Sacred Secrets, Sex and Science

Inside the Vagina Myth

By Jennie Kermode

It is generally considered uncouth to imply that a man bases his intellectual and emotional life on impulses from his genitals, yet that is precisely what celebrated feminist author Naomi Wolf has done in regard to women with the publication of her new book, Vagina: A New Biography. Wolf’s contention is that the vagina is at the centre of all female experience and constitutes the source of mysterious feminine power. She also claims that science has proved this.

Whilst Wolf’s claims are problematic at a number of levels, it is a mistake to see her book as representative of a new development in thinking about the body. It stands as part of a long tradition of mystic interpretation of the feminine, and particularly of female reproductive capacity – a tradition not necessarily empowering to women. The co-option of science into this philosophy can be seen as part of a wider trend, originating in the late 19th century but much stronger in the 21st, to appropriate scientific observations in an attempt to justify ideas that lack their own scientific roots. This trend isn’t always problematic – it has, for instance, encouraged research into traditional medicines which has in some cases revealed real pharmacological potential – but it has also given us the pseudo-scientific medical treatments, cosmetic products and spiritual interplanetary travel schemes with which any reader of small ads will be familiar.

In producing Vagina, Wolf has not given us the unique insight into feminine nature that she might think, but, by detailing her thought processes and the development of her ideas, she had provided a fascinating account of how apparently revelatory personal experience can come together with simplified science to give the impression of wisdom. This has implications for our general understanding of how people come to have an honest belief in pseudo-science, and, in particular, it provides as insight into mystic ideas about femininity as they appear in the modern world.

It certainly appears from her writing that Wolf believes in her theory. Her great moment of revelation occurred following surgery to treat a spinal injury. Having been unable to feel her genitals for some time, she discovered that renewed sensation in them made her feel much happier. No doubt most of us would feel the same way. For Wolf, however, the sensation went beyond ordinary pleasure and impacted her sense of spiritual fulfilment. She realised that sexual experiences could affect her whole state of mind.

It is, of course, not uncommon for people suffering from sexual dysfunction to report feelings of depression. Any number of factors may contribute to this, from a sense of social inadequacy to worries about maintaining a romantic relationship, to a disruption in familiar hormonal ‘reward’ patterns. Wolf chose to focus on the latter. She writes ecstatically about her discovery that dopamine is released during sex and oxytocin at the point of orgasm, even referring to the former as “the ultimate feminist neurotransmitter.” Of course, both the dopamine and the oxytocin response also occur in men, but this doesn’t seem to worry her. It’s true that different areas of the brain ‘light up’ in fMRI studies of men and women reaching orgasm, but the subjective experiences they describe are remarkably similar, and there’s nothing remarkable about this – it’s common in biology for different pathways to lead to similar results.

For Wolf, all such criticisms are swept aside with a simple assertion – if a woman doesn’t experience something spiritual when she orgasms, something that a man could not experience, then she’s doing it wrong. Crude though this may seem, it’s a dialectical gambit that has proven resilient in other contexts. She endeavours to substantiate the theory of the mystic female orgasm with reference to its celebration in assorted non-Western cultures and traditions. Her observations in this part of the book are generally well founded. The problem with them is twofold. Firstly, she neglects to mention that it’s just as easy to find examples of the celebration of mystic male sexuality (or the sexuality of intersex people and individuals living in non-male or female gender roles). Secondly, her assumption that this reveals a clear tradition of female empowerment obscured (perhaps deliberately) by patriarchal hegemony in the West just doesn’t stand up.

Let’s look, for instance, at Buddhist tradition, often esteemed in the West as a source of spiritual understanding. Yes, the spiritual status of women is celebrated in some Buddhist practices, but it isn’t necessarily liberating. The feminine principle, associated with reproduction and the natural world, is rejected by Buddhists seeking an aesthetic path to enlightenment. Mahayana Buddhism sees female devotees strive to transcend the flesh and hope to be reincarnated as men. Tantric Buddhism sees women raised to the status of goddesses (Wolf assures us a woman will reach orgasm more quickly of her male partner addresses her as ‘Goddess’) but only in order that they might be sacrificed so their power can benefit men.

In Christian tradition, a similar division is made between the flesh and the spiritual path, though less consistently so. We do find illustrations of erotic connection with the divine, but largely as metaphor (such as Bernard de Clairvaux’s attempts to describe his experience of union with God) or as an interpretation of the literal role of nuns as the brides of Christ. The erotic writings found in the Ancrene Wisse might well make Wolf’s hair stand on end, but whilst she feels a virile man is necessary for any heterosexual woman to achieve spiritual orgasm, with masturbation quite inadequate, its authors required only the presence of items associated with their Saviour. By contrast with this experience, the anchoress tradition saw women seek to achieve spiritual transformation by cutting themselves off completely from any erotic possibility, walling themselves up in church anterooms where they remained for the rest of their lives.

