Even if you've never seen or read The Vagina Monologues – the American play in which women recite stories about sex, masturbation, pap smears, childbirth and more – the name alone gives away how progressive it was when it premiered in 1990s New York. The taboo-busting work, written by Eve Ensler, sparked frank conversations about the female anatomy and brought them to more than 140 countries in performances by celebrities and community theatre troupes alike.
Two decades ago this year, the play also gave birth to V-Day, a global activist movement geared towards ending violence against women and girls. A lot has improved for women since its inception – talking about sexual violence has been normalised, with the #MeToo movement the logical escalation of this, and we accept that it's empowering for women to be well acquainted with their sexual and reproductive organs (even if there's still a long way to go on this front). But the pace of progress isn't fast enough – and the feminist playwright and activist now seems even more impatient than she was in the 1990s.
"Well, we certainly can say the word vagina now. When I began no one said the word anywhere. Not on TV or radio or in schools or at home and even at the gynaecologist," Ensler told Refinery29. "I like to believe many more women have seen their vaginas and know them and know what gives them pleasure and know they have agency and rights over them." The play has also helped women come to terms with trauma and has raised millions for anti-violence efforts.
"I keep hoping it will become outdated but patriarchy is a stubborn intractable structure embedded in our psychic and cultural DNA. I remind myself it’s only been here around 16 thousand years. There was a time before it and there will be a time after, but we need to get at it on many levels, some that we cannot even see yet or touch."
The Vagina Monologues touches on a whole gamut of themes that arguably make it even more germane in 2018 than it was in 1996, given the pop-cultural cachet now afforded to feminism. Not to mention, there remains a political threat to women's reproductive rights in many countries: consensual and nonconsensual sexual experiences, body image, genital mutilation, reproduction and sex work, to name just a handful. But Ensler's original intention wasn't necessarily to overthrow the global patriarchal order.
"Art is so different to activism. What compelled me to write The Vagina Monologues was curiosity. I was talking to a friend one day about menopause and she got on the subject of her vagina. She said it was dried up and prune-like and she didn’t recognise it anymore. I was surprised to hear her, a feminist, talking with such contempt and disappointment about her vagina. I went home and starting thinking I have no idea what women think about their vulvas, labias or clitoris. So I just began to ask friends. It was utterly fascinating, horrifying, hysterical what women began to tell me."
Violence against women has never really been a women's issue. Turns out we don’t rape ourselves.
Regardless of her original aim, what Ensler has achieved off the back of her play is seriously impressive. V-Day has raised over $100 million dollars for grassroots anti-violence groups, rape crisis centres, domestic violence shelters, and safe houses in places like Kenya and Afghanistan. And with a self-confessed harasser of women in the White House, the movement remains vital.
"Having the Predator in Chief in office has had a devastating impact on so many things and most specifically in flaming nationalism, racism, fascism and misogyny worldwide. I could spend the day listing the terrible setbacks. But this administration has exposed in full transparency what has been happening in this country forever and has flamed a real resistance and women are the driving force of that resistance."
Twenty years ago it was very hard to get anyone to talk about sexual violence, Ensler said. Women were generally not believed and blamed. They "brought it on themselves". Men's misogynistic behaviour was just “how men are.” Now, it's a front-page issue in many countries. "Predators are being called out and some are being held accountable, losing jobs and positions. There are real laws that so many brilliant and tireless feminist lawyers have created." And there are many more plays, hashtags, films, memoirs, and novels addressing violence against all women, many of which are by women who have been historically marginalised.
However, Ensler regrets the lack of men who are stepping up to the plate to help us, considering that "patriarchy has been equally destructive to men as it has been to women". She continued: "Violence against women has never really been a women's issue. Turns out we don’t rape ourselves. Unless men are truly committed to ending violence against women, addressing toxic masculinity, looking at how privilege and power and domination leads to exploitation and violence, we will still be here 50 years from now."
But she's buoyed by the new wave of female politicians in the pipeline. "It is so encouraging to see how many progressive women and particularly women of colour are running for office right now. We need grassroots women leaders who know the connections between issues because they have lived those connections."
To celebrate the anniversary of The Vagina Monologues and V-Day, One Billion Rising and V-Day are bringing activists together on 26th September at London's Café De Paris. Eve Ensler will be joined by a line up of artists and activists. Tickets cost £36 and are available to buy online.