We don’t tend to think of the vagina as empowering; to the contrary. With a legacy of Western shame, from the church fathers’ insistence that the vagina was “a sewer” and “the devil’s door” to pussy jokes on college campuses, the vagina has long been cast as a shameful hole, or an absence, or a fetishized sex organ, or something to be mocked. In our culture, it’s most often medicalized or commodified, as by rock musician John Mayer, who told Playboy there were days when he viewed 300 vaginas on porn websites before getting out of bed. When a woman considers how vaginas are regarded today, she is unlikely to feel deeply empowered. Even if she has a positive attitude toward her own vagina, she might feel awkward, exposed or conflicted about how others value or devalue it. Indeed, the vagina seems to be the one body part that is also a Rorschach: The way a given culture views the vagina is often the way women are expected to see themselves.
But the latest neuroscience challenges everything we think we know about the female organ and sexuality. It turns out that the vagina (I use this term to include the whole nexus of vagina, clitoris, labia, etc.) really is women’s superpower. Because of the delicate relationship between the female brain and the vagina—the pelvic nerves connect to the spine, sending impulses to the hypothalamus, which regulates hormones—many cutting-edge scientists regard these two organs as parts of a single system. The vagina is really the gateway for the neurotransmitters that generate confidence, creativity and the sense of interconnection. Sexual stimulation and the anticipation of orgasm release dopamine, the ultimate feminist chemical: It motivates and energizes; it makes you more assertive and more confident. Orgasm releases oxytocin and opioids. Oxytocin makes you trusting and able to bond, and opioids give you that sense of bliss and ecstasy that often inspires creative work.
So a woman’s vagina can help make her bold, courageous and imaginative—in short, exactly what patriarchal culture has historically feared. This explains why, for at least 5,000 years, around the globe, so much male energy has gone into subduing, controlling and even traumatizing the vagina.
I studied the letters and biographies of many women who accomplished great leaps in their creative work—women who, for instance, broke away from the frame of realism in painting, like Georgia O’Keeffe, or made breakthroughs in their writing, like Edith Wharton, who was transformed by her three-year affair with the seductive Morton Fullerton. The work of revolutionary Emma Goldman escalated after her involvement with physician and activist Ben Reit-man. While we can’t prove cause and effect, there’s evidence that the women’s creativity was enhanced by an apparent erotic awakening, -experienced either on their own or with a partner. By inflaming the woman’s physical passions and provoking her mind, the man seemed to unleash her dormant energies and spark her appetite for risk and self-assertion (in the examples I looked at, most of the partners were men, though the same-sex awakenings were at least as passionate). What these women’s stories suggest is an inspiring message to us all. The well-treated vagina—one that is never harmed, threatened or traumatized, one that is lovingly tended by the woman herself or by a lover—can free up aspects of women’s creative potential.
The latest science confirms the mind-vagina synergy in multiple ways and shows that our understanding of female sexual response—fixed for many of us in the 1970s by The Hite Report and Masters and Johnson’s research—is far out of date. For example, Professor Barry Komisaruk and his team at Rutgers University in New Jersey have found that several areas of the female body send out sexual impulses and that different kinds of stimulation—vaginal, clitoral, cervical and nipple—light up different parts of the brain, each part associated with a specific function (memory, pain, etc.). And according to Jeffrey Cole, MD, a pelvic-nerve specialist in New York City, every woman is wired differently, not just psychologically but physically, which means each woman has her own path to sexual pleasure.
Further, research by Professor Jim Pfaus at Concordia University in Montreal shows that female rats lose interest in several types of engagement with the world around them when they are injected with a chemical that blocks their ability to feel the pleasure of sexual stimulation. They remember good and bad sexual experiences and will avoid male rats whose scents remind them of the bad sexual experiences of the past!
Can all this new information change how a woman feels about her vagina? I believe it can. These findings confirm that the search for a loving, fulfilling relationship is not trivial. Actively seeking out good mind-body experiences that protect the vagina-brain circuitry (by providing the regular dopamine boosts produced by skillful lovemaking and good sexual self-care) is integral to women’s overall well-being.
If a woman understands her own sexual response and can explore her own sexuality, she will have access to energy and insight that help her feel connected to a higher purpose in other areas of her life. In the light of 21st-century science, the vagina has the potential to become a combination of muse, energy generator and powerhouse of confidence to the lucky person who has one.
NAOMI WOLF is a cultural critic and best-selling author. Her latest book, just published, is Vagina: A New Biography.
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