I’ve decided that life is too short to spend it reading anything else by Naomi Wolf.
Her recent article on male circumcision? Skipped it. The one about orgasms? Didn’t even click the link. Her new book, titled simply, Vagina? No thank you; I still have the pamphlet they gave me in fifth grade and the diagrams in it are, I presume, as accurate as they ever were.
Avoiding Wolf felt so liberating that I expanded my reach, and swore off reading Jesse Bering, too. Bering (whose queasy admixture of learned ink and bodily fluids I have waxed peevish about before), also has a new book out. It’s called Why is the Penis Shaped Like That? It is not, despite what you may think, a children’s book.
In short, I have declared myself free from any further obligation to read thought-provoking essays about people’s naughty bits. I realize this declaration may sound pompous coming from a woman who recently regaled the public with a 1700-word meditation on Daniel Tosh’s testicles. In my own defense, I can only say that at least I knew I was being juvenile when I wrote about Tosh. I personally find it difficult to wear my Serious Scholar hat when I’m analyzing someone’s ding-a-ling. Maybe that means I’m too old and squeamish to be a good feminist these days.
Certainly it puts me in a different camp from Hanna Rosin, whose Atlantic article on hookup culture I made the mistake of reading before I vowed to abstain from the genre. I was skeptical going in; in the first place, it seems presumptuous to trumpet the hookup culture as a new phenomenon, given that young adults throughout history have had as much meaningless sex as they could possibly obtain. (At least, there sure seemed to be a lot of it going on when I was in college. We just weren’t chatty about it when researchers visited us.) Moreover, Rosin’s observations don’t tally with what I see on a daily basis. I work at a large university campus the students here appear to spend at least 23 hours a day in the library upstairs from my office. And if they’re having sex up there, they’re doing it very quietly.
But these are minor quibbles. Whatever amount of sex the kids are having these days, they’re welcome to it, assuming it’s consensual and safe. Good for them! What I couldn’t get past in Rosin’s piece was her extraordinary claim that “feminist progress right now largely depends on the existence of the hookup culture.” I had to read that line a few times to make sure I had it right. Feminist progress depends on hooking up? I would have thought that Rosin’s data, if accurate, supported a more temperate claim, like, “girls sometimes enjoy casual sex and it’s nice that boys are no longer the only ones with this option.” That’s a reasonable thesis, isn’t it?
Not according to Rosin, who believes instead that hookup culture represents the very future of feminism (by which she appears to mean white, straight, college-educated feminism). What she saw going on in those dorms rooms convinced her that gender equality no longer depends on political action, or boycotts, or legal challenges, or any other dry and unsexy activity, but on the willingness of American co-eds to forgo long-term relationships, substituting cheap, meaningless sex instead—or, as Rosin puts it, “managing their romantic lives like savvy headhunters.”
This squalid little argument is all the more vexing because Rosin expects readers to nod wisely over it as a serious piece of social criticism. And indeed lots of people did exactly that; even I tried, for a while. I spent altogether too much time reading Rosin’s article, trying to make sense of its sweeping generalizations, and utterly failing to have rational discussions about it with other feminists.
Most of my friends refused to do more than skim the thing. One young woman described Rosin’s tone as “unwholesome”; an older colleague called the article’s conclusions “elitist garbage,” and pointed out that Rosin’s notion of pelvicly-driven feminist progress focuses exclusively on students who have the luxury of free time for an active sex life. It’s a valid point; the students I meet—those pale youngsters hunkered down in the library—typically work one or two jobs to pay their ever-increasing tuition. They’re driven by the knowledge that their parents have taken out a home equity loan to pay their dorm fees. They don’t have time for headhunting; they’re too busy maintaining their financial aid eligibility.
The students who do a lot of hooking up are more likely, I assume, to come from wealthier families, where parental largess allows children to extend their high school dating patterns for another four years (without the awkwardness of having to introduce every date to Mom and Dad). Women from such families have much less economic ground to make up than women from lower-income families. No matter how sexually active the economically well-off are in college, they’re hardly in the vanguard of feminist progress. They were, so to speak, born on third base; of course it’s easier for them to go all the way.
So even though it may mark me as a bad feminist (i.e., one who doesn’t do the reading), I’ve now sworn off Rosin too. There are plenty of other insightful, intelligent, non-genitally-centered works out there that I could be reading instead, and as I said, life is short. Hell, I haven’t even read most of the Bible yet. If I wanted to waste my time grappling with irrational arguments about sex and gender, applied far too broadly, I could get a lot more mileage out of the Old Testament.
