Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Notes From A Recently Deflowered Vagina Virgin

The cast and director of California State University, Sacramento's 2011 V-Day production of The Vagina Monologues. Top row (from left): Jaimie Davis, Sadie Jeffries, Katherine Williams, Jasmine Wyrick, Divya Goconda, Carolina Mendoza, Elizabeth Johnson, Rochelle Robinson, Charity King. Middle row (from left): Liz Rowell (director), Macellina Amonoo, Julie Tan, Natasha Tricoche, Linda Bean. Bottom row (from left): Ariana Lozano, Keyko Torres, Liz Redford, Michelle So, Meredith Carey, Megan Brubaker, Chelsea Castillo, Jamie Jackson.

Until Saturday, February 19, I was a vagina virgin. The Vagina Monologues has been around since 1996 and it has been widely performed and celebrated, but it’s taken me this long to see it. Dawn and I attended the final performance of Sacramento State’s annual V-Day production of the play. Our friend Liz Rowell has been involved in the production for the past six years, but this year – her final year – she was the director, which made our first time even more enjoyable. It was a vibrant show with a cast of talented students who dove head-first into their roles and made the popping of my Vagina cherry a memorable experience.

It was originally my intention to write a review of the production, but first, I decided to do a little research and soak up some of the play’s history. This led me to some things with which I disagreed, and that led me to forming opinions and that led to – well, my point is that this isn’t the blog I intended to write and it’s probably longer than it would have been otherwise. Just so you know.

Here’s a little history of the play for those who might still be unfamiliar with it – although that seems unlikely because it has become a feminist phenomenon. The monologues are drawn from interviews Eve Ensler first conducted with friends about relationships, sex, and violence against women. But these friends referred her to other women who had other stories to tell. In an interview on Women.com, Ensler said, “It was like this great vagina trail I was sucked into.” The initial reluctance of the interviewees soon gave way to an enthusiastic outpouring of stories and feelings, all of which went into the monologues. The play opened at HERE Arts Center in New York City on October 3, 1996, and has remained an evolving, living thing ever since.

In the Women.com interview, Ensler was asked, “Why do you think you've become so impassioned by vaginas as opposed to, say, breasts? Or giving birth? Or other women-only experiences?” She responded:

“I was drawn to vaginas because of my own personal history, because of sexuality, because women's empowerment is deeply connected to their sexuality. And, I'm obsessed with women being violated and raped, and with incest. All of these things are deeply connected to our vaginas. ... I think growing up in a violent society is a big part of it. I lived in a very brutal household, so all that deeply shaped this.”

That obsession moved Ensler and a group of other women to establish V-Day in 1998, a non-profit movement that raises money to increase awareness of and work toward stopping violence against women. Every February, colleges and communities across the country perform The Vagina Monologues to benefit the movement. Each year, V-Day spotlights a specific group of women who are being victimized by violence somewhere in the world, and a new monologue is written about that group. In 2008, the spotlight was on the women of New Orleans, in 2009 and 2010 it was on the women and girls of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and this year it was on the women of Haiti. It’s easy for those of us who live in the United States to forget the fact that in other parts of the world, violence against women is an everyday part of life – rape as warfare, female genital mutilation and the oppression of women by religion are as common in other parts of the globe as sporting events and yard sales are in America. V-Day passionately points this out. It demands that attention be paid and steps be taken to stop violence against women wherever it occurs.

Over the years, both The Vagina Monologues and V-Day have been the target of a good deal of criticism. I see that as a good sign because I’m of the opinion that if you aren’t pissing somebody off or at least being criticized, then you’re not getting anything done. Unsurprisingly, much of that criticism has come from religious conservatives, but some of it has come from other feminists, as well.

The American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property (TFP) – a hell of a mouthful that I do not recommend swallowing – has urged people to protest the play because it is “a piece replete with sexual encounters, lust, graphic descriptions of masturbation and lesbian behavior.” On TFP’s website, references to the play’s title are written like this: “The V***** Monologues.”

