Tuesday, 9 October 2012

108/111 - Vagina: A New Biography by Naomi Wolf

I have never read anything by Naomi Wolf before, however I'd had my eye on this release date for a while. I thought that the subject matter old probably be quite interesting, and I also knew that Naomi Wolf is the subject of a fair amount of controversy. Her most famous work is probably The Beauty Myth which is probably around 20 years old now. I have had that on my shelf for quite a while, but I'm yet to read it.

When I bought this book, I must have been in the middle of reading Sweet Tooth, and I started to come across reviews of Vagina that weren't necessarily all that favourable. I tried as hard as I could to avoid reading any reviews, as I wanted the chance to make up my own mind.

It's a pretty dense book in a lot of ways, and it's taken me a while to get through it. I have mixed feelings, I guess. There were parts of the book I found really interesting and enlightening, and others that seemed batshit crazy, or extremely pretentious. I'm going to try to focus more on the parts I found interesting, as I'm sure there is plenty of criticism out there already.

I was really interested by all the biological explorations, such as the idea of the female pelvic nerve and the way it relates to female sexual pleasure. She also talks a lot about the way that this nerve centre is closely tied up with women's consciousness, and there was some really compelling arguments, however a lot of it felt quite anecdotal? She bases some of her writing on the trouble she had with her own pelvic nerve, and goes on to extrapolate that one of the reasons that rape and rape in warfare is so traumatic to its victims is because of that brain-vagina connection. I fully understand the idea behind rape being used as a weapon of war, and I think the idea that it damages its victims and keeps them repressed is interesting, however I would want to see more evidence of it first.

I think that is one of my main problems with the book, actually. There is a lot of biological research included, but there is also a lot of research which is based on observations, or conversations, and I'm not totally convinced that I can rely on the conclusions she has drawn, even though a lot of them speak to my own experiences as a woman. Perhaps I just find it difficult to admit to myself?

I really liked a lot of the ideas surrounding the way we view female sexuality and female sex organs, and the way we carry ourselves as women. I know that from my own experiences, I feel like I'm shrinking when a group of men shout at me in the street, and I'm aware that if I'm walking on my own, that if I wear a hat or cover my long hair, I become almost invisible to them, which to me feels like such a perversion. I think it's really difficult for men to understand the extent to which many of us feel unsafe outside our own homes. It makes me feel sick to admit this, but almost every time I leave my house I'm aware of my surroundings, I have my keys in my pocket ready to open my door quickly or stab someone. If I'm out at night, I don't feel safe walking alone. I have only very rarely been confronted out in the street, and mostly that kind of fear has occurred when I've been in bars, but that's almost worse. I can be in an area full of people and still have someone approach me and put their hand up my skirt, or 'accidentally' touch me, or physically threaten me. A lot of women I know sort of shrug it off as part of a night out, but I tend to be a bit more confrontational, and I'm not afraid to shove an elbow into someone or throw a drink. But really, what could I do against that kind of physical strength?

Anyway, that's a bit off topic, but Naomi's point is that this constant fear of threat, harassment, hollering, prevents women from living to their full potential. If even a tiny percentage of my energy is focused on diverting unwanted attention or unwarranted attacks, then that is a waste of energy I could be using to do something worth my time. However, there were points at which I became very irritated with her, for example her description of a party where one of her friends made some tasteless jokes, which apparently gave her writer's block for six months. Really?

There was a whole bunch of stuff in the middle of the book about literature that I found really dull, because even though I love books and fiction, I'm not at all sure that you can draw conclusions about life from what is essentially fiction. Well, you probably can, but it doesn't sound particularly credible. In any case, that wasn't what really interested me.

There was also a lot of interesting (and again, anecdotal) exploration of some of the essential differences between men and women. One example that struck me was that situation where you and your male partner come home from work, and the woman wants to talk about her day and share it with her partner, and the man is unresponsive and doesn't want to talk. Naomi talks about the fact that women have far more interaction between the right and left hemispheres of their brains, which makes them want to chat more, whereas men don't, and they find it more exhausting to chat. On the one hand, this is an incredibly simple explanation for something that a lot of people (myself included) experience, and therefore an easy way to let go of the tension it causes. On the other hand, it also feels like potential pseudo-science to explain away stereotypical behaviour. 

She also talks a lot about the link between sex and emotions in a relationship. Something I have experienced in my own relationships is that when the sex began to go bad, or when I no longer wanted to by physical with a person, it was usually because underneath, I no longer wanted to be with that person but was not able to consciously admit to that. There was a lot more about this that I don't really want to go into because I haven't fully digested it yet.

I realise that a lot of what she is talking about is pretty much unexplored territory, so it would be pretty much impossible to rely on science to provide answers. Many of the ideas are incredibly interesting, and the exciting thing is that she is barely scratching at the surface, however I'm not convinced that there is always anything underneath.

Next: Lost At Sea by Jon Ronson

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