Yes, yes, I realize that the DNC is on and Bill Clinton is a good speaker, but I’ve been live-tweeting and blogging and otherwise covering it, and I’m afraid another important bit of news is going to get lost. Which is that Naomi Wolf, who continues to be called a “feminist” in a press that apparently would accept a cucumber’s word that it was a zucchini, has a new book out about how she learned that conservatives are right, and women really are just life support systems for vaginas. Though she would prefer for you to think it’s the feminist version of this argument, an argument that simply cannot be feminist. So much of her drifting rightwards on the subject of abortion becomes clear.
She started her career (and, some have argued, another wave of feminism) with a fresh iteration of an old idea: that our culture had reduced women to their bodies. Many feminists, then, may be perplexed to find Wolf, in her eighth book, situating the essence of the female being right back where it started: in the body, in one particular place.
“To understand the vagina properly is to realize that it is not only coextensive with the female brain but also is part of the female soul—it is a gateway to, and medium of, female self-knowledge,” Wolf writes in “Vagina: A New Biography” (Ecco). She refers throughout the book to a “profound brain-vagina connection” but sometimes suggests that the vagina is, or ought to be, the rightful site of mission control.
For those who wonder if Wolf means “the entirety of female sex organs” when she says “vagina”, rest assured that she does not. Apparently, like all good reactionaries, she even gives the stink-eye to feminists who dare acknowledge what’s become scientific wisdom, which is that the clitoris is the primary source of sexual stimulation. Why being hostile to this is so important to those of a conservative bent, I do not know—
Just kidding, I totally do. But anyway, the grave danger is that Wolf’s misidentification in the media as a “feminist” means that this book—which sounds like a mish-mash of gender essentialism, reactionary politics dressed in goddess-feminist clothes, and way too much information about the Venus de Naomi—is going to get positive press from people with equally backwards views that they’d like to dress up in the costume of feminism, because being mistaken for Rush Limbaugh doesn’t do much for one’s invitations to cocktail parties.
Right out of the gate, we get Stephen Marche’s exuberant reaction. Marche has been an object of merriment in this space before, when he vomited out a hodge-podge of men-are-the-real-victims talking points culled from Reddit, including the bizarre claim that a female TV character whose best friend and mentor is a white man is living proof that TV hates the white man (and who literally lamented falling rape rates as some kind of sign of encroaching matriarchy). Marche can’t bring himself to like the book, mostly because he feels it fell short on explicit descriptions of Wolf’s yoni in action, but he nonetheless thinks it’s a necessary corrective to a problem that I was unaware we were having, i.e. a national shortage of people fucking each other, tenderly you know, because they’re in wuv.
There is nonetheless something vitally important in this book. We live in a time full of violent and degrading sex. Every fifteen-year-old boy in America has access to pictures of women with baseball bats shoved in them, and we have no idea what the effects will be.
Personally, I can’t think of a better measure of what’s happening in the bedrooms of adults than looking at what teenagers wank to.
We are also living in a time when the bestseller list is dominated by S&M books written by women for women. The milquetoast sexual violence of Fifty Shades of Grey has resulted in the fastest-selling book in history.
Piece of evidence #2 that Americans just don’t do love anymore: A romance novel that, from what I’ve read, absolutely drips in saccharine depictions of a young woman turning an older, harder man into a fuzzball of love that wants to visit her parents. Yes, they spank each other, but it’s not like vanilla sex, when you look at it directly, is a Hallmark card and roses affair. It’s rather messy and noisy and you have to contort your body into positions that you would never adopt while say, eating dinner. So it’s just a matter of degree here, not kind.
Because Wolf’s book reminds us of the power of loving, tender sex. Our culture has lost contact with the basic, obvious truth that the best sex is sex with someone you love. The best orgasms you have had or will have emerge out of intimacy.
I’d really like to know who Marche is hanging out with that he thinks there’s widespread rejection of tender love-making as a practice. He’s certainly not getting that idea from movies or TV, where the vast majority of sex is still more smooching under the sheets while thrusting ever so slowly while the music rises, or people so passionately into each other that they can’t help but slam into a wall while coming into the house, tearing clothes off. I mean, True Blood occasionally shows something a bit more stylized and kinky, but even on that show and even amongst vampires, sex is mostly sweet. Consider Russell and Steve dancing tenderly with each other after killing a dozen frat boys. Love is so in the air.
It certainly isn’t something he could be getting from real life, where weddings outnumber sex clubs exponentially, and people who are coupled off statistically have more sex than supposedly swinging singles. It’s technically possible that the land of monogamy is one where most monogamous sex is all spanks and no kisses, but that’s a bit of a leap in plausibility.
Which, of course, gets to the heart of what makes this all such a silly topic of discussion. Outside of the right wingers who apparently think there’s only two ways to approach sex—celibacy or indiscriminately fucking everyone in sight—most people understand that sex is a pretty diverse enterprise. Even if you’re in a monogamous relationship! Sometimes it’s playful, sometimes passionate, sometimes comforting, and sometimes goofy. Even people who are deep into BDSM often have vanilla sex at times, and don’t need every occasion to be a three ring circus. If you want to know what sex is like in modern America, the most relevant question is, “What day is it?” The notion that interest in erotic materials that feature bondage some how precludes interest in other forms of fucking makes about as much sense as suggesting that the rise in popularity of cupcakes means people stopped liking tacos. It doesn’t really follow.
But that’s the sort of mushy-headed thinking that Wolf’s book threatens to cause, over and over again. Forewarned is forearmed.