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Solipsism Is Not Feminism

[ 153 ] September 10, 2012 |

Naomi Wolf’s new book — by all accounts a disastrous combination of gender essentialism based on generalizing from her own personal preferences, anti-feminism in feminist clothing, evo-psych wankery, and New Age wankery — does have one undeniable virtue: it figures to generate some of most entertaining reviews since Liberal Fascism itself. I’ve already mentioned Ariel Levy. I think Zoë Heller may have actually topped Levy:

It is striking that when confronted with an evolutionary story that does not suit her prejudices—the idea, for example, that a cross-cultural male preference for a certain female waist-to-hip ratio might be an adaptive preference for fertile-seeming women—she is happy to reject it, without further elaboration, as “sexist.” Yet offered a no less controversial theory that happens to support her a priori convictions, she is all naive fascination. To support her view that vaginal orgasms are superior to the clitoral kind, she cites the phenomenon of “uterine upsuck” as proof that vaginal orgasms are evolutionarily “superefficient.”

Whether she knows it or not, investigations into the adaptive “purpose” of orgasms, vaginal or otherwise, are far more contentious and inconclusive than she suggests. The classic data on which the “upsuck” theory of female orgasm is based derive from one study, involving a single participant, conducted in 1970. And the fact that between a third and two thirds of women rarely or never achieve orgasm through intercourse would seem by itself a pretty conclusive argument against any evolutionary explanation for female orgasm. But there is a further problem with her argument. Why should a feminist woman who is having sex for nonprocreative purposes care whether what she is doing is “adaptive” or not? Wolf, it seems, has ended up in the dangerous position of giving certain sexual behavior greater value because it is “natural” or “evolutionarily valuable.”

[...]

There is a strange hubris in Wolf’s claim to understand how all rape affects all women. It is the same hubris that compels her to instruct us on how all women need to be wooed, and how all women feel when they come. Wolf remarks more than once in this book that she has no wish to be “prescriptive,” but prescriptiveness, alas, is her compulsion. She won’t be able to rest easy until all of womankind has heard her gospel and has started having sex that is not just pleasurable, but worthwhile. Her refusal to acknowledge the heterogeneity of female temperament, of female sexual proclivity, of female desire, would be galling, if it were not so dotty. As it is, her willingness to position herself as a visionary sexual prophet inspires a sort of affectionate awe.

Incidentally, you will learn far more from Heller’s recent novel The Believers than from everything Wolf has ever written put together, and the experience will be far more pleasurable.

Michelle Goldberg’s take is also excellent, although I’m obligated to note that the “earth tones” story is, like most of the War On Gore, a sexist myth. I also don’t know why her salary as an adviser was an issue. If her recent writings prove anything, it’s that she should be taken exactly as seriously as Mark Penn and Dick Morris.

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  1. John Protevi says:

    This graf from Heller is pretty damn good too:

    This would seem a very flimsy speculation on which to hang an entire theory about women’s hardwired need for precoital schmoozing. One of its several problems is that it fatally exaggerates the obliviousness of the orgasmic woman. Anecdotal evidence suggests that a female in the throes of more than culturally adequate passion can snap to attention with astonishing rapidity if one of her children happens to wander into her bedroom, and the response time might even be quicker if the intruder were a woolly mammoth.

    Anecdotal evidence FTW

    • ajay says:

      the response time might even be quicker if the intruder were a woolly mammoth.

      More research, clearly, needs to be done. We’re going to need forty volunteers (20 couples), approximately 600 second-hand brown toupees, and an elephant.

    • DrDick says:

      I can guarantee you that the entry of children into the bedroom has that kind of effect on both parents.

    • herr doktor bimler says:

      It works the other way too. Woolly mammoths only died out because human beings kept wandering in on mammoth pairs during moments of passion and ruining the romantic mood.

  2. Auguste says:

    “uterine upsuck”

    Hahahahaha.

    Wait, that’s really in the fucking book?

    • Karen says:

      This is the only correct use of “fucking” as an adjective describing “book” in existence.