But rather than turning to the Bible for solace, I watched the Paralympics, and then I felt much better about everything. The 2012 Paralympic Games made me think about what the body means, and doesn’t mean, in an entirely new way. For one thing, nobody talked about vaginas or penises, which made it much easier to concentrate. More importantly, London showed us how unimportant the body could be, even in competitive sports. The games featured runners without feet, swimmers without arms, judoku without eyesight. There were fencers and tennis players who lacked legs, or the use of them. There were people missing almost every conceivable body part, and they embodied physical athleticism in more certain terms than any group of individuals I’ve ever seen.
I was transfixed, for example, by photographer Joerg Sarbach’s image of Oksana Masters and Rob Jones, Americans who won a bronze medal in sculls. The photo of the athletes at their medal ceremony shows only four prosthetic legs, clad in running shoes. Yet the image is unquestionably human; the physical nature of the legs themselves is irrelevant, when you know what those legs have done.
And I was awestruck by Sebastian Widman’s photo of high-jumper Lukasz Mamczarz, who has only one leg yet medaled for Poland by clearing 1.74 meters. I consider myself fairly athletic for my age, but I have to admit it’s deeply humbling to watch someone jump twice as high as you can, using half as many legs. A performance like that makes you see your own body, with whatever number of limbs it has, in a new light—as a vessel you’ve never fully tested, with tolerances you haven’t dreamt of. You say to yourself, I wonder what this thing could really do.
It’s a jarring shift in perspective from all the scholarly speculation about how our bodies dictate what we do and who we are, or could be.
If six women can win a hard-fought volleyball match while sitting the floor, then it’s folly to assume that any particular body part determines identity. If you don’t need legs to be a world-class volleyball player, then you don’t need anything to be anyone. Everything but the brain and heart is an add-on package: arms and legs, vision and mobility.
Encomiums to the vagina (or the penis, or the mating habits of college sophomores), are all very well, but they invite glibness and reductionism into our understanding of ourselves. I’m fully alive to the ways my body drives my mind and emotions; I’ve spent years learning how to use my body to change my mind. However, reading the body as a blueprint for human behavior, far from being a cutting edge critical breakthrough, strikes me as a move backwards. It’s a nineteenth-century way of thinking that we should have outgrown by now. You only have to watch one wheelchair rugby match to appreciate how good we are at working with what we have. Or working around it. Or changing it. We humans excel at giving physiology the finger.
When cultural critics get excited about biology, they’re prone to forget this human flair for adaptation. Thus they cough up articles and books about magical body parts that, when used as prescribed (or when allowed to “function normally,” or when combined with other body parts and shaken vigorously), confer mystical benefits or reveal ancient wisdoms. This nonsense perpetuates the myth that our power as individuals resides in a particular clump of tissue, one critical mix of hormones.
Which is perilous as well as silly. Because when we fixate on any one physical attribute, or set of attributes, we ignore all the people who don’t have that attribute, or have it but don’t use it the same way we do. We render invisible everyone who isn’t built along classic lines, anyone with aftermarket parts, anyone who doesn’t conform to one of a very narrow range of accepted genders. And that’s a loss not just for the people excluded from the discussion, but for everyone else as well, because it limits our understanding of human potential.
Media coverage of the London Paralympics was striking, from my American vantage point, for its lack of that smug American insistence on being “inspired” by disability. In the British press, there was no treacly celebration of Paralympic athletes’ “special” abilities. This was a welcome relief from American network television, where “special” denotes unexpected qualities (cheerfulness, grit, pluck) that people possess only because they’re missing something else that they’re supposed to have (legs, a straight spine, both lungs). Because the body is supposed to work one way, and if a body is different from the norm, it’s not supposed to work at all.
All this supposing, when we don’t really know, we can’t know, what a person should or shouldn’t be capable of. Humans are the most persistent, unaccountable, impossible-to-kill species on the planet. You can’t predict what we’ll try next, or what we’ll succeed at. Unless you’re betting money on the outcome, why would you even want to?
I suppose if it makes a critic happy to dwell endlessly on some pet body part, fine—everyone’s entitled to at least one fetish. But I resent having the general conversation about gender and equality dragged into the privy. “Why the repressive patriarchal silence about such important information?” Wolf demands of those who, like me, are inclined to change the subject when vaginas are mentioned anywhere outside a doctor’s office. I do not mean to repress you, Ms. Wolf. I think vaginas are just dandy. I had two kids with mine! And so convenient; I take mine everywhere. But it doesn’t make me who I am. And I don’t like being ordered to define myself around it, or risk being called an accomplice of the patriarchy. I won’t lock myself into my body for any reason. Not even to celebrate it.
My prudishness on this subject is undoubtedly a vestige of my Catholic upbringing (which often complicates my feminism in embarrassing ways). But my latent Catholicism also gives me a lingering faith that the body is, above all else, a site of transformation.
Anatomy is not destiny. Gender is not a value. So I hereby excuse everyone from reading anything that pretends otherwise. Go read something by Virginia Woolf instead. Or better yet, go do something with your body instead of just reading about it. I for one plan to spend some time working on my high jump.