European & International News

World Aids Day 2010: Eve Ensler calls for "nothing short of a sexual revolution"

[Brussels, 30 November 2010] On the occasion of World Aids Day, Eve Ensler, author of The Vagina Monlogues and founder of V-Day which brings together events to raise awareness and funds for local organisations working to end violence against women, has issued an impassioned call for respect and equality between women and men to end the worldwide scourge of HIV-Aids.

Nothing Short of a Sexual Revolution, by Eve Ensler

In 14 years I have traveled to over 60 countries in the world and just about every state in America, and I have yet to arrive anywhere, any village, city or town where vaginas were warmly greeted and celebrated. The word vagina is the most terrifying word, the most threatening word, in any language of any country I have ever been to. Even when the vagina is worshipped in theory, as the yoni is in India, it is denigrated in practice. It is more reviled and feared than words like plutonium, genocide, and starvation. In many countries the word for female genitalia is so derogative or disgusting it cannot be spoken in public. In a few places, there is no word in the language for vagina at all.

The word vagina itself comes from Latin and means a sheath, a place to put a sword, so that a vagina has no independent meaning or value, that it only exists in relationship to the penis, or as a vehicle to serve it. As the vagina is the primary port of transmission from men to women of the AIDS virus, how women and men perceive vaginas, talk about or don’t talk about vaginas, how women know their vaginas, feel agency over their vaginas determines everything about their future. Many women, even in the so called progressive countries, are still not comfortable asking a man out, acting directly on their own desire, be it for a man or a woman. Many women who are sexually active and educated about the virus, are still, because of insecurity and embarrassment, having unsafe sex. Many women in the year 2010 do not know how their clitoris functions or how to give themselves pleasure, nor do they feel safe telling a partner or a husband what they need or that it hurts when they are entered without preparation or that it would all work much better if it happened slower.

For so many women in the world, because there is no open sex education, because women are discouraged from masturbation, because sex has been defined, like science or math or business or politics as something essentially male and belonging to men, sex is perceived as something foreign and inaccessible. Because women are regularly forced and taken against their will in parts of the world, sex has become associated with pain. It has become something you survive. Each year, millions of women forcibly have their clitoris cut and removed. For many women, your vagina belongs to the clan, to the tribe, to the state, to the church, to the mosque, to the temple, to your husband. But it most certainly does not belong to you. So if it isn’t yours, how do you protect it or cherish it?

AIDS is as much a cultural disease as it is a physical one. The transmission and the prevention of transmission involve shifting consciousness. The narrative of AIDS and women is a commingling of narratives that illuminate AIDS, not as a fixed force, but as a cultural, political, emotional, and physical process. AIDS is a virus of descent.

AIDS is women feeling too insecure to ask for protection or to expect protection and then blaming themselves for being stupid.

AIDS is the self-recrimination women have after trusting a man they get naked with, they open to, trusting that man to cherish their life and protect it.

AIDS is women feeling embarrassed that they weren’t raped when they got AIDS so they have no excuse.

AIDS is all the years that go into robbing women of agency over their bodies, not teaching them that they have a right to pleasure, that a huge point of being in this world is pleasure and that sex is one of the greatest pleasures.

AIDS is growing up in patriarchal systems that legislate a woman’s desire, knowing that a woman who longs for pleasure, who takes her pleasure is the greatest enemy of the patriarchal state. Owning you desire is equivalent to owning your power.

AIDS is all the years swallowed by poverty and illiteracy and living in dust and debris. It is the massive amount of alcohol that young girls and women consume to numb themselves from the violations and humiliations they have already suffered, which assures they will be unprotected and unsafe again.

AIDS is Betty, who died several years ago. When they examined her body, there was no question that she died from AIDS. AIDS is what the death certificate said. A simple acronym that branded her as one of the thousands, millions of anonymous women who disappear daily. But for Betty the journey to getting Aids began years ago. It began in a house where her stepfather raped her daily once she turned 10 and then on some mornings would make her watch him doing the same to her little sister. It continued with her cruel mother who punished her and made her feel stupid and pointless and terribly guilty. It was given a momentary reprieve when she finally escaped her house and found a man who supposedly loved her and would nurture her and she began to relax for the first time and trust and give herself to him. And then Aids arrived after that man came home after living with Betty for five years, announced out of the blue that he was leaving Betty for a man. It was only when she was alone, abandoned, a few months later that she found out she had the HIV virus and that this man she had come to trust had given it to her, knowing he had it all along.

