Since its publication in 1991, Naomi Wolf's "The Beauty Myth" has been widely regarded as one of the most important contributions to feminism in the last 30 years. The response to Wolf's latest book, "Vagina: A New Biography," released this week, has been much more polarized. Booklist called it "an authoritative resource, particularly in view of the current highly charged political and religious dialogues regarding women's sexual and reproductive rights," and Vanity Fair's Elissa Schappell wrote that it "brings together cultural history, groundbreaking neurobiological evidence of 'the mind-vagina connection,' and provocative insights into female sexuality and identity." However, others have critiqued it as bad science, passé and counter-feminist.
Following the first round of reviews, we spoke to Wolf about why she feels the book is important, why it has received so much criticism and its possible implications for women's sex lives.
In "Vagina" you refer to "the set of behaviors that activate the autonomic nervous system" in women -- actions that turn women on -- as “the Goddess array.” Why bring mysticism into it?
It's obviously a phrase that I used with some trepidation, for exactly the reason that some readers are uncomfortable with it.
I called it the Goddess array [because] I hoped it would mean what Liz Topp, this wonderful sex educator who teaches young girls in Manhattan, kept referring to: the-things-that-women-need-that-men-don’t-need. That’s an ungainly, long, and nondescriptive. But it’s a very important, because the data that I’ve looked at showed that there are things women need that men don’t need. So in that section I am elucidating what they are, mapped up against the science. I was looking for a catchphrase that would refer to those things. It wasn’t the perfect phrase, I’m genuinely sorry, but it was a lighthearted way to try to find a word for something that we don’t have the language for.
We have a terrible paucity of language in talking about women in relation to their sexuality. And one word that we don’t have is one that means radical female self-respect.
What’s the equivalent for men?
Radical male self-respect? Isn’t it called, you know, patriarchy?
The book seems to focus primarily on heterosexual woman. Do your conclusions apply to bisexual, lesbian and trans women as well?
Most of the research that is out there doesn’t include all sexualities. And female sexuality is so variable. I think there need to be books written about lesbian responses, bisexual responses, transgender women's unique issues and challenges and pleasures. I’m not going to treat all sexualities as if they’re the same. I’m not going to tokenize female sexuality.
That said, most of what’s in the book are insights that women of all sexualities and their lovers [can use]. I mean, the book’s on the cover of Diva magazine, which is the biggest lesbian publication in the United Kingdom -- with a rave review. Many lesbian readers have said that they didn’t understand things about their own sexual response before reading the book, and now they do. So much of the book is applicable to any woman: the whole role of the autonomic nervous system in arousal, the role of relaxation and being free from bad stress in how effectively a female body can have that heart rate go up, the respiration go up, the situation drive the blood to engorge the labia and the clitoris erect and the process of lubrication, and the way that can be interrupted by, did your lover snap at you? Did your girlfriend flirt with another woman? Did your husband drop his dirty socks without picking them up? Whatever it is, whatever your gender preference and sexuality, that’s a relevant takeaway, that you need to be free from “bad stress” to have this fully effective arousal process.
You talk a lot about how women have a more dramatic sexual response when the lighting is low and better and when they are romanced or seduced. What about that idea is new?
The-things-that-women-need-that-men-don’t-need are not new -- they're all common sense -- but there are two big takeaways for me.
One of them is that women are not getting enough, and this is women of all sexualities. There is this model in our culture that after courtship, once you’re in a relationship, you don’t have to woo her, you don’t have to bring her flowers, you don’t have to take her dancing, you don’t have to tell her she’s beautiful, you just cut to the chase. That is a killer for passion for women in long-term relationships, and it’s not a psychological thing, it’s physiological, and a mind-body connection.
So our culture devalues those things. And porn certainly doesn’t teach men -- maybe lesbians have more of a sense of this, but straight men are definitely not taught -- to pay attention to those things. It’s an integral part of women’s sexual response. And because the culture devalues it, as a feminist I think it’s important to revalue it.
The second thing is, I haven’t seen anyone else yet provide the science backing up why and what is really happening. And I found that fascinating, that if you do these things you get a measurable response in a woman. We all know that dancing is seductive, right? But who regularly takes their partner dancing? We don’t have a culture where we prioritize lying in bed in each other’s arms, after the courtship stage. But [for] heterosexual women -- I didn’t see the data on lesbians on this -- lying in your lover’s arms can lower your heart rate, regulate your stress levels, regulate your menstrual cycle, spike your hormones and desire. That’s important at a time when 30 percent of women in America self-report hypoactive sexual desire -- low libido. They are not as into it as they want to be. They are not reliably having the desire for sex that they want to have, or the rewarding sex that they want to have. And another 30 percent report that they can’t reliably or regularly reach orgasm when they want to. So this is not about some imposition of a model of sexuality on women -- this is women saying, “I am not getting the pleasure that I want.” It seems very valuable to me to provide the data backing up the reasons that these actions are important.
What can women's sexual partners do to make sex more fulfilling for women?
We’ve got this model from Masters and Johnson that male and female sexual response is kind of the same -- there’s arousal, plateau, climax and resolution -- and the Cosmo model is that everyone should be racing to the goal together, trying to get there together. This as a model of sexual response is not true. One of the big problems is this model of timing. Men typically reach climax in four minutes, and women typically reach an orgasm in 16 minutes. So it’s not working, for a lot of women, to not allow themselves or their partners to support them in pacing sexual response in a way that’s more comfortable for them.
This is not true for all women at all times. Some of us are going to want fast sex, slow sex, hot sex, tender sex, it varies all the time. But it’s definitely the case that many women feel some kind of pressure: time pressure, is he going to get bored? Or, is my response less than his last girlfriend's -- or her last girlfriend's? And, again, the role of bad stress is very anti-erotic for women.
Of all the data you came across, which surprised you most?
There’s all this discussion about the clitoris and the G-spot, and there are these wars between the clitoris and the vagina. It turns out that there’s a neural arm between the clitoris and the G-spot, such that the clitoris is the north of it and the G-spot is the south -- parts of the same organ.
This is a major female sexual structure that hasn’t been reported on in the mainstream media. In a study, over 90 percent of women in a lab condition with strangers reached orgasm when both those spots were stimulated at the same time. To me that’s a big finding, that’s big information, and it’s quite remarkable that such a major finding has not been widely reported or discussed.
Do you feel like this book continues your work in “The Beauty Myth” in any way?
I think it answers a ton of questions that I first raised in "The Beauty Myth." "The Beauty Myth" asks, Why are women asked to feel bad about their appearance? And this goes to the heart of why women have to feel bad about their very sexual selves, their very sexual biology and anatomy, which is in some ways so much more intimate a part of oneself. And I feel like now I have some answers that I felt eluded me for 23 years.
The data is sound elucidating the brain-vagina connection that many critics are struggling with. Dopamine builds confidence and motivation, oxytocin is about bonding and intimacy, and opioids are about bliss and ecstasy. If you know really what that cocktail [activated during sex] does [in the female brain], then it makes sense why patriarchy always targets female sexuality, always targets the vagina, with female genital mutilation, rape, and war, you know, derision, mockery. If you get that female desire and the vagina can be a medium for women of positive mindspeak unrelated to sex, it makes sense that the vagina is continually being targeted. The whole takeaway of the book is that the vagina is not just a sex organ. If you want to demean women, you demean the vagina.