An exclusive interview with Naomi Wolf, author of Vagina: A New Biography
by Miryam Gordon -
SGN A&E Writer
It could have been an in-your-face, affronting question for feminist icon Naomi Wolf - to ask how her new book, Vagina: A New Biography, could be of interest to the largely male readership of a Gay newspaper, in a recent phone interview prior to her December 4 appearance at Town Hall. But Wolf was able to roll right into an answer, as you'll see below.
Naomi Wolf first made a splash in feminist literature two decades ago with her book The Beauty Myth, which she wrote in her 20s. It focused on how society has constrained women into all sorts of ideals of beauty and then created a multibillion-dollar business to show women what they have to do to achieve those ideals. This no longer seems quite as radical a notion as it may have for some back in 1990.
A TOOL FOR SUBJUGATION
In fact, her newest book recapitulates a number of ideas in a different light, this time focusing more exclusively on the cultural inhibition of women's sexuality and the ways in which that has allowed society to better control women through disincentivizing them from accepting their own creativity and leadership.
Vagina: A New Biography lays the groundwork for examining new neuroscience that shows that a complex web of nerves in women creates more than three different possibilities for sexual orgasmic response, giving the lie to older books that state that women who cannot orgasm vaginally and must rely on clitoral stimulation are somehow deficient, stunted, or not sufficiently educated about how to have 'real' orgasms.
But a bigger value in the book is a discussion about how a woman's whole self is connected to her sexual well-being and her ability to give time and attention to relaxing fully and expanding her sexual experience. Wolf makes the argument that it is only through this gift of a 'Goddess array' of time and attention that a woman can truly gain understanding of her whole person, with oxytocin (a relaxant) and dopamine (a hormone and neurotransmitter) releasing all of her capabilities in other areas of life, from her ability to be self-reliant, to creating art, to nurturing her family.
MEN LIKE VAGINAS, TOO
It's pretty clear why women might want to read this book, whether they're straight, Lesbian, Bi, or Trans. It's also clear that men who love women in sexual relationships might be interested in learning more about how they can please their partners and deepen their intimate connections. But what about men who are fathers, sons, uncles, cousins, brothers, friends? How might this book impact them?
Wolf responds with a laugh, 'I feel like, isn't it just about insight? I read Faggots [presumably referring to the 1978 book by Larry Kramer] when I was 15 years old. I'm not a Gay man, but isn't it great to understand more about the human condition?'
Of course, there is that - a book about 50 or 51 percent of the entire population of Earth - but sometimes readers might need more of a personal invitation to know what might be in it for them.
'It's a great question and one that I'm surprised at how big an answer I have for that,' Wolf replies. 'I thought it'd be Lesbian and straight women reading it and men who love them. A lot of e-mails I've been getting are from Gay men. The big answer to your question, the cosmic answer, from a lot of the readers who have read the book, so many Gay male readers say that it's given them insight about the women around them. It's only really transitively about the vagina - it's also mostly about the female brain.'
THE PROBLEM WITH PORN
Wolf reports that a lot of men are interested in what she refers to as the 'porn chapter.' She writes about the ubiquitous industry that feeds addictive behavior in men and focuses on quicker, harder, more violent sexual behaviors - the kind of behavior that is only focused on 'the first six inches' rather than on exploring intimate and deepened connections between humans. She describes the evidence medical doctors and scientists now have on what that does to the male brain and the pervasive Internet exposure that has transformed teenage sexual knowledge and coarsened adolescents' early sexual experiences.
So, Wolf says, she has been getting e-mails that have to do with the porn chapter. 'I get questions from older Gay men about the potency problems they're having in reaction to porn. I try never to be prescriptive, but in the porn chapter there is a lot of information about porn desensitizing male sexual response, so men need more and more extreme imagery and start to bond with the porn instead of their partners, and doctors are reporting an epidemic of difficulties with erection and ejaculation among healthy men who have no other medical problem.
'It's not a moral issue, it's a public health issue, and men deserve this information about the risks, so they can make their own decisions. In my view, it's a giant industry that is exploiting a vulnerability in the male brain and there are really bad health consequences. Men are buying the book to give to their friends and male partners because of that male chapter.
