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Context and Variation

Context and Variation


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Under the Influence: Naomi Wolf, Biology, and Why We Are More Than Our Vaginas

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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A women's symbol with a fist inside, a classic feminist symbol.

Via Wikimedia Commons.

Readers of this blog are likely already aware of Naomi Wolf’s book Vagina: A New Biography. I’m late to the party, because it just seemed wrong to pile on a feminist more senior to me who, though misguided, is at least working towards equality for women. But the more I read, the harder it has been to stay out of things. So it is with my particular anthropological lens that I bring you my three problems with Wolf’s perspective, and the one thing that is kinda okay.

Problem 1: Universalizing one woman’s experience

The epiphany that partially led to Wolf writing this book came from a spinal surgery that restored her vaginal orgasms and, as Zoe Heller quotes in her review, Wolf’s renewed “sense of vitality infusing the world, of delight with myself and with all around me, and of creative energy rushing through everything alive.” Yet the idea that vaginal orgasms are more spiritual, higher quality, or even categorically different from clitoral orgasms is easily contested. As a feminist raised on Anne Koedt’s “The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm,” and as an anthropologist who has read and taught extensively on the adaptiveness (or not) of female orgasm, I found myself extremely disappointed in Wolf’s interpretation of her experience, and how she took her white, straight, privileged core values and assumed they must be the same for all women.

Not all women have the same orgasms. Not all women get their rocks off from the same things. Not all women like men, or vaginal penetration, or any sex whatsoever. Not all women can have sex or orgasms due to injury. An extension of Wolf’s idea that this profound vagina-brain connection make us more spiritual would be that those who cannot or choose not to have orgasms for various reasons, or those who identify as asexual, are less spiritual and less in touch with, as she states in her introduction, their “female consciousness.”

At the same time it seems as though we are doubling down on princess gear and the color pink, I have a lot more friends, colleagues and students who are exploring what it means to be fully themselves. And being fully themselves means so much more than holding the same beliefs and sexual practices and preferences as Naomi Wolf.

And so it is sad, so very sad, to see a feminist try to reaffirm that being a woman carries a very specific set of conditions.

Problem 2: Alternately reducing women to animals and putting them on pedestals

The trouble with Wolf making the vagina-brain connection into one that is spiritually profound and integral to the experience of being female, is that she ends up clumsily alternating between two claims: women are animals driven by our biology, and are a manifestation of the Divine Feminine.

As Maia Szalavitz points out in her piece for TIME:

Wolf includes a similar oversimplification in her discussion of the neurotransmitter and hormone oxytocin, which is best known for its involvement in facilitating bonding between lovers and between parents and children. Wolf calls oxytocin “women’s emotional superpower” and, citing research in prairie voles, concludes that it makes women more likely to become emotionally connected with their sexual partners than men are.

But Young says there’s no data on gender differences in oxytocin in humans. “Based on what we know from animals, it is likely that when women have sex that they are going to experience more of an oxytocin release than men,” he says, adding, “We don’t know.”

Wolf then jumps from this conjecture to the notion that women’s intense oxytocin release makes them more likely to become literally addicted to sex: “Good sex is, in other words, actually addictive for women biochemically in certain ways that are different from the experience of men — meaning that one experiences discomfort when this stimulus is removed and a craving to secure it again.”

So, despite the evidence, Wolf makes the claim that women get more addicted to the hit of oxytocin (already massively problematic, as Ed Yong will tell you) than men. Yet she also says stuff like this:

“To understand the vaginal properly is to realize that it is not only coextensive with the female brain, but is also, essentially, part of the female soul….

“[T]he vagina’s experiences… can contribute to a woman’s sense of the joyful interconnectedness of the material and spiritual world….. They can help her experience a state of transcendental mysticism….” (Wolf, pages 4-5)

I hardly need to unpack these sentences for you. I am glad for the women out there who get some extra transcendental mysticism out of using their vaginas. But I am troubled by the way Wolf’s interpretation of the vulgar and spiritual vagina so closely matches the way we’ve been culturally conditioned to view women as, you guessed it, alternately animals and goddesses.

It’s Feminism 101 to notice and disrupt, rather than reinforce, these stereotypes.

