The feminist neurotransmitter

"Who's Afraid of Vagina Wolf?"*

The feminist neurotransmitter
[Image Credit: DonkeyHotey via Flickr]

“Dopamine is the ultimate feminist chemical in the female brain,” writes Naomi Wolf in her new book “Vagina: A New Biography.” The Twitter reaction was harsh. I haven’t read this book and don’t plan on it. If you’re in the same boat, this is the primer for you.

What is it

“An astonishing work of cutting-edge science and cultural history,” according to the book description. It opens with Wolf facing an “unexpected medical crisis”: her orgasms just aren’t as good as they used to be. Her search for a solution leads her to conclude that the vagina is a part of the female brain, to which it is connected by a series of nerves, the spinal cord, and chemical messengers like dopamine and oxytocin. She builds a version of a cultural point-of-view on this newly discovered “mind-vagina connection.”

Who is she

A San Francisco native, Naomi Wolf is a political activist, journalist, writer and social critic. Her book “The Beauty Myth” was an international bestseller in 1991. She was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford.

What people think

Helen Lewis’s New Statesman review calls Wolf’s new book, “unblushing in its anatomical precision and unashamed in gesturing to all manner of mystic woo-woo about the froo froo.” The severe review in The New Yorker, by Ariel Levy, says, “Wolf has found a mistress we must please, serve, and honor. There is a new dominatrix in town. And her name is Vagina.” Tim Skellet , contributor to The Guardian, blogged that “Vagina” is “full of neurobollocks, the incorrect and inappropriate use of neuropsychology in fake explanations.”

That’s why scientists think it sucks. Ed Yong explained in his Slate piece on oxytocin, a neuromodulator and hormone sometimes called the “moral molecule,” that sweeping assertions about individual molecules are oversimplifications at best and dangerous at worst.

The problem really is that Wolf makes leaps of logic that indicate she’s a bit confused. It’s about as coherent an argument as the parody “Pasta: A New Biography” by Sarah Ditum. Here’s a good breakdown of what’s wrong with her science, and why she would be better not talking about science at all, and staying in the less concrete realm of “culture.” She says stress negatively affects vaginal tissue, which it does, but not vaginal tissue in particular — all tissue. And with neurotransmitters, she reduces their function to the most feminist-friendly facet, but they have many functions in men and women, for good an bad.

*I was pleased with myself when I came up with this pun, and chagrined to learn it’a already the title of a not-yet-released lesbian dark comedy.

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  1. An in-depth look at what I only touched on here, from Maia Szalavitz

    She does a great job of parsing the actual neuroscience from the neurobollocks.

    Kate Doyle, September 18, 2012 at 10:25 am
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