VAGINA: A NEW BIOGRAPHY
By Naomi Wolf
THE nastiest name ever to be given to the female sex organ is ''vagina''. ''Vagina'' is Latin for ''scabbard'' or ''sword sheath''. A scabbard is owned by the same person as owns the sword that it exists to house. The word is more, not less, offensive because it is doctor-speak. There is a word for the female sex organ, a magical word. To hear it said makes strong men flinch; to hear it said by a woman unleashes pandemonium. It is the last sacred word in English, so I shall not debase it by using it here.
Vagina: A New Biography is largely a biography of Naomi Wolf herself. We learn that ''due to a medical crisis'' she had ''a revelatory experience''. The medical crisis consisted in her finding that, though she was still having very satisfactory clitoral orgasms with her partner, she was no longer experiencing the psychedelic effects of satisfactory sex.
Instead of lighting up a spliff, Wolf did something most American women could not afford to do. She went to her gynaecologist, who sent her for an MRI and a visit to New York's ''pelvic nerve man'', who sent her to a neurosurgeon, who put ''a 17-inch metal plate with a set of attached metal joints into her lower back''.
If it sounds like snake oil, it probably is snake oil, in this case phenomenally costly snake oil. A five-figure medical bill can be shown to have a marked therapeutic effect, as can a judicious dose of torture. Wolf recovered completely, even got her psychedelic orgasms back, except that, as she can no longer ''turn [her] spine completely'', she can no longer play tennis or do some kinds of dancing.
The problem was that Wolf's vagina had become disconnected from her brain, because ''the pelvic nerve was entrapped and compressed, and the signals from one of its several branches were blocked from moving up [her] spinal cord to her brain''. (All parts of the human body are connected to the brain, as you'd know if you dropped a hammer on your little toe.)
The reader's comprehension is not aided by Wolf's tendency to refer to the pelvic nerve as both singular and plural. We are asked to believe that ''All women's wiring is different'', which, if her chaotic grammar is to be resolved, means each woman is wired differently from any other, which sounds a lot like nonsense. Nerves are tree-shaped; dendrites are different as trees are different, but that doesn't mean they work in contrasting ways.
Wolf's journey can seem like one more example of rich women's historic involvement with quack medicine. For years electrogynaecology worked on the same principle of correcting defective female wiring; women not only endured torture as various voltages were sent through electrodes placed inside the vagina to others on the pelvis, they thanked the practitioners, made appointments for more and told everyone they felt ever so much better.
It took 40 years and the development of easier ways for gynaecologists to make money for electrogynaecology to be recognised as the sadistic quackery it was. Experiment after experiment has shown that, where sexual response is concerned, the same results will be found in women who are receiving a placebo as in those who are being dosed with the compound under review. What this suggests is not that the pudenda run the brain, but that the brain (or maybe the mind) runs the pudenda.
Wolf's dipping into the vast and contradictory literature on the neurobiology of female sexual response is, as it must be, very selective. She makes no use of the pioneering work of Australian urologist Helen O'Connell, who has been arguing and demonstrating for the past 14 years that the conventional account of the neurology of the female sex organs is misleading because the visible part of the clitoris is the summit of an extensive complex of erectile tissue that connects with the vaginal wall.
Though Wolf and the anatomists she consults accept this or something like it, Wolf remains convinced that clitoral and vaginal orgasms are essentially different.
At the same time she uses the term vagina to denote the ''entire female sex organ from labia to clitoris to cervix'', eventually including the uterus under the same heading and talking about uterine orgasms. Wolf knows the neural networks that constitute her ''Goddess array'' also involve the anus, but she chooses not to go there, which leaves a gap in the market for The Anus: A New Biography.
There is huge potential for misunderstanding in a book such as Wolf's. She quotes the last stanza of Sappho's Phainetai moi as if it were a description of orgasm, when the poem is about undeclared love for a distant object. Her experience of pop tantra as a Midtown Manhattan marital aid has nothing to do with the reality of tantra as a mystical cult. She credits me with a book I never wrote and which she therefore never read. She thinks of Christina Rossetti as an example of liberated female sexuality though the poet rejected all intimacy and probably died a virgin. When Wolf looks at a flowering hillside she sees female sexual energy, apparently unaware that all the flowers she is looking at have stamens as well as carpels, male organs as well as female. ''Vagina, vagina, vagina,'' she says to herself ''with amusement'', but not as much amusement as would have been felt by any botanist who overheard her.
The ultimate misunderstanding would be to conclude that a woman is her vagina, and Wolf comes perilously close, apparently unconcerned that some such notion is the central tenet of misogyny. A statement such as ''Rape properly understood, is always aimed not just at the female sex organ but at the female brain'' gets us nowhere. Historically, rape is a crime perpetrated by men against other men, the putative owners of the woman the rapist believes himself to be destroying. Wolf believes raped women are fundamentally damaged by the rape itself. This, in the context of women's daily experience, is a counsel of despair.
Wolf is not simply incurably heterosexual, she is also monogamous, if serially. For her, the exploration of sexual pleasure has to take place within the couple, and is so essentially domestic that the male's folding of a load of laundry will bring on lordosis in his female partner.
Wolf occasionally reports that lesbian women did not provide responses to her questionnaires, but does not reveal whether or not she was aware that any of her target population were lovers of their own sex or whether they might not have been alienated by her frame of reference.