This book came up at a party I was at, and when she heard that I had it on the bookshelf, but hadn’t read it yet, told me I could probably get through it in a couple of hours. I scoffed, because I’m a slow reader, but she was right, that was all it took.
Properly speaking, I never bought this book. Lime snagged a box of books on some online Korean doctors’ message board, and bought the box for the Robin Cook paperbacks, but a few other things were included, such as autobiographies by the Clintons, a copy of The Great Gatsby, and The Vagina Monologues. Those books that were of no immediate interest to her, she dropped onto my shelf. In fact, I had no intention of more than browsing the book, but after it was mentioned to me, I figured, hey, might as well see what’s floating around in the zeitgeist. (Plus or minus half a decade.)
Let’s suffice it to say that the book was not designed for someone like me. That I think the book is fine, overally, but I’m not really in the book’s target audience, for a few reasons. And that it reminded me of what we’re missing… possibly even an explanation for what I call the Glass Wall, the 21st century social equivalent of the Glass Ceiling.
To begin with, I’ll say why I don’t think the book was made for me, while highlighting its good points… if that makes any sense.
Firstly, I don’t think badly of vaginas, or of those human beings who happen to have one attached to them. They’re wonderful things, and while I know some people are ashamed of theirs, I’ve never quite understood it. Which is also to say, more power to Ms. Ensler for making this point loud and clear. Vaginas are good. They’re great. Thank heaven for vaginas. Without them, none of us would exist. They are powerful, they important, they matter, they should be beloved and respected. All hail any work to promote that awareness and to battle the dark-ages mentality that women should be afraid of their bodies, should know less about their sexual organs than their doctors or husbands do.
But then, personally, I was never in doubt of this, and didn’t really need my consciousness raised about it. I remember attending some sort of “edutainment event” put on by the campus student union in undergrad, back in the mid-nineties, which it seems to me was some sort of proto-Vagina Monologues. It was put on by a man, if I remember right, and he had all kinds of, well, “genitalia costumes.” It was a series of song-and-dance numbers, and pretty dumbed-down, but my main objection was that nothing he said was new to me, and that it just wasn’t that entertaining. Even a guy dancing around in a big pink vagina suit in 1994 or 1996 or so only made us grin for a minute or so, and the lecture-oratorio that followed regarding Auntie Clitoris’ Favorite Things (yeah, to the tune of that song from The Sound of Music), well, it wasn’t anything we hadn’t heard before a
million few dozen times. By the end, we were kind of bored. Of course, the guy who was performing didn’t link genitalia and violence, which is why Ensler’s performances were probably so much more interesting to her audiences.
But, secondly, I’m mostly pretty aware of the violence against women. Sometimes I simplify the issue, or say stupid things about it, and I usually get called on it, but it’s not as if I’m walking around completely clued out to the fact that probably half or more of the women I know have been subject to violence of some kind, many of them to sexual violence (three-fifths of that half at the least, very probably more). After all, many people I care very much about are included in those numbers. That’s not to say that most men are aware of this — most educated men, I think, are, but lots of university graduates aren’t really educated, and if someone can pull off consciousness-raising, then that’s cool. I’ve had my consciousness pretty well raised by talking to people, debating online, reading and thinking about it, and so on, but for those who haven’t had the benefit, I’m glad this text and the performances it collects exist. As I say, consciousness-raising is never a bad thing, if it is arguably effective.
Lastly, I think this whole thing — not just the book, but the performances it encapsulates and the V-Day events that it led to — is cool. It’s worth it to have women talking to men and women about what kind of distorted ideas about female bodies and sexuality we have floating around in our (Western) society. On top of that, raising money for organizations that combat violence against women is an excellent cause, as it’s a rampant problem in our society.
(Our society, by the way, meaning North American society, though, the one where this book was mostly hailed as a big deal. In some ways, North America is relatively less distorted and silenced than some others societies on this subject, and people are in general more aware of those problems of violence than places where such discussions are taboo, or where a kind of face-saving silence holds sway. I keep wondering what would happen if The Vagina Monologues was performed in Korea, in Korean. Given the kinds of body issues floating around in Korean society — about which James at The Grand Narrative has been posting a fair bit, and well, recently, starting here — I suspect it’d get vehemently criticized — or shut down — for “indecency.” Or has it been performed? Inquiring minds want to know. If it has, it certainly hasn’t become a cultural flashpoint event here. Not one Korean has mentioned it to me.)
However, there are two things I think bear consideration despite all the positive things I have noted above.
