Friday 24 November 2017

Review: Sexuality: Vagina: A New Biography by Naomi Wolf

Virago, £12.99, pbk, 416 pages
Available with free P&P on www.kennys.ie or by calling 091 709350

Naomi Wolf, the feminist writer best known for her influential 1991 book The Beauty Myth, was inspired to write her latest book by a traumatic personal experience of sexual dysfunction.

In her mid-40s she found that the "technicolour" orgasms she'd been enjoying had lost their "poetic dimension". It turned out that a compressed pudendal nerve was to blame and surgery gave Wolf's story a happy ending.

But the big revelation came in her consultant's office when she learnt that every woman's sexual nervous system is wired differently.

"Some women's nerves branch more in the vagina; other women's nerves branch more in the clitoris," he told her. "Some branch a great deal in the perineum, or at the mouth of the cervix."

She nearly fell off the examination table: "Do you realise," she stammered, "you've just given the answer to a question that Freudians and feminists and sexologists have been arguing about for decades?

"All these people have assumed the differences in orgasms had to do with how women were raised . . . or what social role was expected of them . . . or whether they were free to explore their own bodies or not . . ."

But, to use the sort of dreamy metaphor Wolf likes, we're all as special as snowflakes. I didn't know this. None of the women with whom I've discussed Wolf's book knew this. I agree with her that it's big news and I thank her for passing it on.

But, as Katha Pollitt wrote in her review for The Nation: "Unfortunately, having 'discovered' that every woman is sexually unique, she proceeds to write 300 more pages arguing that they're all the same, ie, just like Naomi Wolf."

She talks to scientists who spend their days tickling lab rats and to a man of uncertain qualifications who offers "sacred sexual healing" massage in north London and tells her: "I don't generally have intercourse with my clients unless it is extremely therapeutic."

While backing his work, Wolf doesn't try his wares herself. Her paddle in the bits of neuroscience that fit her theory leads her to conclude that there's a powerful brain-vagina connection which she describes as either the "female soul" or "the Goddess".

But Wolf's opinions lurch over-excitedly between a sensibly holistic view of female sexuality and a more absurd and offensive hole-istic one. Wolf is good on the damaging effects of rape (although I suspect male victims of the same crime feel very similar, despite their different wiring), the social history of female sexuality and the need for a better language for our sexual organs (current options tend toward the clinical or offensive).

Her conservative conclusion that many women in heterosexual relationships would probably enjoy sex more and consequently feel happier about their lives if their partners treated them kindly, did more housework and lit candles is hardly front-page news.

What she does reveal is that even as E L James's bestselling female erotica piles up at every supermarket checkout, our culture still sees a frank reference to the female sexual organs as embarrassing.

Apple's iTunes store stupidly asterisked out this book's title, offering readers V****a instead. It's proof that -- even though she hasn't got it all right here -- Wolf has touched a nerve.

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