Why The Vagina Monologues Can Make You a Better Man

Think the Vagina Monologues is just for women? Think again. Dr. Jennifer Gunsaullus explores some of the important ways that men can learn about women, female sexuality and female bodies on VDay

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By now you’ve probably heard about The Vagina Monologues, but unless you’ve seen a production of it yourself, you’ve heard more about the controversy and less about the education or empowerment of the play itself. Written by playwright Eve Ensler in the mid-90s, this piece is a bunch of women talking about vaginas and vulvas. And talking about sex, their bodies, relationships, and sexual violence. It’s based on real interviews with real women, making each monologue powerful, and taking the audience through a gamut of emotions around female sexual experiences. Women who are open to exploring this sort of thing typically exit the production feeling powerful and grateful that their experiences finally have a voice. They are excited that these taboo topics are being discussed. The Vagina Monologues is produced by community groups and universities around the world, all raising funds for local women’s nonprofits.

But what about the men? Is there anything in the show for a man?

I’ve been involved with ten productions of this play, as an actor or director. So I’ve cajoled more than my share of men to attend, and have fended off many excuses. Afterwards, my male friends were always shocked with how much they were moved and amused. Sure they were uncomfortable and even confused at times. But definitely not disappointed they attended. If you’re interested in checking out a show, this will help prepare you for the experience.

First, there are always men in the audience, so you will not be alone. The audience will be primarily women, and everyone on stage is a woman. You may not be in situations like this very often, so it could feel uncomfortable or intimidating. Going with friends you can joke with may ease this discomfort.

Second, it is a very emotionally challenging event. You might feel moved to tears, or the women around you might cry. You will laugh—a lot. You’ll get angry, worried, and be amazed at what you likely don’t know about the complexity of women’s sexuality. If raw emotions are hard for you to sit with, and empathy isn’t your strong suit, you might even hate the show, anxiously waiting for it to be over.

So it isn’t for everyone. But of the dozens of men I’ve talked to about the show, I heard only one negative review among all of the other positive ones. I understand that my male friends might be reluctant to share certain aspects of their experience, but what they expressed is very telling. What did these guys get out of the show?

Here’s what they said in their own words:

“I was surprised there’s a lot going on that’s not in the male realm of experience.”

“It was slightly awkward initially, hearing about vaginas that much. But also kind of liberating, as it was such a taboo thing to mention, let alone talk about.”

“[I] didn’t realize how complex women’s relationships with their junk are . . . dudes on the other hand, from age 13 know our junk cold and have no problems discussing it. Stark contrast.”

“It brought awareness to my life as a male that I would have otherwise never considered, and I consider myself to be fairly forward thinking and informed on matters of feminism and women.”

“I’ll be the first to admit women are a mystery, and the VM definitely opened my eyes to struggles I would not have previously been aware of or cared about. I laughed a lot . . . but most of all felt saddened by the event . . . my lack of knowing, and how reflective that is of the world we live in. Saddened by the fact that the Vagina Monologues is necessary and that women have struggled, continue to struggle and are still not given the respect as human beings they deserve.”

“One thing that stands out in my memory is the surprising realization that women in first world countries still face several of the same issues as those in the third world. Especially when it comes to the abuse, violence and the denial of ownership of their own sexuality.”

“It was moving, sad, hopeful, a little uncomfortable, funny.”

Being uncomfortable and vulnerable around sexual topics is not a bad thing, especially if it helps men realize that there’s a lot more to learn and understand. These experiences can deepen the vulnerability of conversations between women and men about sexual topics. Such discomfort can lead to questioning, learning, and growth. Female sexuality is complicated—or beautifully complex, as I like to say.

I’ve read some critiques that The Vagina Monologues is “male-bashing.” My thought is if you’re looking for male-bashing, you’ll find it anywhere that women are speaking out about harm they’ve experienced, especially in the sexual realm. On the other hand, if you’re open to hearing a different perspective that could be uncomfortable and make you look at yourself and the world differently, then you’ll appreciate this experience. I believe talking about it openly is so much better than shameful silence.

I don’t think The Vagina Monologues is a perfect play that accurately depicts all the depths of women’s sexuality around the world. Eve Ensler took the stories that were shared with her and filtered them through her lens as a woman with poetic license. Some of it may be outdated and outrageous, but it does a damn good job of opening a dialogue that is still sorely missing, and opening a space for compassion. As one man explained, “By the end, I felt like a more progressive human being.”

Check out VDay’s website to find a production in your area, from February through April.

(I wrote this article as a Relationship, Love + Sex writer at The Good Men Project.)

~Dr. Jenn Gunsaullus, Sexologist - Sociologist - Sexuality Speaker - Vagina Warrior!

What is Your LOVE Language?

What does it take to fill your love tank? As cheesy as this terminology is, it’s actually a pretty appropriate way to check in with how loved, appreciated, and connected you feel in your relationship. Knowing your “love language” gives you insights into why you choose to be in an intimate relationship, how you like to interact, and what fills your love tank.

