If Naomi Wolf is right about recent scientific discoveries, the world would be a more beautiful, artistic, creative place if half the population — the half with vaginas — were having better sex. Her prescription: more attentive lovers.
Few women would argue against the idea, but Vagina: A New Biography doesn’t make its argument terribly well. Wolf, author of The Beauty Myth, carefully chronicles a series of interviews with researchers, doctors, Tantric healers and everyday women. She notes such details as where she conducted the interview — on a boat, outside a library, on her screened porch, on another boat. A reader who wades through that tedium learns that Wolf has discovered science that backs up what she repeatedly calls “her” theory — that mind-blowing sex can be, well, mind-blowing.
Funny how we already called it that.
There’s nothing really wrong with Wolf’s conclusions in Vagina. She does find interesting research that suggests that a woman’s path to orgasm is more complicated and varied than some people might have thought. And she reaffirms what many women already knew — that they feel better after really good sex than they did before.
She helpfully lays out what she has decided to name the Goddess Array, a series of steps a lover can take to make a woman feel comfortable, relaxed, loved and aroused, all in preparation for the mind-blowing part. But there are no secrets here. Most men have known about candles and dancing for awhile now.
She writes that she’s trying to undo cultural forces that have left women feeling pressured to perform and as if they are not fully realized if they don’t have amazing orgasms. Yet she adds a stunning new burden to the poor misunderstood female orgasm. Now it’s supposed to make women into more creative, self-aware, productive, even talented individuals.
“To understand the vagina properly is to realize that it is not only coextensive with the female brain but also is a part of the female soul — it is a gateway to, and medium of, female self-knowledge and consciousness themselves,” she writes.
If you’re a painter, you’ll paint better after a really good night with your lover. Or at least colors will seem brighter. Pity the woman who can’t train a man in mood-lighting.
“[T]ruly, the well-treated vagina is a medium that releases, in the female brain, what can be called without exaggeration the chemical components of the meaning of life itself,” she writes. How’s that for pressure?
Wolf dips a toe into the history of our Western medical understanding of female orgasm and discusses why the goddess cults were suppressed by early Jews and how early Christians went even farther to stigmatize sex and the female body. But this section of the book, potentially the most interesting, only scratches the surface, leaving the reader rather unsatisfied.
Wolf concludes the book on an island in Greece, where the flowers are beautiful, the sea is beautiful; everything is just lovely.
“The hills undulated and yielded as if the earth itself were a female body,” she writes. “Looking back at the landscape in all its majesty and yielding, I felt that a kind of smudge in my vision — which had been there for my entire conscious adult life — lifted for a moment, and suddenly things sparkled. The dark, obscuring smudge, I realized in a flash, was the shame and disrespect that we assign to the feminine, and it does not just converge on the vagina, though that is its archetypal center; it washes over the whole world with a darkness or wrongness that colors our perception of it and our relationship to it.”
Maybe that part would have been a little better if her boyfriend, whom she describes as quite skillful at lovemaking, had been on the trip. Or maybe he should write a book.
Susannah Nesmith is a writer in Miami.