‘The gay and lesbian movement shows why sexual integrity is about more than “just sex” — it is about a basic human right.’
Naomi Wolf is no stranger to controversy. The feisty young American writer captured the limelight with her first book, The Beauty Myth, (1991) where she dissected the beauty industry’s attempts to undercut the growing confidence feminism had given women. Since then, Wolf has been a best-selling author and public speaker. She has written on women but also on civil liberties and their erosion in the U.S. Of all her previous works, though, her latest book, Vagina: A New Biography, has been the most controversial. Excerpts from an e-mail interview:
Many saw The Beauty Myth as a path-breaker, representing the Third Wave of Feminism. In it you wrote about “a backlash against feminism that uses an ideology about beauty to keep women down”. If you were to write it today, do you think the premise on which you based your argument would still be the same?
I think the backlash is no longer using beauty images primarily. The critique of the beauty ideal has resulted in women being much more sophisticated about where these images come from and about the technologies that manipulate them. Also, now men are also targeted with their own beauty ideal. So these images are less about gender and more about all of us being manipulated by the consumer culture. That said, porn has a much bigger effect on girls and young women now because of its ubiquity. So this is how beauty ideals are most corrosive today — sexual anxieties about how to look.
This first book, as with many first books, was clearly written with passion and some anger. Were you addressing young women like yourself in the West or did you think, even then, that what you wrote had a universal message?
Well, I was thinking of young women in the West because that was my own experiential base. But I was aware even then that the beauty myth is corporate and, therefore, increasingly global, and I predicted (which turned out sadly to be true) that women in areas without the colonisation of these ideals would soon be exposed to them, raising anorexia rates, surgery rates etc. A single ad campaign now goes around the world almost unchanged.
Since The Beauty Myth, your books seem to reflect your personal journey of discovery. For instance, Misconception: Truth, Lies and the Unexpected Journey to Motherhood was written after you had children. How important is this link between the personal and what you write?
That does seem to be true — though I think my interest in civil liberties (The End of America, Give Me Liberty) transcends my personal experience. I try to notice what preoccupies me at any given time and then see if other women (or people) are also concerned, then do the research to get the big picture.
I want to say something important about this: there is a huge critical backlash against women writers who engage in “narcissism” or “self-absorption”. The personal element in my books, which my readers love and respond to, is often criticised in these terms. I want to note that male writers (Norman Mailer, Walt Whitman, Hunter Thompson) often centre their investigations of culture and politics on personal experiences and no one challenges this. It is highly disempowering for women to be told that paying attention to their own consciousness is unladylike.
Vagina: A New Biography has come in for some criticism. It appears to veer towards biological determinism when you draw conclusions from scientific studies that link the vagina to the brain. Feminists have fought against these types of connections arguing that biology is not destiny. Where do you see yourself within the spectrum of feminist positions on this issue?
I have to say I find this criticism nonsensical. Just because you notice and report on important — I would say life-changing — new research on female sexual desire and its connection to the brain, does not mean you “reduce” women to their vaginas. No one reaches such an absurd conclusion when male writers write about the male brain and new neuroscience. The Brain that Changes Itself and Louann Brizendine’s The Male Brain both have long sections on the connection between the mind and male sexuality, and absolutely no one accused these writers of reducing men to their penises by examining that science.
Also, feminism can’t hide its head in the sand about science just to try and transcend the charge of biological determinism. More and more data sheds light on the differences between brain responses of gay and straight male brains, the difference in verbal processing (women are better) in the average brain pattern by gender, the mind-body connection reflected in the brain, etc. The job of creating a just society that does not pigeonhole people because we learn more about differences is the job of politics and social justice — we don’t create such a world by suppressing solid science.
To me, it is incredible to see that sexual pleasure empowers women psychologically, and that you can prove this with science. This explains why in societies such as the U.S. and India, women’s sexual pleasure is suppressed and punished. How can that not be good to know? Or the fact that rape leaves biologically measurable traces on female autonomic nervous system response, a fact that should put rapists in jail for way longer, and one that helps women find better treatments for rape-related PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).
Do you think your prescriptions are universal or limited to your own society? In India, the majority of women are still struggling with the basics — violence, patriarchy and loss of status. For them to reach the point where they can even think about pleasure is somewhat remote. Yet in Western capitalist societies, where individual fulfilment is considered a legitimate goal, this would be accepted. How would you respond to those who say you are writing only for women of your class and your kind without really thinking of the majority of women not entitled to such a personal space?
This is an important question. I would say that view is a serious misreading of my book. Two million women are clitorally excised EVERY YEAR — I say ‘women’, but the average age of this trauma is seven — 100,000 die of it annually. There is a reason for this kind of trauma to be imposed on women — a reason my book is the first to explain; by mutilating the clitoris you inflict other kinds of psychological harm on women that patriarchy values.
The right to sexual pleasure, self-ownership and integrity is not a ‘luxury’, though of course it can only be addressed after the core needs — food, safety etc — are met. The gay and lesbian movement shows why sexual integrity is about more than “just sex” — it is about a basic human right and a basic kind of self-ownership and freedom of expression that is right there with democracy, free speech and freedom of the press. You have to address the basics before people can make full use of all of these freedoms. But that does not mean that the longing for freedom of speech, freedom of religion, the right to self-determination, is “Western”. Events all around the world, including in India, show that these are universal longings and they are all part of the great matrix of Enlightenment ideals of liberty. If freedom to sexual autonomy without punishment were not universal, you would not have people in the streets protesting rape impunity, or child marriage, in India.
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