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!


Sex Life: How Our Sexual Experiences Define Who We Are by Pamela Stephenson-Connolly

(Vermilion; London, 2011)

Sex Life by Pamela Stephenson-Connolly was my ‘light reading’ of choice after the last liturgy essay!  The reason I was drawn to it is because it is an attempt to ‘map’ human sexuality from birth till death, hence covering the controversial areas of sexuality in childhood and old age.  As Pamela points out, it’s pretty difficult to gather empirical date on sexual experience and she has opted for a mass of testimonials from clients and research interviews.  So it’s fun to read – though the book desperately needs a good editor!

I have two reflections to share in a public forum.  (Poor me a glass of red wine and I’d be happy to talk into the night!)

The first is that I agree 100% with Pamela that we must think about human sexuality as a whole of life phenomena.  Her book helps us to do that and is useful therefore for both academic and personal study.  (If you need to do some ‘repair work’ on your own formation as sexual beings this is not a bad place to start – it’ll help identify the messages you’ve picked up in younger years which are influencing your adult sexuality.)  Sexuality ebbs and flows with growth and regression, maturity and immaturity as do ALL aspects of the human person.  If we cease to acknowledge and affirm appropriate childhood and adolescent sexuality we fail to equip our children with the foundation for healthy adult sexuality.  If we fail to acknowledge sexuality in ageing adults, we add to the devaluing of the elderly which our society already engages in too readily.

The second reflection I would offer is the absolute impossibility of writing and talking about sex without moral judgements.  Pamela writes ‘for sexologists and campaigners who fight for sexual rights.’  Well, there are diverse opinions of what ‘sexual rights’ might mean!  There are times in the book where she sounds more accepting of those who engage in ‘unusual’ forms of sexual expression than she is of those who choose a healthy abstinence.  I find this very frustrating as a theologian interested in sexuality and spirituality – not from a moral point of view, but because she fails to acknowledge anything much of the spiritual experience of human beings.  Her understanding of sex reads to be very materialist – of physical matter – which I found very limiting and would argue is a moral judgement in and of itself.  Subjectivity is inevitable in all subjects, but with one in which we as subjects are so inherently vulnerable, we have to be absolutely up front that an a-moral sexual ethic is impossible.  Our current Australian debates on same-sex marriage and Anglican debates on human sexuality would do well to use that as a starting point!

How do our sexual experiences define who we are?  Our sexual experiences define our sexuality and our sexuality is just one element in the complex web of relations that makes up a human being.


‘The Drive to Love: Neural Mechanism for Mate Selection’ by Helen Fisher

(Chapter 5 in The New Psychology of Love edited by Robert J. Sternberg & Karen Weis, Yale University Press; New Haven, 2006)

Helen Fisher has studied romantic love for 30 years!  Recently she’s moved from studying romantic love in different cultures across time and space, to some more empirical research.  First she conducted a study of 400+ Americans and 400+ Japanese and discovered that romantic love does not vary considerably by age, gender, sexual orientation or ethnic group.  Having been convinced from her social studies that romantic love was a universal human experience, she teemed up with some inter-disciplinary colleagues and conducted a fMRI study of the human brain ‘ in love.’     

“In fact, I have come to believe that romantic love is one of three discrete, interrelated emotion/motivation systems that all birds and mammals have evolved to direct courtship, mating, reproduction, and parenting.  The other two are the sex drive and attachment.  Each brain system is associated with different feelings and behaviors; each is associated with a different (and dynamic) constellation of neural correlates; each evolved to direct a different aspect of reproduction; and each interacts ith the other two in myriad combinations to produce the range of emotions, motivations, and behaviors associated with all types of love.”  

The sex drive is primarily associated with the androgens, particularly testosterone (in both women and men) with brain activity in the hypothalamus and the amygdala.

The attraction drive (romantic love) is primarily associated with elevated activity of dopamine in the reward pathways of the brain.  It is also likely to be associated with elevated activity of central norepinephrine and suppressed activity of central serotonin, as well as other brain systems activing together to produce increased energy, focussed attention, possessiveness, competitiveness, sexual arousal and has many similarities to other addictive neurological maps. 

Finally, the attachment drive (long term affection for a particular companion) is primarily associated with oxytocin and vasopressin in the nucleus accumbens and ventral pallidum respectively.  The traists include mammalian traits of nest building, mutual feeding and groomin, staying close, shared parental chores and affiliative behaviors plus feelings of calm, security, social comfort, and emotional union with a long term mate. 

“The sex drive evolved to motivate our ancestors to seek coitus with a range of appropriate partners.  Atraction (and its developed human form, romantic love) evolved to motivate individuals to select among potential mates, prefer a particular individual, and focus courtnship attention on this favored mating partner, thereby conserving courtship time and energy.  Attachment evolved primarily to motivate individuals to sustain an affiliative connection with this reproductive partner at least long enough to complete species-specific duties.  Moreover, these three brain systems interact in myriad ways to direct many behaviors, emotions, and motivations associated with human reproduction.”

