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At last, an owner's manual for ... you know

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This book, like its subject, requires patience and indulgence, but if you approach it with a generous spirit, you will be richly rewarded.

Likewise, if you approach with a spirit of stinginess or cynicism, you simply won't be able to "get into it."

Vagina by American feminist scholar Naomi Wolf bills itself as "a new biography" but it could just as easily claim to be an owner's manual, filled with exhaustively researched studies about the inner workings of this much misunderstood body part.

Wolf shot to prominence in the early '90s with her first book, The Beauty Myth, which established Wolf as an important voice in the third wave of the feminist movement. She has remained on the vanguard of left-wing discourse ever since.

Vagina begins as an exploration of the pelvic nerve and its role in connecting the vagina to the brain, and what that connection means on a grander scale.

Wolf, now 50, was launched upon her exploration of this subject after suffering damage to her own pelvic nerve.

She found that, upon repairing the damage, she not only recovered lost physical sensation, but recovered more ephemeral sensations as well: an appreciation for beauty, a sense of connection to others, confidence, creativity and a lust for life.

Thus began her journey to discover the effects of the vagina-brain connection upon the psyches of women, a journey that ranges from the coldly clinical to the anecdotal to the frankly flaky.

The first section of the book is extremely informative, describing the physical shape of the pelvic nerve, the function of the autonomic nervous system and the effects of the various hormones secreted during sex. It also details past studies and theories of women's orgasms.

Wolf then moves on to describe a history of beliefs and misconceptions about the vagina and to analyze current attitudes in popular culture.

The book culminates in a sort of guide book on the care of the vagina, presenting something called the Goddess Array: a "set of behaviours that activate the autonomic nervous system in women." It is in this presentation of the Goddess Array that Vagina is most problematic.

There is something New Agey and cultish about some aspects of this work, as if we're being asked to shut down our critical faculties and take it at face value.

Wolf reports at length on the work of Mike Lousada, who is a Tantric healer and "vagina guru."

It is extremely difficult to keep an open mind about a man who claims expertise in this area, especially when his work involves massaging women's vaginas to orgasm. (To quote a friend's response: "Nice work if you can get it.")

It also treads dangerously close to the politically incorrect notion that women are slaves to our hormones and defined by our genitals.

Nevertheless there is much to recommend Vagina. Sections on the censure young women face when they claim agency in their own sexual desires should be required reading for all young people.

We have recent examples of the dangers of slut-shaming (i.e. Amanda Todd) proving that this type of discourse could literally save lives.

Perhaps Wolf is simply ahead of her time. Both a strength and a weakness: she is disarmingly open to questionable ideas, leaving her vulnerable to criticism of playing fast and loose with science.

It's difficult to believe a writer and thinker as evolved as Wolf could be so naive. Maybe what looks maddeningly foolish is in fact subtly courageous.

Ultimately this book challenges us all to take women's sexual satisfaction seriously. The discomfort some readers feel at this notion, and the vitriol hurled in Wolf's direction by some critics, simply proves her point.

As a society, we may not be ready to receive this potent message.

 

Debbie Patterson is a sex-positive feminist theatre artist in Winnipeg.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 24, 2012 J7

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Updated on Saturday, November 24, 2012 at 10:43 AM CST: adds fact box

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