Vagina: A New Biography by Naomi Wolf

Wolf, Naomi Vagina: A New Biography (London; Virago, 2012)

I write this response to Naomi Wolf’s Vagina: A New Biography with some trepidation because the reviews of this book have been passionate and polarised.  So a word first responding to the conversation surrounding the book – it really depends on what you expect the book to do for you, as to whether you find it satisfying.  There is a whole audience of women who might be able to engage with soft-edged Wolf who can’t cope with the hard-core political rants of Germain Greer (who, by the way, was scathing in her SMH review).

Naomi Wolf is a journalist, so this is a chatty, pop culture kind of ‘biography’ of the vagina; brought to life with anecdotal stories of her own and others.  Several reviewers criticise the reporting of science  in the book, because the storytelling obscures the complexity of a still emerging body of scientific research, which is probably a valid criticism, but again misses the point that Naomi is a journalist crafting a particular story for her readership.

Actually, as an ‘everyday woman’ I find Naomi Wolf quite inspiring!  How many women would seek out the medical advice of their gynecologist because they experienced a loss of enjoyment in the bedroom as a problem?  How many women would even notice a loss of feeling in their inmost parts?

Wolf’s point is basically that there is a whole stack of emerging neuro-biological science which backs up some very ancient wisdom around the mind-body-creativity connection in women’s sexuality.  Much of this wisdom seems to be marginalised in the West, so she investigates the reasons for that and explores how we might interpret the sexual experience of women differently, if we take this new science seriously.  At one end of this spectrum she describes the refugee camps of Congo where an ocean of women, mutilated in an act of war, are cut adrift from their identity as community builders, and therefore resisters in a time of war.  At the other pleasurable end of the investigation, she compares Western medicalised notions of women’s bodies with cultures that emphasise the sexual fulfillment of women as goddesses in order that they might mediate fecundity in the common life of the community.

“By looking at recent science, and asking questions in person and online, I found that the vagina’s experiences can – on the level of biology – boost women’s self-confidence, or else can lead to failures of self-confidence; they can help unleash female creativity or present blocks to female creativity.  They can contribute to a woman’s sense of the joyful interconnectedness of the material and spiritual world – or else to her grieving awareness of the loss of that sense of interconnectedness.  They can help her experience a state of transcendental mysticism that can affect the rest of her life – or leave her at the threshold of that state, inviting that there is something ‘more.’  This latter experience, in turn, can lead not only to a decrease in her desire for sex but can also risk a tincture in the rest of her life of what can only be called ‘existential depression’ or ‘despair.'” (p. 5-6)

This post is much more of a musing than a review, so if you’d like to read a review I more or less agreed with, check out Helen Brown in The Telegraph.

Would I recommend you read it?  Absolutely!


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