For the feminist writer Naomi Wolf, the spring of 2009 was beautiful. She was “emotionally and sexually happy, intellectually excited, and newly in love.” Her boyfriend of two years was more than able to provide for her physical and emotional needs and they had, it seems, a fabulous sex life. But then — uh, oh — trouble in paradise. One morning, as she looked out of the window at her “little cottage upstate” (Wolf is based in New York), it occurred to her that something was up with the quality of her orgasms. Where once achieving an orgasm had led her to see “colors as if they were brighter,” and even to make “the connections between things” seem more distinct, now she no longer experienced sex in a “poetic dimension ... instead, things seemed discrete and unrelated to me.” As she pondered the tree tops — presumably now a uniform sage, as opposed to the iridescent jade, olive and emerald of old — she thought: What is happening to me?
In the same boat, most women would leap out of bed and proceed with their day, pushing their anxiety to the back of their minds, like old yogurt to the back of the fridge. They would count their blessings (oh, to be newly in love at 46) and, perhaps, load the washing machine with extra fierceness. At most, they might confide in a friend. Not Wolf, though. Off she hopped, first to her gynecologist, and thence to New York’s “top nerve man,” who told her that she had a mild form of spina bifida, as a result of which her wonky spinal column was compressing the branch of her pelvic nerve that ends in the vaginal canal. Soon after, her doctor performed successful surgery on Wolf’s vertebrae, fusing them in order to release pressure on the nerve. And soon after that she was back to her orgasmic best: “I began again, after lovemaking, to experience the sense of heightened interconnectedness, which Romantic poets and painters called ‘the Sublime.’”
By Naomi Wolf
This experience transformed Wolf’s life in more ways than one, for out of it came Vagina: A New Biography (a title, I admit, that has made me think a Kindle might, after all, have its uses). Her nerve man had told her that impulses from the pelvic nerve travel up to the “female brain;” that because all women are built differently, one’s ability to experience an orgasm — be it the decorous, old-fashioned clitoral kind, or the zingy, modern vaginal orgasm — is not, as many feminists believe, down to conditioning and culture but merely neural wiring. What news! “I almost fell off the edge of the exam table in my astonishment,” Wolf writes. “This was a much less mysterious and value-laden message about female sexuality: it presented the obvious suggestion that anyone could learn about her own particular neural variant and simply master the patterns of the special way it worked.”
On the surface, I’m inclined to agree with Wolf on this score. I’m not going to write about my own orgasms, be they sepia or Technicolor, but nothing makes me angrier than the suggestion that my migraine is psychosomatic. It’s not: it’s chemical, or neurological, or whatever word you want to use. But science can be abused, too, and regularly is, by drug companies and ideologues alike. In Vagina, Wolf uses her scientific discoveries — her book teems with randy lab rats — to provide ballast for some pretty conservative ideas. Rather like a darts player I once interviewed, she believes that women who don’t get good sex regularly, who are denied the soothing benefits of dopamine and oxytocin, both stimulated by orgasm, will inevitably be “emotionally irritable.” Men who don’t indulge in serious and lengthy foreplay, employing what she calls the “Goddess array” to turn their partners on, should ask themselves: “Do I want to be married to a Goddess or a bitch?” (Wolf’s favored terms for the vagina are “Goddess” and “yoni.”) She believes that, having come to understand neural wiring, “we should respect the potential for enslavement to sexual love in women”.