One is the dangerous and misleading notion inherent in the aura surrounding the performances of The Vagina Monologues that education will somehow stamp out violence against women. It won’t. It may reduce it significantly, but it can never stamp it out completely, any more than “re-education” could stamp out non-Socialist thought or resistance to authority in Stalin’s gulags. The problem is simply human nature: male humans (yes, more than female humans) have an inborn penchant for violence.
Even “civilized” males like most of the men I know, who don’t engage in violence, still ideate violently, and sometimes speak violently, aggressively, overwhelmingly. We fantasize about punching out people who piss us off to a degree much greater than women I know do. We tend to get emotionally invested in spectacles involving violent struggle or simulations of violent struggle (from violent action movies to professional sports) more than women tend to do. We use words like “kill” and “massacre” and “slaughter” to describe the sports or debates or whatever else we get into, way more frequently than women. Hell, even as young children, boys are more violent in their play than girls. (More violent doesn’t mean female children are nonviolent, mind you. But boys are more violent.)
To differentiate between inborn nature in males and inborn nature in females is quite commonplace for every species that is sex-differentiated, except for humans. This is silly.
(For very detailed arguments on why this is silly, and how silly it is, check out Stephen Pinker’s The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. He argues it much more powerfully than I would,a nd it’s an excellent text, one of the best I’ve read in several years.)
Given that fact, and the inborn human sex drive, it’s predictable that some male humans will simply be irredeemably prone to using violence to get things they want — not just peer-recognition, or money, but also sexual intercourse. Yes, I am violating one of the cardinal (older, but to me seemingly sacrosanct in the mainstream) rules of feminist discussion of rape by noting that rape has a sexual element as well as a violent and physchological element, but that’s because it’s simply obvious. Some men do get off on violence, and nobody ever promised that the violent and the sexual impulses inborn in male humans wouldn’t ever get intertwined in certain cases.
But a lot of the discussion of “rape” has expanded to include pressuring, like the kind of cajoling, wheedling, and urging that men sometimes use with women. Ignoring the cases where this is socialized behaviour — after all, women who were raised to say “No!” and flee men even when they really truly would prefer to say “Yes!” are prone to roleplay this, and where a kind of bargaining ensues so that the woman’s sexual guilt can be assuaged… and yes, a backwards upbringing can sadly warp women in this way just as it can warp men into thinking that “No!” means “Yes!” — we can still see that men, biologically speaking, are likely to use whatever means available to them to get a woman to consent to sexual intercourse.
Interestingly, feminist thought has focused on “pressuring” as an extension of “violence” to a more prominent degree than it has focused on “just giving in” to such pressure as an extension of “passivity.” (At least in public discussions in which I’ve played a part.) Yet disconnected from this, there are all kinds of “tricks” that lots of men use, which have been all but sanctioned as “fair play” because they’re not exactly violent. For example, the old stereotype where a man says, “I love you,” insincerely. Well, if the girl falls for that, she’s just dumb, apparently. Or complimenting a woman. Or promising that he’ll leave his wife, someday soon. Or buying her a ring and treating her nice. Plenty of men who fundamentally don’t respect women are capable of behaving as if they do, for the purposes of securing sexual relations. The reason I bring this up is to note that, in the area of mating strategies, there’s a bell curve that encompasses a wide range of attitudes, behaviours, and tactics.
Some men actually listen, respect, and try to understand women, which is part of what they understand as a healthy relationship (including a healthy sexual relationship). Some men look for women who signal no-strings-attached availability and cut to the chase. Some men pressure women to sleep with them, whether because those women aren’t quite comfortable with the idea but might be willing to give in if pressured, or because they’ve been mutually socialized into expecting this kind of mating game. The majority of men, one would hope, are at least closer to respecting women, or trying to. Among men, as among anything, there is a bell-curve and I think it is among the outliers than you find the most respectful, egalitarian men, as well as the most disrespectful, brutal, and violent ones.
To assert this is not to depict rape as a force of nature. It is to depict human behaviour as subject to nature, which is a wholly different sort of assertion.
And assuming that human behaviour is at least partially subject to nature — a fact for which mountains of evidence is available — education is very likely to work among the majority of men — those who are somewhere nearer to the middle, or one side of the outlying cases, and who have not been urged to consider the complexities of consent, of their physical advantages vis a vis women culturally and physically — but I am extremely dubious that it is going to work on all men. Therefore, the hope that V-Day (or any other measure) can someday eliminate rape and other violence against women is futile.