Typically, words are censored because they are considered obscene or offensive. “Vagina” is neither. It’s the actual name of a part of the female anatomy. But the people at TFP have censored it as if it is an obscenity. Why? Well, it looks to me like they think it is an obscenity. It is this kind of thinking that makes The Vagina Monologues absolutely necessary.

The Network of Enlightened Women is a conservative organization that, judging by its title, thinks rather highly of itself. It was founded at the University of Virginia in 2004 and has leveled severe criticism at the play for being vulgar and demeaning to women. In a 2006 article titled "V is for Vulgar," organization president Meredith Ramsey writes, “First and foremost, The Vagina Monologues effectively reduces women to their vaginas.” She claims the play “is demeaning to women, degrading to men, dangerous for children and uncouth.”

While I must credit Ramsey with being enough of a fucking grownup to actually write out the full word “vagina,” I have to dismiss her criticism along with TFP’s. They reveal far more about the critics than about Ensler’s play. These are people who do not see the world as most people see it. They believe that sex is shameful, genitals are naughty, women should behave a certain way, and we simply should not talk about any of the things discussed in the play no matter how many women are being hurt because that would be ... well, uncouth. Again, it is this kind of thinking that makes The Vagina Monologues absolutely necessary.

In America these days, the words “conservative” and “christian” are virtually synonymous. American conservatives champion the rules and regulations of Christianity whether individual conservatives are religious or not. As I’ve said many times before, the Republican party is no longer a political party – it is now the political arm of the Christian religion. Prominent among conservative values is the idea that women just shouldn’t get too damned uppity. They are wives and mothers, dammit, and they need to remember that! (Sometimes, of course, they have to be reminded.) They’re supposed to stay home where they belong, be subservient to their husbands, and if they decide not to have children, well, then, they’re just not hooked up right. And if they decide not to get married, they must be lesbians, and we all know that's a sin and an abomination unto the lord – unless, of course, a man is allowed to watch and then join in when he’s ready, in which case the lord doesn’t seem to mind so much as long as everyone involved isn't so uncouth as to talk about it. Genitals are dirty things. They became dirty as soon as the first woman screwed up everything for everybody by listening to the talking snake in the magic garden, eating the forbidden fruit, and then seducing the first man – who was perfectly innocent in all of this, mind you – into doing the same thing. Before that happened, there was no naughty sex and genitals were mostly for urinating and all was right with the lord. God had told the first man and woman to “be fruitful and multiply,” so obviously, there was sex going on, but nobody called it fucking and they only did it in the missionary position, so it was okay. But then along came that talking snake and Eve wanted a snack, so everything went to hell. That’s why women bleed every month, don’tcha know. God’s punishing them for throwing a wrench into everything. And now we have to make sure that women stay in line and act as man's “help meet,” as the bible instructed. Merriam-Webster defines “help meet” as, “A woman who keeps her mouth shut, her legs open and the kitchen clean.”

Okay, okay, I admit it, that’s not how Merriam-Webster defines “help meet” – mostly because the phrase “help meet,” like the ridiculous beliefs described above, is archaic and has no place in the modern world. But organizations like TFP and the Network of Enlightened Women cling to that archaic way of thinking and apply it to everything around them – including The Vagina Monologues, which TFP can’t even write without censoring itself because this archaic way of thinking makes the vagina a bad, dirty thing that must be hidden away and never discussed.

But conservatives aren’t the only ones who criticize the play and V-Day.

Betty Dodson is a pioneer in sexual liberation. She is a sex educator, author, feminist, artist, and is a well-known champion of positive attitudes toward female sexuality and masturbation. For 25 years, she ran Bodysex groups in which women learned about and discussed their bodies and sexual pleasure and learned to reach orgasm through self stimulation. You might think that’s something that everyone naturally knows and can do, but if that were the case, people like Betty Dodson would not be necessary and we wouldn’t be living in a world filled with the shame and self-loathing that has been the generous gift of religion. I’ve always been a great admirer of Dodson’s work – I think what she does is important, even vital, in a culture that’s obsessed with and hungry for sex but ashamed and afraid of it and wildly confused about it. Dodson has been an outspoken critic of The Vagina Monologues and V-Day for what she sees as an emphasis on sexual violence rather than sexual pleasure. In an article on her website, Dodson writes about a production of the play she attended at Madison Square Garden:

“Goddess forbid people would be sent home happy with new information about women's sexual pleasure. Instead, this powerful venue, Madison Square Garden, sends us home feeling guilty about all the women in Africa, Bosnia and Afghanistan who are being raped, tortured and genitally mutilated. Many leave with the false belief that all the millions raised will actually end sexual violence against women. This becomes a bad joke when we realize that American women must continue the struggle to preserve our right to choose abortion, have easy access to birth control and sex information now that the religious right controls the White House. ...