RAPE AND RESPECT
'There's also a chapter on rape and on the power of language. My big answer is about respect, how to respect women. [Men are] told to respect women, but not how to do so. There are highly degrading ways to relate to women, and jokes that are told. The normalization of brutality against women is synonymous almost with the definition of masculinity in our culture. When men are making rape jokes or sexually demeaning comments in a woman's schooling or workspace arena, it has long-term consequences on her mind. A lot of men tell me that they start to notice their language more [after reading the book] and stop dismissing the demeaning of women.
'There is such a gulf of understanding about rape. The men who have read that chapter [about rape], whether they work with women or are sons of women or friends with women who are raped, have reported that they understand better and there is not such a gulf when they try to talk about that issue. The new science of rape shows that there is no such thing as nonviolent rape, even when there is no physical violence - the fear alters a woman's brain and even her physiological responses.'
Another area of conversation was about parenting, particularly when parents want to give their girls all the empowerment they can and prepare them to be proud, take-charge women. Wolf's thesis is that none of us can expect our daughters to be all they can be unless they are given support for healthy sexual expression - since first comes, essentially, the erotic response, and second comes everything else!
'A huge piece of news for me in the book is the role of the vagina in boosting dopamine in sexual pleasure and the quality of dopamine in making women more feisty and goal-oriented,' Wolf notes. 'So many parents do not give positive messages about female pleasure and female self discovery and sexual curiosity. Now that we know that sexual pleasure is so important to women's leadership and productivity, it helps fathers and mothers be aware of how important it is to support female sexuality and not fall into embarrassment or shame or silence.
'It means talking to & girls about pleasure. For instance, in class teachers talk about Fallopian tubes, but not pleasure. [But] they do talk about ejaculation and wet dreams.
'I talk to so many mothers and fathers who say, 'Our girls are being encouraged to give blowjobs at 13.' So an intervention might be to ask, 'What about your pleasure? What about reciprocity? What about your needs?' That's one way it looks [to support a daughter].
'In childrearing, in general, I would say & creating an environment where people are not verbally abusive, and where praise and validation is present. Mothers have a lot of influence on daughters' sexual development and permission to have pleasure, when mothers take time to do things that make themselves happy or treat themselves well, take a bath - whatever, not neglect their needs, it's good role modeling. Not tolerating disrespect.
'Fathers have a giant impact on development. It sounds paradoxical that a father who listens respectfully to his daughter talk about politics at the dinner table is helping his daughter feel good about herself.'
LEARNING FROM THE AUDIENCE
At her Town Hall event, titled 'The Science of the Brain-Vagina Connection,' Wolf expects to talk about the book and also allow for some vigorous and interesting Q&A time. She says she's learned a lot from her audiences when she does these appearances. 'People bring great questions to events like this. [I hear about] the use-it-or-lose-it of female desire after menopause and doctors who treat women after menopause; the importance of masturbation for women who are not in a relationship and how doctors never talk about that; the way that anti-depressants and birth control pills suppress libido. Men talking about how [usually heterosexual] women ask, 'What's in it for men to treat us this well?' and men say, 'My life is changed when I start treating my wife well.' You know the phrase 'happy wife, happy life.' Men don't learn a lot of information from porn or locker rooms, and these kinds of manageable changes [that the book describes] have been transformative and made them happy.
'A lot of young people talk about the pressure of porn in relationships and having lost a partner to porn and coming off a porn addiction. What's nice about the event is that people seem to feel comfortable and safe about quite personal things.
'I met a doctor last week and he was saying that my point about episiotomies cutting through a sexual center might explain why there is so much post-partum depression or loss of women's sexual connection to their partner, and he says that it's obvious now from the book, and he's completely horrified about that level of lack of understanding.
'Doctors have been using vaginal mesh for prolapsed uterus issues, which has been pushed by the medical device industry with very little testing, and thousands of women are having horrific side effects and huge class-action suits, yet again. Doctors just didn't know or ask questions, and the FDA didn't ask questions,' she says about the more willful ways in which women's health is ignored.
To sum up, Wolf says, 'Criticism and disrespect create a toxic atmosphere and consequences to self-esteem, male and female.
'It's all about love. But it's also oxytocin. Hugging is so important, pats on the back. Physical affection turns out to be really important for human happiness and bonding. Our culture doesn't talk about love. But really, that's my message: love, love, love.'
For more about Naomi Wolf, visit http://naomiwolf.org. For information about her Town Hall appearance, go to www.townhallseattle.org. To see a clip of Naomi sparring with Stephen Colbert, go to www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/420015/october-10-2012/naomi-wolf.
Share on Facebook
Share on Delicious
Share on StumbleUpon!