Naomi Wolf’s latest, Vagina, has gotten mixed — sometimes very mad — reviews both in seasoned critical circles and the blogosphere. Wolf, veteran feminist and Beauty Myth author, will appear at the Miami Book Fair on Saturday, so we caught up with her to chat about the book, which has performed steadily according to several book-selling measurements. Here’s what Wolf had to say:
So, Vagina! About that …
My book put out some analysis about, for instance, new science of the brain-vagina connection, the hypothesis based on the positive neurotransmitters and hormones are released when women are [anticipating or] participating in [pleasurable] sex. … how the positive-mind states affect women’s well being. It was based on my research. What’s been amazing is that I’ve been traveling around the country, so many people are emailing me, talking to me at events, conforming, adding so much fascinating — sometimes heartbreaking — evidence that my theory is correct and needs a lot more attention from people who can act on it.
Your own experience with decreased feeling post-episiotomy — and its neural impact — largely prompted this project. But you also discuss dudes, arguing at one point that pornography lessens sexual sensation, delays ejaculation, and ultimately harms women. Is this Andrea Dworkin 2.0, or is porn really fucking things up?
Every audience has males, and they all want to talk about this. They all have questions like: ‘Can I regain sensitivity?’ ‘I don’t like [being controlled by my need for] porn, it’s ruining my sex life.’ It’s an interesting way to see men deal with the information. So many of them have struggled so much and feel ashamed that they feel addicted. I feel like they find a lot of compassionate information in the book, and it helps them take care of their sexuality better, without judgment. Ordinary sexual imagery becomes not that exciting when you’re masturbating to pornography [on a chronic basis] as the male brain needs increasingly intense imagery.
Some critics of your book say that your argument speaks to gender essentialism —- that if there’s a brain-vagina connection, then women’s intellect is dictated by her body. Most feminists maintain that the mind is not impacted by an individual sex or other physical characteristics, since women’s alleged bodily weakness was used as a means of subjugation, etc. How does your thesis avoid that?
I think that [vaginas] empower women. It’s a fortunate thing to be born female. It gives us access to all kind of positive mind-states that we can take to our minds as leaders, as mothers of citizens. I don’t think that it’s making women weak.
There’s also criticism that your argument about this connection relied on bad science …
I think that criticism is extremely intellectually sloppy and unrigoroous. If it’s just my opinion, fine, but it’s not [just] my opinion. There are literally hundreds of footnotes in the book, and the studies are all online, and they’re peer reviewed. They’re rigorous scientific studies and some of them are by feminists.
Let’s go there. If this is a case of intellectual sloppiness, who’s to blame?
I can give you a lot of intellectual history as to why some smart, feminist critics would be so careless in their critiques. In the 1970s, it was considered part of the feminist tradition to talk about women’s sexual health and use it to talk about women’s sexuality — Our bodies, Ourselves. You had the whole women’s health movement which is a feminist movement.
What happened in the 1980s is two things: Feminists who were fighting for job equality felt the need to downplay any differences between men and women. I understand the need to do that if it was for strategic reasons, and understand that because women had been held back for years — ‘You cant get into Cambridge because you menstruate, and it makes you crazy’ — a lot of women said ‘no no no there’s no difference.’ They really didn’t want to hear about any brain differences between men and women because they were traditionally used to suppress women. In the next 20 years, academic feminism created a worldview that’s very useful for linguists — that all gender differences were socially constructed. And that’s great if you’re looking at poetry or the law but that’s not really helpful if you’re looking at neuroscience which is finding that there are a lot of similarities in the male and female brain and that there are a lot of differences. A real feminist perspective is ‘big fucking deal, we really need a world where we have respect and equality.’ But that doesn’t mean you ‘kill Gallileo’ for finding something out. What feminism needs to be doing is engaging with that and saying ‘isn’t that interesting.’ And all of this science dosn’t mean that there are no individual differences.
