Naomi Wolf Wants You To Have Better Sex (& Stop Believing The Hype)

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naomi-embed "Wow. That's a big word." This is what one of our interns uttered upon seeing our hefty copy of Naomi Wolf's latest work of literary art: Vagina, A New Biography. The fact that the word is still slightly taboo (we even felt it when carrying the tome on the subway), shows just how much Wolf was taking on when she set out to research and explore everything vagina, from its place in 19th-century literature (perhaps you noticed all of the sexual references when you read George Eliot's Mill On The Floss in high school) to the physiological effects of trauma on the pelvis and the brain.

Wolf left no fig leaf unturned, even describing her own experiences with the "brain-vagina connection," and lest you call her sensational or self-indulgent, let us assure you: The woman has a point. And the point is not to tell you about her own amazing orgasms. It seems clear to us that the book was written for us, meaning: for the benefit of women everywhere, and for the benefit of those who love them. Wolf is of the school that when we understand something, it is less stigmatized (and, as our intern confirmed with her candid reaction, the vagina as a thing and a word still makes most of us a bit uncomfortable).

Through her thorough research and impeccable writing, Wolf takes us on a journey through the female body and history, striving all the while to help her readers understand the exquisite potential of women, both physically and intellectually. Read on to learn what Wolf wishes she had known at age 20, how she advises women to communicate their needs, and the future that she is envisioning for "the big word."

As you write in your book, many women have a sense of guilt or shame associated with their sex lives. Does that apply to you as well?
"Well I don’t think anyone in this culture, including me, grows up without the suggestion that sexuality or desire in women should be associated with shame or bad feelings. I wanted to write this book because I felt, like all women, like there isn’t really a positive place to stand to think and talk about female sexual desire and sexual experience; it’s either porn or medicalization. That said, I was very fortunate because I grew up in San Francisco at the height of the gay and lesbian movement, so I was surrounded by very vivid and beautiful examples of people embracing their sexual identities. It was really empowering. Plus, my grandmother taught sex education in the '30s. She has this shelf of books about sexuality from the '30s, '40s and '50s. And my mother wrote a book about the lesbian community (one of the first).

"I’ve been affected by this culture like any woman, but I did have this lineage of a mother and grandmother who were committed to empowering women about their sexuality. Like, there was a group called Dykes on Bikes, and they were lesbian bikers, and there was a whole table of them at my bat mitzvah! It was so cool! So, I’m very lucky to have seen while growing up that there are many ways of defining your sexuality as a woman."

Is there a piece of advice that you would give our readers as they explore their sexuality as young adults?
"I guess the main advice would be: Don’t believe the hype. Don’t believe what our culture says about women, desire, and especially about the vagina. Even women in our modern American culture still inherit 5,000 years of shame around the vagina and around female desire. When I started researching the development of sexual shame and how it got passed down for 5,000 years...it’s very hard to not internalize that on some level. You might think, 'Oh, this is nonsense, it’s the church fathers in the 4th century telling me that I’m heading to hell…' But what else is there? There’s porn…and that’s it!

"Another thing that I wish my 20-year-old self had known was that I was very fortunate in my upbringing, but all I had was what my culture gave me as far as information goes. There’s information in the book that only a handful of scientists know, about female arousal, female orgasm, female desire, the difference between male and female sexual response, pelvic wiring…the evidence is fascinating. And I want to stress that women are all very individual and that it’s all very subjective, but I wish that my 20-year old self had had the anatomical information, such as the effects of stress and relaxation on female arousal, or the important role of understanding the female neural network…you know, just how much is going on in there! Even our most positive thoughts about female sexuality are so superficial compared to what we’re wired to experience, and the potential that we all have."

