One evening I attended a crowded premiere party in New York City, where I was surrounded by film and theater professionals. The din was deafening. Standing at the crowded bar, I introduced myself to a statuesque woman in her early forties who was waiting next to me. She was radiatingly elegant; she wore red lipstick, pearls, and a black cocktail dress that evoked the flapper era. She told me that she was an actress — she had had a minor role in the film we had just seen — and she asked me what I did for a living. I told her that I was a writer, at work on my next book. She asked what it was about. “It’s a book about the vagina,” I said. She smiled. Her pupils dilated.
By this point it had happened often enough that I was aware that many people had immediate, probably measurable physical reactions when they asked me this question and heard the word vagina in my response. Some, both men and women, smiled immediately, beautiful, heartfelt smiles. Others looked frightened or disgusted, as if I had suddenly produced from my handbag a trout and placed it on the table before us, or had held it up for discussion. Still others, usually men, burst out laughing, angrily and inadvertently, usually to their own embarrassment.
Given the actress’s dreamy smile, something suggested to me that I could go ahead. “Actually, right now,” I confessed, “I am trying to figure out a possible link between female orgasm and creativity.”
The actress turned pale and self-conscious. “I can’t believe you said that,” she said. “I want to tell you something. “It’s something I’ve never told anyone.” She took a deep breath. “I’m a Method actor.” I knew that Method actors use visualization to act “from the inside out” — that is, they invoke the consciousness of the character whose role they are playing, to experience and then express that character from the inside out, rather than “acting” as if they are that person. “When I start to rehearse a role and go deeply into the character, my orgasms change. They start to become more, more…” She was gesturing with her wineglass, as if at an imagined cosmos, at a loss for words.
“Transcendental?” I asked.
“Exactly. Ask my boyfriend. And then” — she looked around, to make sure no one was listening — “I find it a heightened erotic state for me to be in character, performing.” She looked around again, but soldiered on, wishing, it seemed, to get this insight on the record. “I have had an orgasm while I was onstage. Just from being in that heightened creative condition.”
I clutched my wineglass. So it was not just that orgasm might heighten creativity in women; maybe creativity also heightened orgasm.
“Really!” I said.
“Really,” she said.
“Wow. Do you think that has ever happened to anyone else?”
“I know it has. It has happened, I am certain, to other women in the creative arts. I know women who have had orgasms while painting. And I know the two feed each other: the sexuality fuels the creative work, and the work fuels the sex.” She gave me her card and promised to introduce me to these female creative artists who had orgasms from their creative work.
I thanked her and walked out into the night, making my way gingerly past the actresses around me to the coat check, as if they were demurely dressed minefields of Eros that might erupt at any moment. But as I looked up at the starry New York winter night, I felt light-headed myself.
That night I began work on an informal survey. I put forth a set of questions to the women in my Facebook “community” of 16,800 people at that time. The questionnaire asked them if they had ever experienced any seeming connection between sex and creativity; if they had ever had a sexual experience boost their confidence levels and sense of self-love; if a sexual experience had ever led them to see better the connections between things; and if, on the other hand, periods of sexual loneliness, depression, or frustration had negatively affected their confidence, creativity, and energy.
A typical question-and-answer email went as follows:
NW: Has a really profound sexual experience ever affected your confidence levels?
NW: Given you more energy?
NW: Made you like yourself more?
NW: Boosted your creativity? If so, please specify how.
RESPONDENT: I am a painter, and did an artist’s residency in Vermont for a month about a year ago. I was away from my husband at the time. Because of the private space that I was provided, I ended up delving into [sexual] memories dealing specifically with past relationships. Having a good relationship — both sexually and otherwise — does boost my self-confidence, and my motivation to pursue my artwork… after visiting my husband mid-residency, I returned [to work] feeling more confident, and had more self-love. Someone at the residency commented, “you look really nice today,” and I’m sure it was because seeing my husband had boosted my confidence.
Women from many different backgrounds emailed me in droves. Many women spoke of unusually profound orgasms — not the everyday kind — as experiences that were followed with a sense of unusual power, energy, and confidence; of self-love; and of the world sparkling.
Laura, a British thirty-four-year-old administrative assistant wrote to me. “I met someone at work,” she confided, “and we developed a fast attraction. It was very quick for me and I suspect he was interested in me for a while. Anyway, we had a go, and a really good sexual experience that changed me deeply. My confidence level shift was immediate; I stood taller and walked stronger. More energy? Every day for two months I woke up and exercised, joyfully. I loved my self more too; started getting pedicures to express it. Creativity? I played guitar every night and learned four new songs. Connections between things? This relationship restored a dormant psychic ability that has enhanced all of my thinking since. Conversely: that relationship has not continued. Lately I have begun to grieve and miss it; mostly I miss all of the above.” She went on, “I am sad and feel the return of my old stories of negative self-image, of rejection. I find this to be strange, and unsettling to experience.” She concluded poignantly, “I have also tried sleeping with other men and have not felt anywhere near this influx [of feelings].”
Laura wrote that she was orgasmic with the other men; indeed, even more so than with the one with whom intimacy caused such an awakening. Many other women echoed this idea, that what was transformative to them in those profound sexual experiences was not a simple matter of the quality of orgasmic “fireworks.” What was transformative for them was something subjective about the quality of the orgasm that merged the physical realm with the realm of emotions or perception: the intensity that it created, and in turn the confidence and creativity.
I asked this same set of questions of an old friend, a woman my own age who was now an accomplished schoolteacher. We were sitting out in her back garden in a pretty suburb of Ann Arbor, Michigan. She had a postage-stamp garden; her laundry was drying in the sun on a line just beyond us; and her eleven-year-old boy was playing with a friend in the glass conservatory that we could hear from where we were sitting at an outdoor table by a plot of herbs. She looked like a perfectly “ordinary” wife and mother in her forties. Oddly enough, though we had talked frankly about or sex lives for twenty-three years, since we first met, we had never talked about the possible connection I had set before her, simply because it had never occurred to me. She looked at me, again, as other women had, with the abrupt expression of surprise and recognition.
“Oh my God,” she said, and started laughing. “Ohhh … Naomi. Wow. Oh, definitely. I can have perfectly fine sex most of the time, fine orgasms, and what you are talking about does not happen. But then, once in a while, there are those amazing times just after sex like that, you feel— oh, things are electric! And you have insights about your work. It is like you get some kind of superpowers. And you just want to run a marathon, or write an opus. Climb the Alps!” She was laughing hard now. “But,” she cautioned me, “it is not every time, by no means every time. I mean, I wouldn’t want it to happen every time, right? Because you would never want to do anything else if it did, or else you would be walking around in a creative mania all the time. If it happened every time, you would never get out of bed.”
Does really special sex, sex that engages the vagina, emotions, and body in very specific ways — ways that involve very concrete kinds of activation of the parasympathetic nervous system — actually lead to female euphoria, creativity, and self-love?
Laura, whom we met above, eloquently described this transformation of her whole self via sexual experience as “strange and unsettling” to go through. This sense of bafflement or mystification at our own reactions as women came up many times in the emailed responses I received. If we don’t understand our own neurology and biochemistry in sex and love, our own female selves can be very “unsettling” to us.
What had happened to us? What had happened to the actress who was transformed in an erotic ecstasy onstage? What had happened to the scientist who saw new connections in her lab, and the teacher who “wanted us to write an opus”?
From the forthcoming book VAGINA: A New Biography by Naomi Wolf. Copyright (c) 2012 by Naomi Wolf. To be published on September 11, 2012 by Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.