Perhaps most influential on the thinking of writers like Wolf have been the traditions developed by modern Pagans. Though their beliefs vary considerably, most believe in a powerful goddess or goddesses, and in a principle of sacred feminine sexuality. In relation to this, there is a notion similar to the Chinese idea of yin and yang – that is, that each individual has both masculine and feminine elements. According to the influential early 20th century occultist Dion Fortune, masculine prowess in the day to day world is balanced by passivity in the spiritual world, whereas for the feminine the reverse is true.

The flip side of this for feminists is that spiritual power is seen as compensation for lack of Earthly power, implying that women don’t need to have equal opportunity in mundane life because they have special influence elsewhere. This mirrors a familiar principal in slave religions, which, by promising rewards after death, reduce frustration but also reduce the possibility of revolt. It also implies that women need to draw on a belief in special powers in order to be respected, being less than equal otherwise. The historian Jeffrey F Hamburger has argued that “We should be wary of reducing female piety [in Christianity] to little more than the sublimation of sexual desire, if only because in so doing, we ape one of the marginalising strategies employed by its least sympathetic medieval (and modern) critics.” Similarly, we should be wary of reducing female spirituality to a focus on sexual activity, where that is celebrated. Placing the focus on the vagina does not liberate women intellectually, emotionally or socially – it reduces a woman to a single organ, places the emphasis on her difference from a man, and exaggerates that difference beyond anything that science can support.

Yet Wolf does try to support it with science. Key to this is her belief that the vagina and the brain can be perceived as “a single system”. She speaks with awe of the remarkable connection she has discovered that links the vagina, via the spine, to the brain. One imagines she might be surprised to learn that her feet are also connected to her brain, and still more that men’s brains are connected to their penises. As if to ward off this point, she emphasises the special number of nerves connected to the vagina. Well, yes, but that’s the case with any body part where sensation is important (the tongue has the most connections of all), and ultimately the whole body can be seen as a single system (or as a group of co-operating organisms, or as part of a larger ecosystem-organism, if you want to get picky). As our primary genetic priority is to reproduce, it’s not surprising that we have evolved to experience intense genital sensation.

The other big flaw in Wolf’s approach, and one which makes the ‘doing it wrong’ accusation particularly sad, is that female genital anatomy is known to vary considerably between individuals (more than male anatomy does). Though statistics vary considerably, studies show that 15% to 30% of women experience difficulties reaching orgasm, with 4% to 10% completely unable to. Around 70% to 75% don’t orgasm from purely vaginal stimulation. It is probable that anatomical variation is a factor in this. In other words, the special relationship Wolf has with her vagina cannot be assumed to be universal. If vaginal orgasm is, as she suggests, the key to female self-fulfilment, the majority of women are likely to find themselves locked out.

With the growth in female purchasing power over the last century has come a new reason to mythologise the vagina – the recognition that its perceived importance in women’s lives is commensurate with how much they will spend on it. From sprays and douches designed to give it “all day freshness” (whilst killing the microbes that actually protect it from infection) to the recent fad for vajazzling, this has been touted as a chance for women to feel good and celebrate themselves, all the while implying that their value as people is inescapably linked to their sexuality. Cosmetic surgery designed to beautify the vagina has grown rapidly in popularity (there is no comparable rush to beautify the penis), with women encouraged to believe that this will make them more desirable to men. The experience of ‘higher orgasm’ can boost a woman’s confidence and thus enhance her abilities in every area of life, says Wolf. But shouldn’t we be encouraging women to feel confident whether they’re getting laid or not?

To dismiss the importance of vaginas would be naive. One should not underestimate the impact on the life course of a doctor announcing “It’s a girl”. But do women need to buy into myths about their vaginas in order to be happy with them? Do they need to believe they’re doing something spiritual in order to rid themselves of inculcated shame about experiencing sexual pleasure? One would think we might have moved on a little from the ideas depicted in the forthcoming film Hysteria, which recalls the invention of the vibrator as a medical device intended to cure female dissatisfaction that ultimately turned out to have more complex roots.

In combining carefully selected traditional ideas with poorly understood neuroscience, Wolf has created a glossy-looking new myth with nothing below the surface. In social terms, her ideas are profoundly regressive, not only in their reduction of women to mystically inspired, intuitive creatures centred on their genitals but in reducing those genitals to an organ whose name means, in Latin, ‘sword sheath’, alongside the reduction of heterosexual women’s human potential to something dependent on men. It is telling that Wolf has resisted Germaine Greer’s endeavours to reclaim the traditional Germanic word for female genitals as a whole – a word refreshingly free of romantic connotations and one to which no woman would tolerate being reduced – simply, cunt.

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