Naomi Wolf: 'Neural wiring explained vaginal v clitoral orgasms. Not culture. Not Freud'

When the feminist writer noticed that sex had become less enjoyable, it sent her on an unexpected journey of discovery of not only her own body but of how sexist language can wreck women's lives 

Naomi Wolf in New York.
Naomi Wolf in New York. Photograph: Tom Pietrasik for the Guardian

Naomi Wolf has been one of the world's most famous feminists for more than 20 years and she herself admits it is a very odd job. When she wrote The Beauty Myth in 1991, she was 27 years old, enrolled on a PhD course and not intending to make her career in the field of feminist criticism. "It's not a job that anyone had described as a possibility," she says and laughs. The success of that book, and the vitriol it attracted, launched her as a figure of some cultural import – part pop academic (she is just now getting around to finishing the PhD), part pundit and, more recently, part civil rights activist in the Occupy movement – and if she carries herself with a slight Joan of Arc air it is not without cause; public feminists don't, generally, attract the sanest mailbag. "Oh, without doubt," says Wolf on the question of whether, when she writes about women, she gets a higher ratio of abuse than when she writes about anything else. "So what?"
We are in New York, where Wolf lives with her two children and works between PhD commitments at Oxford. Her new book, Vagina, is attracting a lot of attention, not least for the title, a canny piece of marketing that she didn't hesitate to use, she says, "because that word is either so taboo or surrounded with negative connotations or draped in shame or medicalised, it's really important to take it back". The book is part memoir, part cultural history and part scientific journey around women's sexuality, the best elements of which illuminate how little women generally know about their own anatomy – a kind of brainy sex manual – the worst of which founders on the kind of academic jargon Wolf is fond of, and that has to be squeezed hard to elicit much meaning. (Sample: "... nor does this denial of the paradox of our feminine autonomy co-existing unsettledly with our feminine need for interdependence ...")
There is some discussion about what constitutes the "female soul". Looking back on a walk she took with a group of female scientists, Wolf recounts "that slightly wild, slightly inexplicable moment – when the wind, the grass and the animals had all seemed a part of what we were learning about ourselves". It's these kind of moments that have, over the years, contributed to a vague sense that while her heart is undoubtedly in the right place, Wolf is also full of hot air.
So it is with Vagina, a generally noble enterprise to unshackle female sexual pleasure from millennia of cultural baggage by locating it in scientific fact – as she puts it, "this amazing set of discoveries; this incredible, to me, revelatory science". It all started with a problem Wolf was having in her own sex life; the quality of her orgasms suddenly changed from being full of light and colour and what she describes in terms of transcendental experience, to something dull and lifeless. She went to see "New York's pelvic nerve man", which required a certain presence of mind. A lot of people in her place would have gone to see a psychotherapist.
"I'm not that crazy," she says. "I knew that there was something physically wrong. It was physical. It was a physical experience."
Full story at The Guardian

Read an exclusive extract from Wolf's new book