Naomi Wolf knows all about your vagina

Naomi Wolf is a Rhodes Scholar, a best selling feminist writer and lauded cultural critic, yet my first thought as I sit down across from her is “This woman does not look 50. I must know her skin care regime.” Sadly, my momentary superficiality is perhaps the least shameful confession I’m about to make.

I’ve been a devoted Naomi Wolf reader since age 16, when her book The Beauty Myth provided a cultural context for what I thought were my personal flaws. Not so, said Wolf. Here’s what’s wrong in the wider world. Here’s why.

Yet as an adult reader, I’ve grappled with my feelings toward her chosen genre, one that stirs together personal experience, science or social science and theory. I’ve wondered why feminist writers gravitate toward personal writing while men seem to focus on cold facts to prove a point. Then I’ve wondered what my skepticism says about me. Am I tainted by a patriarchal culture in which traditionally male means of communication is privileged over female? By deeming one mode of discourse ‘female’ am I exhibiting sexism? Are the women writing in those modes less rigorous than male theorists?

These questions have slithered through my head for years, still I respected Wolf and her compatriots. Then came the internet, or at least my daily perusal of sites like Salon, Slate, Jezebel and of course Facebook.

It seems that everyone tightrope-walking the web has taken aim at Wolf’s latest book, Vagina: A New Biography — from the credible Zoe Heller to Katie Roiphe whose essays are the written equivalent of a little girl lifting her skirt over her head and running through her parent’s cocktail party — provocative yet easily dismissed.

But somehow I didn’t immediately dismiss Roiphe. Instead I experienced a reluctant half-agreement when secondary sources denounced Wolf’s earnest terminology, her allegedly reductive focus on the female body, all without examining the primary text. Now I’m wondering why I was so easily led.

Wolf herself admits to not “fully understand[ing] the critical response.” Wrapping both hands around her mug of tea, she seems understandably defensive. When she spoke last Tuesday night at a Chicago bookstore, she fielded questions from a diverse range of readers including a lesbian who tartly directed Wolf to rethink her book’s gendered language and a dirty old man who rambled inaudibly.

Listening to Tuesday’s lecture and discussing her book now, the complexity of Wolf’s mission hits me. How does one critique a flawed culture knowing elements of what you criticize will be used to invalidate your critique?

In Vagina, Wolf references porn culture, how male (and sometimes female) dependence on porn is affecting our ability to be intimate with one another. How a fleshy partner cannot compete with the frenzied pleasure of online toggling from image to increasingly graphic image. Porn is sapping our collective attention spans, Wolf said Tuesday, and straight sex seems often a race to orgasm. I’d argue that the instant gratification of internet culture is porn culture’s frontage road, running parallel, sending travelers in the same direction through a different channel. In other words, the demand for real-time opinions, the page-hit-positive feedback-loop, the speed of sharing, all contribute to a less nuanced cultural discourse. We’ve cranked the volume on conversation, but we’re saying less than ever before.

For my part, I’m ashamed to have allowed my natural intellectual rigor to be altered by the internet’s laser light shows and fog machines. I’m lucky enough to have seen Wolf lecture, to have spoken with her about the science behind her theories, the paucity of scientific research into LGBT desire, and her book’s true aim. But before you snatch an opinion from the internet’s ether, the least you can do is read Wolf’s actual book. Even if you disagree with every word, Wolf will have met her goal. What inspired your book?
Naomi Wolf:
I grew up in San Francisco at the height and center of the gay/lesbian movement. My mom was writing a book about the lesbian community, so I saw firsthand a group of people who finally refused to have their sexuality used to demean and diminish them, instead stood firm and said, yes, we’re queer, yes we’re dykes, we’re going to embrace and talk about and define it for ourselves. I saw it empower and transform life after life and I think the same thing needs to happen for women in general. I wanted to write a book that could create a positive place that women of all ages could stand in relation to their sexuality in a culture that’s so negative about female sexuality.

AE: You specifically draw the reader’s attention to your book’s focus on heterosexual women rather than —
The research is focused more on heterosexual women. It’s a very important distinction. I guess I grew up in such a gay and lesbian friendly environment that I’m surprised I have to say what I thought was obvious: this is a book for every woman. I do think it’s important to call attention to the fact that there’s missing data. Not only do more books need to be written, but more studies need to be done. For every study I talked about, there should be a study about LGBT women. There isn’t, so I don’t know the data. I don’t know what happens for example, in terms of women’s arousal when exposed to their female partner’s sweat. I was trying to be very transparent and say this is a flaw in the database.

AE: Right, but you specifically say that lesbians and bisexuals deserve a book of their own, that you don’t believe the “politically correct approach of lumping all female experience together with a nod to categories can do justice to these variations.” You made an important point, that LGBT women shouldn’t be presented as a side-note. But what specifically do you think queer women can draw from your book?
When you say queer do you mean just lesbian?

AE: I’m a lesbian and I still don’t know quite what I mean — I’m basically trying to use language that’s as inclusive as possible.
Well, yeah, I mean, I no longer believe in these categories. I don’t think there is any such thing as a heterosexual woman. I do believe that female sexuality is fluid and multiple. I think rigid categories are more about social realities. I believe any woman can fall in love with anyone and any woman can get pleasure from anyone. It feels artificial and retro for me to say, here are these strict categories. That’s what I grew up with in San Francisco, the whole idea of everyone is everything.

AE: Why question the existence of heterosexuality as a meaningful category for women?
Women who identify themselves as heterosexual don’t just respond to sexual imagery involving a man and a woman. If they’re hooked up to something monitoring their arousal and vaginal responses, they will have sexual responses to lesbian imagery, gay male imagery, bonobo imagery, but they’ll self-report as heterosexual; they’ll tell researchers nothing is happening for them if it’s a sexual category they don’t think applies to them. To me, that says our sexuality is a lot more inclusive than we’re allowed to think. We’re a lot more complicated than society allows for.

AE: I actually was in one of those studies once — not hooked up to anything! But I had to watch porn and self-report on my arousal. I think I screwed up their whole study because I was turned off by a lot of the lesbian-geared imagery.
You’re saying, I screwed up their study, but to me, that’s the point of my book; you’re why those definitions don’t work.