Betty's Response to the Vagina Monologues
The first time I saw The Vagina Monologues was in 1996 when it was off, off, off Broadway. Friends of mine who'd seen the play had alerted me that the author and sole performer, Eve Ensler, mentioned my workshops. That evening I sat in a small theater listening to a charming young woman who talked about my Women's Sexuality Workshops with a distorted view of what I'd been doing for over twenty-five years. She called it "The Vagina Workshop." Never in my wildest nightmare would I have ever considered using the word vagina to describe the work I'd been doing.
One of the great sexual tragedies in history occurred when Dr. Sigmund Freud formulated his theory that the clitoris was an infantile source of pleasure and that as a woman matures, her sexual sensations are transferred to the vagina. This theory has kept countless millions of women from becoming orgasmic. Yet the myth prevails. Women constantly ask me how to have an orgasm from vaginal penetration only. Today, tomorrow and next year, I will post letters on my website explaining to women young and old that the clitoris with eight thousand nerve endings is their primary sex organ. In order to enjoy orgasms during partnersex, most women need to include some form of direct or indirect clitoral stimulation during vaginal intercourse
In her play, Eve went on to describe the workshops participants lying on blue mats like a Yoga class looking at their "vaginas" with a hand mirror trying to find their "G-spots." It was painful for me to hear what she was saying. My workshops were held in my beautiful carpeted living room. The entire class looked at one person's vulva at a time. Using a freestanding mirror she was able to use both hands to open her outer and inner lips, as well as pull back the hood of her clitoris. As I sat next to each woman looking into the same mirror, I guided her through the exquisite form of her sex organ. Viewing the female genitals with only one hand would be like pulling our mouth to one side and thinking that's how we looked when we smiled.
"Well, Eve's a playwright," I reasoned, "and this is called poetic license." But I felt I had to confront her about not mentioning the word CLITORIS in describing my workshop. As a matter of fact, the word clitoris was never mentioned throughout the entire play. I wondered why she had never contacted me to discuss my work.
Later, in her dressing room, I told Eve I would never have women looking for some elusive spot inside the vagina. I wanted women to find the clitoris, the best source of sexual stimulation for our orgasms. At that moment, Eve repeated the word "clitoris" and seemed pleased because she thought it sounded even "funnier." I let the blue mats and the hand mirror slide to avoid sounding too critical. After all, her play had other merits- everyone left feeling happy and proud to be a woman.
In 1998 Eve sent me two complimentary tickets for the Ms. Foundation benefit performance of The Vagina Monologues held at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York City. This time an impressive cast of movie stars along with Eve read the Monologues. Eve mentioned my name from the stage saying I still ran workshops and I was thrilled to see she'd added the clitoris in a revised version of "The Vagina Workshop." There was also a new monologue called Reclaiming Cunt, which also pleased me since I'd told Eve that "cunt" was my favorite word for the female genitals. This old Anglo Saxon noun included all the parts and it sounded strong.
That night it became clear that the format for The Vagina Monologues had dramatically changed. The audience was brought to a delirious high during the first half only to be dashed into hopeless despair during the second half. We were plunged down, drowning in a sea filled with the horrors of sexual violence against women.
So what did I expect with the conservative Ms. crew on board? They have rarely been able to talk about sex without bringing up rape, abuse, wife beating, and genital mutilation. It was déjà vu. In the seventies Ms. had held up publication of my article "Liberating Masturbation" for more than two and a half years fearing they would lose subscriptions. Ms. Also supported Woman Against Pornography in the eighties. The idea that feminists were pushing for the censorship of sexual entertainment led many of us to identify ourselves as pro-sex feminists.
Now in the nineties they had done it again. V no longer stood for vagina. It stood for violence. Sex and violence, never sex and pleasure- talking about sexual pleasure when there is so much sexual violence against women would be inappropriate, insensitive and politically incorrect. And who is to blame for all the sexual violence against women? According to feminist extremists it's still the patriarchy. Does that mean daddy or our brothers? Is it the stranger who raped us? Or is it the first man who broke our heart or the first one we married who cheated on us? Maybe it's the pope or God himself, but it's definitely mankind.
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? Shall we pretend there are no mothers who all too frequently raise a hand to punish a child? 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?
On February 2001 another Gala Benefit of V-Day was held at Madison Square Garden. This time the cast of women reading the monologues had reached nearly one hundred of the biggest names from screen and television. They included Oprah Winfrey, Jane Fonda, Glen Close, Rosie Perez, Claire Danes, Marisa Tomei to name a few. The Garden was filled to capacity with 18,000 in attendance.
