In 1991 Naomi Wolf Singlehandedly launched third-wave feminism with her definitive book The Beauty Myth. Only 28 at the time, Wolf argued that unrealistic beauty expectations were undermining women, in what became a call to arms for a generation. Since then, she’s written many more books on feminism and political activism and become a cultural commentator on everything from abortion and pornography to the Occupy movement, even getting arrested at an Occupy Wall Street protest last year.
Charmingly warm and effusive in person, Wolf met Dazed in London to discuss her latest work, Vagina: A New Biography, which uncovers the little-known connection between the vagina and the female brain. The book combines historical research and the latest science with her trademark cutting cultural-analysis.
DD: Has our culture waged war against the vagina?
Naomi Wolf: You know, most women are not happy with the way this culture assigns meaning to the vagina. Is it embarrassing? Is it a porny thing? Is it a medical thing? It’s not a particularly positive range of associations, but when you study the history of the vagina in culture, you really see that the vagina is a war shack. Whatever a culture wanted to believe about women, those were the meanings assigned to the vagina. As a cultural critic, I want to know, when did the idea that vaginas are weird and yucky and porny get introduced? So the amazing thing about going all the way back, is that for much of prehistory, in many cultures the vagina was seen as the most sacred thing, not just literally but metaphorically. But now we have the sense that our vaginas are pornography material – they’re not that valuable because porn is not that valuable. They can get us into trouble if we’re assaulted and we have a medicalised discourse, but that’s all we really have in the west.
DD: What is the connection between the brain and the vagina?
Naomi Wolf: The vagina mediates these neurotransmitters that have a powerful effect on the female brain. So when you’re having a good sexual experience as a woman, when you’re anticipating orgasm, you get boosts of dopamine – I call it the ultimate feminist neurotransmitter because it creates confidence, motivation, assertiveness, focus, energy. While you’re having an orgasm, your brain also releases opioids, which are about transcendence and a sense of connection, really important states for creativity. Then afterwards you get a raised level of oxytocin, which is about trust and love. So these are all powerful things for women to have access to, and since women are multi-orgasmic, they can get more of these than men. The vagina is women’s superpower.
DD: What surprised you the most when you were doing your research?
Naomi Wolf: Surprising? Oh my God! It’s literally been jaw-dropping! I remember when I fully understood what orgasms do to the female brain – at that moment, all of 5,000 years of history fell into place! I was astonished as I was learning these things, because they seemed so important to me and they aren’t more widely known. If you empower women sexually, they get stronger, more confident and more self-directed. It was such an amazing day when I visited Professor Jim Pfaus’s lab at Concordia University in Montreal. It could’ve easily been freaky to watch people stimulate rat clitorises, but it wasn’t. His lab assistant picks up this virgin rat and does this thing with a tiny clitoral brush. Some rats are given naloxone beforehand, which blocks sexual pleasure, and some are given saline, which doesn’t. The ones that had saline were like, jumping on the guys, pulling them by the tail, humping their heads and just very lusty! That was profound for me because scientifically, the evolutionary role of female sexual desire was established. Just seeing how nature sanctioned this, that females would seek out and get reinforcement from pleasure – this seems like a big deal! When I noted how ebullient the non-naloxone virgin rats were, Jim Pfaus said, ‘They’ve never been called sluts.’
DD: It’s been 20 years since The Beauty Myth. Do you think that cultural definitions for women have become less oppressive?
Naomi Wolf: Some things have gotten much better and some much worse. I’m really worried for young men and women of this generation about how ideas spread addiction to porn is, and not for ideological reasons like when I was a young feminist. I think it’s definitely gotten worse. For young people, porn frames the sexual script they think they’re supposed to follow, and that script is not particularly good for either men or women long-term sexually, especially not for women. I do think something great has happened, which is that feminism and being sex-positive are not in conflict any more. But although young women are actively contesting the slut-shaming thing, they’re stuck without something positive to go to. It’s like, ‘Okay, I’m not a slut, but I’m still constructed by porn and have negative definitions of sexuality.’ Because of the research I’ve done for this book, now I can visualise a beautiful place to stand on sexually as a woman, so I hope that’s helpful.
DD: You’ve written about increasing militarization and surveillance technology. Why do you think that state and corporate interests are clamping down on citizens?
Naomi Wolf: One reason is that they can – with the centralisation of communications, finance and media control, corporations are getting bigger and their ties to governments are tighter. It’s also a backlash against the way the internet empowers people. All over the world people are realising that conflicts are usually generated by people who benefit from conflict, and that with the internet, people can find a way to solve their civil society problems. It’s a global rising-up.
DD: So you’re optimistic about the surge in activism?
Naomi Wolf: I’m very happy about it, but it’s a scary time to be an activist in the United States. I’m glad there’s the awareness of the need for grassroots democracy movements, whatever shape they take. Occupy, the Green Party and others are in a race against time, because the people who can surveil, arrest and torture have the technological, organisational and money advantage. So for now, the advantage with the people’s uprising is numbers and organisation.
DD: You went from feminism to political activism, and now you’ve come back to female sexuality. Is there a connection with your recent political work?
Naomi Wolf: When I was writing, I wondered, I’ve been working in civil liberties and now I’m writing about the vagina – are people going to think this is a strange detour? But it’s a direct connection, because this is all about freedom, self-determination. If something in the human body causes the brain to experience freedom and self-determination, and there’s cultural energy directed at closing it down, that’s the suppression that you get with other forms of coercion and control. And if sexuality is a liberatory force, and there’s a huge mega-industry (pornography) intervening with people’s ability to find freedom and transcendence with each other, that’s a method of control. The pre-70s sexual revolutionaries realised that there’s a connection between ownership of one’s own meanings and pleasure and political outcomes.
Everything falls into a different spectrum for me now that I’ve written this book. You see women in Tahrir Square being abducted by the police and given vaginal ‘virginity’ exams and you see women in America being targeted with transvaginal probe legislation, and they’re both being traumatised vaginally. These things are not about virginity, they’re not about abortions – they’re about political suppression.
VAGINA: A NEW BIOGRAPHY is out now, published by Virago
Photo by Romano Pizzichini