You write about "The Goddess Array," which you define as being comprised of the myriad ways in which women can be aroused. What is the one thing that can make the biggest difference in a woman's sex life?
"Well, I try not to tell people what to do, but just to give the evidence…I mean in that one section, I am telling men to be nice to women. I would say that understanding the mind/body connection is important in women, that you can’t just compartmentalize, and that you’re not stupid or needy or pathetic because you can’t compartmentalize. So, I would say the message is make sure you’re relaxed, and that you’re allowed to get in touch with what you need. To me, it’s an incredibly feminist insight that science has for us, that if someone wants a woman to make love to him or her, he or she has to treat her well and be a partner in addressing the things that stress her out. So, maybe one way to say it is: you’re allowed to raise the bar for what you give yourself and what you ask of others."

Photo: Andre Lambertson
vagina-bookDo you have any advice as far as the best way that women can communicate their needs to their partners?
"That is such a great and important question, because when I was growing up, there was a truism that women were encouraged to communicate what they needed with their partners. But, then I found out that that message isn’t the norm. And a lot of young women have told me that they feel silenced, sexually. They may feel expected to provide what pornography says they should provide. Or, there may be an instance where a consensual relationship will turn non-consensual, but they don’t feel that they have a sexual voice. So, this thing about words is really, really important.

"One young woman asked me: 'How do I communicate to someone that they’re not doing what feels good to me?' And I followed up with her, and it turned out that she had communicated this to her partner, but he didn’t really care. And then another young man stood up in the audience and said: 'If he doesn’t care about what you’re telling him, then maybe he’s not the right person for you.' So I turned to this young man and said, 'Do you feel that it’s your job to pay attention when your partner is telling you what she wants?' And he said, 'Of course!' And I said, 'Well, how did you get taught that?' And he said, 'Well, I was raised by my mother who taught me to respect women.' So I would say that, obviously, I believe in saying it straight out, in a nice way. Cosmopolitan and other women’s magazine’s have good advice when they tell women not to say 'That’s awful,' but say 'I love it when you do x or y.' But, if someone really doesn’t prioritize your pleasure and your needs, that’s just a recipe for unhappiness, over time.

"Also, I’ve found from sex educators that showing is important. So, apart from 'I want this' or 'I want that,' it seems very valuable to invite a partner or invite yourself to spend unhurried time on a journey of exploration. The whole idea of exploration seems really important to women’s sexual responses. It’s so complex and magical…who knows what could happen?"

In the book, you write that the Western sexual revolution “sucks,” and that it didn’t accomplish what it set out to do, or what we would want it to do. How do we change that?
"I try really hard not to be prescriptive, so I’m certainly not going to say that I want people to have sex a certain way. But what I will say is that I get emails from women that they’ve had this or that sexual problem, and that the book is giving them ideas for what they can try with their partners. I’ve gotten e-mails from couples’ counselors that say that they can use this information about stroking and gazing to help couples that are in crisis to get through it and get closer. Prosecutors have used information about the physiological damage of 'non-violent rape' (of which is there is no such thing) to prosecute rape more effectively. A lot of men are saying that 'I’ve been married to a wonderful wife for 25 years, and I haven’t told her she’s beautiful in a decade and a half, and I’ve started doing it and it’s made such a difference in our relationship.'

"Now these are little things, but to the people who are benefiting from them, they’re major. So, I guess what I would want is for every woman who wants to feel understood and validated in her sexuality to get that. And the whole book is really about love, isn’t it? Whether it’s for yourself or for another person. I’d love to spread the message that every woman has a gift, a potential, in her body and mind and in her sexuality, and for us to value female sexuality and female consciousness more. That’s what I would like."

Any recent revelations in terms of your own sexuality?
"Well, I’ve definitely benefitted from the information I’ve learned about the brain-vagina connection, the pelvic neural wiring, the role of relaxation in arousal. I actually have a new perspective...I have a way to think about female desire and female pleasure that’s completely positive.

"But, my intentions with this book were not just to report, but to start a conversation. Because we have so much sexual silencing, we need so many more voices. I’m hearing from counselors who work with middle school girls, wives and husbands, parents and their children — so many people are beginning to add their voices to this discussion about how to raise the value of how we treat female desire and female arousal, and how we broaden our understanding of women. So, in addition to the benefit that this has brought to me personally, I’m really glad that other people are taking part in it."

Photo: Via The Daily