Problem 3: Situating women as passive recipients of whatever their environment or biology slings at them

In my own research, I have become interested in the ways we inadvertently situate our research participants as passive reactors to our environment. It’s hard to escape this language: human biologists want to know what produces variation in the body, and so we can frame things as though factors in the environment unidirectionally influence, impact or affect variables like one’s hormones, reproductive success, or mood. Sometimes it’s an inadvertent shorthand. Notice I am very careful not to say this is a universal, and it’s increasingly less common in the research literature. But you still see it in the popular literature.

Humans are so much more than vessels shaped by our environment. We shape our environment, too. We react to it. Sometimes we choose it. Sometimes we make the best of what we have.

Interestingly, I’ve noticed that women and people of color have been the research participants more likely to be seen as ravaged by their environments. Racism, discrimination, patriarchy and male sexual strategies are stressors that can become embodied. There are several important scholars, primatologists mostly, who have demonstrated the ways that female sexual strategies can operate against or subvert those of males’ (e.g., Becky Stumpf, Barb Smuts, Patricia Gowaty, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy). But the language around discrimination and racism, when it comes to their health effects, still often shows oppression as something that just happens to people of color.

In the last several years, scholars who study resilience, social support, race, health, ethnic identification and related fields have pushed against this (e.g., Carla Hunter, Edna Viruell-Fuentes, Arline Geronimus, Adriana Umaña-Taylor). This research has shown that people react to the environment differently, that they can corral resources, buffer themselves, and that different groups of people have different adaptive responses to the same conditions. And I think those who write on this do so beautifully: they don’t create an anyone-can-pull-themselves-up narrative that ignores the way that institutions constrain individual agency. But they do acknowledge the push and pull between the two.

This kind of nuance is sorely missing from what I’ve read of Wolf’s book and blog post.

Kinda okay thing 1: More people saying “vagina” without giggling

I am glad lots of people are talking about vaginas now (and not “vajayjays,” and not “down there”). Many of my meetings at work and lectures in the classroom have a liberal sprinkling of the word and its variations – in a recent meeting with collaborators who work on the vaginal microbiome, the word “vaginal” became a noun to refer to vaginal samples:

“Have you got the vaginals?”

“Have you extracted the vaginals?”

“How many owl monkey vaginals do we have?”

And there was no giggling at the term. (Okay, I may have smiled inwardly at the last one, I mean COME ON). Not because we are humorless ladies, as there was laughter at other points in our meeting. But because it was just another word to describe the awesome science that was being done.

And perhaps that is the biggest letdown from Wolf’s book. There is so much awesome science on the vagina, so much more to be done, that Wolf could only have gone out of her way to avoid it to come up with the problematic storytelling that resulted.

 

(I wrote this post because I asked the internets what I should blog about, and this is what David Dobbs requested (he has already written on the topic himself, here and here). And I can’t say no to the author of My Mother’s Lover.)

Kate Clancy About the Author: Dr. Kate Clancy is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Illinois. She studies the evolutionary medicine of women’s reproductive physiology, and blogs about her field, the evolution of human behavior and issues for women in science. Find her comment policy here. Follow on Twitter @KateClancy.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Brian1001 7:46 pm 10/4/2012

    She has done some interesting work in the past, and has some very valid points about cultural liberation, but I think Naomi Wolf’s overall emphasis on vaginal intercourse is…highly questionable.
    People can obviously get down however they like, and do whatever is most enjoyable for them personally, but that being said, there’s more evidence leading in the other direction than in the direction Naomi Wolf and others are pushing for.

    The fact that 70-80% of women don’t orgasm through vaginal intercourse alone would be a good place to start.

    Here are two videos on the subject (which is a pretty important one)…
    “Is your relationship M.I.B.? (mutual in bed)”
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XRHBhTtB0Jg
    and
    “It’s Not You…It’s Sex.”
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c-64YvFTp8Q

    Link to this
  2. 2. Alison Cummins 9:45 pm 01/26/2014

    1) You posted on a book without reading it? Bad.

    2) I’ve never read anything she wrote myself: nothing I heard about her made her sound like a feminist to me so I didn’t bother. She’s two years older than me but is a Third Wave feminist, a species that as a staunch Second Waver I have a great deal of trouble recognizing, even if I squint.

    3) I think this kind of embarrasing writing is caused by smoking too much dope.

    Link to this
  3. 3. Kate Clancy in reply to Kate Clancy 12:25 pm 01/27/2014

    Alison, I let this through because 2 and 3 were fine, but #1 violates the comments policy. Surely you can find other ways to engage or share your opinion without just saying “bad.” I did not read the entire book, I read several excerpts and drew from them specifically and exclusively.

    Link to this

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