I’ve read some of Eve Ensler’s work, I’ve attended performances of her acclaimed play The Vagina Monologues, and I wrote about her in my 2003 book Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us; she came up in my research of activists who use misleading statistics to support their social agendas.
Ensler reappeared on my radar again a decade later with a new movement she created called One Billion Rising. She planned to spark a “revolution” in which one billion women (actually, several thousand) danced on Valentine’s Day around the world to speak out against rape and violence against women. (The “one billion” is a reference to a statistic she cites claiming that “one in three women on the planet will be raped or beaten in her lifetime” and that “One billion women violated is an atrocity. One billion women dancing is a revolution”).
Why dance-instead of, say, volunteer at a local domestic violence shelter or meet with lawmakers to increase penalties for physical and sexual assault? As Ensler explained to Amy Goodman on her Sept. 24, 2012, appearance on Democracy Now! “One Billion Rising is basically saying that the time has come for women across the planet and the men who love them to do an outrageous, disruptive dance action that makes it so clear how many women have been raped… and that if we rise together we will understand that it concerns us all.”
I had mixed feelings about the idea; on one hand as a strong supporter of women’s rights I support her goals of reducing rape and other forms of violence against women. On the other hand as a skeptic, as someone who values truth over ideology, and as someone who has researched some of Ensler’s claims and found them to be factually wrong, I had serious reservations. I have always had little patience for slacktivist petitions, feel-good, do-nothing social stunts and movements, and their ilk. I have criticized many such “efforts” publicly over the years, including anti-bullying campaigns, anti-child abuse campaigns, and even pro-democracy fighters in Iran.
I don’t criticize these campaigns because I am against them (or somehow pro-bullying, pro-child abuse, or pro-oppressive dictatorship); in fact it’s exactly the opposite. I criticize them because they have little or no chance of success, since the protests are based partly on myths, misinformation, and often a grotesquely exaggerated belief in their influence. I don’t like seeing people pretend to address and solve social problems; I like seeing people actually address and solve them. And the same goes for violence against women. Will women doing a dance in different parts of the world really improve anyone’s life or reduce physical and sexual assault? Ensler seems to think so, while I am…skeptical.
Ensler wrote a poem about the movement called “Over It,” which has appeared in many places including the OneBillionRising website, the Huffington Post, and elsewhere. You might want to look at it. I decided to write my own poem about my own personal feelings on the topic.
Over It (for Eve Ensler)
I am over rape.
I join mothers, sisters, fathers, brothers, and lovers in condemning rape and all manner of violence against women.
I am over the hundreds of thousands of women in Congo and elsewhere around the world still waiting for the rapes to end and the rapists to be held accountable.
I am over the 100 innocent women attacked, disfigured, and killed by their husbands and boyfriends in Pakistan each year in acid attacks.
I am over brave teenage girls being targeted for assassination by fundamentalist Muslims in Pakistan for demanding the right of girls to get an education.
I am over teenage girls being denied access to contraception by fundamentalist Christians in America.
I am over the fact that many women (and men) think that only men rape, and only women are raped.
I am over the hypocrisy of a prominent feminist anti-rape activist like Eve Ensler writing a play describing “a good rape.” There is no such thing as “a good rape.” All rape is bad. It is never deserved, nor asked for, nor good; it is always bad and wrong. Always.
I am over exaggerated and alarmist statistics being used to scare the public about any social agenda-whether I agree with that agenda or not. The real numbers are alarming enough without exaggerating them. One rape is just as much of an injustice as a billion rapes; one rape is too many. (1)
I am over the fact that up until January 2012 the federal government’s rape statistics did not include male victims of rape-and that Department of Justice studies estimate that one in ten men have been raped in prison, with no resulting outrage.
I am over “don’t drop the soap” comments, and people who think that anyone raped in prison deserves it as part of their punishment.
I am over the fact that Native American women face far higher rates of sexual abuse than White women, yet receive little concern or attention-including from rape advocacy groups.
