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It's Valentine's Day, not victim's day
By Cathy Young | February 18, 2002
LET ME STATE UP FRONT THAT I'VE NEVER CARED MUCH FOR VALENTINE'S DAY. PINK HEARTS AND OTHER COMMERCIAL REPRESENTATIONS OF LOVE LEAVE ME COLD, AND THE CLAIM BY "MEN ARE FROM MARS, WOMEN ARE FROM VENUS" AUTHOR JOHN GRAY THAT VALENTINE'S DAY IS WOMEN'S BIGGEST NATIONAL HOLIDAY MAKES ME QUEASY.
What troubles me far more, however, is the recent movement to turn Feb. 14 into a different kind of women's day - one rooted in a "women are victims, men are beasts" brand of feminism.
I am talking, about "V-Day," now observed on hundreds of college campuses and in other places across the United States and the world. According to the V-Day Web site, "V" stands for Victory over Violence, Valentine's Day, and Vagina. The centerpiece of the event is Eve Ensler's now-famous play, "The Vagina Monologues." Last year, the gala benefit performance of the play at Madison Square Garden, featuring celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey, Jane Fonda, and Glenn Close, drew an audience of 18,000.
"The Vagina Monologues" is based on Ensler's interviews with about 200 women. The idea is that women need to talk about their genitals in order to reclaim their self-esteem and dispel the veil of shame and secrecy. (All women, Ensler believes, "long to talk about their vaginas." Undoubtedly, many people in our society have grown up with negative messages about everything related to sex. However, it is far from clear that this problem is unique to women - surely men have their own anxieties and inadequacies - or that on-stage exhibitionism is the answer.
While the monologues have their funny and touching moments, much of the exercise strikes me as narcissistic and needlessly crude, just as it would if one substituted penises for vaginas.
The real problem, though, is that the play dwells relentlessly on male mistreatment of women. Almost without exception, men are depicted as creeps, jerks, or abusers. The HBO special "The Vagina Monologues," which aired on Valentine's Day, included a telling moment. When Ensler said, "This next monologue is based on an interview I did with a woman who had a good experience with a man," there was laughter in the audience - as if the very idea of a woman having such an experience was somewhat improbable.
At some performances, including last year's gala in New York, women who have been raped or battered are asked to rise, followed by those who know a woman who has been raped or beaten.
The goal, obviously, is to reinforce the point that violence against women is ubiquitous. The effect is to emphasize victimization at the expense of good, loving, fulfilling relationships. No one, after all, asks women who have been in such relationships to stand up and be counted.
Not all of Ensler's critics are reactionary fogies. They include Betty Dodson, a pioneering feminist sex educator who has been giving workshops since the 1970s helping women learn about their genitals and about sexual pleasure - workshops which, in fact, are mentioned in "The Vagina Monologues." The main problem with V-Day, Dodson writes on her Web site, is that "women end up celebrating sexual violence and not the creative or regenerative pleasures of erotic love."
The self-proclaimed mission of V-Day is to stop violence against women - a goal few people would question.
However, as often happens in such crusades, the activists are prone to paint an exaggerated picture of atrocities against women in order to boost their cause. One factoid cited on the V-Day Web site is that "battering is the leading cause of injury to women aged 15 to 44 in the United States."
But this claim has been repeatedly exposed as inaccurate: The study on which it is based relied on one sample of patients in an emergency room in a high-crime urban area and included injuries not only from domestic violence but from street crime (of which the primary victims are men).
Besides, while ending (or at least reducing) violence of any kind is a worthy goal, isn't there something sexist and paternalistic about the exclusive focus on women? "Dare we ask," Dodson writes, "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?"
If feminists truly want to reinvent Valentine's Day, here's a suggestion. Let's have a show called "The People Dialogues" in which men and women, gay or straight, talk about working through conflicts, misunderstandings, and stereotypes, finding love that lasts, and building truly equal relationships. We're all in this together: Now there's an empowering idea.