Erotica Readers & Writers Association Blog

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Spiritual Sex and the Celebrity Vagina


I sometimes feel I read more Internet articles about what others think of hot-topic books than I read those books for myself.  But for once, I made an honest woman of myself and actually read a book I saw skewered all over cyberspace and blogged about here myself, Naomi Wolf’s Vagina: A New Biography.  My earlier blog post had to do with the tone of the reviews of the book by feminists, which were condescending not only about Wolf’s arguments, but sexuality in general.  I was curious about the source of their disdain.  Was it simply the usual mainstream approach to sex—fear mixed with fascination then liberally dipped in adolescent humor (see Remittance Girl’s recent provocative discussion here)?  Or was there something about Wolf’s discussion of vaginas that really did undermine the feminist project of taking women seriously as full citizens of human society?

I certainly tried to read Vagina with an open mind.  I especially wanted to escape the trap of seeing anything sexual as “silly,” which was the favorite adjective critics used to describe the book.  As an erotica writer, I appreciated Wolf’s assertion that sexuality and creativity are interrelated, that body and mind are connected.  Because Wolf emphasizes the special nature of female sexuality, I can see why some might see this as a dangerous return to the days when women were valued for their reproductive powers and little else.  However, I believe Wolf was trying to challenge the traditional patriarchal view that the human mind can and should transcend our base animal physicality, and that men are better able to do this while women literally embody our carnal nature.  Anything having to do with sex is either disgusting or ridiculous, and any serious feminist wants no part of it.

We erotica writers know better than that.

I was also intrigued by Wolf’s personal story.  Due to a spinal problem, her pelvic nerve was pinched, which interfered with her sexual response.  She was fortunate that surgery restored sensation, although the lustful gleam in her surgeon’s eye as he insisted she needed an immediate operation was the scariest part to me.  Apparently—and it’s rather sad this should be worth arguing at all--sexual response is rooted in individual physiology. According to the experts Wolf consulted, our pelvic nerves have unique configurations, thus we each have personal preferences in the ways we like to be aroused.  Anyone who has had more than one lover understands this, but we are so bombarded with messages about the “proper” way to be sexual, as well as exhortations to control our eroticism with will power, that it was extremely refreshing to learn of a physical basis for differences in how we experience pleasure.

One more word in Wolf’s defense about the famous “cuntini” party that was invariably mocked by reviewers.  One of Wolf’s male friends hosted a dinner with a menu of vulva-shaped pasta, fish-n-finger-pie salmon and phallic sausages that so traumatized her, she couldn’t start writing Vagina for six months.  True, Wolf does claim that her deeply insulted “vagina” (her code word for all female genitalia including the clitoris, anus, and cervix) impaired her ability to work, and we’d all like to think a famous feminist is made of stronger stuff.  But again as a writer, I felt sympathy with her situation.  The “friend” offered to throw the party to celebrate her signing the book contract for Vagina, without mentioning the menu.  She showed up expecting to be feted for a professional success, but found herself in the middle of a sniggering practical joke.  Even those of us with less sensitive vaginal emotions might feel betrayed.  Sadly, female sexuality is still belittled in these ways even as it is exploited to sell the very book for which she obtained the doubtless highly lucrative contract.

Wolf does make some excellent points about the spiritual aspects of sexuality, but, unfortunately, I can also understand why the critics were so annoyed with their assignment to review this book.  I took four pages of notes on my own reactions, but they boil down to this.  Naomi Wolf has made the mistake of believing her own PR.  The copy on the inside flap assures us the book is “utterly enthralling and totally fascinating,” “exhilarating and groundbreaking,” “a brilliant and nuanced synthesis of physiology, history and cultural criticism.”  The problem is, Wolf continues this over-the-top promotional breathlessness in the book itself.  She describes her “journey of discovery” as if no person has ever had such brilliant insights, such transformational orgasms, such wise advice on how to solve the war between the sexes.  In proper journalistic style, she tries her best to seek support from “science,” by dialoguing with New York’s finest doctors on the yachts of mutual friends.  All in all, the book is less cultural criticism than a celebrity’s often shallow memoir.

I also found it interesting that the blurbs on the cover still mention Wolf’s The Beauty Myth, which was first published in 1991.  At that time many readers, including myself, appreciated how intelligently Wolf articulated a strange paradox of the female experience in the late twentieth century.  We had supposedly achieved equality through feminism, and yet we felt imprisoned by an intensified emphasis on punishing standards of beauty that undermined our natural appetities and robbed our pocketbooks.  Typical of the media, Wolf’s actual message was nearly drowned out by the exclamations of surprise that Wolf herself was “beautiful,” and so should be sitting pretty with the status quo. The Beauty Myth made Wolf a celebrity, purportedly a spokesperson for third-wave feminism, but in reality known as much for her looks and persona as for what she actually had to say in any substantive way.  Her later books received media attention, but for better or worse, none supplanted her maiden work in acclaim.

