When you’ve just had an orgasm, do you have a euphoric sensation akin to when Dorothy went from black-and-white Kansas to Technicolor Oz? A postcoital rush of vitality that infuses your entire world? A sense of all things shivering with light?
Naomi Wolf professes to have climaxes so transcendent that they seem to transform her, albeit briefly, into Snow White. “My partner and I had just made love,” the author writes in the introduction to her new book. “I looked out of the window at the trees tossing their new leaves and the wind lifting their branches in great waves, and it all looked like an intensely choreographed dance, in which all of nature was expressing something. The moving grasses, the sweeping tree branches, the birds calling from invisible locations in the dappled shadows … I thought, it is back.” A degenerative spinal disease had led to a compressed pelvic nerve that had been making Ms. Wolf’s climaxes ho-hum, you see, and she wasn’t about to take it lying down. And thus a humble crotch nerve launched the labia-gazing investigation that informs Vagina: A New Biography (Ecco, 400 pp., $27.99).
Ms. Wolf’s book is the third in a trifecta of new nonfiction works about sexual anatomy that also includes Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History (W.W. Norton & Company, 352 pp., $25.95) and Why Is The Penis Shaped Like That? (FSG, 320 pp., $16.00) Are we, as a culture, entering our genital stage? More likely, some editors at some publishing houses knew what would sell. But where the latter two books deliver on their premises (earnest investigation and toilet science, respectively) Ms. Wolf’s is a future footnote. What begins as a personal essay about the author’s vaginal condition and the corresponding change in consciousness she feels it provokes leads to an evaluation of the ties between women’s vaginas and their ability to reach their full potential. She explores both the positive effects a happy vagina can have on a woman’s creative output (see: Georgia O’Keeffe, Gertrude Stein, Anaïs Nin) and the deleterious effect vaginal trauma can have on her emotional and sexual futures. But she takes her analysis a feminist-baiting step too far: “Once I had evidence that these connections were real, I felt that they held the key to much that had happened to women throughout history.”
In other words, if women have super-orgasms à la Ms. Wolf’s, they will be propelled toward a creative and emotional ecstasy of a sort they’ve never known; if they merely have regular orgasms, or worse, if the vagina-brain neural connections are damaged, they’re destined to a life of mediocrity and what Holly Golightly called “the mean reds.” The problem is that there’s no scientific evidence to support that Ms. Wolf has anything other than regular orgasms—if there was, she’d have shared it—so she’s merely creating yet another potentially unattainable ideal for women, of the kind she first decried in her 1991 book The Beauty Myth. Call it The Orgasm Myth. She outlines all the stages of female sexual arousal needed to get to this questionable state, and explains that “for this process to be complete, and thus truly fulfilling, the stimulation must be unhurried and carefully attuned to how the woman is reacting. The process requires attention and time.” She names this process “The Goddess Array” and spends a good portion of Vagina reiterating its importance, going so far as to say that there is a prescribed set of “words, actions, and gestures that women cannot do without” to achieve “high orgasms,” as opposed to, you know, the boring, old-fashioned kind. It reads, unfortunately, like the pages of a ’60s self-help book: stress, rushing and lack of foreplay will lead to unsatisfying sex and general unhappiness, and long, lingering coital sessions will do the job better. This is news?
Ms. Wolf’s only evidence of this special, New New Woman kind of orgasm is anecdotal, and her conclusions specious. The analysis gets more interesting when she explores the implications of the brain-vagina connection for victims of systemic rape of the kind seen recently in the Congo and Sierra Leone: “Could these commanders be ordering their troops to engage in atrocities that damage the female pelvic nerve because centuries of experience have shown that a consequence of this kind of violence is that the women who experience it will be easier to subjugate?” Maybe. But the main argument she returns to again and again is the kind of stretchy polemic that could do more harm than good. The book does accomplish one historic feat: it manages to make pussy very, very boring.
If Vagina: A New Biography is, at its best, sobering, the insights to be gained from Florence Williams’s Breasts: A Natural & Unnatural History are delirium tremens. The author kicks things off by working her way playfully through a number of origin theories (sexual selection versus natural selection, or breasts-for-men versus breasts-for-babies) and a freak-show survey of the history of breast implants (early models were filled with “glass balls, ivory, wood chips, peanut oil, honey, goat’s milk, and ox cartilage”). Then, intriguingly, Ms. Williams shifts gears: After having her own breast milk tested and receiving results that show levels of flame retardant in her bloodstream 10 to 100 times higher than those of her European counterparts, she sets out to discover what other chemicals might be in there and what they’re doing to her body.
The results are bracing. She has one particularly alarming conversation with a University of Texas professor who runs an experiment in which he breaks down hundreds of everyday plastic products and feeds them to breast cancer cells. Ninety percent of them made breast cancer cells grow.
