Naomi Wolf is known for embracing controversial topics. In her 1991 book “The Beauty Myth,” she took on the fashion and beauty industries, eating disorders and more. In 2007’s “The End of America,” she explored the history of fascism, delving into the ideas spawned in Nazi Germany and Italy before drawing connections to U.S. policies in the years following 9/11.
But the San Francisco native (now based in New York) has never gotten quite this personal before. In “Vagina: A New Biography,” Wolf, 49, combines new research on female sexuality with her trademark brand of cultural history. Throughout, she infuses the narrative with reflections on her own experiences of being female, having sex and the perils of trying to talk frankly about either subject.
Ahead of her Sept. 20 appearance at the JCC of San Francisco, we called Wolf — a Lowell High School graduate — to talk about her inspirations for the new book.
J: You describe one impetus for taking on this topic: You had a medical condition that changed your experience of sex, and it made you want to research the connections between the brain and the vagina. Are there other reasons it seemed like the right time to write this book?
Naomi Wolf: I’ve had questions my whole life about why female sexuality is targeted in these specific ways — why the vagina and female sexual desire are such lightning rods. Whether it’s what we now call “slut-shaming,” mandatory transvaginal ultrasounds, the whole concept of virginity exams … these questions weren’t new to me, but there was a lot of research from the last few years that was.
J:What were you surprised to find, research-wise?
NW: There’s a ton of new neuroscience that documents brain-vagina connections. They’ve identified an actual new neural arm that connects the clitoris and the G-spot … and I didn’t know about the connections between dopamine and confidence, oxytocin and closeness, and the way women’s arousal is linked to the nervous system.
We’re supposedly living in a hypersexualized time, but something like 30 percent of women don’t reach orgasm when they want to. Obviously the “sexual revolution,” as it’s been defined, hasn’t been revolutionary enough for women.
J: Why do you think this research is underreported?
NW: It’s interesting, right? If they found a new sexual part of men, it would be pretty big news. I think part of it is that what you do with this information is just treat women better in bed — you don’t buy a pill, so there’s no economic interest in disseminating this information. Right now it’s all about porn and Viagra, stuff you can consume. There’s no way to profit from this.
Another reason is that it’s kind of a radical takeaway: the research shows that women respond sexually to being respected. One reviewer said that my book is calling for a revolution in the way that men treat women … and honestly, it’s much easier to sell a story about labiaplasty. I think that female desire, not as part of porn culture, is still difficult for folks to take on its own terms. And I do think that’s directly related to women’s autonomy and power. It’s crazy that I didn’t know these basic facts about my anatomy. I know some women readers are saying, “Where has this book been?”
J: One section delves into the spiritual side of sex. Has Judaism informed your feminism at all, or your views on sexuality?
NW: It absolutely has. It’s a great cultural legacy if you want to explore female sexuality — I don’t think it’s surprising that a lot of pioneers in this area have been Jewish women. It’s a relatively non-Puritanical culture compared with Christianity … even Conservative and Orthodox female sexuality is OK within a marriage. There are mitzvahs commanding husbands to satisfy their wives.
I also think being Jewish has been helpful when I’m asking taboo questions. With my Jewish heritage, I was raised believing you’re entitled to ask anything. It’s a culture of open debate, critical inquiry.
J: Is there a basic message you hope readers will take away from the book?
NW: There’s a few: What we know about female sexuality is out of date, so I want readers to take away all that new information, especially about how the vagina affects other issues of well-being and creativity. And for a young woman I would want her to read the porn chapter, to take away that porn is not sex … and that she’s entitled to take care of herself. Every woman is entitled to have good sexual self-respect.
Naomi Wolf will appear 7 p.m. Sept. 20 at the JCC of S.F., 3200 California St. $15 – $30. www.tickets.jccsf.org
“Vagina: A New Biography” by Naomi Wolf (380 pages, HarperCollins, $27.99)