Note: The first few paragraphs of the transcript are not a word for word transcription. Damn my occasional on-camera ad-libbing!
I don't even know where to begin to start.
As far as vaginas go, I don't think I've ever heard that word uttered so many times in so short a period in my life. I think her 30 minute keynote speech might rival a gynecology textbook as far as mentions of vaginas go. At one point, she even came out and admitted she thinks with her vagina. Don't believe me?
"I'm gonna tell you something. Deep down, in my heart, in my soul, in my vagina, I know the women's spring is here."
I suppose this would be one of those "women's ways of knowing" discussed in feminist ethics, then.
Later on, she drops this bomb.
"You might even worship their vaginas!"
And there I am, in a room full of cheering, applauding women, wondering what the hell planet I'm on. These are grown women, for fuck sake. Anyway.
After showing us a video of herself giving a speech on the steps of congress in Lansing Michigan (because who doesn't love seeing oneself on video bellowing the word "vagina" in front of an adoring crowd?) she got down to the nitty gritty.
And that nitty gritty was, of course, rape. With Eve, you know it's gonna be vaginas or rape, right? The entire speech was a paean to female victimhood, a celebration of all the ways women and women alone are subjugated and subordinated and disempowered in society.
I'm going to link to the video in the lowbar for those who have the intestinal fortitude, and ask that you please resist commenting on NOW's channel since it won't do any good. For those who don't feel they can stomach 37 minutes of vaginas and rape, I'll give you a summary:
About midway through, Eve shared the story of Jean, a woman in the Congo who'd been the victim of rape as a weapon of war and economic conquest. If Jean had a husband or brother or son, we don't hear about him. Her village was attacked by militants, and she'd been raped. She sought help for her injuries at an NGO active in the area, and received surgery and treatment, after which she returned to her village only to be tied to a tree by these militants and repeatedly raped for a period of two months. When she was released, she found her way to another NGO, and received nine surgeries to repair the damage to her body. It was then that Ensler, founder of the 85 million dollar V-day charity, found her recovering from her surgeries and her trauma, and asked her what she wanted.
What this woman wanted was a village where women and girls could be safe from the violence. This village, City of Joy, was built in part by Eve Ensler's charity and outfitted by google, and is a place where women and girls can be safe and heal, learn, grow and become empowered--in her words, to become the future leaders of the DRC.
Now please, don't get me wrong. I have a great deal of sympathy for that woman, just as I would for anyone who had suffered what she did. I really do. It horrifies me, when I think of what human beings can do to each other. And if I hadn't swallowed a red pill a long time ago, I'd have probably been thinking exactly what every woman in that room was thinking. As it was, knowing what I know now about such things, all I could think as Eve was talking about the plight of women in the Congo was, if it's that bad for women and girls, I can't even imagine how it must be for men and boys.
There aren't many mainstream venues discussing male victims of wartime sexual violence, but I did stumble across a recent documentary on BBC radio, and I've collected a few other sources I'll link in the lowbar.
The BBC documentary reporter interviewed a Congolese man whose family was attacked by uniformed men in 2008. He was bound hand and foot and beaten for 3 hours, during which he watched as they killed his whole family, including his two children, before cutting off their heads. Then they left him for dead. In 2010, he was attacked again by men in uniform. He believes they targeted him specifically after discovering he was still alive. They took him blindfolded and bound in a van, to a barracks with other prisoners.
There, he was sexually tortured and raped, for 4 or 5 days. He says he was semi-conscious for much of it, the pain was so great. Then they loaded him into a van, drove him out into the bush, and raped him again. He asked them to kill him. They laughed and left him lying there.
When a passing car found him, he asked them to drive him to Kimpala, Uganda, where thousands of displaced people from DRC seek refuge.
Other male victims have been forcibly circumcised, raped with objects like screwdrivers, castrated, or had their genitalia completely amputated.
Unlike the woman Eve Ensler spoke of, there's no heartwarming story of triumph for any of these men to share. Not even one surgery, let alone nine, no City of Joy built for him and furnished with computers provided by Google, no armed guards patrolling his safe village to keep him from harm, no schools provided through the charity of the more fortunate to help him get back on his feet and make his way in life.
In fact, when interviewed, he said his injuries are not healed, and he would rather die than live.
According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, 22% of all men in the Congo, compared with 30% of women, have experienced sexual violence as a weapon of war. Considering the higher rates of general violent victimization of noncombatant men and boys in conflicts like that in the Congo (at least 2 to 1), the numbers of men who experienced sexual violence before being killed by their rapists can't be determined by the study.