In the end, I began to feel a little sorry for Naomi Wolf—but isn’t that always the case for celebrities?  They achieve glorious heights, then fall from grace, while we ordinary folk look on with a mixture of envy and disdain.  I’m sure Wolf and her publishers thought a book called Vagina would sell well, and it probably has on the merits of the provocative title.  But as a writer, I was sad that neither she nor the publicity machine felt that her words could speak for themselves.  Sex sells, but it can also be used to isolate those who attempt to challenge the deeply entrenched idea that sex is silly and stupid or a dangerous animal passion or both.  

And yet, I still hope some who read her book do come away with a belief that sexuality can be spiritual and that shaming female sexuality is itself a sort of "original sin" or fall from grace.  It will take more than one voice and more than one vehicle to get that message out there.  Those of us without the burden of celebrity have our work cut out for us.

Donna George Storey is the author of Amorous Woman (recently released as an ebook) and a new collection of short stories, Mammoth Presents the Best of Donna George Storey. Learn more about her work at www.DonnaGeorgeStorey.com or http://www.facebook.com/DGSauthor

10 comments:

  1. I'm so glad you read this and saved me the effort.

    From the blur, the reviews and some skimming, I got the sense that Wolf commits two sins that I see in a huge number of feminist writings.

    I find they almost all write with a sense of an impending Year Zero in which all the hegemonic sins of the past will be washed away in one sweeping wave of enlightenment and they are simply waiting for that to happen. Trying to keep their tempers until it does.

    But its not going to happen. And we're going to keep simplifying, objectifying and making jokes about our sex parts for the foreseeable future. Acting like it should all change tomorrow isn't productive and it doesn't get to the core of why we're doing it to begin with.

    Secondly,any feminist who doesn't notice that cocks are just as ridiculed, objectified or commoditized isn't seeing straight.

    Finally, all this focus on female specific genitalia as the downtrodden object of ridicule misses the point. There is a whole trans world out there who HAVE to get over their 'parts' to get to their real identities.

    A huge long diatribe on vaginas (even when you include all the things she thinks they stand for) is still reductive. The battle for respect is best fought over the real issues.

    Women are women in their heads.Form may follow function or not. But a trans woman or a female with a mastectomy is no less woman for missing a bit of flesh.

    And frankly, I will save my vagina-specific sympathy for women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, who've had theirs destroyed by violent rape, or for those who've had their clitorises excised for the sake of tradition.

    Once we put a stop to those atrocities, I will consider feeling bad that Ms Wolf's vagina has been insulted at a dinner party.

    ReplyDelete
  2. This is by far the best review of the book I've read so far. I'm glad you took the time to deliver it because I think you were really able to touch on both the problems that so many others focused on and the merits of the book which so many have ignored.

    I'm not sure I'll read it myself, but it is good to know that there were a few bits worth all the effort.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Thank you, Bex--I'm not sure I'd recommend the book. At most, I'd say get it at the library and skim ;-).

    RG, thank you for adding those excellent points. I heartily agree that male sexuality suffers from the same damaging oppression, and we can't hope for a better situation until all the myths are debunked. Wolf herself contributes by asserting that male sexuality is simpler, more of an instinctive act. In essence this isolates a man's sexuality from his mind and emotions as well. I also didn't mention the sex-manual-style advice Wolf has for men to please their woman, as if it's solely his responsibility to "give" her pleasure.

    Wolf does discuss female circumcision as a terrible violation, but again I totally agree that there is something about the way she tells her story, her unexamined sense of specialness, that screams to be put in perspective.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Thank you, Donna, great to hear your level take on it.

    I read mention of Natalie Angier's book on female anatomy in one review, and I do remember that book with enormous respect and fondness. I like the point that it's not like there isn't room for more than ONE book on female sexuality, but Wolf's is perhaps not what we're looking for.

    It's a pity. I adored her 'Promiscuities' so much.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Thank you, Ash!

    Jo, I very much enjoyed Angier's Woman: An Intimate Geography. It was much more thoughtful and less self-centered. I also agree there is lots of room for discussion of male and female sexuality in a nuanced, intelligent fashion. Wolf had her moments, but then again she gets the celebrity treatment, and unfortunately the weaknesses in her book get blamed on sex, I think.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Hello, Donna,

    I haven't read the book and I admit I'm not likely to, but I'm puzzled by your reports that she wants to focus on the spiritual aspect of femaleness and yet at the same time is so fixated on anatomy. Seems a bit of contradiction to me.



    ReplyDelete
  7. As I read it, Wolf is claiming that our sexual organs play both physical and spiritual roles. When a woman is deprived of good sex, her spirit and creativity suffers. When sex is good, her mind flourishes. (It certainly doesn't hurt). Likewise if she's called demeaning names like "dumb cunt," her body registers the insult and shuts down along with the emotional effect. She's challenging the separation of body and mind for women, but not so much for men, although she doesn't really go too deeply into male sexuality.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I enjoyed this review, Donna. I think you probably delved into the ideas that the book was supposed to, in a more thought provoking way.

    Note that I did not read the book, so I'm just basing that on what I heard.

    But if you wrote a book on the subject of sexuality, I would buy it.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Thank you very much, Craig. I take that as THE highest compliment!

    ReplyDelete