I was a coy, uninitiated teenager, unwillingly present at a gathering of my Devonian aunts, when an exchange of ribaldry broke out between them. I don’t recall much except that the least inhibited of them delivered the punchline, “Well, they do say you’m sittin’ on a fortune”. I blushed intensely, much to their amusement, for that was the first time that I had heard women talk about the part of their anatomy that defines them so intimately.
Yes, I am talking about the vagina because, on March 8th 2011, the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day, I was reminded of that incident when I attended a performance of The Vagina Monologues . This time there were different circumstances. For a start, this was a staged, theatrical event for which I had bought a ticket. So I could hide. The lights were dimmed and my blushes could go unnoticed. Also, I had the advantage, by now, of having more knowledge and experience of the topic. Nevertheless, I still expected this to be one of the less comfortable experiences to which I had voluntarily exposed myself.
The event was organised to mark IWD by a charity founded by women to help other women in distress. It’s easy to say that I am in favour of everything that IWD stands for because I actually am. It was easy to support the charity and buy a ticket for the performance. It was even easy to raise smiles from my female friends at the reception prior to the performance. They might have been smiles of pleasure at seeing me, or smiles of approval at my attendance, or even smiles of pity at my plight. Whatever the case, I welcomed them, for I was massively outnumbered by women and therefore keen to curry favour.
As we took our seats I nervously counted only three other men in the hall, but the opening sketches put me at ease. There were light-hearted stories and funny anatomical descriptions and I felt able to relax and join in the laughter - although I was careful to do so discreetly. Then there followed some more fun stuff, with plenty of allusions to sexual gratification, and I even began to feel (marginally and incidentally) included. I should have guessed, however, that the journey was not going to be all easy going. It wasn’t long before it started to get tough, with detailed descriptions of physiological and medical intimacies being aired to the nodding, knowing approval of all around me. These are issues which men will so often choose to ignore, either on the grounds that they are not our concern, or that they detract from the allure of the object of our desire.
I was now feeling uncomfortable and even a little queasy, but there was no chance of an anonymous, early exit and so I was obliged to sit tight and take it like a man - and that turned out to be the nub of the problem: being a man. What followed was a section detailing the tragically awful brutality inflicted on women by men- past, present and future. It may be the case that the few men present could not be held personally responsible, yet the collective guilt hung heavy on us as unwilling figureheads for the wanton perpetration of vile crimes. I found it impossible to hold my head up.
This was essentially an audience participation event and, whilst not qualified to join in with the cheering, the whoops of approval and the general sisterly togetherness, I could at least laugh along at the funny bits and, as a fellow human, identify with the reality of the suffering of countless millions of women. I always was thankful not to have been born a female and now I am even more so.