“That's the main problem with V-Day. Women end up with a false idea that V-day will end violence against women and girls. Ending violence is a worthy cause and I'm all for it, but consistently equating sex with violence offers no real solution. V-Day promises us that awareness plus education equals prevention. I can only hope that by the time they get to the education phase, a group of orgasmic women will replace The Vagina Monologues with Clit Conversations that will teach women how to take sexual pleasure into their own hands.”

I understand the point Dodson makes, but I don’t agree with it. I’ve only seen the play once, and if I were to sit down and read it and sit through multiple performances, I might find things about it that don’t quite sit right with me. But the production I saw was exhilarating, disturbing and eye-opening, and that’s what art should do – make you feel things and think things. I admire what it does, and I think it is successful in doing it. The Vagina Monologues is not meant to send people “home happy with new information about women’s sexual pleasure.” If that’s what you want, then I strongly recommend Dodson’s work. She does that beautifully, and I think it’s a very important thing to do. Among other great things, her work points out double standards, the obstacles that stand in the way of sexual pleasure, and then sweeps them aside to embrace that pleasure. That is what Dodson does, and she does it better than anybody.

I think it’s a mistake for Dodson to expect Ensler’s play to do the same thing, because that’s simply not what it intends to do. Ensler has other things on her mind and The Vagina Monologues is about those things. The play does not focus only on women in other countries “being raped, tortured and genitally mutilated.” It includes that, yes, but it also talks about Native American women on reservations in the United States, where violence and rape occur three times more often than anywhere else in the country (something I didn't know before I saw the play). It talks about a little girl here in America who is raped and brutalized. At no point did I get the impression that the play arrogantly believes it will single-handedly end violence against women, but it seems to know that the only way it will end – if it ever does – will be through an angry refusal to remain silent while it goes on. Yes, awareness and education are extremely important, but I saw nothing in the play to suggest that they are the only solution. Without awareness and education, however, nothing will happen.

If you want to see a film that tells a dramatic, emotional story that will move you, it might not be a good idea to see a film written and directed by, say, Judd Apatow or Mel Brooks. If you do see a film written and directed by Apatow or Brooks, it’s really not fair to complain that it did not tell a dramatic, emotional, moving story because it didn’t intend to – it intended to make you laugh with jokes about farts and boobs. The problem is not the movie you saw but the fact that you saw that movie when you were in the mood to see another. If a movie by Apatow or Brooks fails to accomplish its goal of making you laugh with jokes about farts and boobs, then criticizing it for that is appropriate. But it’s unfair to criticize it for what it isn’t.

We are all shaped by our experiences and by how we process those experiences. Eve Ensler has said that “growing up in a violent society” and living “in a very brutal household” were part of what “deeply shaped” The Vagina Monologues. As a victim of brutality herself, Ensler is angered by the brutality against women that she sees around her. Her work is an expression of that anger and she has tried to channel that anger in a way that will raise awareness in others and work toward stopping the brutality. I can’t find anything to criticize in that.

Dodson refers to Ensler as “an evangelical minister” in the way Ensler focuses on the subject of violence against women. She thinks The Vagina Monologues is hateful toward men and heterosexuality and blames them both for this problem. This makes me scratch my head. Did we see the same play? I didn’t come away with that feeling at all. Dodson writes:

“It's very difficult to criticize V Day without sounding anti-woman or pro-violence. Dare we ask why so many feminists think women have cornered the market on being victimized by violence? Will we sound too insensitive in mentioning the violence caused by poverty, hunger, and wars that affect women, men and children of every gender? Are we to ignore all the wives who verbally abuse and dominate husbands? It's almost as if feminists insist on ignoring the power that many mothers wield in the home to preserve the image that all woman are helpless victims incapable of violence. ... Could we cut to the chase and say that the source of violence against women comes from the extreme fundamentalists in all the major religions including Christians, Jews, Hindus and Muslims? That all forms of authoritarianism exercised by both women and men are the source of violence along with ignorance and prejudice?”