AIDS is Emily, a teenager I interviewed at a university in Connecticut. She was a virgin in her first year at college and ended up having sex one time with a man who knew he was positive but somehow forgot to tell her. She, being shy and inexperienced was too terrified to ask him to use a condom. She was sick when I met her and the experience had been fully devastating. She would probably never have sex again. So she would probably never know what good sex was. She would never know how it felt to be held and embraced and cherished and loved. She would never know the pleasure of the body or that touch and sex can be healing. Her whole life would now be consumed surviving the virus, the betrayal, the attempted murder on her life.

Aids is Rita, a eight year old girl I recently spent time with in the DRC. Her mother was raped and Rita and her twin sister were born the product of that rape. Then they were both raped by militias when they were two years old. Rita’s sister died but Rita is now struggling to live with HIV.

The stories go on and on. I wish I didn’t know these stories. I wish I hadn’t witnessed hundreds of women wilting away, quietly evaporating, disappearing from the world never having found the verb of their own life. I wish I hadn’t seen so many teenage girls stolen in their prime, their bodies reduced to youthful containers for male sperm, male consumers who have never and will never see them as human beings. But I have.

These are deadly times. The mad rise of poverty has put women at higher and higher risk, girls bodies are cheaper than ipods and in many places, more available. In Tanzania, for example, girls are sold by their parents for as little as 20 dollars. Because there have been no substantive measures taken to prevent the selling and enslavement of girls and because there is so little justice and prevention in post conflict zones, a tragic and perhaps catastrophic message is being sent to men and woman. There are parts of the world where the depopulation of women is already occurring.

You cannot prevent women from getting AIDS without ending violence towards them, without shifting the dynamics of power. Until women are valued by the culture, by their mates, by their mothers and fathers, by the church and mosque and synagogues, by the UN, by governments, by schools, by the media and finally by themselves there will be no way to stop AIDS. So much conspires to get women to believe they do not matter, that their lives do not matter. Women are severely underpaid when they are paid. The work they do is hardly valued. Mothering and maintaining households barely ranks as work, let alone the crucial life sustaining work. We see how quickly in war women’s bodies are used and discarded, how thousands can be raped within months and often years before there is any real outcry or justice. We see many cases in the world where there is no justice ever. We see how 2 million women a year have their clitoris removed or how 500 thousand were systematically and horrifically raped in the DRC with impunity. We see how one out of 4 girls on American campuses are raped and often by a friend, and one of out three are raped in the U.S. military by their own comrades fighting next to them on the battlefield. We see how women are acid burned and stoned and beaten to death for flirting or marrying the wrong caste or not marrying soon enough.

You cannot stop a disease that is being transmitted through sex unless you admit that sex exists, unless women have a right to sex and desire, the same way men have a right, unless women are equal active participants and not passive recipients of men’s desires and thus, the diseases men pass on through their narcissistic ejaculations. Until women have agency over their lives and bodies, know how they work, (which means masturbating) until they feel they have the right to protect themselves, the virus will not be stopped. Until women know they have a right to refuse to be touched or entered and a right to invite it, a right to demand protection and a right to expect it, there will be no ending AIDS. And until these rights are backed up by courts and enforced by states, women will never have those rights.

As long as women and men have no real knowledge about sex, myths will continue to dominate. A man can get away with raping a virgin and saying he believes it will cure AIDS, as long as there is a sanctioned and enforced environment of sexual ignorance. Creating a true and substantial dialogue about sex and sexuality means breaking taboos and asking questions. It means standing up to authorities like the Church who refuse to promote contraception and sex education. It means boldly speaking out against fundamentalist forces that promote abstinence, claming it prevents AIDS and STD’s and early pregnancy when the data tells another story.

Frankly, nothing short of a worldwide sexual revolution will stop the spread of AIDS. We need to dissemble the shame, reclaim pleasure, celebrate desire, human connection, skin and touch. We need to release the shackles of oppression: one-way enjoyment, and narrow-minded education. We need open and fearless discussion allowing sex to be what it is—natural and beautiful.

The revolution will not happen without men. We need to create an environment where sexuality is more about connection than conquering, more about pleasure than performance. Men need to ask questions, and admit their vulnerabilities. They need to go slow and go deeper. Women need to expect this, demand it and allow a place for it.

The time is now. The remedies must be bold and forthright and crash through the existing taboos. We have to stop using language that conceals the story and stop feeling guilty or ashamed. There are 33 million people living in the world with the HIV virus, about half of them women. I venture to say a good portion of them got the disease because they were too afraid or too embarrassed or too insecure to say the simple words, “Love my vagina”.

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