Whilst I cannot pretend that I understand this science, there does seem to be quite a bit of support for her conclusions in associated literature which I have scanned to my limited capacities.  If you have a capacity for science, I suggest you read the article.  If not, she gave a really accessible 15 min TED lecture  which gives you the gist of it.  You can check out her website for more fascinating research on sex, romance and love.

Fisher’s research leads her to several conclusions about romantic love.  Falling in love can legitimately be described as an addiction alongside food, alcohol, drugs, gambling and nicotine.  Also, those who have higher base levels of dopamine and serotonin in their biology are likely to fall in love more easil, more intensely and more often.  Similarly those with illnesses or circumstances that reduce dopamine levels have a reduced ‘risk’  of falling in love.  

In comparing people who were newly in love, newly rejected in love, and still in love after 30 years together, she believes that romantic love has the capacity to be enduring – dopamine continues to be primarily active, though shifting to different location in jilted lovers; and complimented with high levels of seratonin in long-term lovers. “Changes in cognition and emotion occur as love proceeds.”  There is a complex psychobiological interactions between lust, romantic love and attachment.  Increased dopamine when one is in love, tends to induce the release of testosterone (sexual arousal).  Sexual activity can also produce dopamine, particularly in women, and orgasim produces a flood of oxytocin and vasopressin associated with attachment.

So… why do I care about all this?  Two reasons:

1.  Christian Morality:  How does this inform my ongoing questioning about love and marriage in contemporary society?  If Fisher is correct, falling in love as a precurser to marriage will endure through cultural change.  The potential for falling in love also endures through-out a person’s lifetime, providing a challenge to marriage when one does not fall in love with one’s committed partner, even when that partner is affectionately loved.  Also, if  sex is a seperate issue to the longing for intimacy and the formation of long-term bonds: what are the implications for the GLBT community and for those who have sufferred sexual trauma and find sexual relationships difficult?  What are the implications for pastoral care?

2.  Integrated Spirituality:  The distinction between sex, attraction and affection has some interesting implications for an integrated spirituality.  When a mystic says they are ‘in love’ with Jesus, the desire is first and foremost for wholistic union rather than erotic arousal.  As Fisher says, a person in love longs to sit on the couch together even more than falling into bed.  In one of my recent essays I explored Bernard Lonergan’s image of conversion as falling in love with Jesus.  Fisher’s research provides some wonderful metaphors to further explore and explain what happens in an encounter with the Living Lord.

‘Rethinking sex and the church’ by Sarah Coakley


Musing with a friend recently about the dearth of spirituality encountered in our interactions with institutional church, it struck me that if the Church is married to Christ, it has become a Sexless Marriage.  I’m referring of course to Paul’s analogy in Ephesians 5 about the relationship between Jesus and the community of believers forged in His name, but it’s not the only time marriage is used to describe the relationship between God and God’s People.  Hosea is a diatribe against unfaithful Israel depicted as an unfaithful and immoral wife.  Song of Songs is often seen to be analogous to God’s relationship with God’s people – though it need not be to have a valid place within the canon in my opinion!

‘Rethinking sex and the church’ is a theological essay by Coakley addressing some of the categorical errors we make when it comes to discuss the incredibly sensitive differences of ‘opinion’ about sex in the Church.  Her arguments under gird my own view that the anglican church will not be able to constructively address the question of homosexual faithfulness until it addresses the de-sexed state of our spirituality and theology.  We have ‘disembodied’ our faith and lost any knowledge of what it is to be a whole, sexual person in relation to ourselves, to others and to God.  This is a spiritual problem, not just a moral one.  There is so very little ‘mystical union’ going on between the bride and groom, which just makes things, well sexless: there is no seduction, no sensuality, (no sensibility,) no sacredness, no specialness and no regeneration.  What strikes me most about sex is its capacity (promise?) to create something new.  Two opposites create a third other: whether that other be a child, an orgasm or the inward sacred journey opening up for both partners.

Though I suspect Coakley would agree with me, her concern in this essay is the sex debates in the roman catholic and anglican churches.  Whilst we are disconnected from the interconnectedness of human spirituality and sexuality, any conversation about sexual conduct is going to be reduced to moralistic rationalisms expressed in sound-bite propaganda between warring factions.  The suggestion that we can ‘debate’ sexuality has long made me mad!

There are several ‘worldly’ presuppositions  about eroticism which the church has integrated unexamined.  Notable Christian Saints of the past have found spiritual ecstasy in celibacy but we now tend to assume that life without explicit sexual activity is intrinsically impossible.  Coakley quotes David Brooks as saying (in 2003) that “our age is in a crisis – not so much of homosexuality – but more generally of erotic faithfulness.”  The disintegration of marriage which has produced children has far more concerning social consequences than gay relationships, yet divorce not longer receives moralizing condemnation.  Being married is by no means a guarantee of fulfilling and faithful sexual activity.

