Monday, October 08, 2012

Vagina...Open for Business and Debate

Naomi Wolf, who became famous for her book The Beauty Myth (1991), argues that "beauty," as a normative value, is entirely socially constructed and that patriarchy determines the content of that construction with the goal of reproducing its own hegemony. According to her, women are under assault by the “beauty myth” in five areas: work, religion, sex, violence, and hunger. Ultimately, Wolf argues for a relaxation of the normative standards of beauty.
In 2012, Wolf writes in a new work, Vagina: A New Biography, where she says that the “badness” to which women are attracted isn't a literal badness; it is the sexual appeal of “otherness, wildness, and the dimensions of the unknown.” The book is also about the role of the autonomic nervous system, which she explains in the pages of the book.
Promoting her book, Naomi writes in The Guardian (September 8, 2012 issue), “a single system” works for female orgasm and that is dopamine. She further writes, “Dopamine is what I call the ultimate feminist neurotransmitter: it yields motivation and goal-orientedness, trust in one's own judgment and, most notably of all, in my mind, confidence. (Cocaine, for instance, powerfully stimulates release of dopamine – hence the crazy confidence and sociability of coke users, at least under the influence, responding to that boost). Opioids give the brain the sensation of ecstasy or transcendence; and finally, oxytocin – which can be released both when a woman's nipples are being stimulated and during the contractions of orgasm – creates a sense of bonding, caring, and intimacy. Oxytocin has been shown in studies to give people with heightened levels an advantage in reading the emotions of faces.”
But is Naomi Wolf’s attempt to find a brain-vagina connection or the role of dopamine in orgasm in any way helpful to know or explore the real problems of female sexuality? I doubt it.
While reading Naomi Wolf’s Vagina: A New Biography, I tried to search for that Naomi, the one who stands against the commercialization of women’s bodies. You may remember her book Beauty Myth started an uproar against the multi-billion-dollar cosmetics industry. According to her, these industries used the idea of beauty to exploit women for their commercial benefits.
I have been asking questions about where women stand in relation to the recent dopamine phenomenon declaration by Naomi. Where are women’s voices on this topic? Where are the critical voices? Isn’t it a fact that tomorrow, a pharmaceutical company will come forward to market dopamine just as Pfizer has done with Viagra? Is the feminine mass going to stand by and cheer being orgasmic with dopamine? Is all this so-called ‘brain-vagina connection’ really in women’s best interests?
In Wolf’s latest book (Vagina: A New Biography),psychological, social, political, economic, or relational factors regarding female orgasm are rarely, if ever, discussed. I remembered in the case of Beauty Myth, she wrote in that book how women, held back by having to work two shifts -- one of paid work for an employer and another unpaid at home for the family compared with the single shift worked by men -- still made strides; and how the addition of a third shift -- the beauty shift; all that shaving, plucking, painting, curling, styling, toning and trimming -- serves the purpose of keeping them down by keeping them tired and distracted -- too tired and distracted to be successful at work and too tired and distracted to become involved or even interested in unions or other political action that might help change the situation.
As a feminist gender studies scholar, I wondered how Naomi forgot about the women who engage themselves in three-shift days could think over this dopamine for conjugal orgasm. Because sexual dysfunction is related not only to the brain-vagina connection but to economical and social situations through which a woman has to pass as well.
In traditional texts, the word ‘vagina’ was considered with very confessional and contradictory statements. In Hindu scripture, Manu Samhita, vagina is mentioned as ‘the gate of hell.’ Indian Tantra practitioners called the vagina ‘the pathway to enlightenment.’ Chinese Tao philosophy used the ‘golden lotus.’ Shakespeare wrote ‘blackness’ in Othello or ‘boat’ in King Lear.
But later after the Victorian age, the gentlemen’s manner revealed a fear of the word ‘vagina’ in public discourse. When I posted about Naomi’s recent book in a group on facebook, a female member commented it is better not to use ‘taboo’ words (such as vagina) in public or in a social networking venue.
This happens in India as well. When the feminist music group ‘Pussy Riot’ were sentenced to two years in prison by a Russian court for performing a 40-second anti-Putin ‘punk prayer’ in a Russian cathedral and when Eve Ensler’s TheVagina Monologues had completed  a 16-year run throughout the world, including India, the word ‘vagina’ still embarrassed common females in India.
This embarrassment happened not only in India but in America as well. In June, Michigan Democrat Lisa Brown was barred from addressing the House of Representatives after using the word ‘vagina’ in a debate on an anti-abortion bill.
In Australia (Source:, Friday 15 June 2012 18.32 BST) this year, a TV advertisement used the word vagina for the first time to sell its products for menstruation. There was a series of complaints and calls for the ad to be banned.
But the word ‘vagina’ still remained as a potential factor either in religion or in business. Supporting female genital mutilation in Islam by some feminists in the name of cross-cultural feminism or making protest on this crude brutal system have been the main topics the last few years. Meanwhile, hymenoplasty did a million-dollar business by only surgical beautification of vagina. All these efforts made the ‘vagina’ more of a mystique while the real questions and problems of female sexuality remained misspelled in the feminist discourse.
For centuries, the vagina was the centre of attraction for many intellectuals, psychologists, scientists, and for people of letters. From Vatsayan (who wrote the Kamasutra) to Leonard Shlain (who invented GYNA SAPIENS theories) to Sigmund Freud (the premier person to support the vaginal orgasm) to Ernst Grafenberg (who invented the G-spot theory) and many other scholars also did work on this female organ and interestingly enough, if we will verify the gender of such scholars, we will find most of them to be male. So one can conclude the vagina, which is merely a female organ, is more significant to males than females.
The attempt to proclaim women have autonomy over their own bodies is the real solution of solving the problems of female sexuality. But is the female body only restricted to the vagina? In India, female fetuses are routinely killed before their births. Before such killings, nobody asks the pregnant mother whether she wants to abort or doesn’t.  The decision is not hers.  She’s merely a vessel. In India, when a mother serves food to her children, she serves more to her son than to her daughter. Can this be labeled as persecution over a female body? In India, when a bride is killed at home by her husband or the husband's family due to his dissatisfaction over the dowry provided by her family, isn’t it an attack on a female body?
Believe it or not, India has more than 40 million widows -- the highest amount in the world. A widow, regardless of her age, has to get into a dreary garment and give up other ornamentations and confine herself to a corner of the house. A widow even has to tonsure her head in certain communities. She is not allowed to attend weddings or other celebrations as her presence is considered a bad omen. Are these patriarchal rituals not linked to a female’s body?
The concept of women’s bodies in the West differs from that of the East. Vagina may be a main source of female sexuality for Naomi but it is not at all for an Indian female like me. Burning Brides may be a name of hard rock band in America but here, it is very difficult for me to even imagine bride burning being associated with any sort of musical concert. This is the difference between Eastern feminism and Western feminism. Before discussing South Asian Feminism, we have to realize this bitter truth and carry on.
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