This week my vagina and I went to meet Naomi Wolf, who was visiting the UK from New York to debate in Al Jazeera's 'Head To Head', a late night discussion show hosted by Mehdi Hasan. The programme will air next month, but I'll give you a brief preview here. Quizzed on her latest book and her views on civil liberties, it turned out to be a wide-ranging discussion veering from getting better orgasms to whether the Scotland referendum was rigged. Certainly the win for the 'No's' in the latter didn't turn me on, or Naomi either, and perhaps that was the only common ground we shared.
For one of the controversial stateswomen of feminism, a name that I grew up with through undergraduate women's studies and feminist reading groups, in real life Wolf is likeable and reasonable. Indeed, she appeared to attempt to neutralise a lot of the claims she has written previously, suggesting that her writing is personal and spiritual and that she shouldn't be criticised for writing her own truth. It would be hard to disagree with that of course, but nevertheless I found plenty to disagree with in her work.
Unfortunately, I'd read the whole of her new book in order to try to understand her standpoint, her type of feminism and also to make sense of the many critiques it received when Vagina: A New Biography was first published in 2012. If I can summarise: women have a brain-vagina connection, our "potential of female power" is sourced in our genitals and all of this makes us spiritual goddesses with a wellspring of sexuality that must be catered to by our, ideally male, sexual partners. Aggressively heterosexist and clichéd, it felt like reading Mills & Boon crossed with A-Level biology. Full of reductive gender essentialism, I was able to engage in a little stereotype bingo as I progressed through the chapters, ticking off tired constructs of masculinity and femininity; and they're all there - women are more emotional than men, more chatty, they have "ever-restless brains", men struggle to process and read other's emotions in the women's work they are forced to occupy post-industry, women fancy bad boys due to "something about power in men that heterosexual women find attractive... to do with hormone variation" and, if your man just wants to watch sports and drink beer when he comes home that's because his male brain needs more down time as men can't process stress as well as women.
The science used to justify such claims is presented as if it is new, true and seems largely based on a lot of rat torture and murder. Indeed, if women's vaginas are a ley line straight to the divine and provide a spiritual compass, then something is clearly lacking in Wolf's as she breezily anthropomorphises rat behaviour in unnatural laboratory cages, describing rat 'flirtation', 'submission' and 'love making'. From studies of murdered rats vaginal tissue we gain ground breaking new findings, for example that rats are not interested in getting it on when they are stressed out. There is surely a gap in the market here for rat self-help, and money to be made in guides on 'How To Tame Your Love Rat', 'Maybe Your Rat Just Isn't That Into You' or even 'Fifty Shades of Fur'.
On a more serious note, there are some inexcusable distinctions made between "real rape" and "date rape" and the chapter on trauma describes in minute detail the negative chemical and hormonal effects on women, but then lets these chemical processes stand in somehow as the cause of the violence, while the perpetrators are invisible in this book. There are the usual misrepresentations of feminist political theory, and offensive simplifications of the work of Kate Millett and Susan Brownmiller, neither of whom ever wrote that all men are rapists or that all heterosexual women have false consciousness; which Wolf would know if she'd actually read them.
The section on rape as a war crime is completely undermined by the fact that Wolf fails to realise that rape is a weapon used in war to attack a male enemy; the women and children are collateral damage. Instead, Wolf suggests that subconsciously, men as a class intuit somehow that women have a strong vagina-brain connection and that their souls can be destroyed by attacking their genitals and never again will they be able to write novels, screenplays or paint landscapes, because "sexualised fear drives out creativity in women". She is right when she says that rape in war is strategic and systemic, it's a battle tactic, used to breed out the enemy, to emasculate the enemy through spoiling their women; and this raises a fatal flaw in Wolf's thesis, one she is either ignorant of, or wilfully overlooks, which is the history of rape as a history of theft.
The history of rape law is one where women and children are goods, owned by fathers, brothers or husbands, and rape the crime of taking the sexuality of those women without permission; not the women's permission, but the men who own them. Rape was understood as a crime by men, against men, and this ancient philosophy perhaps still plays out in our cultural imagery and responses to rape even today. It wasn't until 1991 of course that rape in marriage was even recognised as a crime in England, because a man cannot be prosecuted for stealing what he already owns.
Wolf bemoans the negative effects on women which result from male tyranny, but then she perpetuates what she rallies against, by recreating woman as 'other', by reducing women to their sex alone and to sex itself. This is the oldest patriarchal trick the world has known, and it is a masculinist logic that unfolds whether women are being worshipped or burned, indeed the two often go hand in hand. Women have to negotiate an ancient dualism, and the tightrope between is the line between virgin and whore. There is nothing new about women being defined as closer to nature, as more spiritual and nurturing, as more animalistic in their sexuality and consciousness; and such a proposition is far from feminist. It is this reductive essentialism that feminism has been struggling against for centuries, as we try to imagine a construct of woman that is not in patriarchy's image. I see no glimmer of that in Wolf's work, just more of the same.
Unlike Wolf, I cannot put my faith in an Enlightenment neuro-sexism that sets out to 'prove' that women's brains are pink and men's brains are blue. This is a pseudo-science that creates what it claims to report and diverts attention away from the real truth we should be putting under the microscope. In fact, I have made a new scientific breakthrough that I'm going to share with you right here, I've tested it on rats and the rats told me they agreed - women are human beings, men are human beings and both have the same capacity for nurturing, loving and creating and need those things in equal measure. I await the world to catch up with my findings.