By Hannah Seligson
Sunday, February 12, 2006
The "Vagina Monologues" are attaining the status of a Valentine's Day tradition on many campuses. But two Catholic schools are scaling back the performances this year and one activist group is working to eliminate V-Day from all Catholic campuses.
(WOMENSENEWS)--This year Kaitlyn Redfield, a senior at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., will be holding her school's annual performance of "The Vagina Monologues" in a classroom, not the spacious theater where it was held last year.
At Providence College in Rhode Island, senior Erica Rioux won't be staging the school's performance on campus at all.
It's V-Day 2006, a recurring February event when campuses across the world stage Eve Ensler's "The Vagina Monologues" around Valentine's Day and use ticket proceeds to raise funds to support local organizations dedicated to stopping violence against women and girls.
Written by Eve Ensler, "The Vagina Monologues" explores themes of identity, sexuality and abuse, and uses a mixture of shock and humor to tackle topics such as rape, masturbation and menstruation.
Students on college campuses take on the task of directing, producing and securing an on-campus venue for the performances. Students must also attain sponsorship from a nonprofit organization in their community whose work is specifically geared toward stopping violence against women and girls in their region. All are organized under the umbrella of V-Day, Ensler's New York-based organization that works to oversee and coordinate the thousands of performances that occur throughout V-Season.
V-Day organizers say that part of the mission of staging "The Vagina Monologues" is to confront and combat the problem of sexual assault on college campuses.
"Most college campuses, and Georgetown included," says Kendra Jackson, a senior at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and the V-Day organizer on campus, "foster a rape culture both through the inaction of most students on the issue and a general misunderstanding of sexual assault. It's not miscommunications or because the victim was drunk. These are the kinds of attitudes that pervade and force victims to be ashamed."
A 1997 study by the American College Health Association in Baltimore found that 1 out of 5 women on college campuses had been forced into sexual intercourse.
Student organizers at the University of Notre Dame and Providence College this year have found school administrators frowning on an event that they say affronts the Catholic standards their institutions are meant to reflect.
"Far from celebrating the complexity and mystery of female sexuality, 'The Vagina Monologues' simplifies and demystifies it by reducing it to the vagina," Father Brian Shanley, who became president of Providence College in July, writes on the school's Web site. "In contrast, Roman Catholic teaching sees female sexuality as ordered toward a loving giving of self to another in a union of body, mind and soul that is ordered to the procreation of new life." Shanley declined to be interviewed for this article.
V-Day has been performed at Providence College for the past four years. Last year, the schools' three sold-out performances raised $1,926 for the Sojourner House women's shelter and the organization Sisters Overcoming Abusive Relationships, both based in Rhode Island.
Shanley has pledged to give full support to Project S.A.V.E. (Sexual Assault and Violence Education), an annual event since 2001 designed to educate all members of the campus community about how to prevent violence against women. "Ironically, S.A.V.E is organized by many of the same students who work on 'The Vagina Monologues,'" Rioux said.
Notre Dame students have held V-Day performances since 2002 and have raised approximately $35,000 over the past four years, according to Redfield. Last year, the $15,000 raised went to a local YMCA and Sexual Offense Services group.
When the Rev. John Jenkins became Notre Dame's new president on July 1, 2005, a serious new roadblock was added, Redfield said.
"This year we were called into a meeting with the dean of arts and letters and several faculty members, including our sponsors at the English and sociology departments," she said. "The dean asked us not to stage the play again because it was in conflict with the 'collective identity' of the university."
That worries Redfield. "We think what Rev. Jenkins is doing is very harmful to the community. It is saying that women's voices aren't valued. We are pretty upset about it."
Jenkins, who is traveling overseas, could not be reached for comment.
The setbacks for V-Day at the two schools represent a minor pothole for a celebration that has otherwise staked out solid turf on college campuses. The number of stagings has been climbing steadily since the one, lone performance at Colorado College in 1998. This year, 1,150 colleges and communities are staging performances throughout February and the beginning of March, with 877 of those in the United States, V-Day confirmed.
All told, "The Vagina Monologues" has been performed at 5,000 sites in 81 countries. The play has been translated into 45 languages and has raised over $30 million in eight years for a myriad of organizations that work to end violence against women and girls.
"It is wild and unstoppable," Ensler, the driving force behind the V-Day movement, told Women's eNews. "If the resistance didn't happen, I would be surprised."
But for V-Day organizers Redfield and Rioux--who will be staging their smaller off-campus productions between Feb. 13 and 16--that's small consolation.
"Before V-Day was started, in 2002, there was no feminist outlet like this," said Notre Dame's Redfield. "We have sold out every single year; that is in the realm of 1,500 seats. There is nothing else on campus that young women feel so passionately about."
Providence College's Rioux echoed that. "On a Catholic campus there is a fear about talking about sex," she said. "We don't have a women's center and the other workshops that address sexual assault are ineffective."
The Cardinal Newman Society, a Manassas, Va., group that describes itself as dedicated to renewal of Catholic identity at Catholic colleges and universities, is working to eradicate V-Day from Catholic campuses. On its Web site it cites Providence College as one of five Catholic universities that has assured the group that it will not permit V-Day performances.
V-Day organizers, meanwhile, deny that Providence and Notre Dame signal a wider retreat by Catholic universities. They say the Cardinal Newman Society is a fringe group that, overall, is not having an impact.
Playwright Ensler said she went to the University of Notre Dame last February to see "what was scaring them about vaginas," as she puts it. "The play is saying that sex is good. The play is standing up for young women on college campuses."
"I hold women's vaginas sacred and that is why I did this piece," Ensler said. "I think women should know their bodies and know how to give themselves pleasure. If that isn't spiritual, I don't know what is."
Hannah Seligson is a freelance writer based in New York. Her book, "New Girl on the Job," will be published by Citadel Press in 2007.