It can’t be easy to be a man these days, what with the gender’s looming end, but thinking about Naomi Wolf’s new and much-ridiculed biography of the vagina has reminded me once again of the main reason why I would not want to be a man, or, make that a heterosexual man. Having sex with a woman is a complicated challenge. It exhausts me to think of it.
I feel sorry for the mystified males who have to have sex with us. One friend recently left by his wife wants to write a book for men called Stop, It Tickles. Here is how he explains his title: You meet a woman, she likes you a lot, you get together and maybe get married. But there always comes that night when you are doing the thing you always did, the thing she always liked, and suddenly she says: “Stop, it tickles.” And that’s the beginning of the end of all of it.
Another male friend, also not long ago turfed out by his wife and hunting for a replacement in the brave new world, has discovered that all the women he dates seem to come with their own plastic battery-powered devices. He’s had to learn how to operate them.
What do women want? No, really. What the hell do women want?
The mystified Viennese head doctor was well and truly perplexed, and a century of women (and not a few men) have since tried and failed to come up with a satisfying answer, leaving men like my two friends, helpless. Now comes—and comes—pop feminist Naomi Wolf with a suggestion. Her advice book is so prurient and visceral that the title is asterisked out on the iTunes library on my iPad.
In Vagina: A Biography, the answer to what women want is simple and old-fashioned: Women want flowers, eye-gazing, poetic language, cuddling and a lot of languorous attention to a very particular spot between the legs.
Who could possibly argue with that? And yet, the book has already spawned a slag pile-on, by—surprise, surprise—other women. And not just any women, but slightly younger pop-culture feminists, some of whom have at one time or another been anointed, as was Ms. Wolf in her 1990s heyday, as the “new” face of feminism, another photogenic, usually New York-based and usually Jewish gal ripe to step into Gloria’s pumps.
Interestingly, every one of the reviews of her book that I can find are by women. Perhaps because it’s a visceral topic, literally, for women, book review editors from The New Yorker to Slate decided that this one is not man’s territory. That’s too bad, because men are the ones who need to read it.
Vagina could have been an interesting bookend under everyman’s bedside reading lamp, beside Hanna Rosin’s The End of Men. As capital-M Men are going extinct, small-m men will have to step up to the big V with more reverence than ever before.
Ms. Wolf’s book shows them why and how.
How women come has perplexed heterosexual males since long before Freud’s “what do women want?” It has driven men to poetry and pornography and, finally, to prostitutes, who enable those who can’t figure it out to dispense with the tricky problem altogether.
Ms. Wolf’s book is filled with much purple silliness about goddesses and half-baked science about body chemistry, but it raises a legitimate question: Does a happy vagina make a happy woman and, by extension, a happy home and world? Given that benign intent, why then has her book sent so many of her peers into apoplexies of meanness, sarcasm and statements like this one from British reviewer Susanna Moore, who after decrying Ms. Wolf’s book as self-help crap dressed up as feminism, dubbing it “a bit anti-dildo” … and noting that “it’s like lesbianism never happened, nor class, nor vast swaths of feminist theory, ” concludes, “I can be this brutal because … I am indeed a cunt.” Yikes!
I’m not a Naomi Wolf fan. Her book is indeed cringe-worthy. But something about the tenor and tone of the reviews is so over the top it seems reasonable to ask why.
The reviewers are or once were members in good standing of the “young feminist writers” club. They have all written provocative books or essays about women’s needs, women’s problems, women, women, women. And they too have revealed themselves intimately at least once or twice, in print, because … oh yes, the personal is still political and, well, that stuff sells.
The New York Review of Books gave British writer Zoe Heller several thousand words artfully arranged around a very distracting color print of Gustave Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde, his 1866 painting of a woman’s crotch. Ms. Heller, a “confessional” English journalist, born in 1965, who made a shtick of her own romantic life in her columns for the Independent before writing novels including Notes on a Scandal, finds nothing redeeming in the book, pointing out that Ms. Wolf doesn’t know her “correlates” from her “causes” in science. She goes beyond the book to critique Ms. Wolf’s demand that Julian Assange’s Swedish rape accusers come forward, since hiding their names is a pre-feminist Victorian relic. “There is a strange hubris in Wolf’s claim to understand how all rape affects all women,” Ms. Heller writes. “It is the same hubris that compels her to instruct us on how all women need to be wooed, and how all women feel when they come … 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.” Ouch.