    • DrDick says:

      *sigh*

      In fairness to Wolf (not that I have any desire to be fair to this execrable screed), here is some basis for this notion of “vaginal upsuck.” Non-human mammalian females experience vaginal contractions during intercourse, which are believed to be the antecedents to human orgasm, which help move the sperm into the uterus. Women also experience vaginal contractions as part of orgasm (which is a uniquely human phenomenon in females), but also experience what most of us think of as orgasm. The latter is quite clearly produced by clitoral stimulation (something confirmed by neurophysiology as well as observational studies). It is also the case that all primates engage in a wide array of sexual activities which do not involve inserting a penis into a vagina and seem to find all of them highly satisfactory. Among our closest relatives, the chimps and bonobos, females in heat mate pretty much indiscriminately with essentially any available male (or female or inanimate object if that is what is available).

  3. Vance Maverick says:

    Might need a NSFW Courbet warning for the Heller link. ;-) (And incidentally, is the NYRB suggesting that that paradigm of the male gaze is similar to Wolf’s attitude toward the vagina? Or an improvement?)

  4. Bijan Parsia says:

    I find nothing more devastating in Heller’s review than the quotes.

    In her new “biography” of the vagina…The vagina, properly understood, is, “part of the female soul” and the medium for the “meaning of life itself.”… women reclaim the “magic” of the vagina and restore it to its rightful place at “the center of the universe.”

    “the way in which any given culture treats the vagina…is a metaphor for how women in general in that place and time are treated.”

    Replace “indicator” with “metaphor” and this is a reasonable empirical question. But metaphor?!?

    “a very non-Western awareness that vaginas are pluralistic, individualistic, and have wills and intentions of their own,”

    Words fail me.

    …Wolf specifically disqualifies masturbation as a method of achieving high orgasm: “A happy heterosexual vagina requires, to state the obvious, a virile man.”

    Yeek.

    “Serotonin,” Wolf writes, “literally subdues the female voice, and dopamine literally raises it.

    WTF!

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      I find nothing more devastating in Heller’s review than the quotes

      Sad, but true.

    • herr doktor bimler says:

      “a very non-Western awareness that vaginas are pluralistic, individualistic, and have wills and intentions of their own,”

      “Non-western”? Diderot refutes her thus.

    • Malaclypse says:

      “a very non-Western awareness that vaginas are pluralistic, individualistic, and have wills and intentions of their own,”

      The typical male thinks with his dick.
      That’s how he rationalises shallow sexual conquest as a means of self-expression and fulfillment in a world of alienation and emptiness under modern capitalism.

      Unlike The Consolidated, Wolf’s work lacks a good beat, and you cannot dance to it.

    • DrDick says:

      Demonstrating that she knows absolutely nothing about primate sexuality generally. Back in the late 50s or early 60s, Sherwood Washburn (a pioneering anthropological primatologist) characterized primate sexuality as “not merely promiscuous, but positively indiscriminate.”

    • Anna in PDX says:

      EWWW I didn’t think I could despise this woman more than I already do. I think Camille Paglia would be an improvement.

    • herr doktor bimler says:

      “Serotonin,” Wolf writes, “literally subdues the female voice, and dopamine literally raises it.

      Stupid pop neurofizz speculations presented as indisputable facts make me sad. Probably by lowering my serotonin levels.

      • Anna in PDX says:

        I just finished reading a good antidote to this sort of reductive trash, The Gender Delusion by Cordelia Fine, all about the brain studies that try like hell to prove that women are worse at math or whatever. It was a very good read and I recommend it if you need to replenish those serotonin levels.

        • herr doktor bimler says:

          Agree about ‘Delusions of Gender’. More importantly, the teenage Doktorling borrowed my copy, read it, and gave it her imprimatur as well.
          Rebecca Jordan-Young covers similar ground (at a more academic level with fewer jokes) in ‘Brain Storms’.

          I don’t have the heart to check whether Wolf has used Brizendine’s execrable compendia of gender stereotypes and fictitious research as part of her source material, but it wouldn’t surptise me.

  5. Bijan Parsia says:

    And from Goldberg!

    “For women to really be free, we have to understand the ways in which nature designed us to be attached to and dependent upon love, connection, intimacy, and the right kind of Eros in the hands of the right kind of man,” Wolf writes.

    “Straight men would do well to ask themselves: ‘Do I want to be married to a Goddess—or a bitch?’” writes Wolf. “Unfortunately, there is not, physiologically, much middle ground available for women.”

    Uh…

  6. Naadir Jeewa says:

    Suzanne Moore did an excellent review with an especially funny punchline.

  7. vacuumslayer says:

    This from the woman who wrote “The Beauty Myth?” I’m sad.

    Also, I have 0 interest in being a goddess. Blech. That kind of woo-woo talk makes me queasy.

