The release of Naomi Wolf’s “Vagina: A New Biography” was met with scathing criticisms from feminists like Laurie Penny, Ariel Levy and Zoe Heller. These influential writers all bring up some valid arguments about problematic ideas presented in the book. Vagina is indeed a book that in many ways feels unfinished and often naïve.
It is in a sense two parallel books in one: The first part tests the validity of the obvious idea that the brain and the vagina are connected while the second – if still incomplete – is much more interesting and true to the title looking at historical ideas about female sexuality.
However, frankly what is even more frustrating than Naomi Wolf’s tendency to draw premature conclusions based on incomplete research and then furthermore present platitudes as though they were revelations, is that even though she doesn’t fully succeed, her attempt to honestly and critically discuss female sexuality is met with reviews that take it too far with their vitriolic and personal criticism.
As a black/African feminist, I find myself in familiar territory reading the reviews. The gatekeepers of mainstream feminism’s underlying message is still that firstly, there is just one kind of feminist dialogue and women who don’t fit into this box may not contribute to it and, secondly, that the conversation should be of the type of Cartesian, unemotional writing that is held above all other types of social discourse in western society.
While the hole-as-goddess language that Naomi Wolf employs is over the top for me personally, what’s laudable is the endeavour to connect women’s erotic and sensual lives with their creativity and power.
However, it is therefore important to emphasize that this is a discussion that feminists before, especially those from the south and black feminists around the world have been having for decades. Black feminists have necessarily sought women’s own re/interpretations of sexuality in creative, erotic and spiritual realms of painting, pottery, poetry and so on because heavily male- dominant and often racially oppressive worlds of academic and historical “truths” do not account ‘herstory’ or African heritage reliably.
In 1978, Audre Lorde for example urged women to find our “internal erotic guides” and explore the erotic as a source of power. In African Sexualities, Nkiru Nzegwu describes that unlike the dominant ideas in 20th century sexology, in Osunality (or African eroticism) the penis is not in charge. Instead, the vagina is seen as the dominant organ as it swallows the penis, it pulls it and makes it disappear during heterosexual sex. (This is comparable to the ‘upsuck theory’ that Naomi Wolf discusses.)
In other words, there are much better resources that attempt to connect intimacy with a form of female knowing (as in the links above) than Naomi Wolf’s
Apart from continuing to reject the idea that cerebral thinking is more of a guarantee for profundity than is knowledge that has its seeds in emotion, soulfulness and creativity, I hope we will continue to explore connections between women’s creative and erotic lives as an antidote to woman-bashing in our hypersexualized society. I also think that we should seek counter-narratives of the penis as an erotic symbol of maleness and explore how that is psychosexually related to ideas of male power. Oh, I wrote a post about that a while ago - male genitalia and ideas of power. I also wrote about somatic approaches to psychology (which is really what we are dealing with here,)and of how prejudices against African spiritual philosophy for example, continue despite evidence that there is knowledge available in this field that modern science is only just beginning to understand.
Have you read it? What’s your take?
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