Naomi Wolf's "Vagina: A New Biography"

Naomi Wolf's new book on the amazingness of the vagina.Your vagina: Do you want to read a book about it?

Probably, if you are like me, you do not. Vagina books, even by successful best-seller writers, are not flying off the shelves. But in this case, we'd be missing out.

Vagina: A New Biography, is feminist author Naomi Wolf's loopy, impassioned, thought-provoking new theory of the vagina and its role in our lives. In it, she writes that when she told people what the book was about, "many people had immediate, probably measurably physical reactions when they...heard the word vagina in my response. Some, both men and women, smiled immediately: beautiful, heartfelt smiles. Others looked frightened or disgusted, as if I had suddenly produced from my handbag a trout...."

In other words it's difficult to be taken seriously while taking the vagina seriously. It's easy to become the butt of lots of hilarious jokes, and so on. But if we could quiet the nervous giggling--and shouldn't grown women be able to say the v-word, in this day and age?--we'd see that while Naomi Wolf's book has plentiful flaws, it's also an eye-popping, energetic, fascinating synthesis of the latest scientific research on sexuality, orgasm, vaginas, pleasure, rape, sexual trauma, various sexual dysfunctions, depression, happiness, vitality, brain chemicals, orgasmic trance states, and much more.

Wolf's primary argument, dryly stated, is that there's an essential vagina-brain connection that plays a big role in a woman's health and happiness. Orgasms and great sex foster all kinds of beneficial brain chemistry with far-reaching overall effects. Wolf discovered this when an undiagnosed back condition started to pinch her pelvic nerve, her sexuality suffered and she became depressed.

She confides that previous to the pinched nerve, "after lovemaking, as I grew older, usually, after orgasm, I would see colors as if they were brighter; and the details of the beauty of the natural world would seem sharper and more compelling. I would feel the connection between things more distinctly for a few hours afterward; my mood would lift, and I would become chattier and more energized." The pinched nerve caused her to lose this ability, which led her to wonder, Hey wait a minute, how much of how we see the world is a) physical and b) connected to our sexual satisfaction? She writes: "Does really special sex, sex that engages the vagina, emotions and body in very specific ways--ways that involve very concrete kinds of activation of the parasympathetic nervous system--actually lead to female euphoria, creativity and self-love?

The answer is a resounding yes--see chapter headings like "Radical Pleasure, Radical Awakening: The Vagina as Liberator"--and involves something called "The Goddess Array."

Wolf admits that for many women, putting the vagina front and center like this is a risky, uncomfortable, possibly anti-feminist act. Modern women have spent a lot of time proving that we aren't defined by our anatomy. And even women willing to admit to being driven by their biology might have problems with Wolf's breathless and obviously personal whirlwind synthesis of observation, science, focus groups and cocktail party chatter.

Nonetheless, there's enough who-knew science in here to make the book a page-turner. Wolf rightly observes that most women don't know much about their pelvic nerves (a potential source of orgasmic trance states for us all!), their centers of sexual pleasure (the cervix, in addition to the clitoris and vagina), or how their orgasms function and why (different for each of us, depending on our unique pelvic nerve structure). The details about sexual experiments on rats (the females can be masturbated to orgasm with a little brush) and early-sex-memory imprinting are jaw-dropping, and fall into the very large category of wow-science moments herein. Chapters on rape, sexual damage and loss of sexual desire among other provide a welcome new perspective on the long-term biological effects of sex gone wrong.

Wolf says explicitly that the scope of her inquiry concerns heterosexual female sexuality, and that both lesbians and men would deserve their own book. Still, one of the book's weakest aspects is the casual dismissal of male sexuality as being somehow lesser to female and the tendency to blame vaginal woe on men, for being bad lovers. Some people might also take issue with Wolf's assertion that what women need for the hottest possible sex is cuddling, eye-contact and profound feelings of safety.

But the overall work is bold, interesting, unexpected and, silliness aside, we'd say it took...a particular part of the anatomy usually associated with a man...to write.