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: A New Biography.
By Naomi Wolf
FOR Shakespeare it was a 'detested, dark, blood-drinking pit'; to Henry Miller, 'that bushy twat'. That special place between a woman's legs has been a 'Heavenly Gate' to Chinese Taoists, and a 'gash' or worse in contemporary slang. Each term is a cultural Rorschach test, writes Naomi Wolf, conveying a mess of anxiety and desire about the female sex and informing the way women view themselves. The problem, she argues in 'Vagina: A New Biography', is that despite decades of so-called sexual liberation, 'the vagina is not nearly as free today in the West as we are led to believe.'
A practised provocateur, Ms Wolf is never content simply to write a book. Her metier is the call-to-arms, laying bare the injustices of womanhood and contemporary life. So it is with 'Vagina', an ambitious and sprawling lament for the female sex organ, which she claims is both 'seriously misunderstood' and disrespected. As evidence, she points to widespread sexual malaise among Western women, who complain of fading libido and an inability to reach orgasm, despite a surfeit of opportunities. The trouble, she writes, is not only that conventional wisdom about female sexuality is badly out of date, but also that the needs of women are very different from those of men.
Ms Wolf's journey to understanding the female body better began after she discovered a problem with her own orgasms. They still felt good, mind you, but were less meaningful somehow - she reports that she saw fewer colours, felt fewer dimensions. It turns out that she needed spinal surgery. The female pelvic neural network is surprisingly complex, she learns; more so than men's. The neural pathways that connect a woman's clitoris, vulva and vagina to the spinal cord - and from there to the brain - are unique to every woman. This means that women receive pleasure in different ways, despite what has been a long history of shame-inducing theories about what part of the vagina should deliver orgasm (the vulva, said Freud; the clitoris, said 1970s feminists).
The fashion today is to shore up most theories of human behaviour with a bit of neuroscience, and Ms Wolf obliges. This 'new science' of female sexuality leads her to some giddy revelations, such as 'dopamine is the ultimate feminist chemical in the female brain'; when it is released during sex, it makes women feel more confident and creative. Indeed after conversations with gynaecologists and scientists, tantric healers and other women, Ms Wolf concludes that there is a 'profound brain-vagina connection'. The 'well-treated vagina', Ms Wolf writes, 'is a medium that releases, in the female brain, what can be called without exaggeration the chemical components of the meaning of life itself.'
This book is entertaining and appalling in turns, with language that tends towards the outlandish ('The vagina may be a 'hole'; but it is, properly understood, a Goddess-shaped one.'). Ms Wolf also has a habit of stretching concepts past their breaking point - such as her theory that women are more prone to mysticism than men, owing to the fact that they are capable of producing more dopamine during sex. Some women may bristle at the notion that they are 'more easily addicted to love and to good sex' than men are. And men may grimace at Ms Wolf's proposed solution for the problems of this sexually anxious age: 'a sweeping change in how most straight men behave in bed with most straight women.'
But there are also some worthy ideas to salvage here. At a moment when a politician has been making absurd pronouncements about a woman's natural defences against 'legitimate rape', Ms Wolf offers a handy and often unsettling primer for the ways the vagina has been an ideological battleground throughout history. From early Christian views of the vagina as 'a temple built over a sewer' to more recent mandatory vaginal examinations for female protesters in Egypt during the Arab spring, the vagina has long been a target for unwieldy ideas about a woman's place in the world. Surely there is room for some of Ms Wolf's own theories about its importance as a locus of pleasure, too.
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(London Times extract)
W hen you really listen to what many women feel they are missing sexually you often hear them speak about sexual longing in metaphors involving scent. One woman to whom I spoke, a vibrant Italian literature professor in her thirties, spent years in a relationship with a supportive, “safe” man who was perfect for her on paper; but she returned obsessively to the fact that they did not “match” as physical types.
She fixated on the sense that there was something about his smell that was wrong for her. “I once read a novel in which the hero said, ‘She perfumes my days.’ I want that; I want to feel that a man ‘perfumes my days’ and that I do his,” she told me.
The smell of men has powerful effects on the mood, hormonal levels and even fertility of heterosexual women. Ivanka Savic of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm found that when women and gay men inhaled a hormonal component in men’s sweat, a brain scan showed lit-up areas around the hypothalamus, suggesting that the female and gay male brains had a sexual rather than an olfactory response to the stimulus.
Denise Chen, a psychologist at Rice University in Houston, Texas, and her colleagues speculated that if humans produce and respond to sweat pheromones, then a woman should respond to male “sexual sweat” more than to the control sweat. Chen and her team asked 20 heterosexual men to stop wearing deodorant and other scented grooming products for several days. The researchers put pads under the men’s armpits, and wired the men to electrodes as they watched pornographic videos. The researchers analysed the “aroused” male sweat and also analysed pads collected from under the arms of the same men when not sexually aroused.
