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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  1. this is very interesting, sarojini, and I would like to know more. Are you saying that the vagina is not yet felt as a source of power for many feminists in India, because it has been so violated and abused by the culture?

    I was horrified to learn that female fetuses were aborted in India. What a disgusting use of new technology.

    Also, I just want to say that I think most women in the West would be very offended by the name Burning Brides--I know I am very angered and insulted by it, and every woman I know in the U.S. would be also. The women in India are our sisters and we feel nothing but compassion and solidarity with you.

  2. Thanks Annie for your support. Let every other power know that this other globe intends to fight its own war.

  3. Monika Pant8:05 PM

    Yes, there is a world of difference between the feminism of the East and the West, yet the thread of commonality is the way women are looked at by men. In India, even the men in the family, for whom the daughter, the wife, the daughter-in-law should be an individual in her own right is denied her proper place in the very house which she calls her the West at least the society has progressed enough to give women of their house their due respect. We, in India, first of all, have to fight to change the mindset of the men we love....that is the tragic role we play. Of course, exceptions in both the east and the west serve only to affirm the general.

  4. Thanks Monika. I know we are sailing in the same boat. My findings bear it out as well.

  5. sangeeta singh10:27 PM

    I totally agree with you that the vaginal dysfuntion is not just about the brain /body divide it is much more. The social cultural taboos associated with the female sexuality which has been associated with shame and destructive nature is also responsible for this.
    Our narratives and myths, which are primarily written by men are responsible for the accumulated negative "wisdom" about female sexuality. I think it is time that feminist writers should re inscribe women's sexuality with the positive strength that it possesses.

  6. Anonymous10:34 PM

    Mam, A wonderful piece of writing! I would suggest to write more on the issue. I like the point where you have differentiated between the Western Feminism and Eastern Feminism.....

  7. The definition of Obscenity, nudity and the very discourse of female genitals will be varying factors on both sides. Women body, genitals and Sexual discourse in Indian Society and Culture is never a kind of mechanical art that will necessarily hold 'Vagina' as a powerful structure in Feminist discourse. On the other hand in our temple culture and also in Hindu myth there are enough evidence of worshiping female genital as Shakti 'the Source of Energy / Fertility. The temple/shrine of Kamakhya (Guwahati, Assam, India) observes a temple holiday every month; the view point being the first day of menstrual cycle of the deity. All most all communities in India worship a maiden girl when she reaches her puberty / the first menstrual cycle. The power structure with 'Vagina' is seriously connected. These patriarchal codes can be analysed on this context.

  8. Dear Sarojini, My daughter just attended a session last night where Naomi Wolf was interviewed by a woman psychiatrist who addresses these subjects. She lives and works in New York and thus a yearly pass to these shows where intellectual celebrities are interviewed. I am going to ask her to visit your blog and see what she has to say. I am so inundated with work as I am trying to get 2 books published next year. My first book on India addresses many social issues, including women and children's issues. The book is in the hands of the publisher's editor and I will get back the edited version later this month. Meanwhile I have to work with the publisher's graphic designer to for book cover design even as I write the text for the jacket. Meanwhile I will have my daughter provide feedback. It is true that Indian women do not talk about sexual sensuality or see it the same way the western women do. There are a whole lot of things that are more important to us in life than sex, although that concept is changing among the young in India. The sex craving that is seeping into India from the western world has made the men of India exploit women and young girls for sex much more in recent years. I have discussed that subject in my book as well. We are experiencing the period of "Kalyug" (hell) as they say in India. The world has got to change, and more spirituality and compassion for humanity has to replace this sex craze. Regards, Jaya Kamlani

  9. You have rightly pointed out the difference in perspective between the Occidental and Oriental views on this subject.There are two basic issues involved here : one is biological and the other is economic cum social.These two should be kept apart. A Western perspective tends to harp more on the former roles of vagina which stands for sensuality and copulation and hence most of erotic literature exploit it fully to cater to the taste of its reader-clients.D.H.Lawrence for instance.It was another form of commercialization. The oriental view has for long been torn between the myth of tradition and the cruel fate of economic necessities.The crudities of female infanticide is reflective of economic situation in India. The other view is reflected in the social order. For a very long time the woman was kept subjugated as an inferior class most suitable to provide comforts for man at all times. the bride burning episodes are a sorry state of the tragedy of great expectations. Fortunately the equal opportunities provided by modern education , especially in the field of IT has begun to change this mentality. Yet the change is not rapid enough.But there are good indications about the change in understanding the roles played by women in society. I am happy to find that the discussion in your Blog has reflected that growing change in mindset. Keep it up Dr.Sarojini, your service to the cause is deeply appreciated.

  10. Sex is a matter of the mind only,
    The physical aspect has very little role.
    One may allow penetration and yet remain mentally virgin
    On Yogi can have sex and still remain a brammachariya.
    People think and brood over the body and projections and contours.
    We have what is called pariangayoga where in the yogi can perform sex for an indefinite period without ejaculation.
    One can havee sexs without touching the partner and ,ake the other partner release the liquid.
    Pariangayoga was performed by Sankarar with the queen who questioned his virility.and still remained a brammachari

  11. I appreciate what you say...but I think sex, which may be beautifully called lovemaking, is an issue which cannot be debated as it is something personal and unique for each and every woman who learned to understand and respect her body. If taken as a business or a mechanical gesture,to me, it simply reflects immaturity and one not been awaken. Our precious heritage 'Kama Sutra' has unfortunately not really been understood...It is something that should be lived and loved but NOT experimented with.

