Nature, Nurture, And Vaginas

One of my favorite questions to explore since I took a psychology class in high school has been the relationship of nature and nurture, or biology and culture. How much of human behavior is determined by relatively fixed factors like our genes and hormones, and how much is shaped by environment, family, diet, and culture?

These intersections are tricky and difficult to navigate, yet teasing out distinctions has been a key project of sexuality scholars and feminists for decades now (to cite but one example, in the Victorian era it was believed that women’s wombs would wander, causing distress and dumbness, and so women’s bodies were held against them as a reason they couldn’t be educated, own property, or participate in politics – which, today, is known to be obviously untrue).

While I’ve not yet had a chance to read feminist Naomi Wolf’s controversial new book Vagina, I’d like to use its premise as a leaping-off point for discussing how complicated the nature-nurture relationship can get when you throw in sexuality and history (both personal and cultural).

As Wolf describes her project in an interview, she “stumbled upon hugely important scientific discovery after hugely important scientific discovery,” proving what she called a “profound brain-vagina connection.” Drawing from scientific studies as well as her own sex life, the book’s premise seems to be that women’s sex lives are unfulfilling in large part because women’s biology (specifically regarding sex and vaginas) is so misunderstood. And Wolf frames this situation as ”a human rights crisis,” which affects women’s abilities to “create, explore, communicate, conquer, and transcend.”

I can get behind the notion that women’s bodies are still misunderstood, and that this affects how others perceive us and how we perceive ourselves. Sexism in our daily lives -and the media, and politics, and even in scientific studies themselves – surely impacts how women experience their sexuality. But these are largely cultural issues, and we should be careful not to conflate cultural issues with scientific ones. Yes, they’re all related on some level (see discussion of the “slut gene” for an example) – but how do we go about demonstrating these links? Very carefully, if at all, would be my answer.

Maia Szalavitz’s excellent article on Vagina and neuroscience evaluates many of Wolf’s claims about the science behind vaginal functioning, going into detail about neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin (and how exactly Wolf is misrepresenting them). While Wolf’s account of these neurotransmitters makes women out to be animalistically addicted to sex and love (blame oxytocin!), her application of animal studies to human beings is premature and mistaken at best. Both men and women, it turns out, experience love with the same parts of the brain that also deal with addiction…but that doesn’t mean that we’re ruled by our brain circuitry.

Ultimately, I think that there are unique parts to women’s physiology that we simply don’t grasp yet. However, I don’t believe that we should rely on scientific explanations (legit or not) of these differences in order to justify treating women with dignity and improving their living conditions. I agree with Szalavitz’s conclusion: “The brain and female sexuality are extremely complicated — and reducing them to simplistic formulations that deny women their humanity fails to do justice to either feminism or science.”

For a less science-obscuring-but-still-vagina-centric read, I’d recommend Cunt by Inga Muscio. It’s extremely woman-centered, but doesn’t try to use science to prove anything. Rather, it’s an enlightening discussion of the intersections of feminism, history, pop culture, and personal history. It’s been one of my favorite books for years now.

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About Jeana


Jeana Jorgensen, PhD recently completed her doctoral degree in folklore and gender studies at Indiana University. She studies fairy tales and other narratives, dance, body art, feminist theory, digital humanities, and gender identity.