This book was like tearing the scab off a freshly healed wound. It’s been so long since I’ve had to deal with the shittiness that is evolutionary psychology, and then Naomi Wolf comes along and reminds me of just how terrible it is all over again.
Well, let’s do this.
Vagina: A New Biography is Wolf’s syncretism of Eastern teachings about sex (particularly Tantra) with Western medicine, with a particular focus on the way women in the West regard their vagina. It’s the fifth book in the Banging Book Club, an awesome monthly reads group about sex and sexuality run by Hannah Witton, Lucy Moon, and Leena Norms. I have enjoyed all of the previous club reads, to one extent or another, but I don’t think I can say that about Vagina. What starts as a promising book about women’s relationships with their vaginas—kind of like a more scientific look at the same ideas explored from an emotional angle in The Vagina Monologues—eventually turns into a poor mash-up of biological determinism and evolutionary psychology. Here’s how Vagina went from good, to boring, to bad, to worse.
I was actually very excited to read Vagina, for so many reasons. I was aware that Wolf has been a source, or topic of, controversy in more recent years, but I had genuinely appreciated The Beauty Myth and will stand by the idea that it’s a seminal work of feminist scholarship. I was also looking forward to learning more about vaginas—because I don’t have one, and men don’t really learn enough about them in school! I’m always interested in learning about perspectives that are, by dint of circumstance, inaccessible to me. It was with some exhilaration that I proudly read this book in public, during my flights home from a work trip, as well as in the airport lounge on the layover. I wanted people to see a man reading a book called Vagina—and if it led to any genuine conversations, if I could help people see that there is value in deconstructing stereotypes about gender and what is appropriate knowledge for our genders, then cool. (Indeed, my seatmate on my last flight actually asked me about the book, after we had already struck up a more general conversation. However, at that point I was only a few chapters in, and the book was still good and interesting, so I was much more positive about it than I feel now.)
Perhaps Vagina is so promising because of its context. Wolf opens with a lengthy anecdote about a reduction in sensation felt as a result of pelvic nerve damage—something she eventually fixes thanks to medical consultations and surgery. She expresses her amazement that, if she hadn’t linked the disappearance of her rosy afterglows with a physical ailment, she might not have discovered the problem at all. During this period, she learned more about how the vagina is connected to the brain, and it apparently awoke a deeper curiosity in her. Hence a “biographical” look at vaginas, I guess. And I was totally on board, because as The Vagina Monologues asserted a decade before this book, our society has a hang-up on vaginas. They are a taboo subject, yet beneath the surface, so many of us brim with intense curiosity and fascination. And I agree with Wolf that women have too long have been made to feel dirty or ashamed, and that many of the modern standards of beauty tell women that their natural vaginas are bad and need to be perfumed, made up, even altered, to become acceptable.
Although initially unsettled by the title of Part 1—“Does the Vagina Have a Consciousness?”—and its implications of far too much mysticism for my taste, Wolf’s zealous commitment to scientific language and citing research won me over. I was learning things about female physiology that I hadn’t known. And Wolf explores many of the physical explanations for why many women have difficulty achieving orgasm as expeditiously as men. This whole idea, of course, is hugely parodied and constantly referenced in our comedy: men just want quickies; women need candlelit dinners and flowers and commitment, and then there’s some kind of punchline that is almost certainly misogynistic and sometimes also emasculating. We’re socialized to see women’s needs as unimportant at best and weak or repugnant at worst, without ever really stopping to ask why. So I approve of Wolf attempting to uncover some of the science behind these differences.
Alas, even in this first part, there are moments when I had to pause and blink, and maybe do a double-take. Wolf likes to make a lot of generalizations, particularly when it comes to findings about hormone levels. She begins to mix science with anecdotes:
I experienced some of the “thoughts” of the uterus myself. In 2000, I wrote about how oxytocin had made me gentler, more conflict averse, and basically nicer, when I was pregnant. My uterus was doing some of my thinking for me, in spite of my will, and mediating my consciously autonomous, consciously assertive, feminist brain.
Now, let’s be clear: I have nothing against anecdotes. Interesting stories are the life-blood of non-fiction. What’s problematic here is the way Wolf seems to accord anecdotal evidence the same level of privilege as scientific evidence. She constantly mentions hundreds of responses she receives from people in response to articles she has written, as if this correspondence should have the same weight as lab studies.
It’s very easy to do bad science. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver very recently did a whole bit on this. So a science writer has a duty to her readers to distinguish between reliable and potentially unreliable or flawed studies.
Wolf doesn’t do this. She relies a great deal on studies on rats and uses them to draw conclusions about human sexual behaviour—and yeah, we do tend to study rat brains and then draw conclusions about human brains, but at no point does Wolf stop and remind us that, hey, rats are not humans, and maybe there is more going on here. At one time, she cites a study that had nineteen participants, without mentioning anything about the possibility of small sample size bias.
Worse still, Wolf compounds her habit of mixing science and anecdotes:
I conducted informal interviews with groups of women with whom I met both in person and online. I told them about the possible effects of semen, and then I asked them to remember back to a relationship in which they had at first religiously used condoms, and then … had stopped using condoms. Same guy, same sexual style, same scent: any difference?
I saw looks of shocked recognition cross my interviewees’ faces. “Totally different,” said Julia, a graphic designer.