  12. I appreciate what you say...but I think sex, which may be beautifully called lovemaking, is an issue which cannot be debated as it is something personal and unique for each and every woman who learned to understand and respect her body. If taken as a business or a mechanical gesture,to me, it simply reflects immaturity and one not been awaken. Our precious heritage 'Kama Sutra' has unfortunately not really been understood...It is something that should be lived and loved but NOT experimented with.

  13. Vridhachalempillay Subramaniam7:48 PM

    Your point of view is better understood now than earlier on. I was rather getting distracted by the social and economic mores that pre-condition the judgments made in the East as against the West. To come to think of it more deeply you are right in focusing the mind-set on multiplicity of the sensibilities that the topic evokes. I have forwarded it to some of chronic friends who have greater affinity with your theme. You are most welcome to spread the word. In fact this is an open Blog.It naturally takes wings. Like Shelley's Zephyr.Go ahead. Good luck

  14. Whether the female body is a consumable and marketable product or not depends upon the perepective from which the female body is looked at. Every body, for that matter, be it male or female, is worth worshipping as it is the source of all energy. Unless the stimuli in the environment is converted into appropriate energy through psycho-motor activities, it lies unutilised. The feminsim in the east and its counterpart in the west have many features in common but the social miliu are different. In India, we consider the use ofthe word vagina in public speech and advertisements as a taboo, but we are not ashamed to abuse our fellow beings with women-centric slangs. All the languages that I know (five) contain hundreds of instances where women-centric slangs and abusive words are used. Why do our so called sophisticated elite keep their mouths shut? It is the dichotomy in our words and actions that creates all problem. People would call Vidya Balan a cheap heroine for exposing herself too much but they would spend thousands(in secret, without the knowledge of their daughters and wives) to purchase a single black ticket to watch her movies! There must be an end to these simulations and dissimulations.

  15. I agree with Dr Sarojini Sahoo. Women in India is a subtle force, who are adored. Western authors cannot understand it easily. We believe that God is beauty and truth. It is certainly not skin deep as many feminist tend to believe. Naomi Wolf has a lot to learn yet.

  16. reading this through a bit and all i can think of is the story of Draupadi ...powerful story..
    as the heart has it s own brain (HeartMath) so the womb is a center for perception according to the toltecs , a dream - machine , a navigator besides the usual ideas of biological imperatives etc..
    wombwaving instead of brainstorming :) a whole different language , a whole different feel..

    1. wombwaving!

      or the note of approval, "warms wide open"

  17. As we have discussed in past in your book Sense and sensuality, as I am convinced the problem of women slavery or submissive character is root cause, every problem is bye product of this status of women in society.
    Commercial use of woman body is also related to male domination, you can see women in as showpiece everywhere to amuse men who is decision maker, if there is female domination society(if it could exist), the scenario was otherwise.
    To my point view medicine for Brain – Vagina connection is a positive thing from history of mankind to last century it was widely believe that woman has no sexual desire and this believe is not limited to uncivilized uneducated persons but also highly educated members of the society.
    Late former Indian Prime Minister MARARJEE DESAI who was comrade of pundit Nehru, abandoned sex relation with his wife in believe that sex relation is harmful to mental health, but also that his wife don’t require sex desire because she is a woman.
    These type Sex-boosting medicine are available since the history of mankind for only men, you can watch this just watch wall chalking of your area which is filled with these type of medicine. Its significance is like this if someone invents a medicine which can boost stomach hunger five time a day instead of three time, no one will appreciate this madness, but since sex is a taboo subject, the use of this medicine widespread in male now female can also “enjoy” use of it depending how much freedom she is enjoying over their body.
    Vagina cannot be the only source of female sexuality, actually it is mental understanding and good lovely relation leads to orgasm.
    If a person have sack of LADDU and someone understand that he is feeling pleasure and satisfaction, but the fact is he may eat one two or three, in a very short time he will be fed up with LADDU consequently with sack.
    If someone consider his wife as buffalo a chord with her neck and other in his grip, it leads to nowhere.
    Vagina is considered to be vulgar term not discussed in west also. You have given example like, the gate of hell, the pathway to enlightenment, golden lotus, blackness in Othello or ‘boat’ in King Lear.
    As you have mentioned, the vagina was the centre of attraction for many intellectuals, psychologists, scientists, as they were male their attraction is obvious, if they were female then the situation will be otherwise, centre of attraction might be some other thing (Not vagina).
    Vagina mutilation is not related to any religion, but a regional and found in mummies also.

  18. here is an "earth mother/goddess that I did in 2003... "She " is of lava (feather) rock

    I sometimes call her "Goddess with Red Lips and Vagina "

  19. This was a very thought-provoking post. The East and West have many differences but also many similarities. There may be focus on the vagina here in the West, but ultimately no matter the sum of parts, a woman is a woman so if one woman in one part of the world is being degraded or abused, we all are. Please visit Venus Blogs as they also post about many subjects that are of interest to women:

  20. Anonymous7:10 PM

    A nice take on views, cultural perspectives and opinions on the female body and beauty!