  8. Lee says:

    Why does anybody give any credence to evolutionary psychology? Its nothing more than excuse for bad behavior and preferences. Heterosexual men say they can’t help liking young, nubile woman with a certain waist to hip ration, its evolutionary psychology. Heteorsexual women say they can’t help favoring tall men over short ment, its evolutionary psychology. Nobody ever uses evolutionary psychology to justify things about relationships they don’t like.

    • Cody says:

      Surely “instincts” exist and are the same thing, right?

      Of course, as human beings I’m pretty sure you can help what you’re doing. Maybe you’re attracted to a certain hip/waist ratio, but that does not mean you’re going to do anything about it…

    • Why does anybody give any credence to evolutionary psychology?

      Oh, we’re hard-wired to do that. Because of the hunting and gathering.

    • tt says:

      You might as well ask why does anyone give any credence to neurology? Naomi Wolf isn’t an evolutionary psychologist and doesn’t speak for them. It’s an actual science with actual journals and such, so if you want to criticize it you have to look there.

      • JL says:

        A lot of it is pretty crappy there, too (though the stuff that gets called evopsych but is actually evoneuro is more legit).

        Evolution has clearly had some sort of influence on psychology but it is really hard to actually figure it out in any useful way, and I’m personally not convinced that we know enough neuro right now to pull it off.

        • tt says:

          I actually agree that a lot of research that goes under evo-psych is pretty weak stuff, scientifically. But it deserves to be judged on it’s scientific product, which isn’t reducible to the caricatures people often make of it.

        • DrDick says:

          Almost all of it is grounded in highly ethnocentric assumptions about human cultural practices that bear no resemblance to the behaviors of modern mobile foragers, the groups most similar to our paleolithic ancestors (where most of the actual evolution took place). These are societies where wealth is impossible and generosity and sharing are mandated and age, gender, and kinship are pretty much the only social distinctions.

          • tt says:

            Which assumptions are you referring to? I can’t make sense of your comment in relation to my knowledge of modern evo-psych; are you basing your view on primary sources?

            • DrDick says:

              Yes, I am basing them on primary sources. As far as I have seen, Evo-Psych mostly operates to prove that the way Western societies do things is ordained by biological evolution. This of course ignores the fact that the central tendency in primate evolution generally and human evolution in particular is increasing emancipation of behavior from instinctual (genetically programed) control and increased behavioral heterogeneity. I have never read an Evo-Psych article (in professional publications) that showed any significant understanding or knowledge of the actual human and primate evolutionary record or of the nature of mobile foraging societies like those which would have characterized most of our evolutionary history.

              • tt says:

                Here, to pick at random, is the most recent article on PubMed from the journal Evolutionary Psychology. It’s a very typical article. Can you explain how it “operates to prove that the way Western societies do things is ordained by biological evolution?”

                It’s true that the article does not make use of the primate evolutionary record, but I’m not sure how it would improve the paper. Would you like them to repeat their test on living primates?

              • tt says:

                Can’t link. Article I’m refering to is: “Sexual imprinting on facial traits of opposite-sex parents in humans.” First result on pubmed for “Evolutionary Psychology.”

                • Vance Maverick says:

                  We found that there was no perceived facial similarity between women’s partners
                  and their fathers. However, men tended to pair more often with women that were perceived as resembling the men’s own mothers. In contrast to previous studies, the quality of the relationship between participants and their parents did not predict the level of facial resemblance between the participant’s spouse and their parent.

                  As far as I can tell there’s no “evolutionary” reference at all.

                  Individuals were unsystematically chosen, all white, Caucasian, heterosexual
                  couples.

                  Unsystematically, indeed.

                • tt says:

                  It’s testing a hypothesis about imprinting derived from evolutionary theory.

                  Unsystematically, indeed.

                  When you run a small study you want as little heterogeneity as possible. If you fund them to expand their sample I’m sure they’d be happy to look at differences between groups as well.

                • Vance Maverick says:

                  Why do you say their hypothesis “derives from evolutionary theory”? Other than its being published in a journal with “evolution” in the name, I don’t see the evidence.

                • tt says:

                  There’s an evolutionary hypothesis in the background, which is discussed in the Bereczkei paper they cite. But I think your reaction is the right one–like psychology in general, Evo Pscyh is becoming more and more empirical, and more interested in figuring out what’s really going on than in coming up with just-so stories.

                • DrDick says:

                  When you run a small study you want as little heterogeneity as possible.

