Skip to main content

Kate's breasts, Pussy Riot, virginity tests and our attitude on women's bodies

By Naomi Wolf, Special to CNN
September 20, 2012 -- Updated 1038 GMT (1838 HKT)
The French publication Closer published photos of Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, sunbathing topless.
The French publication Closer published photos of Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, sunbathing topless.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Author Naomi Wolf says recent controversies reveal biased views toward women's bodies
  • The Pussy Riot trial and Arab Spring protests showed women stripped of autonomy
  • Women's bodies are battlegrounds used to wage culture wars, Wolf says
  • It's scandalous when women take ownership of their own bodies, Wolf contends

Editor's note: Naomi Wolf is the author of "Vagina: A New Biography."

(CNN) -- It seems as if we are in a time of unprecedented struggle over the meaning of women's bodies and sexuality. Controversy is swirling about an American University professor who breast-fed a baby in class; topless photos of Kate Middleton have been released; and a Time magazine cover showing a mother breast-feeding her toddler sparked even more tittering in May.

It is not just the breast that is contested: Pussy Riot, the punk band, was sentenced to two years in a Russian prison after a staged performance in which they did high kicks that showed too much of their bodies. They tried, from prison, to explain "what pussy meant" and "what riot meant."

Michigan representative Lisa Brown got into hot water -- and fought back -- for using the words 'my vagina' in the Michigan statehouse. Michigan women supported her by standing in front of the statehouse with a giant "V" symbol and spelling out the words 'VAGINA' in pink letters.

Naomi Wolf
Naomi Wolf

Young women in Tahrir Square protesting in the Arab Spring were punished by imprisonment -- and vaginal exams by armed strangers for "virginity tests." This is not so surprising when you understand the delicate brain-vagina connection that my new book documents -- female sexuality around the world is targeted because through traumatizing the vagina, you can intimidate women on multiple other levels.

What is going on?

We are at an important crossroads in which it is becoming clearer to women around the world that, as one feminist artist put it, "your body is a battleground."

Vagina enters stage left -- or is it right?

In a hypersexualized culture, in which porn is available 24-7, it is not female nudity -- or discussion about vaginas or breasts or "pussy riots" -- that is scandalous. Indeed, the female body has never been so commodified before, and female sexuality has never been so readily consumable in sanitized, corporatized formats such as pornography.

Rather, what is still scandalous to our culture is when women take ownership of their own bodies. Staging a strip performance is not disruptive to social order in Moscow, but three punk poets using their sexuality to make a satirical comment about Russian leader Vladimir Putin is destabilizing and must be punished.

Legislating the most intimate aspects of women's reproductive lives, all the way to imposing transvaginal probes on them -- as states are doing across the country -- isn't shocking or obscene, because it is about taking away sexual control from women of their own bodies. What is shocking and obscene is when a serious person -- a legislator -- dares to take back ownership of her own self, with the scandalous words "my vagina." The issue is not the vagina, but who gets to say what becomes of it and who owns it.

Porn 24-7 doesn't threaten social control. Indeed, its addictive effects, in terms of new neuroscientific discoveries, actually turns out to be a kind of drug or sedative. This turns a potentially liberating sexual revolution into yet another marketable consumer product that hypnotizes people and is creating new health and sexual problems around libido, rather than setting them free.

In the struggle over sex, these choices are where the struggle lies: Who decides reproductive rights; who decides when and how breasts might be exposed; who decides who can say vagina and where; who decides who is a slut; and who must be punished with hard labor for asserting their right to define their own sexual and artistic identities.

The sexual revolution came and went, and yet women are still not as truly sexually free as they deserve to be -- here or around the world. They are not yet, as these struggles show, fully free to define the meanings of their bodies and their desire, to assert their sexual wishes without punishment -- including punishment by the state. And they are not yet fully free to claim the right to sexual pleasure and autonomy without enduring public shaming.

Until that real freedom arrives, we can honor the pioneers such as Lisa Brown, Pussy Riot and the young women of Tahrir Square -- and keep up the fight to be free to name our bodies and ourselves.

As gender and representation expert Dr. Emma Rees notes of the struggle over how one may speak about female sexuality: "For until we have a language and a platform for talking honestly about women's bodies and sexual drives, we're doomed into a cycle of objectification and silence."

The views in this article are solely those of Naomi Wolf.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
February 6, 2013 -- Updated 1526 GMT (2326 HKT)
Advocates say the exam includes unnecessarily invasive and irrelevant procedures -- like a so-called "two finger" test.
February 6, 2013 -- Updated 0009 GMT (0809 HKT)
Supplies of food, clothing and fuel are running short in Damascus and people are going hungry as the civil war drags on.
February 6, 2013 -- Updated 1801 GMT (0201 HKT)
Supporters of Richard III want a reconstruction of his head to bring a human aspect to a leader portrayed as a murderous villain.
February 5, 2013 -- Updated 1548 GMT (2348 HKT)
Robert Fowler spent 130 days held hostage by the same al Qaeda group that was behind the Algeria massacre. He shares his experience.
February 6, 2013 -- Updated 0507 GMT (1307 HKT)
As "We are the World" plays, a video shows what looks like a nuclear attack on the U.S. Jim Clancy reports on a bizarre video from North Korea.
The relationship is, once again, cold enough to make Obama's much-trumpeted "reset" in Russian-U.S. relations seem thoroughly off the rails.
Ten years on, what do you think the Iraq war has changed in you, and in your country? Send us your thoughts and experiences.
February 5, 2013 -- Updated 1215 GMT (2015 HKT)
Musician Daniela Mercury has sold more than 12 million albums worldwide over a career span of nearly 30 years.
Photojournalist Alison Wright travelled the world to capture its many faces in her latest book, "Face to Face: Portraits of the Human Spirit."
February 6, 2013 -- Updated 0006 GMT (0806 HKT)
Europol claims 380 soccer matches, including top level ones, were fixed - as the scandal widens, CNN's Dan Rivers looks at how it's done.
February 6, 2013 -- Updated 1237 GMT (2037 HKT)
That galaxy far, far away is apparently bigger than first thought. The "Star Wars" franchise will get two spinoff movies, Disney announced.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 2327 GMT (0727 HKT)
It's an essential part of any trip, an activity we all take part in. Yet almost none of us are any good at it. Souvenir buying is too often an obligatory slog.
ADVERTISEMENT