From: http://www.edenlifemag.com/2011/10/5-love-languages/Consider this scenario: A wife is upset that her husband doesn’t express his love and affection for her. She complains that he never says that he loves her or that he thinks she’s beautiful. He counters by explaining that of course he loves her, and his actions that day of washing her car and fixing their fence are clearly signs of that. She feels unloved. He feels unappreciated. Both feel frustrated.

A love language is how we can direct our actions and words to meet the deep emotional needs of our partner. Likewise, they can fulfill our needs and reasons for being in an intimate relationship, by speaking our love language. Which of the following ways do you prefer to receive love and attention from a partner? Is that the same way or different than you tend to give love and attention?

1. Words of Affirmation

2. Quality Time

3. Receiving Gifts

4. Acts of Service

5. Physical Touch

In the example above, the wife is asking for love through words of affirmation, and the husband is giving love through acts of service. Although they love each other, they are not connecting in their expressions of love. This is unfortunately a common state of affairs in long-term relationships.

To identify you and your partner’s love language, take this short Love Language test. What do you do with this information once you have it? Well, if you want love through quality time and your partner wants love through receiving gifts, take little steps each week to fulfill these needs. For example, you can make sure to bring home a thoughtful gift of appreciation, such as flowers or their favorite treat. Your partner could ensure you schedule quality time together, or make time to debrief at the end of each day. What happens when you and your partner start speaking each other’s love language? You feel romantic. You feel appreciated. You want to do small things to make your partner feel good. It’s an upward spiral of positivity and affection.

I am basing this information on a book by Gary Chapman, called The 5 Love Languages. He offers a poignant interpretation of love, and I have seen this book turn relationships around. Even if you’re not in a relationship, Chapman has written many versions of this book, for singles, teenagers, children, men, etc. If this at all resonates with you, do yourself a favor and read this book.

(This was originally posted as part of the Relationship & Sex Blog for Pacific San Diego Magazine.

Dr. Jenn Gunsaullus, San Diego, CA -- Sexuality Speaker, Sexologist, Sociologist, Sex Therapist

Speakers for TEDxWomen in San Diego

The speaker's list for this Sunday's TEDxWomen in San Diego for America's Finest City is rocking! From authors, to physicians, to artists, and professors, I really anticipate this to be a moving conference, and I'm excited to be a part of a global women's event. For me and my topic of mindfulness and sex, the event theme of "the space between" speaks to all the shadows and silence around sexuality. For many women, their unspoken shame, guilt, and discomfort -- as learned within our society -- keeps them in fear and silence around their sexual needs, desires, and boundaries. And in the long run, this sucks for all of us. I'm going to speak to this concern and how mindfulness tools are the key to turning this around.

Come on out Sunday and join this conversation about "the space between"!

~Dr. Jenn Gunsaullus, San Diego, CA -- Sexuality Speaker, Sociologist, Sex Therapist, Sexologist

Movie Review - "Hope Springs" Offers a Flood of Realism & Inspiration

"Why is it so hard to touch the one you love?

When you’ve been married 30 years, like Kay and Arnold in the summer movie Hope Springs, you might well understand the question above. If you still love your partner, but have been sleeping in separate rooms for years due to snoring and back pains, it’s easy to lose your sexual spark. When you get each other a new cable subscription for your wedding anniversary, you might be taking each other for granted. And when your morning routine consists of the wife preparing and serving an egg, slice of bacon, and bacon to a gruff husband who blows her off to read the newspaper, it’s downright hard to make intimacy change.

This is the life of Kay and Arnold who are experiencing what MANY long term couples experience: a total loss of intimacy. In the United States we learn to romanticize monogamous long-term marriage and presume the fireworks will always be there when we stay in love. But the version of intimacy that is so easy and exciting at the start of a relationship transforms, and it may require a lot of work and mindfulness to avoid a descent into roommate coexistence.

Kay, however, desires the return of intimacy and proposes a week-long couples retreat in the remote and romantic Great Hope Springs. Arnold is as reluctant a client as I’ve ever seen and is, quite frankly, a pain in the ass. Eventually he joins the adventure. The counselor’s approach to couples counseling, mixed with individual counseling, and homework assignments at night, was quite similar to how I would have approached it (except for occasional Hollywood flair). Each spouse slowly unfolds a history of hurt, resentments, misunderstanding, and disappointment, thereby allowing for a new foundation of trust and hope.

Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones, and Steve Carell were so nuanced in their portrayal of an anguished couple and marriage counselor, I squirmed with discomfort in my theater seat. It is just plain awkward to watch a couple with two grown children and years of marriage under their belt to struggle learning how to cuddle again, let alone discuss oral sex or try a blow job. Gratefully there were also many comedic moments in their genuine and naïve attempts to reconnect.

We tend to assume that sex is an easy topic, but it is so infused with the host of human emotions, along with expectations, gender differences, desire discrepancies, false assumptions, and lack of sex education. This is how a couple can get to the point of being afraid to even cuddle. But any pattern that was created in a relationship can be altered and recreated. If both partners are willing to work hard, they can breathe new appreciation and passion into even an old relationship.