It can — and arguably already has — played a part in reducing the social acceptability (or excusability) of rape and violence against women, and there are probably more gains to be made, but those who truly seek to eliminate sexual violence against women will either have to arm all women (and train them in the use of their hopefully non-fatal weapons, or their very hardy and difficult-to-spoof surveillance equipment), or else they will have to dedicate themselves to genetic engineering and the genomic rewriting of the male mind so that the outliers — the unusual but persistent minority of men willing to use violence to get what they want — can be modified to observe (generally-agreed-upon) socially acceptable norms at the first sign of trouble. Let alone the psychopaths and sociopaths, who, after all, make up a bigger part of the human population than most of us realize. (Like, between 4% and 8% of the human population.)
Or, of course, they could push for the castration of all violent rapists, though that won’t deter the same men from other forms of violence or rape. Nor will it prevent outbreaks of that frightening and disturbing tendency for groups of men — including men who claim to be horrified at rape — during wartime, to engage in mass rape of the enemy.
My point here is that education will probably work on a good number of men who are of relatively good will, of relative intelligence, and within or above the average range of distribution for ability to empathize with women. It will not work on all men, however, any more than education will render sociopaths able to feel what most of us consider normal human emotions. In fact, I would be surprised if the population of individuals who rely on sexual coercion or violent assault was much larger than the population of male sociopaths. Given the numbers of women who’re subject to such abuses, it’s quite practicable that only a small percentage of men do behave in these ways. (The numbers would be much higher if it were commonplace among men.) Yes, there are indeed studies that suggest huge numbers of young men have coerced their female peers into sex, but I have to say I’m dubious of those studies, as I am of any that smack of political activism. And until I see a study that mentions how men react — verbally, or physiologically — to depictions of (or news of) a rape of someone in their kin-group, I will be dubious that men are “trained” somehow, by some mysterious brainwashing means under the table where nobody can really see it, by society to justify and defend rape. Men can be dumbasses sometimes; they can be undereducated about certain aspects of the issues, like I’ve been in the past, but Western society does not teach young men to rape. Hell, even in Korean society, which is more oppressive of women in many ways, I don’t think rape is generally enfranchised. The public reacts with (surprisingly consistent) horror and outrage every time the news of a rape hits the media, and there is usually even an outcry against whichever useless, corrupt, or stupid law enforcement officials who could have done more but didn’t.
(Again, Pinker goes into a lot of points about the often-ignored flip side, which is how protective men can be of women in their “in-group” or kin-circle or whatever. Possessiveness aside, a desire for revenge seems to me a powerful emotional reaction on the part of most sane men I know who discover a woman they know or care about has been subject to such violence. This not only throws into jeopardy the notion that men are trained by society to think rape is acceptable, but also jeopardizes the notion that nurture has very much to do with any of this at all.)
The second point I think is worth raising is that, more than once reading this book, I had flashbacks to Tom Cruise’s opening “talk” in Magnolia. Remember that?
“Respect the Almighty Cock!”
That’s what he declares, and he comes across like a lunatic, a nutter, a fool. Of course, his real attitudes are a mixture of this kind of macho arrogance and something a little closer to the average. But enshrining male genitalia, giving extended speeches about it, is something that sells tickets, that makes money, and that seems controversial.
It got me thinking about male genitalia, and whether it is celebrated as the centerpiece of civilization or just as covered, hidden, and unspeakable. I mean, I never heard of a “Coochie Snorcher” until I read The Vagina Monologues, but I grew up hearing a lot of euphemisms for the penis: The John Tom, John Thomas, Your Business, Your Thing, Wang, Dingle, Pee-Pee, Ding-Dong… Western civilization is not one to put the lingham on display, either.
In poetry circles, there’s an overwhelming tendency to mention female sexual genitalia in what’s construed as an effort to “reclaim” those words, the way Ensler enacts in the part of her book about the word “cunt.” One ends up hearing many, many poems by women that are about labia, clitori, fallopian tubes, ovaries, and vaginas, so perhaps — as someone who’s attend many a poetry reading — I’m in a rare group who has heard these words time and time again, so that they’re not only “just words” for me now, stripped of their transgressiveness, but they’re actually “just words” in that many a woman presents them in her work as shows of enlightenment, but may or may not have revolutionized her thinking about the female body or about sexuality. (In other words, these words have almost become dead metaphors not for the body parts themselves, but as signifiers of feminist consciousness, easily presented and imitated without the necessity for too much consideration or personal transformation. So much so that I satirized it in passing in my SF story “The Egan Thief”:
He closed the .doc file and glanced around the cafe. There was a tubby bald guy in a sweatsuit reading a business magazine, and a trio of would-be poets taking up the soft benches, chattering loudly about Sylvia Plath. They kept using the word “labia” in their conversation. Labia, labia, labia.
And sometimes vulva.