Those are excellent points and in a sense, I agree with them. For example, I wish there were more plays (and movies and novels) that expressed anger about the violence and sexual abuse committed against young boys, because so much of the violence against women is the result of young boys being violently abused and molested and growing up to be violent abusers because that's what they know, the environment in which they developed. But while these are good points, I'm not sure they’re entirely fair. If this play were to tackle all of those things, it would no longer be The Vagina Monologues – it would be something else entirely. Again, I think it’s wrong to criticize any piece of art for what it isn’t, for what it doesn’t do. Yes, all of the things Dodson lists above are very real problems. No, violence against women is not the only problem in the world and it's certainly not the only kind of violence out there. And yes, dropping the blame on individual men is a mistake when the problem really stems from institutions that have set themselves up as unquestionable and beyond criticism – in other words, religion. That’s usually my target.

I do a lot of writing about the many ways religion has damaged – and continues to damage – our world and the ways in which it has resulted in bad government, hateful bigotry and sexism, the rejection of science and knowledge, a kind of institutionalized and dehumanizing self-loathing, both physical and psychological child abuse, wars and widespread willful ignorance. Every time I write or speak about this subject, someone – usually several someones – accuse me of being an “evangelical minister.” They claim I’m no different than Pat Robertson or the late Jerry Falwell condemning homosexuality or feminism or Harry Potter. This, of course, is mind-numbingly ridiculous because it ignores one major fact: I am not condemning homosexuality or feminism or Harry Potter. If I were, then I would be like an evangelist minister, but I’m not. Does the fact that I’m passionate about my subject mean that I’m like an “evangelical minister?” I can't understand how. Lots of people are passionate about lots of things – they are not all evangelical ministers. This is a nonsensical criticism. In fact, it’s not a criticism at all – it is a deliberate insult meant to discredit me disguised as a criticism. They also point out that religion is not the only source of bad things, that bad things come from all kinds of places. This usually makes my head explode. Does the fact that bad things come from other sources justify or absolve the evil that religion does? Of course not. But that’s what these someones are saying, whether they’re aware of it or not. When I talk about the evil that religion does, I’m talking about the evil that religion does. What these someones are saying is, “Don’t talk about that, Ray! We don’t like it! Talk about something else or shut up!” My response is, if you don’t like it, don’t listen to or read it. I’m not shutting up.

The Vagina Monologues addresses violence against women and girls. If for some reason you don’t want to hear about or be aware of violence against women, then don’t’ see The Vagina Monologues, because that’s what it’s about. Go see something else. Because Eve Ensler isn’t shutting up. And she shouldn’t.

I don’t mean to suggest that Betty Dodson is the only critic of The Vagina Monologues, or that her criticisms are unreasonable. She’s not and they’re not. I’ve spent this much time on her comments because she’s reasonable, and because I’m familiar with and admire her. There has been a good deal of criticism of the play from other feminists, as well, and while I don’t have the room to focus on all of it, two points in particular stand out because they deal with things to which I am very sensitive. They are articulated well by feminist author Wendy McElroy in a 2002 article on her website (link).

“A play that claims to unveil the truth about vaginas but, somehow, overlooks the salutary role men play in most women's sexuality has no credibility. Worse than this, The Vagina Monologues equates men with ‘the enemy’ and heterosexual love with violence.”

