Monday, 3 September 2012

Naomi Wolf – Vagina: A New Biography

In 2009, Naomi Wolf discovered she had a rare form of scoliosis that meant she had damaged her pelvic nerve. She discovered this after realising that over the previous few years, her enjoyment of sex had been lessening… and, understandably, she wasn’t too happy about that. Following a blunt conversation with her gynaecologist Dr Coady, Naomi learned that scientists have long proved that there is a clear correlation between the female brain and sexual pleasure.

What this meant for Naomi was that because the nerves connecting her brain to her clitoris were, to be technical, squashed, she wasn’t enjoying sex so much. After invasive surgery to her lower back and three months spent in a brace, Naomi was pretty chuffed to discover she was as good as new again.

This personal story is the starting point for Vagina: A New Biography (Virago, £12.99), in which Naomi shares her explorations of every aspect of this oft-considered taboo female organ. From the portrayal of the vagina in literature, to the role of rape in shaping a vagina’s herstory, Naomi rigorously leaves no stone unturned.

Swerving between personal anecdote and pop science, Vagina: A New Biography is eminently readable and quick to digest. Some chapters are pretty brutal (no one is going to come away from the rape chapter feeling anything less than shell shocked), others are personal (as above), and some are grim but enjoyable (her chapter about the role of porn in shaping the vagina reads like an article from the Guardian’s Weekend magazine… in fact, I fully expect to see it reprinted there as promotion for the book).

Stylistically, the chapters sometimes make for a disjointed read, but collectively they create a beautifully detailed and descriptive ode to this greatly overlooked, yet hugely important (for oh, so many reasons), female organ.

But coming in the wake of taboo-crashing pop culture like The Vagina Monologues, is the word ‘vagina’ even that titter-some in polite conversation anymore? Cynically, I feel that it is going to need to be for a lot of the marketing campaign surrounding Vagina: A New Biography. That said, when a friend saw the book on my table, she said: “Well, that book cover puts Fifty Shades of Grey to shame.” And why? There is nothing graphic on the cover, just a simple illustration of a flower (interpret it as you will), and the word ‘Vagina’ in large capitals. I don’t think it was the flower my friend thought was shameful!

In short, Naomi Wolf’s latest book is another example of her thorough and meticulous approach to writing. From The Beauty Myth to Promiscuities, Naomi has proven herself to be a reliable and respected source of feminist inspiration and information. And Vagina: A New Biography is just the latest example of this. For anyone interested in the role women play in society (and surely that should be everybody), then this is a sensitively written and vital book.


Bristolians: Naomi Wolf is coming to @Bristol on September 5 to give a talk about her new book, hosted by the Festival of Ideas. Please click here for full information and tobook a ticket.


NB: I have deliberately avoided reference to Naomi Wolf’s comments in which she stated that she felt those accusing others of rape should be named. I have avoided mentioning this because I do not feel it is relevant to a review of her new book.

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