Then, 19 heterosexual women smelt the men’s “aroused” and “unaroused” sweat pads while they underwent brain scans. The women’s brains reacted differently in response to the “aroused” male sweat. It activated the women’s right orbitofrontal cortex and the right fusiform cortex, but the “unaroused” sweat did nothing for them. These are the brain areas that help us recognise emotions and engage in perception. Both areas are in the right hemisphere, where smell, social response and emotion are mediated.
Chen concluded that her findings bolster the idea that humans communicate via subconscious chemical signals. To me, this finding also suggests that women’s bodies know categorically when a man is or is not sexually interested in them, even if both partners in the couple are saying the “right” things. This may have been what my friend, who has a strong sex drive, and whose partner did not “perfume her days”, was experiencing: his sexual interest in her was not strong enough for her. This finding suggests that she could not will that relationship to be a success, however much she tried. She could not smell enough of his arousal — a scent that would in turn have aroused her.
It is not just men’s arousal levels that women can subconsciously smell. Another study shows that women are attracted to the underarm sweat of men whose DNA is unlike theirs, but are repelled by the smell of men whose DNA is too much like theirs. There is an important exception to this preference — when women are pregnant, they prefer the smell of men whose DNA is like theirs; researchers suggest that this finding may be the result of pregnancy being a time when women wish to be near kin.
A final study — Does the contraceptive pill alter mate choice in humans? — should give us pause and lead us to take seriously the impact of the pill in terms of men’s smell and its effect on female mate selection. “Female and male mate choice preferences in humans both vary according to the menstrual cycle,” write its authors, Virpi Lummaa and Alexandra Alvergne. “Women prefer more masculine, symmetrical and genetically unrelated men during ovulation compared with other phases of their cycle, and recent evidence suggests that men prefer ovulating women to others.
“Such monthly shifts in mate preference have been suggested to bring evolutionary benefits in terms of reproductive success. New evidence is emerging that taking the oral contraceptive pill might significantly alter both female and male mate choice by removing the mid-cycle change in preferences.”
This study suggests that when women are on contraceptive pills, they smell men in a different way than they do when they are not, because the pill tricks women’s bodies into believing that they are already pregnant.
So while they are on the pill — and hormonally pregnant — but dating, women prefer men who smell like their own kin. Then, when married, they go off the pill to start their families. Hormonally not pregnant again, they get their normal scent responses back — and the young marriages are suddenly in terrible trouble. The women find themselves to be sexually repelled by their husbands — saying things like, “I can’t stand for him to touch me” — at just the moment when the new couple wishes to conceive. Anecdotally, many therapists say that young wives tell them identical stories: they feel suddenly that they have married the wrong man; specifically, the wives report that they cannot bear their husbands’ smell.
I left a man who was perfect for me in every way because he didn’t smell right Not only can women’s bodies tell by scent if men are into them sexually, and if a mate is a good match, but male armpit sweat and its pheromones can also relax women. George Preti, of the Monell Chemical Senses Centre in Philadelphia, and his colleagues found that male pheromones affect both a woman’s serenity levels and her fertility levels. Researchers in the recent study, reported in the journal Biology of Reproduction, placed pads under the armpits of male subjects and collected their sweat.
They then extracted the concentrated chemical compounds from it, masked this compound with a fragrance, and whisked it systematically under the noses of women volunteers.
After six hours of exposure, all the women reported feeling more relaxed and less tense. When women who have been married a long time and say that the romance has gone out of their marriages, they often use the phrase: “He never takes me dancing any more.” An ad for British sleeper trains shows an affluent, middle-aged man on one side of the page and his wife on the other. Under the man the caption reads: “Room service. Snoozing. Golf.” Under hers, it reads: “Candlelight dinner. Flirting. Dancing under the stars.” If the hypothetical couple’s weekend away turns out to revert to his side of the “wish list” at the expense of hers, the marriage will suffer, even though no one clearly sees why.
She will not be able to really relax and get deeply aroused, because she will not have had the chance to really smell her mate, who has been out on the golf links all day.
For if we tease out this female- romance cliché — “dancing under the stars” — a bit further, the kind of dancing this hypothetical woman misses is not, generally, rock’n’roll or hip-hop dancing, in which the partners dance at a pheromonal remove from each other. Rather, the feminine romantic image is of some version of a touching couple’s dance with a frontal embrace, such as the waltzing scenes that signal romance in pop culture landmarks such as Gone with the Wind, or Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and Anastasia.