V-Day now had big corporate sponsorship. They had raised a million and a half dollars with more pouring in to end violence against women and girls. The Vagina Monologues are being performed across the country in hundreds of colleges and universities here and abroad. V-Day had gone global. Vagina, vagina, vagina, I can almost hear Freud laughing in his grave.
That night at Madison Square Garden I realized The Vagina Monologues and V-Day had become a bait and switch operation. The ruse is to get everyone excited about hearing famous women saying the words vagina, clitoris, and cunt only to bring us down with statistics about rape and the sexual abuse of women especially in other countries. Ignored are our mothers, wives, sisters and daughters that have never had an orgasm or enjoyed an ounce of pleasure during the sex act right here at home.
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.
It's much easier to look at other countries and gasp at their cruel and inhuman sexual practices. It keeps us from having to face our own sexual problems. By focusing on the genital mutilation of African women, we don't have to consider all the women and girls here at home who have no visual image of their own genitals, don't know what a clitoris is and have never been able to experience sexual arousal and orgasm.
V-Day awarded a quarter of a million to RAWA, an organization working to liberate the women of Afghanistan. One hundred thousand implemented the three winning prizes of the first worldwide contest to stop rape. Nearly forty finalists were flown in from all parts of the world and three winners were brought up on stage. However, not one of them was given the opportunity to tell the audience their ideas on how they intended to stop rape in their respective countries. The V-Day college initiative with students performing the Vagina Monologues will raise nearly a half a million that will go to grassroots non-violence organizations. Once again it's sex and violence- never sex and pleasure.
That night at Madison Square Garden there was no complimentary ticket for Granny Dodson to attend the biggest V-day Rally to date. I was there only because my girlfriend had VIP tickets. She's convinced that without me there would be no Vagina Monologues. I correct her saying, "Clit Dialogues, please- anything but vagina."
Eve is no longer the disarming young woman delivering her monologues. She has become an evangelical minister shouting and gesturing and admonishing us to demand an end to violence against women as the crowd roars in agreement. Toward the end of the evening Eve asked everyone who'd ever been raped to stand up. Only a smattering of women stood. Then she asked for those women who had been beaten to stand. Many more stood. Finally she asked all those to stand who knew any woman who'd been raped or beaten which included most of the audience. I refused to stand as an insignificant protest knowing she would never ask those of us who had never been raped or beaten and who enjoyed our sexuality to stand.
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. If only Eve had been more accurate in her description of my work, people would know that I ran masturbation workshops. Masturbation- now there's a dangerous concept. It's a sexual activity that serves no other purpose than pleasure. Masturbation is also a path to sexual self-knowledge which is another scary thought.
In a recent letter, a 21 year-old college student who performs "Reclaiming Cunt" in the Vagina Monologues said she was sorry I no longer ran vagina workshops. After having sex with three different men, she is still unable to have an orgasm and she doesn't know where to start. All three men asked her what she would like them to do, but since she'd never masturbated, she couldn't answer their question. She goes on to say, "I always held onto the idea that my first orgasm would be given to me by someone else. I guess it is all part of the love/sex/man of your dreams fantasy." Here is a perfect example of how standing on stage and screaming CUNT offers no practical healing.
As a clinical sexologist with over thirty years experience teaching adult women how to have orgasms, I'm convinced that it is essential young girls receive detailed birth control information and support for exploring sexual self-gratification without shame or guilt. Until they receive a positive sex education, young women will continue to be overly emotional, sexually passive and potential victims. They are set up to fall for the all-pervasive romantic myth that finding the right man to love will magically solve all their sexual and financial problems. This makes women and girls vulnerable to sexual manipulation and sows the seeds of sexual confusion and misery. Too often the result is the absence of sexual fulfillment in America's bedrooms.
Will V-Day executives and their corporate sponsors donate money to sexually educate our high school kids? American teens are currently being given the abstinence-only message supported by U.S. government funds. They are being told that any sexual activity outside monogamous marriage will have harmful psychological and physical effects. They are given false information about contraceptive failure and how it destroys romance and spontaneity. Homosexuality is discussed only in the context of HIV/AIDS and they are told that abortion is morally wrong. Masturbation as a logical and safe outlet is never mentioned. This kind of censorship and repression are glaring causes of American sexual violence that we can do something about by not allowing religious concepts to pose as a valid form of sex information and education!
Change is never easy, but I continue to hold the image that someday we will embrace a global movement that supports sexual health and celebrates pleasure. Supporters of the old puritan heritage will tremble when we take a stand for something so frivolous, so suspect, so dangerous as a person's right to enjoy orgasms alone and with partners on their own terms. Come on America. Let's confront our pleasure anxiety and give sexual pleasure a chance. It's never been tried before.
