Wednesday, February 09, 2005

My article on the Vagina Monologues, from the Indy:

The most controversial and frequently banned play in America will be performed around the country this weekend. You’ve undoubtedly heard of it: Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues, which is a series of vignettes about women and their sexual experiences.

A right-wing Catholic group, the Cardinal Newman Society (which is entirely separate from the Newman Centers found at many colleges), has called for a total ban of the play from all Catholic colleges, and it has been successful at preventing the Vagina Monologues from being performed at many campuses.

Even at Illinois State University, the idea of The Vagina Monologues is controversial. The police recently contacted the play’s organizers because a woman had made a complaint to the cops about a poster for the play, which shows a flower painting by Georgia O’Keefe (the caller apparently mistook it for a photograph of a vagina).

With more than 651 colleges around the world organizing performances of the Vagina Monologues this year around Valentine’s Day (which Ensler has renamed “V-Day”), the play is amazingly popular for its frank discussion of sexuality. Ensler allows free use of the play for charitable benefits, and reports that $20 million has been raised for community groups that help women.

Patrick Reilly, the president of the Cardinal Newman Society, has declared, “The Monologues have no place on a Catholic campus. But it’s difficult to be cheerful when one of every eight Catholic colleges in the U.S. appears ready to host this filthy play. It is evidence of the continued crisis in Catholic higher education.”

The Cardinal Newman Society is taking credit for “a marked decline in planned performances of the Monologues” at Catholic colleges, although it still released a protest list of 30 colleges that are allowing the play to be performed. Last year, some Catholic colleges received over 1,000 emails complaining about the Vagina Monologues, some threatening to withhold donations.

In 2003, the president of the University of Portland banned the Vagina Monologues, calling the play “offensive, questionable in its portrayal of violence and not in keeping with the respect accorded the human body in this institution’s religious tradition.” The play was also banned at Iona College in New York, the College of New Rochelle in New York, Loras College in Iowa and Rivier College in New Hampshire.

In 2004, the Vagina Monologues were banned or cancelled in at least 17 Catholic colleges, including Catholic University of America (DC), Loyola University of New Orleans, Emmanuel College (Massachusetts), St. Ambrose University (Iowa), St. John’s University (New York), St. Joseph’s College (Indiana), Wheeling Jesuit University (West Virginia), and the University of St. Francis (Joliet, IL).

This year, Loyola University of New Orleans, St. Ambrose University in Iowa, and the University of St. Francis have all banned the play, and past censorship has discouraged students from trying to organize performances at many other colleges.

Even when the Vagina Monologues is not entirely banned, organizers face condemnation and censorship. At Carlow College in Pennsylvania, president Grace Ann Geibel denounced the play, but argued for the “academic freedom” of students to perform it without the official sponsorship of the institution. College of St. Scholastica in Minnesota is allowing the play, but non-students will not be permittedto attend. At Saint Mary’s College in Indiana, students will try to avoid the objections to the Vagina Monologues by presenting their own stories in an adaptation called SMC Monologues. At University of Dayton in Ohio, the university refused to sponsor the event and president Daniel Curran promises that students have “edited out objectionable materials” in the play. Although students at Alverno College (Wisconsin), College of Saint Mary (Nebraska), Edgewood College (Wisconsin), Fontbonne University (Missouri), and Loyola Marymount University (California) sought to organize performances this year, university officials have promised the Cardinal Newman Society that the Vagina Monologues will not be staged.

But some campuses are resisting the drive toward censorship. At Fordham University’s Lincoln Center Campus, the Division of Student Affairs banned a student group by sponsoring the performance. The faculty College Council and the United Student Government at Fordham condemned the ban, and the performances on Feb. 18 & 19 will now be sponsored by several academic departments rather than the student group.

The Cardinal Newman Society (which also seeks to ban anyone who supports abortion rights from speaking at Catholic campuses) has been protesting the play since 2002, and last year it ran a full-page ad in USA Today denouncing the Vagina Monologues. The ad (which refused to use the word “Vagina” because of its offensiveness, and instead wrote “V*****”), condemned the "X-rated 'play'" for committing a "psychosexual assault" on students. According to the Society, the play’s "nonstop sex talk uses vile descriptions, sleazy details and obscenities to trash Judeo-Christian sexual morality and to entice impressionable college students to commit sexual acts." The ad declared that The Vagina Monologues “does more violence to the consciences and modesty of women and girls than any play ever has," and warned of the threat to student health if they tried to act out some of the scenarios in the play. (Of course, the same is true of many dangerous scenarios in the Bible, but nobody proposes banning passion plays or Bible readings.)

Although the Cardinal Newman Society is a fringe group with no official backing from the Catholic Church, it has numerous influential allies. Rev. John D'Arcy, the Bishop of Fort Wayne-South Bend Indiana, made a February 2004 pronouncement that “The Vagina Monologues is offensive to women; it is antithetical to Catholic teaching on the beautiful gift of human sexuality and also to the teachings of the church on the human body relative to its purpose and to its status as a temple of the Holy Spirit.” According to D’Arcy, allowing this play on campus “is in opposition to the highest understanding of academic freedom. A Catholic university seeks truth. It is never afraid of truth, but it seeks it with respect for both reason and faith.” ( But how does censorship respect students’ reason and faith? Are college students so fragile that watching a play will turn them into sex-crazed atheists?

The most controversial monologue in the play is called “The Little Coochie Snorcher That Could,” about an adolescent girl (the original age of 13 has been shifted to 16) who has been abused by men describes a 25-year-old woman who has a sexual relationship with her and helps her realize that she will "never need to rely on a man." D’Arcy complained that the play “honors a sexual relationship between an adult woman and a very young girl.” Ensler has noted, “That piece is based on a true story. I didn’t create it. That’s real. It’s not taking a good or evil position. It’s ambiguous. Life is complex. Life is full of mystery. … And that was that woman’s experience. … You can’t rob people of their experience whether it fits into a certain code or not. And I’m not endorsing anything. I’m sharing a woman’s story and I’m sharing her experience.”

In less than a decade since it was first performed in Off-Broadway in 1996, The Vagina Monologues has become a powerful symbol of women’s sexual freedom. That’s precisely what causes a backlash by conservative forces. Reilly has praised the campuses which banned The Vagina Monologues: “These leaders stood against political correctness in defense of their students’ spiritual and mental health.” But far from resisting political correctness, the censorship of The Vagina Monologues imposes a conservative political correctness on college campuses.

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