Once again, it’s hard for me to believe that we’re talking about the same play. I saw nothing in The Vagina Monologues that struck me that way – and I’m a man! I get prickly when I hear a woman complain that “all men” are insensitive or violent or unfaithful or ... anything. It simply isn’t true – just as it’s not true that all women are anything. Men and women have one thing in common – they’re human beings. And human beings inhabit a vast spectrum of behavior ranging from good to abhorrent. However, I never cease to be amazed by the insensitive, cruel, shocking, stupid and ugly things that many members of my sex do on a fairly regular basis, and I know there are a lot of double standards that allow men to get away with behavior for which women are vilified. It’s just that I’m sensitive about the “all men” qualification. It simply isn’t true that all men engage in these bad behaviors and I resent the accusation that they do. I didn’t see that accusation in The Vagina Monologues.

If Ensler's play truly equated men with "the enemy," then it would not include the monologue titled "Because He Liked to Look at It," about a woman who meets and becomes involved with a man who is kind and tender and loves the pussy so much that the first time they're together, he sits and stares at it and talks about it for an hour. It's a wonderful piece that does not contain an ounce of hatred for men or heterosexuality. Why doesn't McElroy mention it?

I felt the play was pointing out not so much the violence of individual men but the violence against women that is inherent in a culture and a system that is favorable toward men – because for so long it has been dominated by men – but subjugates women. Despite all of the advances we’ve made since the cultural explosion of the 1960s, that culture and system still exist.

I don’t think all violence toward women is physical. I think things are done in our society that can result in women being physically harmed, and I see those things as a kind of violence against women. There are a couple of excellent examples that occurred recently.

In January 2011,
New Jersey Republican Chris Smith introduced H.R. 3 into the House, a bill that attempted to redefine “rape.” It proposed making the Hyde Amendment permanent. That’s the amendment that prohibits government-funded healthcare programs from funding abortions except in the case of rape, incest or to save the life of the mother. H.R. 3 added the word “forcible” – it proposed that abortions be funded only in the case of “forcible rape.” As far as I’m concerned, Smith’s proposal was an act of violence toward women because essentially, it’s saying, “Were you really raped? We’re not so sure. Does your definition of rape match our definition of rape? Let’s check first, because if we don’t think you were raped, you’re on your own, honey.”

Then there’s the Pence Amendment. Mike Pence, a Republican congressman who represents Indiana’s 6th district, is an evangelical Christian who, in 2007, staunchly opposed a hate crime bill because he feared it would endanger Christians who condemn homosexuality. In other words, the bill might get in the way of a Christian’s right to discriminate against, mistreat or persecute homosexuals with impunity. This year, Pence proposed an amendment that would strip Planned Parenthood of all government funding because Planned Parenthood provides abortions. The amendment passed with a vote of 240 to 185, with 11 Democrats voting for it and seven Republicans against. None of the government funding that Planned Parenthood receives goes toward abortions, but supporters of the amendment claim that the money indirectly funds abortions. Because these supporters are opposed to abortion – which, by the way, remains legal – they want to remove all of Planned Parenthood’s funding, which would bring a halt to the things it provides – like birth control, medical exams, screenings for breast and cervical cancer, family planning information and HIV testing, among other valuable, even lifesaving, services. That is violence against women. This congress has voted to throw a whole lot of women under the bus – make no mistake, women will die if Planned Parenthood disappears – because some people disapprove of a controversial but perfectly legal and, most importantly, extremely personal procedure that is received only by women.

Like I said, despite all the advances we’ve made, we still live in a culture that is systematically biased against women – mostly because of Christians who want to legislate their personal religious beliefs for everyone so that everyone must live by them.

I give these two examples to illustrate the fact that violence against women is not just some guy beating the crap out of his wife or girlfriend. It doesn’t take place only in foreign lands. It’s part of the fabric of life in America. It’s an attitude as well as a physical act. Pointing that out, trying to raise awareness of it and get people to feel something about it does not “equate men with ‘the enemy’ and heterosexual love with violence.”

This is not like a typical play that is imagined from beginning to end by the author, populated by fictional characters who do things that didn’t really happen. This is made up of the personal experiences of individual women. When one of the women says of her first sexual experience with a woman, “I’ll never need to rely on a man,” neither her words nor her sexuality are meant to apply to all women. This is her experience and it is included with the stories of other women who shared their experiences. If you take this to mean that all women should have the same experiences or feel and think the same things, then you are missing the point of the play. (Also, you're just a little bit odd, if I may say so.) Nothing about the play suggests that all men are violent rapists or that heterosexual love is a bad thing. Some of the stories involve violent men who rape and homosexual relationships, yes, that’s true. But to say that it’s making a general statement about these things that applies to everyone is like saying the story of Helen Keller is an insult to all blind and deaf mutes who do not accomplish precisely all of the things Keller accomplished in her lifetime.