OH GOD YES YES YES YES
I was so offended by V-Monologues that I left before it was over... this was a couple years ago. Then I bought the script to see if the actors were improvising, or she was really this awful.
I wrote a critical story about it for Salon, to no reaction. Maybe I wasn't mean enough. It's trying, because you keep thinking they're well-intentioned. But all that Bosnian-rape crap just made me so fucking MAD. It was like "scratch a liberal, find a fascist" is how I saw it.
I think you and I are "hardcore feminists". I think these V-girls are liberal pantywaists. If hardcore means fundamental, and radical, then hardcore feminism would mean that you questions the very nature of gender-defined attributes.
As long as liberal feminsits continue to demonize men by their nature (bad boy!) and valorize women by theirs ( good girl!) they are not furthering the cause of women's liberation. Referring to women's sexual center as their vagina, as you pointed out, is the original sexist Freudian fuck-up as far as "hardcore" feminsits are concerned!
I realize that calling myself a "feminist" at this point has become sort of a hippie girl indulgence from my teenage passion years, when I was first coming out as a feminist. And who did I read then? YOU YOU YOU. You were hardcore feminism as far as I was concerned. I was, and still am, totally betrayed by N.O.W., et al, selling feminism down the river, sexually, as well as in other ways.
I know I am totally isolated in this. I think I'm a communist too, and you can just imagine my utopian version of that! But just food for thought....
That feminism is not yet out of the woods, despite the triumph in the 1990s of the pro-sex wing to which I belong, is shown by the garish visibility of Eve Ensler and her "Vagina Monologues," which have apparently spawned copycat cells on many campuses. (The students and faculty at my urban arts college are far too busy and sensible for this kind of thing.) With her obsession with male evil and her claimed history of physical abuse and mental breakdowns, Ensler is the new Andrea Dworkin, minus Medusan hair and rumpled farm overalls. Wasn't one Dworkin quite enough?
The perversion of feminism that Ensler represents -- turning Valentine's Day, the one holiday celebrating romantic harmony between the sexes, into a grisly memento mori of violence against women -- has been well demonstrated by the ever-alert Christina Hoff Sommers, who gave early warning in her Feb. 11 article in the Wall Street Journal last year (as well as in her campus lectures, media appearances and an article in the Feb. 8 USA Today). That the psychological poison of Ensler's archaic creed of victimization is being spread to impressionable women students is positively criminal.
The buffoonish hooting and hollering incited by Ensler's supposedly naughty play is really the hysterical desperation of aging women who have never come to terms with the cruel realities of nature and who cannot face the humiliating fact that, despite their accomplishments, they will always be culturally swept away by the young and beautiful. That in the year 2001 the group chanting of crude four-letter words for female genitalia is viewed as some sort of radical liberation implies that the real issue in the "Vagina Monologues" isn't male oppression but bourgeois repression -- the malady of the dainty, decorous professional class that was created in the first century after the Industrial Revolution.
We haven't touched base in a while, but after reading the rerun of your article in the Spectator this week criticizing V-Day, I wanted to toss a hello and check in with you.
Mostly, I wanted to send you love and profound thanks today because I think a helluva lot of us owe it to you, and I think you're an absolute wonder. I agree so strongly with everything you've said and flatly, I've never been a Vagina Monologue fan anyway -- a whole empowerment idea that starts with using the wrong word for the female genitalia rubs me the wrong way before one even gets to the deeper issues. I hope that what we're doing at Scarleteen.com with the young women there offers some of the direction you suggest and have always suggested.
As a Buddhist, I'd theorize that some of why you see the easy switch-and-bait to sexual violence is the same reason I get nasty hate mail mixed in with the good. We have the audacity to tell young women their bodies -- all by themselves -- are instruments of joy and pleasure. I think most people are more scared of joy than of suffering. More scared of happiness than of anger. It stands to reason: joy has more power. But that makes it scary, not less, which is sad. But I digress, happy other V-day Betty, Happy Valentine's Day.
The work I've been doing for the last five or six years is work that I likely would never have gotten the chance to do if you hadn't been paving the way. Your work and who you are was always there for me to look at and not feel so lonely in talking about sex and sexual well-being as a joyful wonder, not clinical maneuver, not gender power play, not violence, not fluff, not drama. Thanks for never ceasing to inspire.
scarletletters.com - scarleteen.com - femmerotic.com
Dear Dr. Dodson:
BRAVO! Really enjoyed your article. No surprise what Ms. Ensler and her legions of politicallycorrectoholics are doing to your work, though. One doesn't gain money and power by giving liberating information to individuals and telling them they're free to use it at home, as they wish, for their pleasure. Demagogues profit by making people feel angry, frustrated, victimized. Then they tell their audience all about how they can be victorious, if only they contribute their money, their voices and their votes.