A piece of advice from me? Never forget that your partner is extraordinary.  This will help you continue to appreciate them and treat your partner in special ways that are meaningful to them. And if you want to feel validated in the woes of your long-term relationship, see Hope Springs for a burst of inspiration.

(Originally posted as part of Pacific San Diego Magazine's Love & Sex Blog.)

~Dr. Jenn Gunsaullus, San Diego, CA -- Sociologist, Sex Therapist, Sexuality Speaker, Sexologist

Genital Bear Trap?

http://faadooindia.com/2012/07/im-guessing-you-are-not-in-the-mood/Read the cartoon. “I’m guessing you are not in the mood…” Cue laughter.

Why does this evoke laughter? Even I laughed initially when I read it before I considered other perspectives. I was curious whether women in general would find it amusing due to familiarity with that situation, or if they would be upset by it. And what about men?

In my private practice, I frequently witness this dynamic with couples of mismatched desire levels, albeit not to the extent of barbed wire. In bed at night, here’s the monologue that seems to go through the woman’s head:

He will probably want sex tonight. It’s been a little while so maybe I should. But I’m exhausted and don’t feel like it. If I yawn loudly, he’ll see the subtle clue that I’m too tired and not ask, and then I won’t feel guilty about saying no.

This cartoon cuts through the mental game playing as the woman blatantly presents her opinion about sex that night. The man scratches his head, and with a bit of uncertainty, states the obvious.

I’m mixed about how I feel about a cartoon like this. This is a stereotype, and such stereotypes are problematic because they can enforce already restrictive gender roles. On the other hand, this is how many couples operate, and humor is a known path to opening dialogue around uncomfortable topics.

So I posted the cartoon on Facebook and asked for people’s initial reactions, and why they had that reaction (both publicly and in private message). The responses were incredibly varied from the extremes of  “this is depressing” and “this isn’t funny,” to recognition that “as a mother of three children, I laughed,” to “lighten up people, it’s a joke” (which incidentally, was from a man). The most poignant responses were those indicating opposing gender perspectives on who was responsible for the couple reaching this point. As one friend posted, we need to ask why this is happening. I quite agree. What differences are women and men learning about sex and experiencing around sex that makes this a national joke? Clearly we’re missing the mark, and each other.

From a woman’s perspective, why would she get to a point of desiring physical barriers between her and her partner? She may be exhausted and overwhelmed from juggling so much, doesn’t feel much of a physical sex drive, she’s bored with the same old in the bedroom, or she’s built up a wall of resentments that make opening up sexually difficult. These are all common explanations I hear from clients and quite valid. The Facebook crowd added that a discomfort can exist if the man has cheated or if the woman gets tired of saying no. This was exemplified by the comment, “another clueless horny man,” from a woman who thought the cartoon was funny because it’s true. There were also some women who felt that the depicted couple was sad and distressing, because clearly her other modes of communication had been ignored.

The sad theme was also mentioned by several men, who saw it as frustrating to a man. I perceived these responses to mean that to encounter such roadblocks when desiring sexual intimacy with your partner is upsetting. Continual rejection can take quite a toll on a man’s self-esteem and confidence. On the other hand, several men found humor in the cartoon with the “it’s funny because it’s true” response for a few reasons: because women don’t communicate directly enough for men to understand, so the blatancy of the cartoon is appreciated; it “blames” the woman for her lack of interest in sex; and that the use of a bear trap and fencing in bed is just funny. As to why a man could get to this point in a relationship, in my practice, I’ve found that men are more likely to continue to have physical sexual desire throughout a long-term relationship, while their female partners don’t experience the same type of physical urges. It can be difficult for men to understand and accept this shift.

That being said, I would be remiss to not share the perspectives of the women and men who expressed the opposite view. A couple women were in the shoes of the “man” of wanting more sex. One man responded, after a chuckle, that sometimes guys don’t want sex either. There were also some people who recognized that it takes two to tango, and both partner’s played a main role in creating this sad situation. I certainly see all of this in my practice as well.

What is the lesson here? In relationships as depicted in the cartoon, it’s vital to realize that the woman is not trying to be a gatekeeper. Additionally, the man is not trying to be an ass. Despite the difficulty in each partner accepting this, it is actually quite hurtful and guilt-inducing on both sides. Drop the defensiveness and get to the vulnerable truth, and allow space for your partner to do the same. Get to the heart of your needs, desires, and motivations, and open to a teamwork approach. Otherwise that electrical fence will get more charged and divisive.

And the funniest response on Facebook? One of the class clowns from my high school did not disappoint. He wrote: “I’m wondering what book she’s reading? Maybe it’s 50 Shades of Grey, in which case the guy should hang in there as she might change her mind shortly.” Thank you, Doug.

~Dr. Jenn Gunsaullus, San Diego, CA -- Sex Therapist, Sexuality Speaker, Sexologist