Ms. Williams trots out an obvious fact that nonetheless feels revelatory: the breast is the only organ that still has to do most of its basic construction after birth. (And, as she points out, it’s also the only organ without its own medical specialty.) Scientists think it may be most susceptible to environmental factors while growing, so keep your children away from plastics and chemicals unless you want them to grow scary mutant breasts, and keep yourself away from those toxic substances while pregnant—when the breasts also undergo structural change—insofar as you can. Of course, to echo the author, “We can only eat so much quinoa out of a paper bag.” The real solution to this problem is to tackle it at its source, i.e., the producers of the everyday products that infuse us with chemicals to begin with. But good luck with that, especially if you’re an American. As we learn in Breasts, 162 countries agreed to ban 21 of the worst organic chemical offenders in 2004, but the U.S. wasn’t one of them.
Given the infested state of our breasts, we may want to re-evaluate the current lactation mania whose epicenter lies in Park Slope—though, given the miraculous qualities of breast milk as outlined in Breasts (inhibiting the transmission of HIV, changing structural makeup based on the sex of the child, regulating infant appetite; the list goes on) it remains a tossup. “Human milk is like ice cream, penicillin, and the drug ecstasy all wrapped in two pretty packages,” Ms. Williams extols. That’s the glass-half-full analysis. As she goes on to write, breast milk now regularly includes DDT, PCBs, trichloroethylene, perchlorate, dibenzofurans, mercury, lead, benzene and arsenic (all of which lends new meaning to Lord Mitford’s famous dismissal of people as “sewers”).
“If human milk were sold at the Piggly Wiggly,” the author concludes, “it would exceed the federal safety levels for some of those chemicals in food.” And the chemicals aren’t the neighborly kind, either: their presence in the environment has been linked to everything from early puberty in offspring (a 4½-year-old in Puerto Rico with fully developed breasts, for one) to higher rates of miscarriage and lymphoma. The potential for offloading these chemicals to babies is considered such a risk that the government of massively pro-breastfeeding Norway, where 99 percent of new mothers eschew formula, is currently reviewing its official stance.
If you’re an open-minded male who’s gotten this far in our review, I commend you—and your reward is this fun anecdote: At the soon-to-be-famous Marine Corps base Camp Lejeune, the drinking water supply has been discovered to be the most chemically contaminated in the country—and the base is also home to “the largest cluster of male breast cancers ever identified.” These incidences, of which over 71 have been discovered thus far, could be due to other causes, but suffice it to say that many unkempt eyebrows are raised. As Ms. Williams sums it up, “Breasts are our sentinel organ. They offer us a window into our rapidly transforming world and the excuse to steward it better.”
Lest our bescrotumed readers still feel left out (the lingering prospect of male mastectomies notwithstanding) let us now turn to Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That?, a collection of essays by writer Jesse Bering that’s equal parts sedulous and silly.
As the name might suggest, the author largely avoids discussion of “the dark, labyrinthine abyss of the female reproductive tract.” He’s aware of his masculine lens and offers by way of introduction the fact that he is “very, very gay,” before going on to tackle a number of evolutionary-biological “Why?”s through essays such as “So Close and Yet So Far Away: The Contorted History of Auto-Fellatio” and “A Rubber Lover’s Tale.” “I want you to enjoy learning about your wildly ejaculating penises, your dribbling vulvae, and your own fears, biases, fetishes, and desires,” Mr. Bering proclaims, and he truly does leave few stones unturned. Pedophiles, self-breastfeeders, premature ejaculators, sex maniacs, horse-seducers, men who eat their own toes, pre-homosexuals, female ejaculators (or “Ejillculators”) and a whole host of other sexual notables get the “How’d they get this way?” treatment, as does a lab full of laughing rats.
In “An Ode to the Many Evolved Virtues of Human Semen,” the writer explores a position taken by researchers Gallup and Burch in which they speculate that women who enjoy frequent unprotected sex may be less depressed because of the anxiolytic chemicals in semen: cortisol, estrone, prolactin, oxytocin, melatonin and seratonin. “Happiness appears to be a function of the ambient seminal fluid pulsing through one’s veins,” he writes. (It’s unclear where this naturally occurring Prozac fits into the Goddess Array.)
As to the book’s titular question, Penis doesn’t give an answer, because at the end of the day, we don’t really know. But there are many fun theories. The one with the most viral potential—so-called Penis Displacement Theory, so named by Mr. Bering’s beloved Gallup and Burch after a recent study—involves men scraping their competitors’ semen out of the vaginas of their beloveds with each back-thrust.
Their unsuitability as subway reading aside, these three works also share one big takeaway: the more we learn about genetics and biology, the more likely we are to accept that “we are only as free as our genes were pliable in the slosh of our developmental milieus,” to quote Mr. Bering. And so too are the books unable to escape their natures: Penis looks down at the gutter, Vagina looks inward and Breasts points straight ahead.