                  Not if you want statistically valid results you don’t.

                • DrDick says:

                  Also that study is not typical of Evolutionary Psychology studies that I am familiar with (it is much more restrained in its claims), other than its use of a heavily biased sample which does not allow you to generalize from their results to the human species. When you have such a homogeneous sample, all you can generalize to is the group from which it was selected, white, Caucasian, heterosexual Poles in this case. From the clearly inadequate description of sampling methods they also seem to have been mostly professional class, which further limits the ability to generalize.

                • Vance Maverick says:

                  So, tt, this study is an investigation of some behavior in a little slice of a contemporary Western society. I think the only way to rescue it from the accusation of “proving that the way Western societies do things is ordained by biological evolution” is to say that it doesn’t really address evolution at all.

                • tt says:

                  Not if you want statistically valid results you don’t.

                  Huh? No, you’re wrong. I work in a medical lab that does mostly small studies. You want to minimize the effect of confounders and that means you always try to standardize on age, gender, ethnicity, health status at the least.

                  does not allow you to generalize from their results to the human species

                  You are correct. It’s one paper. This is exactly how stuff works in medicine too, so if you have a problem with it your problem is much bigger than Evo Pscyh. Most psych studies are done on undergrads. Lots of medical studies not relating to disease are done on med students. It’s a money thing.

                  Also that study is not typical of Evolutionary Psychology studies that I am familiar with (it is much more restrained in its claims)

                  May I suggest that a possible problem is that the papers you are reading are somewhat old? Evo Pscyh has evolved over time along with the fields it is related to. I read a fair amount of Evo Psych and this paper is entirely typical in the ambitiousness of its claims.

                • tt says:

                  I think the only way to rescue it from the accusation of “proving that the way Western societies do things is ordained by biological evolution” is to say that it doesn’t really address evolution at all.

                  Well, in a trivial sense its rescued from the accusation in that it’s mostly a negative result. They only have one weak positive finding.

                  That said, if your objection to Evo Pscyh is that most studies look at a narrow slice of humanity and generalize outward more than can be justified, I think that’s very fair. This problem, however, does not primarily lie in the conceptual foundation of Evo Psych but rather in the lack of resources for doing large, broad, powerful studies. I can assure you that psychologists of all types would love to do the kinds of studies which would address your objections.

                • DrDick says:

                  Huh? No, you’re wrong. I work in a medical lab that does mostly small studies. You want to minimize the effect of confounders and that means you always try to standardize on age, gender, ethnicity, health status at the least.

                  I have problems with some of those kinds of medical studies as well (it is one reason why minorities and women are often poorly served by medicine). As a social scientist who has taught research methods, I can state categorically that if you want to generalize to the human species as a whole, as Evolutionary Psychology explicitly claims to do, then you need to work with a sample which is at least somewhat representative of the diversity within that population. Otherwise, you are simply doing what I said in the first place, which is reifying Western cultural practices and attitudes to biological imperatives.

      • laura says:

        Yeah, I think the main case against evo psych is that it’s the go-to science of social scientists and pop science writers who don’t actually know much about hard science* but dig the big-picture explanations evo psych allows them to draw. I expect the picture of it we get from the popular press doesn’t do the actual discipline much justice.

        *ftr I count myself firmly among those social scientists who don’t know much about hard science.

  9. Sly says:

    Toward the end of Vagina, Wolf offers two inspirational instances of the sort of “Goddess-focussed” sexual practice she wishes to promote among her readers. The first is the “sacred sexual healing” administered by Mike Lousada, a self-described “somatic therapist,” who provides massage, masturbation, and intercourse to “erotically suffering” women in his north London studio. The second is a weekend Tantra workshop in Manhattan, at which female attendees get to select the male attendees who will give them “sacred spot massage” in their midtown hotel rooms on Saturday night.

    No one could have predicted that an author who writes a treatise on female sexuality that is virtually indistinguishable from the pseudo-scientific nonsense of Deepak Chopra would also venerate a rather long and inglorious tradition of shameless medical hucksterism.

    • vacuumslayer says:

      But but upthread it says masturbation is not the way to mystical orgasms or whatever.

    • Cody says:

      Is “Mike Lousada” a male prostitute?

      I take it Wolf is pro-prostitution judging purely by what I’ve seen in these quotes.

      • Leeds man says:

        Is “Mike Lousada” a male prostitute?

        From Goldberg’s piece;

        …a London-based investment banker turned vaginal masseur

        So, more or less.