Over at Slate, Katie Roiphe offers her take not only on the book but on Wolf’s entire career. Ms. Roiphe—a single mom of two, living in New York, born in 1968—wrote a controversial book on date rape that kinda, sorta blamed the victim, called The Morning After: Sex, Fear and Feminism. She has since crafted a career as the go-to girl for the slightly anti-PC feminist take—not Caitlin Flanagan, but Caitlin on the left.
Ms. Roiphe gets into the ring and administers a full-body takedown in the first 10 seconds. “I doubt the most brilliant novelist in the world could have created a more skewering satire of Naomi Wolf’s career than her latest book,” she opens. “The very public story of how Naomi Wolf went from a bright, promising Rhodes Scholar to this inventive variety of navel-gazer tells us some uncomfortable things about the culture and more specifically, the media.”
Ms. Roiphe proceeds to rip apart everything Ms. Wolf has written or done since her first book, and yes, O.K., comparing her Caesarean to being crucified and then publicly announcing she discovered Jesus on a book tour in Scotland was a bit much, but does that really make her a “yuppie barracuda”?
Last but not least, The New Yorker gave Ariel Levy a handful of pages and her own podcast with Judith Thurman and Sasha Weiss to talk about how Ms. Wolf’s book is just Fifty Shades of Grey dressed in an old second-wave-feminist Guatemalan alpaca vest. “Anger the vagina and the woman will have no choice but to become a harpy. Biology is destiny once again,” writes Ms. Levy, an out lesbian and author of the crackling cultural zeitgeist book Female Chauvinist Pigs (2005), for which she was anointed by no less an authority than Cindy Adams of The New York Post as “feminism’s newest and most provocative voice.”
All this fury and revulsion begs the question: Why not just ignore her, if what she’s saying is so idiotic? Why is this book getting so much space—mansions—in the nation’s high-end media real estate, the Fifth Avenue of pop culture? Is it the Rhodes scholarship? The New Voice of Feminism mantle she once wore? Or is it something more … personal?
I suspect that Ms. Wolf’s purple new age-y prose drives these women nuts because (a) their editors handed the book to them for review because they thought it was an Important Feminist Book when it’s actually slight and (b) there’s a grain of truth in what she’s trying to say.
There certainly are orgasms and orgasms, and women know the difference. But trumpeting the V orgasm as superior to all others is problematic for a number of demographic groups, including under-endowed men and the women who love them, lesbians, and any of the one-third to two-thirds of women who, according to Ms. Heller, simply can’t come that way.
The problem is that Ms. Wolf accepts nothing less than total “technicolor” vaginal orgasm satisfaction. “Unfortunately there is not, physiologically, much middle ground available for women,” she writes. “Either they are extremely well treated sexually, or else they become physically uncomfortable and emotionally irritable.” She concludes that: “A happy heterosexual vagina requires, to state the obvious, a virile man.”
As a heterosexual female who celebrates sex with virile men, Ms. Wolf’s point of view is radical. She doesn’t tote sex tools in her purse on dates with under-endowed or aged-out Viagrans who left their blue pills in the other pants pocket. She doesn’t have sex with women. She apparently has a boyfriend who does things the way she likes. Those facts of her life put her outside the mainstream as mediated by feminism’s new elites, who promote the doctrine that there are so very many different kinds of sex, so very many different roads to pleasure, all equally satisfying depending on what gets you off.
Maybe so. But like the virile capital M men going the way of the woolly mammoth, Ms. Wolf’s white-bread real P-in-V sex for red-blooded hetero women is just not the fashionable option anymore.
Nina Burleigh is the author of The Fatal Gift of Beauty: The Trials of Amanda Knox among other books. Follow her at @ninaburleigh.