Guest Shot column
By Betty Dodson, Ph.D.
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 Bodysex Workshop in 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.
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, 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 that person was able to open up her vulva, pull back the hood of her clitoris and spread her inner and outer lips to see inside as well as outside. As I sat next to each woman looking into the same mirror, I guided her through the exquisite form and function 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.
"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.
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 real source of our sexual stimulation. With that information we could learn how to have orgasms with masturbation and take control of our own sexual pleasure. To avoid sounding too critical, I let the blue mats and the hand mirror slide. After all, Eve had people laughing and her play had other merits -- everyone left feeling happy and upbeat 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 happy to see she'd added the clitoris in a revised version of "The Vagina Workshop." There was a new monologue called "Reclaiming Cunt," which also pleased me since I had told her 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 Ms. crew on board? They have never been able to talk about sex without bringing up rape, abuse, beatings, and genital mutilation. It was déjà vu. In the seventies Ms. had held up publication of my article "Liberating Masturbation" for more than two years fearing they'd loose subscriptions. Also it was Ms. who supported Woman Against Pornography in the eighties. The idea that feminists were pushing for the censorship of sexual entertainment forced many of us to feel the need 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 Ms. and other fundamentalist feminists 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.
That night I wondered how men in the audience felt after being nailed as "the enemy." It's my bet that the men attending V-Day were all staunch supporters of equal rights for women. But here they were, faced with the same old male bashing of the sixties and seventies.
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 both genders? 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 their children? 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 all forms of authoritarianism exercised by both women and men are the source of violence along with ignorance and prejudice?
In 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.
There was big corporate sponsorship. V-Day raised a million and a half dollars with more pouring in to end sexual violence against women. The Vagina Monologues are being performed across the country in hundreds of colleges and universities here and abroad. V-Day has gone global. Vagina, vagina, vagina I can almost hear Freud laughing in his grave.
That night at Madison Square Garden I felt violated when 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. 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 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 young women 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 fighting 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 were 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. Sex and violence -- never sex and pleasure.
Although my work and books have been a source of inspiration for additional monologues, 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, "Cunt 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. There was a smattering of women standing where I was sitting. Then she asked for those women who had been beaten to stand. Many more stood up. 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 loved having orgasms to stand.
That's the main problem with V-day. Women end up celebrating sexual violence and not the creative or regenerative pleasures of erotic love. Ending violence is a worthy cause and I'm all for it. But consistently equating sex with violence offers no 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 would teach women how to take sexual pleasure into their own hands. If only Eve had been more accurate in her description of my work, the entire world would know that I ran masturbation workshops. Masturbation. Now there's a dangerous concept -- an activity that serves no other purpose than pleasure through sexual self-knowledge.
In a recent letter, a 21 year-old college virgin 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 sexual 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 sexual self-gratification without shame or guilt.
Until young girls receive positive sex education, they will continue to be overly emotional, sexually passive and potential victims. They will be set up to fall for the all-pervasive romantic myth that finding the right man to love will magically provide them their orgasms. Women's blind devotion to romantic love makes them vulnerable to sexual manipulation on the part of both genders and sows the seeds of sexual unhappiness. Too often the result is violence in our own bedrooms.
Will V-Day executives and their corporate sponsors use their money and power to help to sexually educate our high school kids?American teens are currently being brainwashed with 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. Many teens end up believing that the only real kind of sex is PIV (a penis inside a vagina) oral and anal sex is not considered to be sex. 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!
No one in his or her right mind is for violence or rape or genital mutilation. Sex-fearing feminists have mastered how to be against just about everything but the alternative: considering the benefits of sexual expression and fulfillment. Lobbying for sexual pleasure will require courage. First of all we have to face ourselves, confess to our own prejudices about race, religion, gender, and sexual preferences. Then we have to face the prejudices of our own community and brave the backlash of the status quo.
Change is never easy, but I believe we can embrace a global movement that supports sexual health and celebrates pleasure. Supporters of our puritan heritage will tremble when we take a stand for something so frivolous, so suspect, so dangerous as a person's right to enjoy their sexuality and orgasms. Come on America. Let's confront our pleasure anxiety and give sex a chance. It's never been tried before.