Indeed, in many classic love stories, the heroine realises she is in love with the hero after she has danced with him in this frontal- embrace way — that is, got a good long inhalation of his intoxicating pheromones, and secured a sense of his familiar or, better, excitingly unfamiliar, DNA.
“We never cuddle any more” is another refrain from women in sexually and romantically frustrating marriages; and again, when we tease this out, a cuddle on the couch typically nestles the woman’s head against the man’s shoulder or chest; in bed, a cuddle often positions the woman’s head on the chest of her husband or lover. Female cuddling often means female scent inhalation.
What is the unifying element for dancing, cuddling and hugging, and why are they all vital for heterosexual women? They all have to do with activating the secret life of the male armpit, and its relationship to heterosexual female desire.
People have extraordinarily strong emotions about this. I posted an informal questionnaire about male sweat (hugs, embraces and dancing) online and within 45 minutes received 87 extensive answers, from women and men. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to tell me about the male armpit.
“When I am stressed and I get a hug from my husband, it calms me down right away but it helps if I get a strong whiff of his scent,” one woman wrote.
“I sleep with my boyfriend’s T-shirt when he is away because I can’t sleep otherwise,” another wrote.
“I left a man who was perfect for me in every way because he didn’t smell right, and it was a tragedy but there was absolutely nothing I could do about it,” said a third.
Men too were amazed at the effect of this unglamorous signalling system in their armpits. “When it is winter and I don’t get as sweaty, I skip using deodorant and I notice I get far more interest from women,” one man wrote.
Preti and his team found that male sweat not only affects women’s levels of calmness — they also found that male sweat affected women’s fertility levels. But that was not all — the women, after sniffing the chemicals in male sweat, would also, though the study did not highlight this, have felt much more readily aroused, for the scientists found surges of luteinising hormones in their brains, far greater surges than in the nonsniffing control group.
Luteinising hormone is a key building block of female sexual desire and plays an important role in triggering ovulation. What teachers usually fail to mention to eager teenage girls in sex education classes is that this hormone is also key to triggering and amplifying the female sex drive. As women approach ovulation, pulses of this hormone increase in size and frequency in the female brain, which is why they are more lustful in mid-cycle. So in the Preti experiment, when women smelt the male sweat extract, they also experienced a surge of the female sexual- desire hormone.
But if women are away from their men all day and smell their partners mostly when they are not aroused — because both members of the couple are exhausted from work and parenting — she may “hear” him on an intellectual level say “I love you” or even “I want you”; but on a visceral level she will have a more difficult time feeling it.
Dancing cheek to cheek helps get the message across (Rex) So many young couples in our culture transition from courtship — when they could spend weekends in bed together, and, fully sated with scent, feel deeply in love — to dual-career work and young parenthood, when they can barely spend 20 minutes in each other’s arms in a 48-hour period. At that point, it is often the women rather than the men who start to feel disenchanted, trapped, haunted by a sense that something is missing.
The numbers show drastically low libido among a third of western women. The women whose libidos are dropping, whose marriages now seem tedious, and who are feeling that the world is colourless and flat, may believe that this is due to the stresses of “adult life” and all their responsibilities. But what if the hard-working women in our culture are also neurologically starved of worlds of scent — along with the worlds of touch, gazing, stroking, pleasure and so on — that their very natures minimally require for them to feel connected, excited, hopeful and “in love”?
Why are holidays so relaxing and so sexualising for these same overscheduled couples? Why do so many couples who are struggling with infertility become pregnant on holiday? Is it partly because she finally has time to get to know him again on an olfactory level? Is it because she is getting enough of the arousing and calming scent from him that reminds her that, even if he sometimes repeats his stories, or he sometimes drops his laundry on the floor, or even if his hairline may be receding, on another, entirely animal level, he can make her calm, aroused and happy?
It is heterosexual women, not men, who are calmed by the opposite sex’s pheromones. So today, if straight men cannot smell women often or closely enough, they may not become as aroused, but this does not stress them. However, if straight women cannot smell men often or closely enough, they are both more sexually apathetic and more stressed. And you know what stress does in turn to the female libido — further depresses it.
We have an epidemic of infertility in the United States and western Europe: straight women are not smelling men closely or often enough, perhaps, to boost the levels of luteinising hormone they require for optimal fertility. Marriage counsellors tell women and men to talk through their problems; fertility doctors send men into rooms to masturbate and then they inject the semen themselves into the vaginas of women who are suffering from irregular periods or low fertility levels.
Again, if you understand the profound nature of the animality of women, you see that these practices are incomplete. Counsellors should start by telling men to hug women, stroke them, take women ballroom dancing; fertility specialists should make sure, before anything else, that women are getting well and regularly cuddled and brought to orgasm, by their men.
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