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Spending Saturday morning with Naomi Wolf's Vagina. It went down like this.

Naomi and Mia
Naomi Wolf and Mia Freedman

By MIA FREEDMAN

It’s not every morning you find yourself chatting with someone about her vagina.

I’ll be honest, it’s not how I usually spend my Saturdays.

But the opportunity to interview the iconic Naomi Wolf, author of The Beauty Myth and internationally famous feminist was worth making an exception for. Hell, I’d be chuffed to talk to Naomi Wolf about… God, even sport! That’s how excited I was when I was contacted by the director of the Sydney Writer’s Festival to interview Naomi about her book, Vagina.

Look, I’m not squeamish. I have one. My mother has one. The vast majority of my friends have one. I’d already read the book but it was a little while ago so I immediately began studying all things Naomi.

“Have you read Naomi’s Vagina?” I asked my mum who reads every feminist book that’s ever published.

“I dipped into it,” she replied automatically and we both burst out laughing.

That’s when I discovered that it is impossible to discuss this book without accidentally venturing into Benny Hill territory. Note the headline above.

A couple of weeks before the interview I received the news that due to a back injury (more about that shortly), Naomi was unable to fly and wouldn’t be able to come to Australia for the festival. But would I be prepared to interview her via Skype?

Hell to the yes. I’d interview her by morse code if that was the only available option.

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So last Saturday morning, there I was, alone on a stage with a laptop in front of me and a giant screen behind me, both featuring Naomi’s smiling face, watched by an audience of several hundred people.

Naomi Wolf's Vagina.
Naomi Wolf’s Vagina.

The premise of Vagina is this: there is a neurological connection between the brain and the vagina that has not been previously recognised or widely reported. And this is the controversial bit: Naomi herself discovered this connection after a back injury caused her to lose pelvic sensation and changed the quality of her orgasms. Previously, she’d experienced both clitoral and vaginal orgasms and afterwards, a very spiritual connection with the world where she felt incredibly alive and simultaneously at peace.

With the loss of pelvic sensation came the loss of this feeling and – as she describes it – it felt like the volume and picture quality of her whole world was somehow dialed down. This caused her distress, depression and anxiety not to mention extreme fear. Would she always be this way?

In the process of consulting doctors, she discovered that her pelvic nerves were being compressed by an undiagnosed spinal condition but – more importantly – she learned that these nerves were configured differently in every woman. Some had nerves that clustered around their cervix, others at the mouth of the vagina, some at the perineum (which is often torn or cut during childbirth)….there were literally millions of different ways in which women could be wired.

This was news to Naomi. As she says, our ideas about female orgasms and sexuality are about 40 years out of date. She underwent surgery to free her trapped nerves and it was a success. The quality of her orgasms returned to their former glory and that brain/vagina connection was restored.

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Now, the bit in the book where she talks about her own experience is only about 10 pages but she believes it’s the basis for much of the backlash around the book, something she clearly feels hurt about. So why did she feel the need to disclose such intensely personal information about her sex life? She says she had no choice. It would have taken most interviewers about 30 seconds to ask her what led to her writing a book about Vaginas and she would then have had two choices, tell the truth or lie. And she insists that she never lies to her readers, even though she would have preferred not to put her own vagina out there, inserted into public debate as it were.

Interviewing an author in front of an audience of their fans is quite daunting because there is enormous pressure to ask all the questions they want answered. In real time. And doing any interview by Skype is problematic because it’s less of a conversation and more of a monologue. You can’t interrupt, the conversation doesn’t flow naturally. You basically just have to keep your questions short, sharp and wait for a suitable pause to insert one.

But Naomi has a habit of deconstructing questions – I’ve heard her do it in many podcast interviews I’ve listened to – and I think it’s because she’s so wary of being misquoted or misinterpreted. So when you ask her a question, she kind of edits it. Or turns it back on you – which can be illuminating if slightly perplexing.

For example, when I asked about the role of childbirth and how it could “interrupt” the brain/vagina connection, she immediately turned it back on me. “I find it interesting you would use the word ‘interrupt’, Mia. Why would you say that?”

The Beauty myth
The Beauty myth
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Me: “Um, well, you know, it’s kind of disruptive to have a human baby come out of your vagina and some women experience tearing or… you know… pain… or…”

Naomi: “If you don’t mind me asking, did you have an episiotomy when you gave birth?”

Me: “Oh no, not an episiotomy but once I had to have a few stitches….” and with that I peered out at the audience who appeared somewhat bemused to be sitting in a darkened theatre on a Saturday morning listening to how my vagina coped with the birth of my first child.

But enough about my vagina.

[I cannot believe I just typed that sentence. Three cheers for the internet!]

Over the course of the hour, we spoke about many different aspects of her book including the effect of trauma like rape and sexual abuse. We also talked briefly about porn and a couple of other interesting things like the fact that you should never let a man play with your nipples unless you want to fall in love with him because nipple stimulation releases oxytocin which can promote bonding. Also that you shouldn’t commit to anyone if you’re on the pill because the pill changes the way you perceive smells so there are lots of women who come off the pill, sniff their partners for the first time properly and are horrified.

Then I proceeded to tie myself in knots by asking the following question:

“Naomi, while reading Vagina, I was reminded to do three things: book a pap smear, make an appointment for laser and do my pelvic floor exercises…”

I was trying to make the point that none of those things are very pleasant and unlike men who generally just wee and have sex with their penises, women often have to do fairly unpleasant things to and with our vaginas and could this somehow explain our more complex relationship with it.

Except I didn’t get to that part because Naomi was genuinely baffled as to why her book would make me want to make a laser appointment. “You know, just because, for the beach, well, it’s warm in Australia and swimsuits um…”

Great. That went well! And then our time was almost up. There were so many more questions I wanted to ask, particularly about The Beauty Myth. And how her 18yo son and 13yo daughter coped with having a mother who had written a book called Vagina.

My eldest child can’t even cope when I mention that I’ve got my period….

So should you read Vagina? Yeah, I recommend it. It’s a really interesting, thought-provoking book.

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