      • Lee says:

        By all reasonable criteria, Mike Lousada is a male prostitute. I’m really not that sure whether prostitution should be legal or not. Making prostitution illegal doesn’t really help the victims of the sex trade but commercializing sex makes ill philosophically. However, I strongly associate romantic love and sex rather than seperate the two so thats just me.

        However, if prostitution is illegal than the laws should not be selectively enforced. What Mr. Lousada is doing is even more disgusting than what many street prostitutes do because of all the intellectually dishonesty and emotional manipulation involved. Put the sucker on trial./

        • Manju says:

          Put the sucker on trial

          I thought he uses his fingers.

        • Sly says:

          By all reasonable criteria, Mike Lousada is a male prostitute.

          A prostitute, yes. He is someone who provides sexual services for money. But he offers the ludicrous pretense that his services are not merely sexual, but have mystical healing powers that are grossly unsubstantiated. That makes him a huckster.

          Think of a less taboo occupation, like that of a chef. A chef prepares food for money. If that same chef were to advertise that his or her creme brulee had the capability of curing cancer because he or she used custard that possessed magical properties, that would make that chef a huckster.

          • laura says:

            He’s not a huckster exactly. He just promises his services will make women feel sexually satisfied and fulfilled. I’m in favour of (regulated) legal prostitution, so definitely in favor of people offering niche sexual services. Some women — Naomi Wolf for instance — do get off on being “Goddesses”. If they’re willing to pay for that plus a manually induced orgasm, who are we to judge? If they don’t get what they paid for — which is just as true on whale watching expeditions — they don’t go back. But the same would go for any escort you might hire.

      • Vance Maverick says:

        FWIW, Wolf isn’t making up his name — perhaps he did, but that’s the one he’s doing business under.

    • herr doktor bimler says:

      I remember the ‘orgasmic massage’ subplot from “Road to Wellville”. The tradition behind Lousada is long and inglorious indeed.

      …Google reminds me that “Die Handhabung Therapeutik” sounds better in the original German.

    • Halloween Jack says:

      Really, they should just call it a happy ending, just like the guys’ version. Isn’t that one of the nicest sexual euphemisms, anyway?

  10. Ed says:

    Female party guest (Tisa Farrow):I finally had an orgasm, and my doctor said it was the wrong kind.

    Isaac Davis (Woody Allen): You had the wrong kind? I’ve never had the wrong kind, ever. My worst one was right on the money.

  11. actor212 says:

    “Upsuck” pretty much defines Wolf’s rise to the top

  12. Yet offered a no less controversial theory that happens to support her a priori convictions, she is all naive fascination.

    I knew Barack Obama sent the DHS to shut down Naomi Wolf’s lady-parts! I knew it! It all fits together.

  13. Anonymous says:

    ROMNEY UP BY FIVE in new national poll taken from Sept. 4 to Sept. 7th! The bounce is over!

  14. SeanH says:

    Laurie Penny is also excellent on the problem with Wolf and Wolf-like people.

  15. herr doktor bimler says:

    The last time I read one of N. Wolf’s columns, it was a response to the most recent mass shootings. She reckoned the answer was to make gun ownership contingent on convincing a psychologist that you’re sane, because it’s only those others – the crazy people — who are the problem, not us normal people.

    I was impressed by the confidence she placed in the infallibility of witch-sniffers psychologists, to make them the arbiters of who deserves constitutional rights and who doesn’t.

  16. thusbloggedanderson says:

    This is a test of the emergency Gravatar system.

  17. laura says:

    Heller’s article is great in so many ways and absolutely my favorite kind of feminism. That said, while Wolf has jumped the shark many times over at this point, she was an important figure who promoted a very good cause: the pro sex and pro male version of feminism which was, for a long time when she was first writing, under attack in popular culture. That said, when you’re recycling writing from 50 Shades of Grey (I can only hear the phrase “Inner Goddess” in Gilbert Gottfried’s voice), you need to re-think. Also, her defense of Julian Assange on the lam was asinine.

    Then again, I will gladly join any war on the word “vajayjays”.

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      I will gladly join any war on the word “vajayjays”

      Indeed. Generalizations do tend to be true at random sometimes, although I remain dubious about the general point.

  18. [...] anything worse than trying to construct a grand theory out of random personal anecdotes a la Naomi Wolf, trying to construct a grand theory out of random personal anecdotes combined with biological [...]

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