angel in the house of feminism, or is Ms. Wolf restoring sex to the country's ongoing conversation about gender-wide frustration?

A few days after reviews began appearing, Ms. Wolf set sliced bananas and strawberries upon a coffee table (cut fruit had never before looked so vulval) and took a seat on the deep, plush couch in the yellow-painted living room of her sunny West Village apartment in New York City. She was wearing a flowing black wrap over a loose knit tank, tan strappy heels and a tight smile.

"I'm a big believer in debate and difference of opinion," she said of the critical roar. No doubt this is true, as Ms. Wolf courts debate weekly in the column she writes for The Guardian, as she has with her seven previous books. The Rhodes scholar who two decades ago wrote in "The Beauty Myth," the book that made her a media star, that "it does not matter in the least what women look like as long as we feel beautiful," is herself as gorgeous as ever, two months shy of her 50th birthday.

She said she thought of "Vagina" as the last in a quartet, answering questions about science, anatomy, freedom and pleasure that she also addressed in "The Beauty Myth" (1990), "Promiscuities" (1998) and "Misconceptions" (2001). And like those last two books, which were inspired by her struggles with coming of age and motherhood, she draws from her sex life in "Vagina" to talk about how women are starved of the kind of pleasure they want.

"It's not about hot sex, it's about not being taken for granted," she said. "These things are related. I now understand why I don't want to make love if the house is messy."

Ms. Wolf has often been ahead of the zeitgeist, writing in "Promiscuities" about hookup culture before it sported that name, and natural childbirth before it came back into vogue. But in recent years, her perch in the cultural firmament has been somewhat shakier.

She was pilloried for her high-paid gig with Al Gore (though few today might disagree with her advice to go "alpha male" in the 2000 election); for writing in New York Magazine that the Shakespeare scholar Harold Bloom had sexually harassed her 20 years earlier; and for her Occupy Wall Street arrest in a diaphanous gown (she crossed police lines coming from a SoHo movie premiere). It didn't help her reputation in the liberal circles that anointed her when she told The Sunday Herald in 2006 that during therapy for writer's block she had a vision in which she took the form of a teenage boy and met Jesus -- this from a woman who describes herself as "a traditional Jewish girl."

In the meantime, she divorced David Shipley (a former editor of The New York Times Op-Ed page), her husband of 15 years, ushered their daughter and son into adolescence, and returned to Oxford to study Victorian and Edwardian literature. …

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