Vagina by Naomi Wolf

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Continuing with my winter book list! The only non-fiction book I’ve read so far has been Naomi Wolf’s new book entitled Vagina. It was a Christmas present and to be honest I’m still not sure. Popular opinion has tended to pan the book as the work of an ego-maniacal reductionist with a one-size fits all solution for women and their sexual problems. I’m not so sure. While I will admit that most of the accusations are true, or at least the book can be read in this way, I think that it is much easier to pan something that is controversial and unpopular and possibly a bit uncomfortable rather than to look at it for its truth and partial wisdom. Of course book critics are paid to be harsh – but I think that may take away from what books like this may be able to provide to the general public – which is an opportunity to open dialogue.  I’m not arguing that this book should be seen as a bible for women’s sexual issues and the prescription of candles and flowers to make sex better is a bit passé for many – however the broader notion that many women desire, or even need, to feel safe, secure and valued in order to relax with their sexual partners should not be a controversial one. Wolf tends to take her points too far – re: inappropriately shaped pasta and its naming – but again the wider point of jokes about rape and crude words women’s sexual organs clearly do take a toll and many women do feel uncomfortable when in the vicinity of such talk. Wolf’s assertion that such comments have long lasting physical consequences should be taken seriously.

Clearly what is missing in this book is an emphasis on variety – and while Wolf does try with passing remarks and throw-off comments she needed to do a better job. While I don’t know if a heterosexual vagina needs a virile man, it seems a bit ridiculous to suggest that vaginas are built differently depending on sexual orientation. Sex did evolve biologically for a purpose and is a two person show, however we should not be ruled by this biological history – surely we do not submit to this notion of purely biological or evolutionary functions for human activity in other areas of our life. Even if this idea proves to be true – that women have different types of orgasms with a partner, specifically during penetration – this should not detract from personal preference or social conditioning. Ultimately many feminists (myself included) will always be skeptical of any assertion that women *need* a man and the subject could have been handled with more tact and less prescription.

Rather than dither over her intentions – a rather uninteresting subject – I prefer to focus on areas of the book that are particularly good. These include the discussion of cultural history of the vagina – especially the section on Victorian thoughts of female masturbation and clitoridectomy. Her discuss of rape as a tool of war and the far-reaching and somewhat unseen consequences of such practices is written with passion and just the right amount of anger.  It is perhaps a bit much for her to presume to know how all women who have been assaulted feel or act, but the notion that rape harms more than just the physical or the perception of these women within their communities is one that has value and should be discussed.  It is an ambitious book and does have many flaws, primarily in that it goes too far, draws far-reaching conclusions and perhaps is a bit reductive in what women want or need – but I’m not at all convinced that Wolf means for any given reader to take it as a prescription for their own life, nor should it be seen as cure-all for all that ails us. Ultimately if the feminist community is unhappy to have Wolf as an expert then others need to step up. Those with ideas should share them, and ultimately the level of dialogue between women must be set higher. Its not enough to pan someone else’s idea – you’ve got to have one of your own.

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