Does the Vagina Have a Consciousness?
Naomi Wolf, the famous feminist author and activist, asks that precise question in her new book, Vagina: A New Biography. At first glance, it strikes me as an uneasy balance of sex confessional, self-help, pop neuroscience, and new age goddess yoni worship.1
Could a profound connection between a woman’s brain and her experience of her vagina affect her greater sense of creativity—even her consciousness? In her provocative and important new book, ... bestselling author of The Beauty Myth Naomi Wolf argues that this connection is not only real—and long-overlooked—but that it is fundamental to a woman’s sense of self. Spurred by the experience of an unexpected medical crisis – an injured pelvic nerve that temporarily affected her own physical sensation – Wolf set out to uncover why and how the brain and vagina are really best understood as “one system.” Understanding the brain-vagina connection, she learned, is not merely a key to more transformative sex for women – it is a key to female self-actualization, and thus to female power, creativity and confidence.
This unlikely combination of pseudoscientific and mystical elements provides a little something for everyone to hate. Among neuroscientists, howlers such as "dopamine is the ultimate feminist chemical in the female brain", oxytocin "is women's emotional superpower" and the vagina is "not only coextensive with the female brain but also is part of the female soul" have been making the rounds of social media.
I almost feel sorry for Ms. Wolf because it's like shooting fish in a barrel. Dopamine is not a feminist neurotransmitter, unless snails and insects have been secretly reading Betty Friedan and listening to Bikini Kill.
Chapter 4 of Vagina is on Dopamine, Opioids, and Oxytocin. Other than the excerpt and review in the Guardian, only three pages of the chapter were available online. But here's one choice quote:
Those of us who are not scientists often forget that brain chemicals are vehicles for very profound human truths.
I thought brain chemicals were vehicles that bind to receptors and trigger signal transduction molecules. Even the most reductionistic neuroscientists among us realize we are worlds away from understanding how oxytocin might explain morality (Paul Zak notwithstanding).
But feminist biology apparently tells us that the vagina is the delivery system for profound female truths:
By the same token, a female self's experience of freedom, and its impulse to seek more freedom, and to do so from a basis of self-love -- the feminist quest and the feminist sensibility -- are all strengthened in women by preorgasmic dopamine, and by the effect of orgasm on the brain. ... So in this way, the vagina is the delivery system for the states of mind we call confidence, liberation, self-realization, and even mysticism in women.
So women who aren't having orgasms cannot be confident liberated feminists?? Sure makes you wonder about Wolf's scientific sources...
An illustrated chart (see insert) compiled by dopamine researcher Marnia Robinson shows how dopamine affects human behavior in relationships and social settings.
When I hear "dopamine researcher", I think of experts like Nora Volkow, Kent Berridge, Wolfram Schultz, and Barry Everitt. I couldn't find any peer reviewed journal articles authored by Robinson. Instead, she has a blog at Psychology Today that promotes her book. Robinson's work is part of the neurorelationship self-help cottage industry, along with books and blogs like Rewire Your Brain for Love and Neuroscience and Relationships. Any knowledge of the brain is completely unnecessary for take-home messages that include the benefits of mindfulness meditation and tips for attaining goals.
Is Wolf at fault here? Was it her responsibility to contact actual experts (or even know who they are)? I can't say who else she might have consulted, having only read a small sampling. In Chapter 2, she cited a serious 1996 paper by Meston and Gorzalka on Differential effects of sympathetic activation on sexual arousal in sexually dysfunctional and functional women. But then she says:
The autonomic nervous system prepares the way for the neural impulses that will travel from vagina, clitoris, and labia to the brain, and this fascinating system regulates a woman's responses to the relaxation and stimulation provided by "the Goddess Array," the set of behaviors a lover uses to arouse his or her partner.
The Goddess and the autonomic nervous system -- together at last or odd bedfellows? In the end (or rather, the beginning), Vagina is part autobiography, and Wolf certainly exposes herself and her orgasms, which in my mind makes her even more vulnerable to personal attacks. I'll stick to the neuroscience for now, and await the sequel.
Forthcoming from Ecco: Penis: A New Biography by Jesse Bering.2
1 However, I must declare that I haven't read the entire book, so some of these statements may not be entirely fair.
2 Wait, or has he already published that?
Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]