Think every woman has a vagina? Think again.
Around this time of year the feminist students at my university get very excited about The Vagina Monologues. I want to support my students who are involved with the production, and I appreciate how empowering and important this work is for many of them. I get it. But enough already about the vajayjay.
My vagina is not the source of my womanhood nor does it make me a woman. I think ideas like this reinforce heteronormativity and fail to take into account the experiences of many intersex and trans people, who call into question the supposedly causal connection between bodies and genders.
This is one reason I was so happy to discover the work of femme intersex activist Caitlin Petrakis Childs, who critiques The Vagina Monologues as “an intersex person and a woman without a vagina.” Below you’ll find her talk from a panel held at Emory University. The panel, “Whose Vagina Monologues? Feminist Critiques of V-Day,” addressed the pros and cons of V-Day movement and the nature of feminist engagements with it. Check out Caitlin’s website and blog, Caitlin Petrakis Childs. Here’s her speech:
I was 17 when I first heard about the ‘Vagina Monologues’. I was a young and idealistic feminist and was excited to hear about the commotion this play was causing around the United States. When I heard that the play would be performed at the Roxy in Atlanta, a group of friends and I went to see it.
I loved the first-hand experiences of women relayed through the monologues. I was excited by the possibilities of combining social justice activism with performance, two long-time interests of mine.
At one point in the play, a “Vagina Fairytale” was told. I would like to read you an excerpt from that piece: (Pages 99-100 of ‘The Vagina Monologues, V-Day Edition)
Or the story of the stunning young woman in Oklahoma, who approached me after the show with her stepmother to tell me how she had been born without a vagina, and only realized it when she was fourteen. She was playing with her girlfriend. They compared their genitals and she realized hers were different, something was wrong. She went to the gynecologist with her father, the parent she was close to, and the doctor discovered that in fact she did not have a vagina or uterus. Her father was heartbroken, trying to repress his tears and sadness so his daughter would not feel bad. On the way home from the doctor, in a noble attempt to comfort her, he said, “Don’t worry darlin’. This is gonna be just fine. As a matter of fact, it’s gonna be great. We’re gonna get you the best homemade pussy in America. And when you meet your husband, he’s gonna know we had it made specially for him.” And they did get her a new pussy, and she was relaxed and happy and when she brought her father back two night later, the love between them melted me.
That piece resonated with me in a way I couldn’t fully articulate at the time. I felt like someone had hit me in the stomach. You see, when I was 15, I was diagnosed with what I now know is an intersex condition, when it was discovered that I was born without a uterus and vagina. Upon diagnosis, I went through multiple genital exams by multiple physicians, was initially misdiagnosed and given a painful and unnecessary surgery and was informed that I would need to have a vagina created via surgical or non-surgical methods at some point in my life. This experience was extremely traumatic and difficult for me. This was NOT due to being born with a body that doesn’t fit what is deemed “normal” for a girl or a woman, but was a result of being told that my body was “wrong” and needed to be fixed. It was due to doctors medicalizing this variance in my body and treating it as if it were a true medical emergency.
Because of all of the shame and trauma surrounding my diagnosis, at 17 when I first saw the Vagina Monologues, the friends who were with me were not aware of my intersex condition. Hearing this monologue and knowing that there was something seriously wrong with the way the play portrayed this young women and her experiences was not something I could articulate due to my own shame, silence and disempowerment.
About a year later, when attending a conference, I stumbled upon an intersex workshop and realized that this “condition” I had been diagnosed with at 15 was under the umbrella term of intersex. I learned that there was an entire movement of people organizing to stop the pain and trauma that people like myself go through as a result of being born into bodies that vary from what is supposedly normal. With this knowledge, I was finally able to deal with the trauma I had gone through years earlier and finally felt entitled to be angry. I found my voice and started to get more and more critical about our cultures narrow ideas around gender, sex, sexuality and bodies.
I finally realized why I had felt something so deeply in my stomach when I heard the “Vagina Fairytale”. I became critical of the sentiment behind this piece that implied that being a woman without a vagina was unacceptable and must be “fixed”. It implies that when vaginas do exist, they exist for husbands. It makes huge assumptions about this young girls heterosexuality. When doctor’s discovered I was born without a vagina, many of these same ideas and assumptions were made. No one ever asked me if I was interested in penetrative vaginal sex, let alone if I was heterosexual. It was clear to me that the doctor’s treating me felt that I needed to have cosmetic surgery on my genitals in order to be a real woman and though it wasn’t, they implied this would be medically necessary. I was never told that it would be equally acceptable for me to continue my life as a woman without a vagina.
In 2002, intersex activists wrote to Eve Ensler to point out the harm being done by the “Vagina Fairytale”. When Eve did not respond, activists contacted V-Day organizers to educate them about intersex genital mutilation and the intersex activist movement. Intersex activists asked V-Day to remove the “Fairytale” and to encourage V-Day to live up to it’s mission of ending violence against women and putting a stop to genital mutilation by including intersex people. Eventually, due to the pressure from intersex activists, V-day issued a joint press release with the Intersex Society of North America clarifying their position on intersex genital mutilation and urging local V-Day organizers to donate money to ISNA’s work.
In 2003, the “Vagina Fairytale” was removed from the V-Day script. However, a monologue from an intersex person’s perspective did not replace it. That year, V-Day organizers were told by the national office that they could plug additional monologues into their local productions of the play. Some producers chose to include monologues written by intersex individuals, but most did not. Later, V-Day reversed this and as it stands, local organizers cannot add any additional monologues to the script.
The more I thought about this and the Vagina Monologues as a whole, the more critical I became. The idea that having a vagina is the one thing that unites all women, just doesn’t work. Women exist with many different types of bodies, some with vaginas and some without. Vaginas do not make women, women.
The more I examined the Vagina Monologues, the more problems I saw. Why is it that the ritualistic cutting of women’s genitals in Africa is portrayed as serious and tragic, yet the “Vagina Fairytale” is written in a fun and lighthearted monologue? Why is it that genital cutting in other countries is portrayed as barbaric, yet there is no mention of the 5 intersex children per day who are given cosmetic surgeries on their genitals without their consent? Why is the word “mutilation” used to talk about genital cutting in Africa, but in the United States, it is a “fairytale”? Why is it that the monologues are all written from the first-person perspective of women, with the exception of the only monologue about an intersex person? V-Day’s mission states “Rape, incest, battery, genital mutilation and sexual slavery must end now.” In excluding intersex genital mutilation from their work, V-Day fails in its mission to end genital mutilation. By choosing to highlight genital mutilation in African countries, while ignoring genital mutilation happening daily in hospitals across the United States, V-Day perpetuates racist and imperialistic ideas that are dangerous to women and men, both intersex and not, around the world.
As feminists, it is important for us to be critical of art, culture, theory and activism done in our name. When a group touts itself as “The global movement to end violence against women’, we must challenge that group to examine what that really means and question whether that is truly accurate.
Due to the ignorance surrounding intersex, it is not surprising to me that Eve Ensler and V-Day have not been more proactive in their response to intersex activists. Education is one of the top priorities for those of us active in the intersex movement. How wonderful would it be for intersex people if Eve had used her platform to help stop the very real violence occurring multiple times per day to intersex people in the United States and beyond?
It is time to hold V-Day and Eve Ensler accountable for the harm and damage they are doing. It is time to challenge them to live up to their mission. It is time to end the secrecy, shame, non-consensual and damaging genital mutilations happening to intersex people daily.