What?? No. Do not do this! Telling people about the effect you want to measure is called confirmation bias, and it is a huge no-no. Entire scientific protocols are designed to avoid this very serious problem. Furthermore, asking people to “remember back,” is fraught with problems—our memories are so very fallible. Taken together, it should not be surprising that Wolf got the reaction she did. It’s like telling people most robberies are committed by shifty guys in ball caps right before you ask them if a shifty guy in a ball cap was lurking outside a jewellery store that was robbed. Chances are they will “remember” the guy vividly, even if he didn’t exist.
(This is is also possibly a case of spurious correlation: if the couples had progressed to a point in the relationship where the condoms came off, it’s likely there were other factors that made the relationship “good” and that could very well be the cause of the better sex.)
Wolf goes on to say:
But I do think it is important to understand what may happen to the female mind when we do take in semen…. When a man comes in a woman’s mouth, she may feel energized; when he comes in her vagina, it can boost her tenderness and, if Meston and Buss are right, help elevate her mood.
Naomi Wolf is seriously telling women that semen has brain-altering properties and they should get themselves more of it. In their vaginas! In their mouths! Just … all the semen. Everywhere.
Look, it is possible that Wolf is right and semen does have such properties. But because of the way she presents these ideas, by conflating possibly-unreliable scientific studies with anecdotal and unquestionably flawed stories, we cannot, responsibly, accept her conclusion. So I’m not saying she’s wrong about semen, or about Tantra, or about vaginal pulses. I’m just saying that her writing undermines the credibility of her explanations. This is not a scientific book; it is a heavily opinionated book masquerading as scientific, and that is something else entirely.
That whole semen thing comes from the last chapter, in which Wolf dispenses advice for how to pay more attention to a woman’s sexual needs. Some of it is cringe-worthy, while some of it is sweet and sensible and probably worth remembering. Unfortunately, Wolf presents this advice as a kind of “lessons learned” from all this scientific research, and I have to take issue with that. Science is great at explaining how things work, but it is not a great tool for deciding why we should do things. I hate evolutionary psychology so much, partly because it is so difficult to distinguish between biological and cultural causes, but also because it tends so dangerously towards biological determinism. It’s true: on me level we’re all just squishy meat robots. But we’re squishy meat robots with a diverse cornucopia of cultures and practices.
Biological determinism is hugely problematic in the fight for social justice. It’s a bedrock of arguments to support oppressive practices. And Wolf demonstrates surprising support for these ideas, and for ideas about gender essentialism. She continually refers to “male” brains and “female” brains as if these are concrete things—they aren’t. It is true that there are sex-linked differences to the brain, but they are far more nuanced and complicated than inferred from Wolf’s casual use. In particular, there are epigenetic factors at work. Plus, neuroplasticity means that cultural influences could potentially affect our brain wiring as well. Wolf is, at best, being irresponsible in failing to elucidate the complexity of the origins of these perceived differences in the brains of men and women. A reader could be forgiven for thinking, from this book, that the differences between the sexes were a settled matter of scientific record, rather than the intense source of debate and further study they continue to be. (For further reading on this subject, check out Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender, which has a whole section on “neurosexism.”)
I should probably have seen the red flags earlier on. In her introduction, Wolf casually mentions she is going to ignore LGB experiences because they deserve whole books of their own. It was basically a bald-faced “this is hetero white feminism, deal with it” and I remember a few alarms going off when I read it—but I trudged on. In retrospect, considering the other problems with this book, that statement is so much more harmful. Firstly, notice that Wolf doesn’t even mention the T, Q, A, etc. Not everyone with a vagina is a woman, and not every woman has a vagina—but Wolf blithely uses one as synecdoche for the other. Secondly, claiming you’re only going to talk about straight women to “keep things simpler” isn’t just a cop-out; it’s offensive—to everyone. It further “others” queer women, setting up heterosexuality as normative and queerness as deviant—something that can be sidelined for “later books.” It might be less obvious, but I also don’t see this as a great thing for straight women: it asserts a rigidity to sexuality and gender identity that does not necessarily exist. It’s possible to be straight, bi, gay, or ace—but it’s also possible to locate oneself somewhere outside of, in between, or in transition between, these restrictive categories. Wolf seems so intent on liberating the understanding of the vagina—but for who? Why gatekeep?
Wolf is also super-moralistic when it comes to porn. She minces no words as she describes the way “habituation” to porn affects men and women, creating impotence. While I agree that there elements to porn that are problematic and need to be addressed, I just find it so disappointing the Wolf chooses to be utterly polemical here. She talks to a bunch of male (and at least one female) “sexual healers” or whatever, but does she ever talk to a sex worker? To a porn actor? To anyone who makes porn or erotic art? I kind of feel like they have interesting things to say about vaginas and sex, but I guess Wolf wants to discount them.
So I guess what disappoints me about Vagina, to bottom line this already ridiculously long review (thanks for sticking with me if you’ve read this far), is that it tries to be too many types of book at once. It wants to be scientific, but it leans on anecdotes and mysticism. It wants to be mystical, yet it insists on trying to find parallels between the East and the West (and I can’t speak for Eastern practitioners, but I’m sure they are very tired of Westerners coming around and borrowing appropriating their “exotic” beliefs for other purposes). It wants to be empowering, yet it carves out a specific category of “woman” and then speaks only to them. There are some really interesting facts in this book, and even some good science—but these are buried beneath layers of poor journalistic choices.