What does a guy need to do to make friends with lady poets? he wondered, poking around on the desktop for something needing doing.
On the other hand, I think the only contemporary poems I’ve read that use the word penis were by Tim Lilburn, and in reference to thin strands of light. I’m sure there are others — I’m increasingly poorly-read when it comes to poetry — but I guess I’m saying that it might well be that social attitudes towards genitalia are, in fact, pretty equally negative. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I don’t imagine newspapers are any more inclined to print words like “penis” or “testicle” or “scrotum” than they are to print “vagina” or “labia” or “clitoris.”
What I’m getting at is that maybe it’s a mistake to completely conflate the unspeakability and unrepresentability of women’s genitalia with the repression and subjection of women…
… or, maybe, conversely, it is correct, but only half of the equation. It may well be that the unspeakability and unrepresentability of male genitalia is the other half of that social equation. It’s a long, hard scan back through memory to think of films in which one sees a man in full frontal nudity where it’s not an overwhelmingly negative scene (Harvey Keitel in The Bad Cop is visible that way only in the deepest throes of torment and horror, high on drugs and confronted by God), and in fact, an erect penis is something one cannot see outside of pornography.
Penises have, under euphemistic names, been perhaps more speakable in public conversation, but not in polite public conversation. Men do tend to be more familiar (in certain ways) with their own bodies — but then, it’s harder for a man never to see his own penis, unless he weighs hundreds of kilograms. This doesn’t mean, though, that they have a healthy understanding of their own bodies, a healthy attitude or sense of respect to it. While the vagina may me more of a mystery to men and women alike, the understanding men have of their own bodies — and that many women have of men’s bodies and sexuality — is just as relatively shallow as the general knowledge of the vagina is… or, as I have stated earlier, was. (I am still genuinely surprised in this day and age that any of this should be mysterious to anyone, but miseducation sadly persists.)
In other words, the distorted relationship that Ensler reveals so many women having with their own vaginas isn’t necessarily any less distorted than the relationships that so many men have with their own penises, and it’s unlikely to be the case that the distortion on the male side has nothing to do with the complex, convoluted mess that is relationships between men and women.
Am I saying that men, too, need consciousness-raising? Maybe, but this opens what I think might be my real point, the point that I realized reading this book:
There is no equivalent to feminism for men.
Many would say, “Of course not: the mainstream always was the male equivalent of feminism, in that the mainstream of culture always empowered, normalized, and served the interests of males in preference to those of females.”
That’s simplistic, though. While feminist theory has shown that even in socially oppressed groups (such as in the poorest of the poor), it is women who suffer the most from the vagaries of the being members of that oppressed group, it’s a stretch to say that mainstream culture “empowered, normalized, and served the interests of ” men. It makes more sense to say that mainstream culture has prioritized certain modes of maleness in preference to others.
For example, the breadwinner component of normative maleness. This has, of course, yes, caused men to be in an economically independent situation, relative to women, and when marriage was considered normative, put women into economically dependent situations as well (or at least it did until it became that both spouses had to work for a family to survive). But the caveat is that men were also required to be breadwinners. The inner torment faced by a man who could not secure work is something which, even if we have not witnessed it in our personal lives (as I have personally and in my own family), has been a theme in literature for a long time, but most powerfully demonstrated in The Grapes of Wrath. And that’s to say nothing of men who find themselves in the situation of — yes, foolishly, yes — feeling embarrassed and inadequate when their wives are more capable breadwinners than they themselves are. They are foolish, it is sexist, but it’s also a function of how gender codes have distorted the way men see themselves. Male identity has been corrupted too, with the net effect of significantly less freedom on the part of both women and men of all classes, is my point.
Why one’s spouse earning more money than oneself should be embarrassing — but only for men — is beyond me, of course. But it is, and quite commonly so. This means that the man who wishes to stay home and raise the kids, and the couple for whom this would be the economically rational choice (as is increasingly the case these days) sometimes still finds itself struggling, either personally or in their relationships with relatives and friends, to openly discuss this possibility or this state of affairs. But it also means that the man in a situation where gainful unemployment is impossible to obtain is, less likely to react stably than a woman in a comparable circumstance. Men simply must participate in the job market. This is lessening in the developed world — meaning Australia, Canada, Europe, America — but in a place like Korea, we can see what this dynamic looks like in full swing, the way it was even during my parents’ generation.
For those who are tempted to think I’m arguing that there needs to be a male completement to feminism so that men can reassert dominance over women, so that “men’s issues” can push women’s issues off the stage, I reply that, no, the point is that feminism itself has probably gone as far as it can by insisting that the roots of change must occur in women, in the education system, in everything save mobilizing a mode by which the same sorts of shackles which once held women into one set range of ways of conceiving of themselves, are also finally smashed off the ankles of men.