We seem to have hit a note …
It just seems to be a ridiculous “feminist” position that kids go to college and learn in biology 101 that there are some differences, and then in feminism 101 that they should forget what they learned in biology. I also feel that the feminists who are criticizing the book on the brain-vagina conception, where were they when I was looking [in misconceptions] at the brain-uterus connection? Nobody had a problem with it because maternity isn’t as charged as female sexuality. If you retreat to a world in which everything is socially constructed and you can’t look at the body, you’re kind of buying into 5000 years of patriarchy that the female body is disgusting and problematic. I think the feminism I really, really respect engages with the female body in a serious way and raises the social status of all of these things, including female sexuality that many people say are disgusting or tacky or porn-y. The fact that so many feminists laughed at the idea of taking vaginas seriously as an intellectual subject, that is sexist to me and buys right into the patriarchal view of female sexuality.
If we bought this argument, where would you say this latent sexism stems from?
I dont know. I can’t speak for them. To be fair to them, there is kind of a giant vacuum. I’ve never read a first person, female account of desire. I can’t think of four in our culture, and they’ve all been mocked and ridiculed so there’s a giant void of non-fiction writing, of fiction. I can understand why consciously or not, why a lot of feminists wouldn’t want to risk that kind of cultural attack, but I don’t respect it.
So is there a way that feminist discourse should be? Katie Roiphe, for example, recently got flak for seemingly slamming funny feminists.
Just like I try to avoid being prescriptive in my book, I try not to dictate how feminist discourse should be. There shouldn’t be a ‘should’ about what women should say to call themselves feminists. I’m happy that there are bloggy, funny voices. I’m happy that there are more serious voices. I do certainly wish feminism, like any discourse, I respect it when it’s not personal, when it’s rigorous, when it’s attacking an idea not a person. Feminism should never be an ideology. We make the mistake in thinking that feminism should be a checklist. Feminism, the way I see it, should be a way of empowering women to speak and to act.
What do you make of the Bitch/Caitlin Moran controversy?
Just jumping in, as a free speech advocate, I think that Bitch would have been better to run the interview and run a commentary maybe arguing with the issue. Again, I haven’t seen the original quote. I haven’t seen the interview, but giving space to commentary, to criticism, to me, more speech is always preferable to censorship or self-censorship. If something offends you, talk about it.
Do you think there’s a lot of self-censorship in the feminist community?
A very, very laudable and important kind of carefulness about inclusiveness has sometimes been distorted in its outcome in a way that’s just about a checklist and suppresses fresh discussion and honest dialogue. If you look at history of social movements, that is death to a social movement, because when people second guess everything they might want to say and dont think that it’s safe to have an honest dialog, the thing becomes stale and it drives people away. I dont agree with Caitlin Moran’s response [not caring about minority representation on Girls] if you’re quoting accurately. [But] let me give you an example of legitimate intellectual discussion.
I grew up in such a diverse and inclusive environment in 1970s San Francisco; I was the minority as a white person in my high school, so for me it feels very artificial to go through that checklist and say ‘I can’t have an opinion if I can’t check the subculture.’ The value of racial and ethnic diversity was taken for granted as I grew up. You didn’t have to assert each time your allegiance to it. So, that said, I do think there are times when people should always scrutinize their text to make sure they’re not missing a blind spot. But I think that checklist approach is about intellectual laziness and fear instead of an act of desire to write a piece of work that’s really inclusive.
How does this relate to criticism of mainstream feminism as a predominately middle class, caucasian movement?
I don’t think any woman shouldn’t have a voice. I don’t think middle-class women shouldn’t have a voice. I think they’re as entitled to a voice as working-class women or wealthy women. I don’t think it’s right to generalize the voices of any one group of women over any other group. But I think it’s perfectly acceptable for someone to say ‘this is my opinion, and it comes from this background.’ I don’t like the way the left privileges some people’s opinions over others. That perspective flattens human complexity and does not do justice to all the things we share. For instance, you can grow up in a middle-class household and not be loved and that is a form of oppression.
Naomi Wolf appears 11:30 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 17, at Miami Book Fair International in the Chapman Center in Building 3 (second floor). The event is free.