As for co-opting your work for the purpose, they've been doing that since antiquity; witness the misappropriation of the teachings of a poor carpenter's son by one Saul of Tarsus...
Fortunately, I'm a very small and obscure fish, so the message I try to spread, handed down from a wise and enlightened teacher (and MALE! How quaint!) is safer than yours, at least for now. I mother a group of women and a few men who give people a chance to enact their erotic fantasies and, in doing so, figure out that they won't go blind, get tarred and feathered or be forced to associate only with drooling mental defectives in back alleys.
At least, I don't THINK I drool in back alleys...
Keep up the good work. We'll tell our friends the magic word is "clitoris" -- but then, we already do!
Dear Dr. Dodson:
I read your article on V-Day and the Vagina Monologues with much interest.
It is precisely because the Vagina Monologues has included the blood bathing of the vagina through rape and abuse that it could never be called the Clitoral Monologues. To allow the female body to have pleasure through her clit would be unimportant, frivolous and not worthy of a dramatic event. I guess it doesn't sell tickets, nor is it a higher cause.
Goddess forbid if a woman would declare victory, claim the body as her own and revel in the pleasure gained from it. But no, we have to be poor pathetic creatures, beaten and raped before we are entitled to be heard and protected by the father figures of the world. Are our voices only heard when we are crying? Is that all we expect of ourselves? Can't we empower ourselves with pride in our bodies and the places that it takes us, from the birthing room to the Supreme Court? Can't we just once view ourselves in a positive light, as sexual beings who can pleasure themselves as well as others. Can't we be sexual and wise and intelligent and powerful?
You are so right in feeling that masturbation is the very last taboo. I have seen countless shows on rape, child abuse, incest and murder but never a one about a woman taking Mrs. Palmer and her five lovely daughters to the dance at the Quim. Ain't it about time?
Male bashing, now there's a topic. It's everywhere...television shows, plays, internet jokes, you name it. Let me name one: a recent NYPD Blue television show. One of the sub-stories had a small bald older guy whose penis was cut off during a sexual act performed by a homeless-type prostitute in a subway bathroom. Well now, let's just insult everyone -- consensual sex with nonconsensual cutting. The police assign two beautiful female detectives to see him in the hospital (how sensitive). The fem-toughs arrive only to wink and snicker to each other during the interview and then go out to follow a lead about a 'thumb' found nearby at an ATM. Lots of comic relief when they decide it's the recently detached penis ("it doesn't have a nail") with very little sense of emergency to get it back to the hospital for re-attachment. When they do get it back, our guy decides that he won't re-attach it because he needs some measure of self-control for future potential sexual acts in public bathrooms.
What started with a guy wanting to jack off now becomes a comically condoned castration. Guys, how do you stand it? Let's substitute a nice juicy tit for the penis in this story. The feminists would take to the streets.
Jane C, New York City
Just read your piece about the Vagina Monologues, and I just wanted to let you know again how much I appreciate your pro-pleasure viewpoint and all the work you do. You're very brave to say what you do.
I still think Sex for One is the best single book on sex I've ever read (and I've read plenty). So please keep up the good work.
Thanks again, Betty.
I recently saw the Vagina Monologues performed at my local state college. I too had some problems with the show. They referred to women's genitals as their vagina, everything was called "vagina." Not a single picture or illustration of a vulva, or vagina was shown. We did get to see blood stains project on the screen during a skit about menstruation though.
One skit presented the idea that any woman who shaved her pubic hair was a victim. They made it sound as if no woman could possibly enjoy having a clean shaven vulva, shaving amounted to torture. Another skit presented the story of a thirteen-year-old girl whose vagina had only been a source of pain up until that point, but then at thirteen a twenty-four year-old lesbian showed her the joys of having a vulva. I wonder if they would have presented such a positive picture if it had been a twenty-four year old man? Interesting skit given the program benefited a local women's safe house!
While the show was entertaining, it was definitely biased. They also showed slides giving the number of assaults that occurred locally. I would say there was a pro-lesbian bias. Perhaps they are seeking out potential lesbian recruits to fight for their causes, from college campuses. Sounds like the Army!
One skit did present the story of a woman who had discovered the joys of her vulva from a man, named Bob. The men in the audience had been given name tags with Bob written on them. I guess we are supposed to go out and show women the joys of having a vulva, not that they prepared us to do so.