By any standard, equal opportunities in the workplace is a good thing. By any standard, the wholesale abandonment of intensive domestic work by mainstream adults is a bad thing. Full-time workers outside the home simply don’t have time to really take charge of domestic life, of healthful living. You can’t work more than 40 or 50 hours a week, exercise, cook the majority of your meals, clean up, and sleep. Nobody has time for all that.
We have accepted the wholesale devaluation of the domestic sphere of our lives: we have sacrificed it for a chance to participate in a market, in an economy in which the deck is stacked against us. (And many women complain that in dual-income families, they still do most of the domestic work). It seems as if the entry of women into the workforce really, on some level, has served as a justification for our employers to pay us less (when you adjust pay for inflation) than they did in the era of single-income families. It’s been an excuse to extract more productivity–more work–from the family unit at less expense. And because it looks like equality, we mistake this for improvement.
It represents not a failure of nerve. The world has been changed radically in the last fifty years. Women are contributing to the development of Western civilization in a way that is unprecedented. They are researching, creating, discovering. Half the geniuses of the world have been freed; they are changing the world.
The creation of the dual-income family is not a failure of nerve. Rather, what it represents is a failure of imagination. There is, all things considered, not an increase in wealth following the ascent of the dual-income family. Wages have fallen, but more importantly, a whole sphere of life–the domestic sphere–has fallen by the wayside.
We’ve failed to understand that what was wrong was not that men were working outside the home and women were chained inside it, but rather that work in these two spheres was so exclusively, and so rigidly, divided along lines of gender. That we consider both sexes’ freedom to participate in the paid workforce a triumph only reflects how distorted we have allowed our understanding of value to become–we mistook money for value and importance, like good little consumers. The corporate definition of value determines what we value.
It occurs to me, belatedly, I should define what I mean by feminism in the cases I’ve used it above, since there are so many feminisms. There’s:
- the academic make-work project, which results in the writing and publication of thousands of theses, textbooks, essays, and journals per year, mostly focusing on concerns that have little or nothing to do with real people and their lives, but offering a springboard for academic discussions of varying value
- the radical social movement, which is still pretty much tied up with the academic form, but which is not consigned to an Ivory Tower, and is often characterized by bafflingly wrong-headed critiques of popular culture artifacts, rage, and exclamations like, “I hate men!” and defensive posturing about why it’s okay for a woman togeneralize about men, and so on
- the remnant of the 1970s consciousness-raising movement, where the point was to get women educated about their problems, get them thinking, and through this, to spread the word society-wide that change, improvement, and betterment was possible and needed. This is the form of feminism which is most widespread, and least recognized today as “feminism” by peoiple bandying about the word — but it is the form of feminism that arguably has produced the most change and betterment in the lives not only of women but also of men and children of both sexes.
I believe that the relative irrelevance of the first form precludes any further comment; that the relative embarrassment and consternation caused by the second group (and their poisoning of the third group’s reputation) renders it, as a force for social change, not only ineffective but in fact counterproductive. But the third group, which is by far the largest, has been working hard, and has, I believe, still got things to do. However, no political movement that understands itself as fighting for the liberation of half of humanity — or the implicit liberation of all through the explicit liberation of half — can get the job done. The psychological imprisonment of one half would be impossible without the psychological imprisonment of the other half. I am not claiming the imprisonment is of the same kind, or of equal cost and pain, but only that without fundamental change in the range of possibilities open to men — opening up to include those that our Western society has dismissed as suitable only for women, but at which man men might find deeper satisfaction than in their working lives — feminism of the third, pragmatic kind will remain confronted with the dilemma of the glass wall, the vertical corollary to the glass ceiling, namely the seeming barrier that prevents any further shift in the status quo beyond what has already been achieved.
This is not a radical idea. It is common sense. And it is what is left when a man, at the end of the Vagina Monologues, thinks over the fact that, indeed, womens’ positive, proud, and energetic rediscovery of and embrace of their own physicality and sexuality — that which they were for too long lied to about, and convinced they had no right to — has no analogue in men’s positive, proud, and energetic rediscovery of their own natural domesticity, dependence, and nurturing capacities.
The only real criticism I can come up with, indeed, is that it is perhaps too bourgeois — out of touch with the capacities for change among the poor and the uneducated — but then, perhaps, we have become too comfortable in underestimating the poor and the uneducated? And perhaps we all deserve the liberty to indulge in a little bourgeois freedom.