REVIEW – Vagina: A New Biography by Naomi Wolf

Simply put, this is a stonking addition to modern feminist literature. Wolf provides a sweeping biography of female sexuality and how it has been perceived, feared, subjugated, and embraced, throughout the centuries of civilisation. It is a remarkable feat.

The ‘biography’ makes excellent use of cutting-edge research (though I do pity those poor rats who had to endure all that bad sex in the name of Science), bringing forward a view of the vagina that is both anatomical and emotional. Wolf’s use of technical language never crosses the line from challenging to befuddling, and her grand culmination – a hundred-page ode to Tantric practice and the loving worship of the female body (no more ‘wham, bam, thank you ma’am’) – is nothing short of (a)rousing. I concur with one reader whose review was included at the back of my edition, that the Powers that Be would do well to include it on the syllabus for young women and men everywhere. In this age of Pornography as Teacher, we have never needed Wolf’s perspective more.

On a more personal note, some of you dear readers may know I am in the midst of writing a novel. A smaller number still may know that its subject concerns chronic pain; specifically, the type of chronic pain by which my life is characterised: vulvodynia. After suffering with this debilitating condition for 6+ years, at the same time as I was grappling with my own burgeoning sexuality, I know firsthand that what the vagina experiences has an indubitably profound effect on a person’s mental health and wellbeing. I was cheered when I read this letter, also at the back of the 2013 edition:

‘I am fifty years old, married, with two almost grown children, and I have suffered with vulvodynia for the last eight years.  I have always felt that the psychological pain this disorder causes is very different to the stresses one feels when there is pain elsewhere in the body. Vulva/vaginal pain is tied up with one’s identity, sexuality, and spirituality, but people/doctors just don’t get it.  It is a devastating illness and women who have it are often completely distraught. So much is lost… Your book shows how profoundly women are affect by their experiences of that precious and private part of their bodies.  It is really wonderful to have someone finally put that vagina/identity/spirituality connection onto paper. It explains so much…’

Naomi Wolf, Vagina: A New Biography (London: Virago Press), 2013, p.446

I recommend this book most strongly to any woman interested to learn about the history of her sex, to learn about her own body and embrace her truest self; to any man who wishes to better understand his woman, to learn what makes her tick and how to please her to her core; and especially to anyone who still finds ‘vagina’ a squeamish word to say. This book is definitely for you.

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