Swatting off the critics, Naomi Wolf keeps telling the story of her vagina; and why not?

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Naomi Wolf meets readers at The Strand. (Miranda Popkey)
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“Vagina, vagina, vagina.”

Naomi Wolf, the author and feminist critic who rose to prominence in 1991 with the publication of her book The Beauty Myth, was relating an anecdote, drawn from Elizabeth Topp’s Vaginas: An Owner’s Manual, that helped inspire her to begin work on her latest book, Vagina: A New Biography. The two authors were talking on Tuesday night in the Strand’s Rare Book Room.

She was also demonstrating her comfort with a word many still hesitate to use. Topp recalled, on her own tour, going to sign books at a “nice independent bookstore uptown.” She remembered being told, “Oh, um, we had your book displayed, but, um, someone threatened to call the police.”

In one passage of Topp’s book, a group of high-school girls stands up in a school assembly and repeats the word “vagina” over and over again. (Topp taught sexual hygiene to juniors and seniors in a New York City high school for four semesters.) That passage, Wolf said, made her realize something: “It’s not just about a sex organ," she told the small crowd that had gathered for the talk by the two authors. "It’s not just about sex. The way that one is allowed to own or not own the vagina, name or not name the vagina, claim or not claim the vagina, the status that a society assigns the vagina, or the mockery assigned to the vagina, is a trope for female self-respect or lack of the right to self-respect, female identity or the lack of right to identity.”

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During her dialogue with Topp, the sometimes divisive author was charming, funny, indignant, and warm, all while casually peppering her speech with neuroscience. The audience Q&A that followed ended with a poised woman in a turtleneck and blazer thanking her profusely. “Listening to you, and having your research brought to us and listening to your affirmations make me feel normal,” she said, in a trembling British accent.

After it was over, as Wolf signed books—smiling broadly at everyone who approached her table; gamely posing for pictures—a young woman mused aloud: “I wonder if the book is as fantastic as she is.”

So far, the majority of reviews have suggested that it is not.

In The New York Times' Sunday book review, Toni Bentley called it a “valuable negative example, for the important book that will be written one day.” In The New York Review of Books, Zoë Heller wrote:“Her refusal to acknowledge the heterogeneity of female temperament, of female sexual proclivity, of female desire, would be galling, if it were not so dotty.”

The germ of Wolf’s new book is detailed in six pages that have critics, in Wolf’s words, “freaked out.” In this brief section, Wolf discusses the effects of an undiagnosed spinal injury which not only “dialed down” her sexual sensation, but also her “positive states of mind that I had associated with how I felt after love making. And these were, you know, states of mind that had to with feeling energized, feeling good about things in general, feeling confident, feeling like things connected.”

As soon as she was cured, “my sexual sensation returned, but so did my mind states that I thought I had lost and this was such vivid, vivid, you know, documentation, eyewitness experience of a brain-vagina connection that no one explains to us, that the brain and the vagina, through the spine, are a single, sort of neurological system, essentially, and that there’s this profound influence that the vagina has on the brain and vice versa.”

This seems a logical, rather than radical claim—though the phrase, “eyewitness experience of a brain-vagina connection” does give pause.

The experience led Wolf to investigate the relationship between brain chemicals like dopamine—the “ultimate feminist neurotransmitter because it goes to confidence, focus, motivation, risk-taking, trusting your own judgment, assertiveness, sociability”—and oxytocin, and the vagina. When she discovered that “pleasure for women boosts dopamine,” she felt she finally understood, “why the vagina has been mocked, ridiculed, targeted, suppressed, controlled, in some cases mutilated, for five thousand years. Pleasure does make women insubordinate. Pleasure does make women harder to control.”

Whether or not Wolf has her science right—this article suggests she does not—it does not seem unreasonable to assume that a sexually satisfied woman is also a more confident woman. But it is Wolf’s suggestion that an intensely caring sexual approach is necessary achieve that satisfaction that has provoked the most ire. In attempting to “achieve high orgasm . . . It also helps a lot, apparently,” wrote Heller, drily, “if [women’s] male partners address them as ‘Goddess.’”

Wolf, though she specifically said she wanted to refrain from speaking for all women, stood by her recommendations: “What is clear from the neuroscience is that women thrive in an atmosphere in which they feel cared for caressed, stroked, supported, loved, attended to. I’m not saying people can’t be kinky and play all kinds of games, I’m not saying that. But that this is a fundamental thing that we are primed for.”

And whether Wolf’s specific claims were justified or not seemed almost beside the point; it was the warmth of her presence, her colorful language, her ability to say the word “clitoris” without blushing that made the dialogue rewarding.

During the Q&A, an older woman struggling with menopause opened up about recent difficulties she’d had with her partner of many years, a “rather large man,” who “has never really been one to do all the compliments or the hours of stroking.”

Wolf’s response was both gentle—she thanked the woman for her courage—and matter of fact. She agreed with Topp, who passed on words from advice from her gynecologist mother—“[the vagina] a little bit use it or lose it”—and shared advice from another doctor: “nobody tells older women that they need to masturbate, and not just masturbate but insert something inside themselves while they’re masturbating to keep the tissues functioning well, lubricating well.”

Describing male versus female pelvic enervation, she set off giggles when she compared the nerves in a penis, which wrap in “a very regular grid,” as “like a map of New York, you know, there’s north and there’s south and you know where you are. It’s not complicated.” Female pelvic enervation, on the other hand, looks “Like Sao Paolo at Mardi Gras.”

Wolf’s message, at its core, seems an eminently reasonable one: “If you want a woman enthusiastically to want to make love to you for the rest of her life, you have to be nice to her for the rest of her life.” And in her convincing, comforting presence, one wanted to believe that her book has indeed “been read very reductively,” as she said after the event. “It makes feminism stupid to refuse to look at peer reviewed science if you know—and just want it to go away.”

Regardless of the the critical response, Wolf is connecting to audiences who feel that they’re not getting the information they want or need about their vaginas, or their partners’ vaginas; in the same conversation, Wolf mentioned meeting a young woman transitioning from female to male who “said that she learned more about her vagina from my book than from her doctor. And that it made her actually rethink how she was going to go about her surgery.”

The conversation about female sexuality Wolf is forcing is an inherently valuable one, even if you reject every single one of her premises and disagree every single one of her suggestions. Maybe it’s not possible to be healed by a good orgasm; it’s a nice story to tell ourselves, anyway.