Naomi Wolf’s new book, Vagina: A New Biography, is published today. Here, you can read a short extract from the opening chapter:
Why write a book about the vagina?
I have always been interested in female sexuality, and in the history of female sexuality. The way in which any given culture treats the vagina – whether with respect or disrespect, caringly or disparagingly – is a metaphor for how women in general in that place and time are treated. And there have been as many ways of seeing the vagina as there have been cultures. When I began this journey, I thought that if I looked at the vagina from these different historical perspectives, I would learn a great deal about women, both as sexual subjects and as members of communities; this investigation would surely illuminate where we are today. (Also, since I am a woman and I like pleasure, I was eager to learn things I might not know about female sexuality.) I thought I would find the truth about the vagina by studying all of these constructs. I believed that some would prove to be basically accurate, and others, deeply inaccurate. But I now believe that all of them are only partially true, and that some constructs – including our own – are thoroughly subjective and full of misinformation.
Is the vagina a pathway to enlightenment, as it was for Indian practitioners of the Tantra? Or a ‘golden lotus,’ as Chinese Tao philosophy maintained? Is it the ‘hole’ that the Elizabethans saw it as being? Or the test site for female maturity, an organ whose response separates the women from the girls, as Sigmund Freud believed? Or is it what American feminists from the 1970s and on claim it to be: a not-so-important organ subordinated to the more glamorous clitoris? Or is it what contemporary mass-produced pornography says it is: a ‘hot,’ but essentially interchangeable, orifice, available visually by the thousands to anyone with a modem? Or is it what right-on sex-positive 2000s post-feminism says it is: a zippy pleasure producer for lusty women that demands dial-up satiation, from the texting of random partners for booty calls to high-tech vibrating electronics?
I read books such as evolutionary biologists Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá’s Sex at Dawn; I reread sociologist Shere Hite’s The Hite Report on Female Sexuality; I studied histories of the vagina such as The Story of V: A Natural History of Female Sexuality by cultural historian Catherine Blackledge; and I looked at the latest research on female orgasm, from scientific databases such as the archives of Human Reproduction. I journeyed to laboratories where some of the most cutting-edge neuro biological research is being done on the role of female sexual pleasure – such labs as that of Dr Jim Pfaus, at Concordia University in Montreal, where landmark experiments are establishing that female sexual pleasure plays an important role in mate selection even among lower mammals. I began to feel that all these books, articles, and destinations were only pieces of the puzzle.
For personal as well as for intellectual reasons, I began to realize that the real headline is one that is rarely talked about, outside of a small circle: that there is a profound brain–vagina connection that seemed to me to contain more of the truth of the matter than anything else I was exploring. This book’s germ started as a historical and cultural journey, but it quickly grew into a very personal and necessary act of discovery. I needed to learn the truth about the vagina because of a glimpse I had, by accident, into a dimension of its reality that I had never seen before. Due to a medical crisis, I had a thought-provoking, revelatory experience that suggested a possibly crucial relationship of the vagina to female consciousness itself. The more I learned, the more I understood the ways in which the vagina is part of the female brain, and thus part of female creativity, confidence, and even character.