The men who survive almost never speak of their experiences to anyone, because under the law, they are guilty of a crime--the crime of homosexuality--and can face severe punishment. They don't typically disclose to family, due to fears of abandonment that are all too justified. One employee of the Refugee Law Project says it's common for a woman, upon discovering her husband has been raped, to pack up the children and leave him. "Is this a woman? Is it a man? If he can be raped, who is protecting me?"
According to Dr. Lynn Lawry of Harvard medical school, reaction within the academic, political and humanitarian communities to the JAMA's study on male rape in the Congo has ranged from shock to puzzlement to controversy to anger. She wasn't prepared for the level of hostility to their findings on the part of humanitarian NGOs. Not anger on behalf of male victims, but anger over the public being made aware of them.
The findings defy the cultural narrative--both that of patriarchy and of feminism. Dr. Lawry herself was shocked not just by the prevalence of male rape in the Congo, but at the level of female perpetration--some 40% of the sexual violence against women in the Congo, and 10% of that against men, was perpetrated by women.
The UN, the law, traditionalism and feminism all view rape as something that only impacts women and girls and something that is only perpetrated by men. According to Lara Stemple of the U of California's Health and Human Rights Project, out of more than 4000 NGOs reviewed, only 3% even mentioned the experience of male victims, and none mentioned them as more than a passing reference. I have to wonder if any of those NGOs mentioned female perpetrators at all.
And while Dr. Lawry sees the resistance of NGOs to address male rape victims as originating in a fear that resources will be diverted from their chosen issue, that male victims will take too big a piece of a finite pie, I think it's deeper and more complicated than that.
Feminist activism may have brought the issue of rape into the focus of human rights bodies in the 80s and 90s, but they weren't telling us anything we didn't already think we knew. Our ideas of rape, in whatever context it occurs, have always existed within a male perpetrator, female victim model. Rape of women has always been acknowledged as a weapon of war and political advantage, a means to demoralize the enemy and destroy communities. Propaganda during the early decades of the last century clearly demonstrates that it was a fear pervasive enough to be exploited, by convincing men to enlist, or by demonizing the opposition.
In her speech, Even Ensler calls rape "femicide", a systematic method of destroying women. And while the rape of women is a horrible thing, rape doesn't destroy only women. The systematic rape of women undermines their relationships and community. The systematic rape of men annihilates everything we believe about what men are and should be, and completely uproots them from their roles in family and community. In a traditional society, male rape tells people that ANYONE can be abused in this way, and that those who have always been seen as the protectors of women and children can no longer be depended on in that way, that the defenders of everyone can't defend even themselves.
A woman who's been raped is a damaged woman. A man who's been raped is no longer a man.
Eve Ensler claims that women's bodies are the landscape upon which all of human conflict and avarice is fought, but she can only believe this because the men upon whom these same terrors are wreaked are silent--the silence of death or the silence of social isolation.
She talks about the hundreds of thousands of women and girls: 2 year olds raped to death, women who are incontinent, leaking urine and feces through their wounds, the walking wounded riddled with infection and wracked with pain.
30% of women in the Congo. But no mention of the 22% of men--hundreds of thousands--who suffer the exact same things without voices and without help or healing.
Feminist theorists were preaching to the misinformed choir when they portrayed rape as at best, a byproduct and at worst the primary motive, of traditional social organization and male sexuality, and cast women solely as the victims of this form of "toxic masculinity" and male predation that exists to subjugate women. That there was ANYONE, in academia, the law or wider society, who believed feminist ideas about rape were revolutionary or novel or ground-breaking remains to me, one of the biggest mysteries in existence. It's the same bullshit people have always believed, and it's just as miguided.
Feminist theory in this area dovetails perfectly with our instinctive perceptions and expectations of gender, and traditional cultural and sociological memes that cast men as moral agents capable only of performing good and evil, and women as moral patients or objects, capable only of absorbing good or evil. Feminist thought concerning sexual violence was never innovative--it was always same shit, different pile.
Still, when you think of how feminists utilized these theoretical models of rape and domestic violence as supporting evidence for their overarching theory of how society works, it's pretty clear why someone like Eve Ensler would be resistant to acknowledging both male victims and female perpetrators of sexual violence. This will be especially true of wartime sexual violence, since everyone, especially feminists, views bloody conflict as a solely male domain.
And while this view is certainly not just a problem with feminism--after all, it wasn't feminism that passed laws in the Congo that punish the victim of a male rape as harshly as the perpetrator--feminist theory seems woefully inadequate to address any human phenomenon absent the lens of the male agent, female object dichotomy.
