Naomi Wolf has spent her career defending women from the culture they live in, from 1991's The Beauty Myth, an assault on the value of women's physical appearance in society, to Misconceptions, a feminist examination of the world's response to pregnancy and childbirth. But in her latest work, she's defending the very thing that defines femininity itself, at least from a scientific standpoint: the vagina (and its associated female reproductive parts).
Born from Wolf's own medical quest to regain her own sexual vitality, Vagina is a look at the science of ladyparts -- and how that science can affect society at large. In advance of her reading at the Miami Book Fair International on Saturday, we spoke with Wolf about the difference between good sex and great sex, feminist haters, and of course, her favorite euphemism for The Big V.
Crazy awesome mindblowing orgasms have physical and mental effects that reach far beyond the bedroom, Wolf argues in her book. "A lot of women have talked to me about ... the connection between [orgasms] and other kinds of energy -- creativity and positive feelings that women report in other areas of their lives," she explains. Vagina is filled with stories of women who overcome depression, get better at their jobs, and even discover new talents when their sex lives are particularly frisky. And an absence of orgasms can have the opposite effect too, Wolf says. "We deride and degrade the vagina in this culture, but if it's a medium [to release] all of these powerful, positive neurotransmitters, maybe we shouldn't dismiss it so quickly," she says.
The trouble is, the conditions for great sex in women are hard to come by (no pun intended). Earlier generations of well-meaning feminists insisted on equality of the sexes, leading to what Wolf describes as a harmful societal expectation that "women should fuck like men." Vagina presents statistics indicating that women physically need romance, respect, and relaxation in order to have killer orgasms. But these days, those things are "dismissed as foreplay -- 'oh, that's not important, that's what you have to do to get to the real thing.'" Wolf laments.
If that sounds like a strangely conservative statement to come from one of the world's biggest names in feminism, you're not alone. Vagina has had a controversial reception, especially among some feminists who see its evolutionary science as a step backward for women. But Wolfe insists it's all in how you view the research. "You could say, 'Oh, [these findings] mean women are fragile flowers and they need male protectors. Well, that's nonsense," she explains. "Or it could mean that you really have to respect a women for the rest of her life if you want her to have sex with you enthusiastically -- so maybe help with the dishes."
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Still, Wolfe's not letting haters get her down. She says she receives letters from readers on a regular basis, sharing their own stories about their sexuality and how the book reflects or has improved their own sex lives. She's mulling the possiblity of a follow-up to Vagina to share those stories with a broader audience. And she's still delighting in her subject matter. Take her favorite euphemism for vagina, for instance.
"I have to say it's 'The Force,' she giggles. "It's so hilarious, it's so funny, and it's one of the very few words ... that isn't infantalizing or, you know, gross. May 'The Force' be with you!"
Wolf speaks Saturday at 11:30 a.m. Visit miamibookfair.com.