The blogger, Michael Ezra, reports attending an Eve Ensler speech:
In her speech, Ensler declared that one in three women in the world are raped. Of course, Ensler did not cite a source for this stupendous claim. The reason she did not do so is because it is fictitious.
In comments, Michael says that people like Ensler “are ruining their own cause with such preposterous statements.”
But I didn’t find one example of Ensler claiming that one in three women are raped.
So what does that mean? Well, it means that even if Ensler made that claim when Michael saw her speak, it’s not what she typically says.
If we give Ensler the benefit of the doubt, I think we should conclude that either Michael unintentionally misheard her, or Ensler intended to make her usual “one in three” claim but misspoke.
But even if Ensler said that “one in three women will be beaten or raped in her lifetime,” is that justifiable? Or is it “preposterous”?
This 2003 UN Report (pdf link) says “One in three women throughout the world… in her lifetime… will be beaten, raped, assaulted, trafficked, harassed or forced to submit to harmful practices such as female genital mutilation (FGM).” In turn, the UN’s source for that claim is this paper (pdf link) from John Hopkins University, which finds that “around the world at least one woman in every three has been beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in her lifetime.” Contrary to the phrasing of the UN report, the John Hopkins report excludes “trafficking in women, rape during war, female infanticide, and FGM.”
As you might expect, the John Hopkins report isn’t original research; instead, it’s a compilation of many different studies from around the world, and at least some of the compiled studies are themselves compilations. I don’t think it’s possible to have any great degree of certainty with this sort of report; there are too many variables. For example, is coercion defined the same in all the studies? Does the word for “coercion” really has the same connotations in each of the many languages the different source studies used? All rape is coercive, but is all sexual coercion rape? The broad scope of the study makes it impossible for a conclusion like “one in three” to come wrapped in iron certainty.
On the other hand, although the John Hopkins figure is inherently uncertain, it doesn’t seem completely unreasonable. Moreover, because the one in three figure excludes wartime rape and trafficking, the real figure for “women being beaten or raped” could conceivably be higher than the one in three John Hopkins estimated.
Or maybe it’s lower. I don’t know for sure, and neither, I suspect, does anyone else.
That said, I think Michael Ezra is unfair to Eve Ensler, for a few reasons.
1) It’s likely that either Michael misheard Ensler, or Ensler misspoke. If I’m correct about that, then Michael’s critique of Ensler is (unintentionally) unfair.
2) The “1 in 3″ claim that Ensler has made many times, which is different from the one Michael attributes to her, is not “fictional”; its a claim that has frequently been made by UN officials, and that is backed up by reasonable research from a reputable source. Even if the study is mistaken or exaggerated (and I don’t know it is), it’s not preposterous for Ensler to think UN statistics are reliable.
3) The claim that one in three women has been “beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in her lifetime” is not on its face ludicrous. Admittedly, that’s not exactly the same as Ensler’s claim that one in three women has been “beaten or raped in her lifetime,” but it’s pretty close.
I don’t propose to defend everything Eve Ensler have ever said or written; I’m pretty sure I disagree with her on some topics, although I also greatly admire her dedication to good causes and her amazing fundraising for those causes. But on the narrow question of the “one in three” statistic, unless we have solid evidence that Ensler actually said what Michael attributed to her, and that it wasn’t a simple case of misspeaking, I don’t think Michael Ezra’s condemnation of Ensler is justified.
Michael also writes:
…according to Ensler, not all rape is bad rape. In early versions of The Vagina Monologues, Ensler had a twenty-four year old woman ply a thirteen year old girl with alcohol and then sexually violate her. As the National Post (Ontario) October 6, 2006 reported, Ensler’s child character states: “I say, if it was a rape, it was a good rape, then, a rape that turned my [vagina] into a kind of heaven.”
One wonders about Ensler’s moral compass.
It’s worth noting that “The Vagina Monologues” was based on interviews with women about their actual life experiences. In the monologue Michael mentions, “The Little Coochie Snorcher That Could,” Ensler later changed the character’s age to sixteen and struck out the “good rape” line.
I’m not an “art is never offensive” sort of person; art expresses ideas, and some ideas are offensive and deserving of criticism. In particular, the depiction of rape as positive for the victim is something that deserves extreme critical scrutiny.
But I’m not willing to say it’s never acceptable for a playwright to make a distinction between statutory rape and forcible rape. I’m not willing to say it’s never acceptable for a playwright to depict a character who benefited from sex with an adult when she was underage. I want statutory rape laws to apply to adults in real life, but that doesn’t mean they should always be applied to characters in plays. Art, unlike the law, doesn’t have clear-cut boundaries and resists saying “never.”
…The monologue isn’t about the moral status of the adult, but the experience of the girl. There are utilitarian reasons to make statutory rape illegal regardless of circumstances, but that doesn’t mean it’s inconceivable that a legal minor could ever have a good sexual experience with an adult. An adult is never in a position to know she or he is not using coercive power, so the adult’s actions are never justified, but there could be some circumstances in which harm did not result.
The “good rape” line is the character’s clumsy way of trying to express her sense that she has a sovereign right to interpret her experience and no societal rule or interpretive frame can take that away. [...]
This monologue comes in the context of an entire show that returns to the “rape sucks” theme again and again. For that matter, her relationship with the woman is in the context of a monologue that’s already depicted a rape and said how much it sucked.
Anyway, if the Vagina Monologues is about any one thing, it’s about how you are in possession of a truth about your body and your experiences of it and with it that all sorts of people will try to distort and we would do well to hear how you speak it in your language. The monologues were based upon interviews with women; for all we know her original subject used the “good rape” line, although that shouldn’t matter as long as it’s realistic and true to a character, and I find it so. I’m pretty sure a guideline that elevates prudence over truth isn’t going to be good for art.
There’s no reason to be senseless about the stories you tell or the language you do it in, but I thought that “good rape,” was chosen advisedly, to say to the show’s exceedingly anti-rape choir, even you might not like the terms in which women describe themselves and their lives, and you too may have to work hard to understand them and to develop a moral understanding that’s broad enough to contain them. Maybe few people can hear that, but that’s really not the fault of the show qua art (though in practice VM is something of a political tool, and in that role it has to take into account the audience’s limitations).
Anyway, I think a moral idea that it’s wrong for adults to have sex with teenagers should be elastic enough to absorb the notion that harms will vary, or it’s going to crash on the shoals of reality.
I think Tia’s argument is persuasive. That said, this isn’t a simple question, and some thoughtful people will disagree with Tia. (See Kid Bitzer’s response, for example: “The world is not improved by more depictions of women–worse than that, girls–saying how rape was really good for them.”)
For folks who are interested, here’s a video of Crystal Callahan performing the “Coochie Snorcher” monologue. TRIGGER WARNING, because the monologue includes descriptions of rape and child abuse, and needless to say it’s NSFW.
Post-script: Michael also commented on Mary Koss’ studies — and virtually everything he writes is wrong. I may respond to him on that subject in a future post.
When I began writing this post, I intended to agree with Michael that Ensler’s “one in three” statement was utterly wrong, before quickly moving on to Koss’ far more defensible statements. But then I couldn’t find any evidence that Ensler has made the claim Michael attributed to her, and the direction of the post changed.
That said, I have, on rare occasion, heard feminists say that 1 in 3 women are raped in their lifetime. As far as I know, that 1 in 3 statistic is contradicted by every credible study of rape prevalence, and it’s a mistake for anyone to repeat it.