By far, the most criticized part of the play is a monologue titled “The Little Coochie Snorcher That Could.” A grown woman tells of the abuses she suffered early in life, and then recounts her first sexual experience at the age of 16 with a 24-year-old woman who gives her alcohol and gets her into bed. Originally, the woman’s age was 13 at the time of the sexual encounter. This has upset a lot of people. Wendy McElroy writes:

“Both by statute and by feminist definition, the ‘seduction’ scene is rape. Nevertheless, the Coochi Snorcher declares, ‘ ... if it was rape, it was a good rape.’

“Such idealization of child molestation would have created a firestorm of outrage if the offending character had been male. But the molester was female, so The Vagina Monologues won an OBIE Award on Broadway and noted actresses clamored to be included in the cast. When the New York Times reported the buzz about Ensler, it called her ‘the messiah heralding the second wave of feminism.'

“However, audiences probably won't hear the Coochi Snorcher speaking of ‘good rape’ in the 2002 performances. In past years, some sections of The Vagina Monologues have caused embarrassment to the organizers and university officials who have backed V-Day performances. The script has been changed.”

McElroy is right – if the 24-year-old woman had been a man, there would have been a lot of outrage. That’s a prevalent double standard in our society that usually sends me into a rant – and it’s a double standard that favors women. If The Vagina Monologues were a straight play that told a fictional story that put a positive spin on the statutory rape of a 13- or 16-year-old girl, this probably would be a very different blog. I qualify that with “probably” because, to be honest, it would depend on the tone of the play. I don’t like making hypothetical generalizations, especially when it comes to plays or movies or novels, because fiction can depict all kinds of acts and behaviors that, in reality, are wrong but do it in a way that does not condone those acts or behaviors. But this isn’t that kind of play.

Ensler took these monologues from real people who were sharing their own personal experiences. The Coochie Snorcher herself saw this as a positive experience. Yes, it was statutory rape, and yes, the 24-year-old woman was wrong. Got that? I’m saying she was wrong. But compared to the abuses suffered by the Coochie Snorcher previous to this experience, she saw it as her “salvation,” as she put it. It was her experience, and that was how she processed it. If she saw it as a good experience, if she claims it opened her eyes to positive things and changed her life in a good way, no one is in any position to tell her she’s wrong. We don’t have to approve of what that woman did and there’s nothing wrong with expressing our disapproval. But to condemn the entire play because of one woman’s interpretation of something that happened to her is a big reach.

In a 2000 article about V-Day, McElroy refers to The Vagina Monologues as “pro-rape.” Wow. That’s pretty mind-blowing. I admit, I learned all of this only while researching this article. I don’t know who’s who in feminism and which factions are clashing with which other factions over what, but like any movement, I know there are differing opinions involved and some of the disagreements can get ... well, heated. This sure looks to me like there’s more going on here than just an opinion of a play – know what I mean? Calling The Vagina Monologues “pro-rape” is like calling E.T. anti-extraterrestrial. And it makes it a little difficult to take McElroy seriously.

Here’s what I think of The Vagina Monologues. It addresses a problem that needs to be addressed and does it in a way that is entertaining and moving. It encourages women to value and nurture their sexuality rather than be ashamed of it. It embraces women and denounces sexism, violence and oppression. And it raises money for a worthy cause. I can’t see any negatives in that.

The production I saw at California State University, Sacramento, featured a rainbow of enthusiastic and talented women who were passionate about what they were doing and wholeheartedly believed in it. And it was brilliantly directed by my friend Liz Rowell.

If The Vagina Monologues comes to a college or community near you next February, go see it. If you’ve never seen it before, I think you will find it a wonderful experience. If you’ve seen it before and found in it the same value I found, see it again to support the cause.