“Nothing prepared me for vaginas,” writes Eve Ensler in her memoir, Insecure At Last. It was curiosity about this single word, rarely uttered in polite conversation, that led Ensler to write The Vagina Monologues, the play that has over the past 15 years become a cultural phenomenon.
It began in idle conversation, when a friend disparaged her own vagina, calling it “ugly.” Ensler’s initial shock over the remark turned to fascination as she began to consider how taboo the subject was. Why does the word “vagina” cause more controversy than words like “scud missile” or “plutonium”? What is hidden in our culture’s silence around women’s bodies? She interviewed hundreds of women about their vaginas and drew inspiration from their stories to create a searing and honest portrayal of women’s physical and sexual experiences.
At first, Ensler performed The Vagina Monologues as a one-woman show. But the play was seized by an audience of enthusiastic fans and received plaudits from celebrities like Oprah and Glenn Close, both of whom starred in a 2001 performance at Madison Square Garden. Now staged on college campuses and in church basements, community theaters, and other gathering spaces around the world, often on Valentine’s Day, the Monologues are like a festival or ritual—an evening set aside for free, open, and sometimes rowdy conversation about women and sex.
The success of The Vagina Monologues sent Ensler traveling across the United States and around the world. Wherever she went, women approached her and confided their experiences of sexual abuse, rape, and intimidation. Ensler survived years of incest and abuse from her father as a child, and her travels made her realize that violence against women was far more epidemic than she had known.
In 1998, she launched V-Day, which has become a worldwide movement focused on ending violence against women and girls. V-Day has held thousands of events in more than 140 countries and raised millions of dollars for programs that empower women, and Ensler has become one of the world’s foremost advocates against rape and sexual violence.
In 2006, she also began traveling to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to a war zone
sometimes referred to as the “rape capital of the world.” Here, V-Day has helped women start
City of Joy, where survivors of sexual violence receive leadership training and support.
Ensler is the author of several other widely acclaimed plays, including The Good Body and Necessary Targets. Two years ago, she fought uterine cancer, an experience that she says has brought her greater empathy with women whose bodies have been ravaged by violence. I spoke with her by phone, not long before the debut of the Berkeley, Calif., production of I Am An Emotional Creature, a play that explores the inner emotional lives of girls and their struggles
around the world.
Madeline Ostrander: Why is it so powerful to utter the word “vagina”?
Eve Ensler: Language is how we bring light to things and make them visible and real. So much happens to women in the dark, in the middle of the night, under cover, or in back rooms.
When you experience incest as a child, as I did, it always happens in a dream-like state. You’re not fully conscious. When we don’t have access to language, we have no way to utter our experiences. When you say a word like “vagina,” it’s real. When that happens, you get power. You start to voice your own story. You start to bring yourself into consciousness and the present tense.
Ostrander: When did you realize that you could use storytelling to reckon with the experiences of both sexuality and abuse?
Ensler: When I was young, I was wowed by storytellers like James Baldwin and Virginia Woolf, who wrote so powerfully about personal experience. I always felt there was a world under the world that I was living in, and I wanted to use stories to expose that world.
When I began The Vagina Monologues, at first it felt accidental that I was writing a play about vaginas. I was performing it Off Broadway when I suddenly became aware of what I was doing, and I panicked—“What am I thinking? I’m talking about vaginas in public. What am I, crazy?”
But the response was so powerful. I was telling my story and the stories of other women, which was provoking many more women to tell their stories.
The play is now being done in places that I never would have thought were possible—churches, the European Parliament, the steps of the Michigan state capitol, Pakistan.
Theater allows us to state what is right in front of us. The family alcoholic that no one talks about, the uncle who’s incesting the young girl. Silences allow tyrants to reign, allow oppression to continue, allow rapists to have their day.
As women, we’ve been so trained to be good and compliant. I often tell the story of a girl who was attacked by a taxi driver. He tried to rape her. She battled her way out—and then went back to give him his fare! It’s so emblematic of our willingness to please—at any cost.
I feel that I work to punch at violence and break those taboos.
Ostrander: Is there a set of stories that men also need to tell about their bodies?
Ensler: I think men haven’t even begun to tell the stories of their bodies. Many men have enormous, unexpressed grief, loneliness, and fear of failure. When we don’t have a place where boys can cry or express doubt, ambiguity, or tenderness, that lack of expression can turn into violence. My father was very raging and violent. He had no language for his fragility or grief or vulnerability. He had his fists and belts and his abusive words.
Anti-violence activist Tony Porter calls it “the man-box,” the socialization that stops men from being free to express their emotions. Breaking out of the man-box—the liberation of men and their bodies and emotions—is directly related to the liberation of women’s bodies.
Of course, most men are not rapists and abusers, and there are many good men. After performances of Emotional Creature, men approach me to say that they’re deeply emotional but they have no space for their feelings.
Ostrander: You’ve said nothing is more important than stopping violence against women.
Ensler: I believe that. As a global society, we still don’t understand the magnitude of this issue. One out of three women on the planet will be beaten or raped in her lifetime. That’s one billion women! If we are mutilating, beating, raping, and selling women, it impacts everything around them—their children and the way men are brought up. It affects women’s ability to be intimate and safe, to walk through the world with openness and tenderness, to be competent, to have jobs, to learn and teach. We have no idea the energy, the thinking, the vision, the brilliance that’s been lost because women are terrorized by violence.
