Vagina: A New Biography
By Naomi Wolf
Ecco/HarperCollins 400 pages, $27.99
Vaginas are getting a lot of ink in the news these days. Everyone seems to have an opinion about them, especially folks who do not have one. In August, Rep. Todd Akin, a Missouri Republican, made his infamous comments about the vagina’s seemingly supernatural powers to prevent pregnancy in the case of sexual assault: “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” But Akin has not been alone in supporting this widespread myth, one among many about the “ways” of female biology that persists in modern times.
Such lingering popular ignorance is a reason that Naomi Wolf’s new book, “Vagina: A New Biography,” is particularly timely and thought provoking. This despite some of the author’s own extreme leaps into mystical, zany territory — which are sure to leave many feminists fuming, or, more likely, just feeling perplexed.
Part of Wolf’s stated mission is to fill a real gap in reporting the latest scientific findings on female sexuality; after all, it’s been decades since the last large-scale national blockbuster analyses of biology. Masters & Johnson’s famed report was published in 1966, “The Hite Report” in 1976.
Wolf makes a basic but legitimate point about how different a woman’s sexual response may be from a man’s — beyond just the multiple O’s. Recent findings have shown that many seemingly disparate parts of women’s sexual anatomy, such as the cervix, can be involved in orchestrating sexual response. (Wolf uses the word “vagina” to refer to “the entire female sex organ, from labia to clitoris to cervix). She goes out on a limb, though, when she names the “brain-vagina connection” and asserts that “the vagina is part of the female brain, and thus part of female creativity, confidence and even character.”
Defining women according to their privates is a direct challenge to 1970s feminists who fought to separate, and liberate, women from them. That sort of thinking had previously limited women, keeping them out of public life for centuries. Today, women feel more secure considering real biological differences, but they still view some “experts’” interpretations of those differences with caution.
This is the seventh book by Wolf, a provocative social theorist who rose to prominence in 1991 with her best-seller “The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women,” written while she was still in her 20s. For women of her generation (and mine), the book was a breath of fresh air that made feminism relevant and media-friendly. I was lecturing widely on college campuses at that time, and I witnessed firsthand how Wolf’s was the first explicitly feminist book many young women read.