The Political Vag-Enda

In her latest book, Vagina: A New Biography, feminist Naomi Wolf takes a look at our nation's latest hot-button topic: lady parts.

When Michigan State Representative Lisa Brown was barred from the State House floor for saying "vagina" recently, it sparked a national debate. What's the vagina's current cultural status?

I thank Lisa Brown because she paved the way for this book. The response to her comment made it clear that this is not just about a sex organ. It's a political struggle about power and what voice women are allowed to have. There's no hesitation in this country over passing legislation governing what a woman can do with her vagina and uterus, but the moment a woman herself takes ownership of the word, it's a scandal! It's important that Lisa Brown felt empowered to say what she said. Five or 10 years ago she would have risked not being re-elected — there was still that "bad girl" thing, where if you acknowledged your sexuality, you were a slut. We've moved ahead since then — there was a crowd of men and women on the Capitol steps supporting her, chanting, "vagina, vagina, vagina!" — but there's still a lot more space in the culture for women to both be serious about and own their sexuality.

Part of the inspiration for writing this book came from your experience with a pelvic nerve injury, which affected your orgasms. Are you OK?

Yes, thank God. It's obviously very personal. Like with any nerve injury, I had numbness and loss of sensation. When my nervous system healed about six months after surgery, it felt like I came back to myself. It was a great miracle.

You cite lots of recent neurophysiological studies that support your idea of the "brain-vagina connection," that a healthy, happy vagina is central to a woman's sense of self and well-being. What does that mean?

The huge headline for me was learning that the vagina is a part of the brain, part of our continuum of consciousness. The neurotransmitters involved in confidence, creativity, trust, and transcendence are all mediated by the vagina, which explains why for 5,000 years, it's been the target of patriarchal wrath. If you want to subdue women, [ruling] the vagina's a good way to do it.

Have you experienced that alignment between creativity and sexual well-being? What was it like?

It's hard to put into words the effect of dopamine activation on creative energy. But there have been times when I've been in love and notice I'm productive, enthusiastic about my other relationships. Everything just works. Now that I know more about the brain, it's not surprising. The dopamine, endorphins, and opioids that come with love make you goal-oriented and motivated.

What if you're not in a relationship? Are you left out?

These scientific insights are not dependent on having a lover. They depend on having a body. People prescribe antidepressants to women at the drop of a hat, but how many women are told to engage in self-love?

Are you suggesting masturbation?

I hate that word, and I wish we had a better one. And I tried to be careful in this book not to tell people what to do. But it's good for women to take care of their sexuality, and self-love is definitely part of that.

Should there be a book like this about the penis?

Of course. Part of my argument is that it's a mistake for our culture to buy into a mythology that male and female sexualities are parallel. They are totally different systems.

Would you write it?

I think it would best be written by a man. I'd love to read it, though.