“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?”
About the only solid defense of the book seems to come from a yet-unpublished piece in the British lesbian magazine Diva (“truly liberating,” wrote its author).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 Wolf, who speaks at the Miami Book Fair International Nov. 17, restoring sex to the country’s ongoing conversation about gender-wide frustration?
“I’m a big believer in debate and difference of opinion,” she says of the critical roar.
The Rhodes scholar, who two decades ago wrote in The Beauty Myth, the book that 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 says she thinks 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, respectively, 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 says. “These things are related. I now understand why I don’t want to make love if the house is messy.”
Wolf has often been ahead of the zeitgeist, 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) and for her Occupy Wall Street arrest in a diaphanous gown (she crossed police lines coming from a SoHo movie premiere).
In the meantime, she divorced David Shipley, her husband for 15 years, ushered their daughter and son into adolescence, and returned to Oxford to study Victorian and Edwardian literature. Along with the books and two columns (she writes for The Guardian and Project Syndicate), she commands high fees as a speaker, recently discussing the clitoris at the Royal Institution of Great Britain.
She has fallen in love with Avram Ludwig, a movie producer who, as readers of Vagina know, has the skill to deliver orgasms that make the leaves outside her bedroom window glow in Wizard of Oz Technicolor.
But in discussing a book inspired by her own sex life, she reveals little of herself, steering the talk back to statistics (30 percent of women, she says, can’t “reliably” reach orgasm).
“The sexual revolution is not working for women, many women, or not working well enough,” Wolf says, her voice rising. “To me that’s a feminist issue that we’re not reaching our potential.”
She also called women’s imperfect realization of their sexuality “a human rights crisis,” affecting (this from the book) their ability to “create, explore, communicate, conquer, and transcend.”
As Wolf wrote, she “stumbled upon hugely important scientific discovery after hugely important scientific discovery,” proving what she described as a “profound brain-vagina connection.”
After reading the book, Beverly Whipple, best known as the scientist who discovered the G-spot, says: “At best, this is a very troubling interpretation of science. I can’t find the data behind her claims. Where is she getting this? Is this fiction or nonfiction?”
But as sex therapist Nancy Fish, who is also quoted in the book, put it, “People sometimes have to go to extremes to get people to talk about a topic.”
Fish adds: “In 2012 we’re still living in the Victorian age when it comes to sexuality. Vagina has to be a household word. It should be a topic discussed at the dinner table when you’re having a dinner party.”
In England, Vagina is No. 7 on one bestseller list despite negative press. Sales figures are not yet available in the United States, where a female legislator was censored for saying “vagina” in the Michigan House of Representatives and where the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Missouri ascribed powers to female anatomy that he says could suppress the sperm of a rapist.
Both events, Wolf says, deeply affect women’s individual sexual health.
“This is a time in which everybody is on the verge of a global awakening from a certain kind of torpor,” she says. “That’s why there’s this doubling down on the power struggle over the vagina. But this is a moment for women. We are going to have to reclaim the vagina as central to everything.”