Ensler's speech at the NOW conference only hammered that nail home for me. Addressing the gathered women as "vaginas" and the male audience members as "vagina-friendly men" was freaky enough--referring to the men as men, but the women as body parts?--but when she spoke of what's going on in the Congo, her every word reinforced the idea that men act and women are acted upon, that the sum of woman is only what is done to or for her, and the sum of man is only what he does to or for others.
What are men to Eve Ensler? They are the evil white westerners out to rape Africa of its resources. They are the evil militants who brutalize and murder innocent villagers. They are the unwilling tools of those evil men--forced at gunpoint to rape their mothers and daughters, not to be mentioned by her again. They are the doctors performing the surgeries that saved that poor woman, the people who built the safe village where women and girls could escape sexual violence, the guards who undoubtedly march the perimeter of that village, and the people who supplied them with computers, internet and a shot at an education. The only mention of male victims in her entire speech was still framed in the context of perpetration--a father forced to rape his daughter, or the son his mother. Once she was done conveying what he did, it was like he didn't exist to her anymore.
The men are the doers, in Eve Ensler's narrative. The women are merely done to, or done for.
How the fuck is this challenging our gendered views on anything? How are Eve and her ilk going to overthrow patriarchy when all they ever seem to do is preach it?
And how will anything ever change when the people who are supposedly defying the status quo are only entrenching it ever deeper? Feminism is the privileged voice on gender issues, and its as silent about the suffering of sexually victimized men and the actions of female rapists in the Congo, as the staunchest trad-con, because feminism's entire body of work rests on the necessity of those men and those women not existing.
At present, there are no agencies providing funding to male victims of rape in the Congo. Dutch Oxfam has even gone so far as to threaten to pull its funding if too much is spent on the few male victims who do seek assistance. Other human rights advocates, few in number, complain that the focus of the UN and the media, on women as a monolithic victim-class and men as a monolithic perpetrator class, undermines not only their effectiveness in helping and protecting male victims, but in bringing female perpetrators of human rights violations to justice.
When Adam Jones examined the activities of five of the “female architects of the Rwandan genocide”, he noted they not only participated in selecting thousands of Tutsi men and boys to be killed, they were often the ones delivering death. Yet according to author Tim Goldich:
"These cases of female leaders represent only a small part of the story of women’s participation in the genocide. At the grassroots, “very often, groups of women ululated their men into the ‘action’ that would result in the death of thousands of innocent men, women and children, many of them their own neighbours.” Their role was dominant in the post-massacre looting and stripping of bodies, which often involved climbing over corpses (and those still alive and moaning in agony) piled thigh-high in the confined spaces in which many Tutsis met their end. Frequently these women assisted in administering the coup de grâce to those clinging to life."
If Eve Ensler believes women are uniquely equipped to lead without descending into violence, she needs to open her eyes.
The model with which we as humans view gender makes us so reluctant to not only feel compassion for male victims of crime, hardship and suffering, but also to deliver accountability to women who do horrible things.
Just like Taslima Nasreen's childish narrative, "Men throw acid on us, but women still love men," ignores the 30% of acid attack victims who are men and boys and the significant number of perpetrators who are women, Eve Ensler's tale of Jean from the Congo ignores a very great deal of suffering and marginalization, simply because in her mind, all women are victims and that is all they are. And all men are is how they affect women.
And I'm sorry, but Eve Ensler, in her call for women to rise up--a billion of them worldwide next February 14th, to represent the 1 out of 3 women globally who will be raped or beaten in their lifetimes--is apparently thinking with her vagina. Because I'm almost positive she's never even thought to even ask the question, "how many men will be raped or beaten in their lifetimes?" for comparison. If she had, I wonder if she'd like the answer.
She really doesn't get the idea that humans--men and women--are in this together, and that the warp and weft created by our equilibrium is what society is built on. To her, men exist only to help or to harm women, and that means a man who's been raped is of no use to anyone, least of all her.
Eve Ensler is as much a slave to her hominid programming and traditional views of gender as anyone else--a slave to the idea that men do while women are done. And while she noted that since spending time in the Congo she's become fully radicalized, becoming a radical proponent of traditional ways of viewing gender doesn't make her any more special than Rush Limbaugh.
But I think the most cynical and stomach-turning part of the entire speech was the way she drew equivalence between the struggles and suffering of women in the Congo, a place where there is a war on EVERYONE, and the inconveniences of women in the west who are oppressed by lack of free birth control. It's all one big war on women, don'tcha know? And men? If they aren't harming women, or being useful to women, they don't exist at all.