Why is women’s sexuality threatening?

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Copy of ca LIF ensler Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP Eve Ensler, the American artist and activist, has changed the global womens rights game. Picture: Chris Pizzello / AP

Johannesburg - Eve Ensler taps on the table with her hands. It’s rhythmical, not rough. She leans in close, with a strong voice.

“Nothing on the planet is more threatening than women’s sexuality. Nothing… The attempts to contain, restrain, undo, destroy… you have to ask yourself what is it about that which is so threatening.”

She answers her own question as she moves back lightly in her chair, her hands confident on the table.

“It’s life demanding life. The more we bring women into their full sexuality, the more that life force is unleashed. (Fidel) Castro said we only need 10 percent of the people to have a revolution, but of course those who resist that force are going to push back hard now.

“Look what happened to the great Libyan human rights activist Salwa Bugaighis (a lawyer, murdered in June in Benghazi just before the Libyan general election). She was likely to be president and they took her out. I don’t doubt we’ll see more of this happening. What they want to do is intimidate, is to scare, but the genie is out of the bottle and it isn’t going back in. This notion of liberation cannot be erased from our consciousness again.”

It’s a potent moment. Everyone around the table at Salvationcafe in Milpark is silent, and Ensler – back in South Africa with a new book and a run of her play, Emotional Creature: The Secret Life Of Girls Around The World – breaks the impasse with a smile.

Ensler – who has been free of a uterine cancer which should have killed her four years ago – was a scene-stealer on a moribund women’s movement when she created The Vagina Monologues in the mid-1990s. Since that movement began she has altered the women’s rights game, not only by drawing power out of her own visceral trauma, but by being audacious, unbending – and kind.

The Vagina Monologues, written in 1996, has been translated into 48 languages and performed in 140 countries. The beautiful and the outspoken have told its tales of birth, sex, love, periods, mutilation, orgasm and every other female experience. And although Ensler won many awards, she was never going to stop there.

She developed V-Day, an international activist movement marked on Valentine’s Day to stop violence against women and girls. It raises millions for other campaigns, such as the opening of safe houses, shelters and minds. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, its City of Joy community for woman survivors of violence is thriving. The One Billion Rising global protest campaign she initiated is tireless in its pursuit of justice for women.

That’s why so many who love her were shocked when she revealed the terrors of cancer in her explicit 2013 book, In The Body Of The World. Ensler had been working in the DRC when she was diagnosed.

“I made a decision: just write and not edit,” she says. “But my editor did a lot of slashing and burning, and a lot of it, to be honest, was petty residue. Among the stones are the shiny diamonds, and then there are the insignificant pebbles. But I think, I hope, the book is really about that it doesn’t matter who we are on the outside if we don’t feel good inside.

“What was genius about the cancer experience was that it was like a major fire or wave that burnt through the wreckage, all this that I was holding on to in terms of identity. And it’s gone. It’s really gone.”

Ensler, who was repeatedly raped by her father as a child, has upset the applecart with this story. She’s clear on why.

“Tell the truth. Say: ‘Okay, this is who I am.’… Most people have been badly traumatised. Last week, I saw a story about Angelina Jolie, about a video release about her heroin addiction. Here is this woman who is perceived to have everything, right? Beauty, talent, intelligence, money, adoration – and here is her past… Like all of us, she, too, is made up of trauma tales. And some people… have managed to find a way through, and others don’t. It just makes some of us lucky, or a bit more resilient, or maybe a little more insensitive and tough. This idea of ourselves, that we should be perfect, is getting us all in a lot of trouble.”

She talks about the danger when we don’t tell each other what we know.

“We have this language of gender violence. We don’t say women are raped and their vaginas ripped apart, and we don’t say women are beaten and their faces smashed in. Instead, we have high-concept expressions so that, honestly, we don’t get to deal with what’s going on.

“Language has the power to bring you closer or remove you, and the experience of cancer was so utterly physical… It can make you feel lonely and feel shame. When I was diagnosed, I immediately believed it was my fault. And to escalate the shame, I thought, if I publish this book, I’ll probably never get another date again. On the other hand, that’s okay. So what? If that’s the price for telling the truth, okay … What trauma does to women is it dislocates us from our bodies. And when you are separated from your body, you are separated from your intuition, your energy, your power.”

Ensler is closing that distance again with her new play Emotional Creature, which opened at the University of Joburg this weekend. “It goes back to stories we don’t tell.

“As I’ve travelled with Vagina Monologues, I started to really listen to what was going on and it was really an experience I had in Kenya which inspired me. V-Day has two safe houses which it has supported for 10 years, and there was a reconciliation between a young girl who had been vaginally cut and her father. I saw her fierceness, and her fear, which did not back away. That’s when I thought I had to write about girls. Everybody on the planet is taught not to be girls, so it must be very powerful to be one. What is it that we’re being told? Not to be passionate, not to be intense, dramatic, in your face… make a list!

“In this play, you see a young woman walking on stage in her short skirt, feeling good about herself, saying: You can look at it, you can enjoy it. I can get to be this fabulous – and guess what? It has nothing to do with you – unless I decide it has something to do with you.”

* The show will run for a limited season in Cape Town at The Flipside, Baxter Theatre from August 6 to 16. Schools shows at 11am. Tickets cost R75 per person. For pupils R25. Block and school bookings in Cape Town – Sharon at the Baxter at 021 680 3962 or [email protected]

Cape Argus

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