People still do not understand that violence against women is one of the central issues of our time. They think about poverty or violence or racism or global warming, but then you realize many of the people taking the lead to fight against those things are women. If the women are battered and destroyed, who will be here to fight for life?
Ostrander: In U.S. policy, we often claim to take the moral high ground on women’s rights. For example, the Bush Administration justified the Iraq War, in part, by alleging it would liberate women, when in fact it worsened the situation for women there. What’s the appropriate way to take responsibility for violence against women?
Ensler: First, we need to recognize the level of violence happening to girls and women in this country. The statistics are as high here as anywhere in the world. One out of five girls on college campuses will be raped; one out of three women in this country will be raped or beaten.
Second, our story is a global story. There’s nothing we do in the United States that doesn’t impact somebody else. Our cell phones, Playstations, and computers use coltan, a mineral mined in the Congo. Coltan is seized from the earth through the use of militias that terrorize women and destroy families and villages. It is sold on the international market, and we are the beneficiaries of those minerals. So we are all involved in the war in the Congo.
Sometimes I’m shocked by the level of denial that people live in. I think the work of art and artists is to wake people out of that slumber, so that we see where we’re connected.
Ostrander: In the Congo, you’ve worked with women who have experienced horrific violence. How do you take in their stories and then go back to your life as normal?
Ensler: I’m going to say something that may not be popular—I don’t go on with my life. When you receive people’s suffering, you are changed by it. You don’t then walk away and go about your life.
When I went to the Congo, it changed me forever. It shattered me, in a good and a not-good sense. And then I got cancer. But the sickness led me into deeper empathy and connection with the women in the Congo. My body came to know some of what their bodies know and feel.
We fear pain, because we think it’s going to change us. But so many of us are dislocated, dissociated, alone, and lonely, living in this capitalist society. When you allow the pain and struggles of other people to enter you, you feel alive. We can walk through this lifetime and feel protected and supposedly safe, but then we don’t feel our aliveness and our passion.
Ostrander: You’ve said the Congo is one of the most joyful places you’ve been.
Ensler: Women in the Congo have been through some of the worst catastrophes on the planet. But they have a staggering capacity for joy, celebration, gratitude, and reconceiving the world—greater than I’ve perhaps ever witnessed. I don’t think I really knew joy until I went to the Congo.
As an example, six years ago at Panzi Hospital, which treats hundreds of women who have been violated in the conflict in the Congo, I met Jeanne. She had been raped by a group of soldiers and had come to Panzi to be repaired. Her body was destroyed. She had nine operations. She was one of the women who directed and envisioned City of Joy, a village that we have worked to start and fund in the middle of the countryside in Bukavu, Congo. Inside the
gates of City of Joy, there are 90 women. The idea is that if they tell the stories of the atrocities they have faced, if they grieve them, if they can transform and redirect them, they can become the fiercest leaders on the planet. Jeanne came to the first six months of training. She gave up her name. She said she was leaving Jeanne, that Jane had been born and Jane was not a victim. Now she is teaching at City of Joy, and she is a role model and a source of inspiration to
many, many women.
Ostrander: Could you explain your plans to use dance as a form of protest against violence?
Ensler: I think dance is the greatest form of revolution. Emma Goldman famously said, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be in your revolution.” Dance is both celebratory and fierce. It’s spontaneous and an expression of our deepest selves.
That’s the force behind the campaign “One Billion Rising.” First, I don’t want us to keep building hotlines and shelters and assume that violence against women is part of life. I want to end it. On February 14, 2013, we are calling for one billion women and men to walk out of jobs, schools, offices—and dance. It will be a huge act of solidarity across borders—it will be global.
And if we really want this movement to grow, it can’t focus only on the angst and horror of violence. We have to have pleasure. We have to come together in celebration of our sexuality, in the light of our bodies and sweat and song.
I hope if we can get a billion women and men to dance, we will shake ourselves into a new world.
Ostrander: What’s the significance of pleasure in your own life?
Ensler: You know, it’s funny. Since cancer, I feel so much more aware of my body. My body went through so much. I lost several organs, and things got rearranged. But my body is much more awake to sensation, like some veil has been lifted. I feel my connection to the earth, to the trees and the flowers and the sky and the wind.
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There are a lot of people who don’t trust the body—who see it as something shameful or something to be controlled like a machine, such as a car, to be driven. We’re told bodies have desires that are not good, and you need to control bodies or they’ll get you in trouble. But I think our distrust of sexuality is equal to muting life itself. I have great faith in the body. I believe in sexuality. I think it’s gorgeous, not shameful. I feel like my body has been so good to me. My
body has brought me to beautiful people and places when I’ve listened to it, and it has also gotten me out of very dangerous situations.
Violence removes us from the body of the world, because it removes us from our own bodies. When you’re violated or hurt, you actually leave your body, because it’s too painful to be in your body. And I think that’s the journey that we’re embarking on now: how we return to the
consciousness of our bodies, which means returning to the Earth.