I am over the forces that deny women who have been raped the right to have an abortion.
I am over women being silent about rape, because they are made to believe it’s their fault or they did something to make it happen.
I am over the myth of “the passivity of good men,” suggesting that many or most men are complicit in rape culture when in fact most men are not rapists, and condemn those who are.
I am over the male bashing often inherent in feminist writings and slogans; “All men are rapists” is neither true nor fair nor helpful.
I am over the wanton slinging of labels like “misogynist” and “sexist” and “sister hater” and “gender traitor” and “rape apologist” to people who dare criticize feminists. Plenty of feminists disagree with each other.
I am over social activists, including those whose causes I support, who value emotion and anecdote over truth, facts, and critical thinking.
I am over thin-skinned “feminists” who blithely and intentionally confuse legitimate questions and criticism of their facts or claims with misogyny and sexism; it is insulting to real victims of misogyny and sexism.
I am over blaming TV, movies, magazines, and video games for real-life violence-including violence against women. Just as sexy clothes do not cause rape, violent and sexual images do not cause rape; rapists cause rape.
I am over the simplistic idea that women are raped by heteronormative, hegemonic patriarchies instead of by criminals.
I am over the myth that society as a whole “accepts violence against women and girls,” as Ensler claims. The reality is that physical and sexual abuse of women has been dropping dramatically for decades and continues to do so. (2) There is much more work to be done, but there is no shame in puttin
g the facts in perspective.
I am over people mistaking dancing for social justice or activism; real change comes from funding social services for victims of rape and domestic violence, family services, and so on.
I am over the idea that women doing a four-minute dance is going to stop a young mother from being beaten by her alcoholic boyfriend, or increase the number of social workers on the streets of Detroit or Delhi, or help parents overcome meth addiction. A four-minute dance is not going to “shake the world into sense.” Women deserve better; they deserve real answers and real help-not faux activism, ineffective e-petitions, or dancing flash mobs.
If people want to do the dance, that’s great, but I hope it won’t be seen as a substitute for actually doing something real and tangible for the men, women, and children in communities around the world.
As for me: I’m over it.
(1) The correct statistic is not that one billion women will be raped in her lifetime (as Ensler said in an interview on Democracy Now!), nor that one in three women “will be raped or beaten” in her lifetime (as Ensler states on the One Billion Rising web site), but instead that one-third of women “has been beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused” in her lifetime (as referenced in the study linked to on the web site). “Otherwise abused” includes “homicide, intimate partner abuse, psychological abuse, dating violence, same-sex violence, elder abuse, sexual assault, date rape, acquaintance rape, marital rape, stranger rape and economic abuse.” All these are serious, legitimate problems, but not all of them are physical beatings or rape (nor even involve men). This is important because mischaracterizing the statistic as reflecting women either being “raped or beaten” harms victimized women instead of empowering them by not reflecting the true diversity of forms of abuse.
(2) For example “From 1990 to 2005, sexual abuse substantiations went down 51%” and “From 1992 through 2005, physical abuse substantiations declined 46%” (p. 122-147) in Childhood Victimization: Violence, Crime, and Abuse in the Lives of Young People, by David Finkelhor, 2008, Oxford University Press. As two-time Pulitzer prize nominee Steven Pinker notes, the best data “shows that in thirty-five years the rape rate has fallen by an astonishing 80 percent, from 250 per 100,000 people over the age of twelve in 1973 to 50 per 100,000 in 2008…. [Yet] rather than celebrating their success, anti-rape organizations convey an impression that women are more in danger than ever” (p. 403 in The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, 2011, Viking Books; see also pp. 394-415 in the same book for a detailed, fully-referenced analysis of the significant drop in domestic violence, and other forms of physical and sexual abuse). For more on the misuse of sexual and physical assault statistics by social activists, see Damned Lies and Statistics, by Joel Best, 2001, University of California Press; Once Upon a Number, by John Allen Paulos, 1998, Basic Books; and my book Media Mythmakers.