In the 1990s, the theatre performer and writer Eve Ensler made a piece about vaginas. She performed it in a small venue; it was a small show, after all – a one-woman play with no bells and whistles, no fancy theatrical flourishes. But that show – The Vagina Monologues – became a phenomenon, allowing women all over the world to open up about sex and rape and orgasms and the exhausting reality of existing in a world that prioritises men and allows violence against women to continue. In 2006, The New York Times said it was “probably the most important piece of political theatre of the last decade”. And, looking at the figures – the hundreds of thousands of women who have seen the show; the 77 countries it’s been performed in; the $100m that’s been raised for shelters and women’s charities through charity productions – its influence is clear. In 2018, it remains depressingly relevant and heartbreakingly affecting. The Pool spoke to Ensler to mark the project’s 20-year anniversary.
Take me back to the beginning: how did The Vagina Monologues come about?
Well, it was really all very accidental. I was talking to a woman who was going through menopause – and she was a feminist – and she was talking about her vagina in such a shocking kind of way – that it was dried-up and finished and prune-like. I was like, wow, what do women think about their vaginas? What do I think about my vagina? So, I started to ask my friends: “What do you think about your vagina?” And women would say such bizarre, funny, outrageous, surprising things.
I didn't think I was going to write a play or anything like that. I was just interested. And then I ended up talking to an older woman who'd had a terrible experience when she was a young woman and she had never had sex again, and I was like, wow, I have to do something. I have to write something. This is too much.
So, after the success of the play came the publication of the book. But it wasn’t an easy path to publication?
Well, no. What happened was I had a publisher and, a month before they were going to publish it, they got cold feet and they decided to pull out. It was shocking to sit in a room with a publisher who told me that they couldn't publish it because it was too difficult. But that's what things were like 20 years ago. And I've got to say Random House was super brave for publishing it.
Twenty years ago, the world “vagina” was a much greater taboo, right?
You couldn't say the word on television; you couldn't say the word anywhere. People didn't even refer to their vaginas as vaginas. Mothers called them pookies and poochies and all kinds of different names. So, the fact that we use the word now and we actually have vaginas is kind of exciting.
And we've come on in lots of other ways. I think it's fair to say that we're less squeamish about the terms but also about women's sexuality and reproductive health. Is that something that you would agree with?
I think we're less squeamish about it, absolutely. Do I think our reproductive rights match our consciousness? No. Do I think patriarchy is still dominant and persistent and stubborn like a horrible virus? Yes, I do. Do I think we move forward and then we move back and then we move forward and then we move back? Yes. And I actually think we're at a moment where we have to move from policing patriarchy to dismantling it.
Violence against women has never been a women's issue – it's a men's issue. We don't rape ourselves
And how do we do that?
Without men really becoming wholeheartedly involved in this movement, we will still be here in a hundred years. If men are not willing to give up their privilege and power and understand that the liberation of women is the liberation of men – if they don't jump into this as deeply and profoundly as women have jumped into this – things will never change. And look, violence against women has never been a women's issue – it's a men's issue. We don't rape ourselves. We generously took this on because we're women. But men now have to make this their issue. We have to educate our boys differently; we have to teach them a whole different notion of what manhood is and about what respect is and about what consent is. We have to teach girls about what their rights are and what they're entitled to so that they can feel good about their sexuality and feel free with their desire. This a cultural revolution that has to happen.
Absolutely and I wonder if we're at a moment in the culture with #MeToo and Time's Up and all of that – have these movements brought people together and brought men and women together?
I think, obviously, any time there is a breaking of the silence with women coming forward to tell their stories is hugely transformative. I think there are definitely men who have stepped forward, but let's take the Golden Globes as an example. Not one man spoke out about Time's Up. Not one man felt emboldened to see this movement as his movement. That is the next step. That men get up there and say: “I am standing here and I am refusing violence against women and I am refusing to continue a system of misogyny and patriarchy that is racist, that derails women who are marginalised. I am going to be a frontline defender and frontline fighter in solidarity with women.” And we're not seeing that yet.
Why aren’t we seeing men get involved in Time’s Up and this fight?
I don't think they get it yet. I don't think they understand what being harassed or raped or degraded does to a woman's life. And part of that is because empathy has been drilled out of men. From the time they’re born, they're taught that feelings are their enemies, right? Man up, shut your heart off, don't cry, don't express tenderness, don't express vulnerability. Well, in order to feel what other people are feeling, you have to have empathy. Until people feel something for other people, I don't think things are going to change. And that requires a willingness on men's part and a desire on men's part, and how we trigger that I'm not completely sure.
Do you think that we're closer to triggering that now than we were 20 years ago?
Yes, I do. And, at the same time, we have a predator-in-chief who is leading this country, who openly bragged about being a sexual abuser, who is surrounded by tons of men who are abusers, so it's like these two things are going on at the same time. We have this great movement forward and we have a leader who is espousing and spreading rape culture.
And why do you think that a man who espouses rape culture got elected?
That is the 10-million-dollar question. I think about the white women who elected him and I can only think it has to do with internalised misogyny – you know, why do women defend rapists? Why did Catherine Deneuve come out and defend Roman Polanski? … I think in a way [this #MeToo moment] is the end of heroes. There are no more heroes. We're all human. We're all a mess. I look at my own history of being violated by my own father. And my father was my father – he was my hero. I had to unweave myself from that story for many, many years. It is not something you get over quickly.
I think that's really powerful and a really good point. I think that notion of losing heroes is really key.
We've been brought up to believe – because we live in a patriarchy – that the father, the all-knowing father, will lead us in the right direction because many of us come from families where fathers were the dominant. And I think part of it is just giving up this mythology. We know our fathers have not known the way. Look at the world – it's a disaster.
Going back to the monologues, I wanted to ask about how relatively minor experience sit next to horrifically violent experiences. You'll have that story about a woman who learns how to bring herself to orgasm sitting alongside an account of horrific sexual violence and wartime rape.
Well, I think for many women – I don't know about you, but I feel like my life is often extreme – I think the worst experiences often sit among the most beautiful. Sometimes we live in a world where there's like a hierarchy of suffering. And the truth is every time a woman can break the silence, every time a woman can claim her vagina or even look at her vagina or give herself orgasm and know how she has pleasure, that's a radical act. It's a radical act because it gives you autonomy and independence and self-pleasure and a sense that you can take care of yourself. And I think every little act becomes a big act, eventually. It's accumulative, you know.
The Vagina Monologues – The 20th Anniversary Edition by Eve Ensler is published by Virago