Coakley goes on to make a really interesting clarification about Freud’s mature understanding of ‘eros’ (sexual desire) and the potential for positive redirection.  It seems that there is a difference between actual Freud and pseudo-Freud of pop culture.  She argues that “the concept of ‘sublimination’ that started in Freud’s early work as related to mere biological drive, has now become [in his later work] a theory of a positive, and seemingly non-repressive, ‘rechannelling’ of psychic energy.

She then goes on to the Christian witness of Gregory of Nyssa, 4th century Cappadocian Church Father (younger brother of Basil of Caesarea).  Gregory was married, but he wrote in praise of celebacy inspired by the experience of Basil.  In both cases, he saw that the ‘stream of desire’ was equally channelled into spirituality.  Sexual Desire, guided by the Spirit in contemplation, flows into Spiritual Desire.  The sparkling stream of eroticism gains pace and volume as it rushes towards the glistening ocean of Divine Love.  Gregory “sees good, spiritually-productive, marriage as almost on a par with celibacy given its equal potential capacity, when desire is rightly ‘aimed’, to bear the fruits of ‘service’ to others, especially the poor.

Coakley’s conclusion in relation to the so-called ‘anglican crisis about homosexuality’ is that we will get nowhere “unless we first, all of us, re-imagine theologically the whole project of our human sorting, taming, and purifying of desires within the crucible of divine desire.”  I would add to this that we will also get nowhere on the revival and renewal of our Church as a community of spiritually flourishing human beings, made alive through the most amazing person of Jesus Christ and the gift of Christ’s Spirit, unless we do the same.

‘Is there a Future for Gender and Theology?’ by Sarah Coakley

(In Criterion 47:1 (2009), 2-11.   Access online  here.)

Call it God, the Universe or the Mystery of Life but I’m not the only one who experiences the wonder of meeting just the right people at just the right time.  All those posts about spirituality, sexuality, psychology, love and marriage … enter Sarah Coakley.  Sarah has a theology chair at Cambridge and writes integrating interests in systematics, postmodern hermeneutics, spirituality, contemplation, mysticism, feminism, anglicanism (she’s a priest), Depth Psychology,  the body and sexuality, biology, ecology, and any other thing I could possibly desire in  reddress theology!   She has a book in the pipeline called The New Asceticism (first promised late 2010, now early 2012 – we should pray for her!)

In this essay Coakley outlines how combining investigations into postmodern gender issues and trinitarian systematic theology forges some important pathways into knowing God.

“It is the very threeness of God… transformatively met in the Spirit, which gives the key to a view of gender that is appropriately founded in bodily practices of prayer…  [Giving rise to] … an understanding of theology in progressive transformation… and one founded not in any secular rationality or theory of selfhood, but in a spiritual practice of paying attention that mysteriously challenges and expands the range of rationality, and simultaneously darkens and breaks one’s hold on previous certainties.”

She addresses three typically postmodern suspicions about the meta-narrative approach of systematic theology, in which she identifies entangled objections about power, knowledge and gender.  The first of these is an onto-theological suspicion that systematics too readily turns theology into idolatry.  The second comes from liberation critiques which identify the tendencies for overarching systems to give refuge to controlling and oppressive uses of power.  Third, French post-Freudian psychoanalytic theory identifies systematic thinking as intrinsically phallocentric.

Coakley suggests that a contemplative approach to systematics is able to address each of these difficulties in it’s capacity to transform (redeem) ‘desire’.  Desire to control for the sake of managing one’s deepest fears, gives way to a Desire to be in free relationship to others.  The refining fire is of course, the “naked longing for God” which the “desiring trinitarian God” implants in us.  It is through contemplative prayer that we most fully encounter the Triune God whom Jesus Christ revealed.  She argues (and I agree) that Human Spiritual Desire is more fundamental than sexual desire, lust for political control, love of money, and so on.  By addressing the human spirit’s desire for the divine (think in Jungian categories here) theology has the capacity to look at those other desires from a different angle.

“The very act of contemplation – repeated, lived, embodied, suffered – is an act that, by grace, and over time, precisely inculcates mental patterns of un-mastery, welcomes the dark realm of the unconscious, opens up a radical attention to the other, and instigates an acute awareness of the messy entanglement of sexual desires and desire for God.”

Sarah Coakley’s writing is so erudite and beautiful that one finds oneself considering really complex and contentious concepts before you even notice you’ve traversed into stormy waters.  It’s worth taking a look at this article for her trinitarian conceptualizations as much as for her theological foundations for the sex debates raging in the Church.   Do yourself a favour… [read the article]