“The split between the Gospel and culture is without a doubt the drama of our time,” wrote Pope Paul VI in 1975. Occasionally I am reminded of this “drama” when some Catholic group boycotts something. But nothing makes me more aware of how deep this split is than the debate over the performance of The Vagina Monologues on Catholic college campuses.
The Cardinal Newman Society has waged the most aggressive and successful campaign to remove the play from these campuses. They claim that the number of performances has declined annually from a peak of 32 on Catholic campuses in 2003 to 19 performances this year. College presidents and bishops have also added to the drama. Some of the responses collected on the Cardinal Newman Society’s website address the fact that the play doesn’t reflect the Church’s view of human sexuality. “The Vagina Monologues is offensive to women,” writes Most Rev. John M. D’Arcy of South Bend, Indiana. “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…This play violates the truth about women; the truth about sexuality; the truth about male and female, and the truth about the human body.”
Patrick J. Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society, calls The Vagina Monologues, “a vile play.” In 2007, Rev. Brian J. Shanley, president of Providence College proposed an alternative. “Instead of producing The Vagina Monologues, the best way for Providence College to work together to combat violence against women is to strengthen its commitment to support Project S.A.V.E. (Sexual Assault and Violence Education).” The Cardinal Newman Society also offered other alternatives on its site, including hosting lectures, organizing Mass or other forms of prayer, showing a “truly romantic movie.”
One element that is common to all of these responses is the apparent unwillingness to engage The Vagina Monologues itself as part of the discussion.
Shocked and Squeamish
Because I belong to a congregation whose apostolate embraces the world of communication and popular culture, I thought I would read The Vagina Monologues to form my own opinion. At first, I too was shocked. I was uncomfortable and squeamish with some of the content and the sections that recounted sexual abuse left me heartbroken. I resonated with the common biological experiences of all women and was awed at the description of childbirth. Once the shock value wore off, however, what hit me the most was that this drama was not merely the product of someone’s imagination; it was the actual experience of many women. With this realization I tried to move beyond defensiveness toward compassion.
I read the book again, this time trying to let these women speak to me so that I could understand them. I then did some research on violence against women—which was the original motivation behind the creation and staging of The Vagina Monologues. What I discovered was truly horrific. Every other minute, a woman in the United States is sexually assaulted. An estimated 64% of women who report sexual or physical assault or stalking are victimized by husbands, partners, boyfriends or dates. One out of three girls is sexually abused before the age of 18. These girls are three times more likely to become pregnant before the age of 18. Links have been made to both the increased prevalence of subsequent victimization and engagement in pre-marital sex among women who were sexually abused as children. An estimated 90% to 95% of the cases involving the sexual abuse of a minor are not reported to the police.
Perhaps Catholic colleges who perform The Vagina Monologues do so because a significant number of the student body resonates with it. Kimberly Smirles, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Psychology at Emmanuel College, Boston, notes that “the statistics for sexual assault are higher for women attending college. They are highly affected by the issue due to date rape and the presence of alcohol on campuses. Thus, this audience would be at the forefront in confronting this issue since they are at the ‘ground zero’ of this societal problem.”
Could The Vagina Monologues be a way in which victims of sexual assault find empowerment, a voice, a forum in which their cry is heard in a society that isn’t comfortable hearing their experience and how it has affected them?
While it is true that the Catholic Church has a tremendous body of theological material from which to draw in order to catechize women on the gift of their bodies and the sanctity of human sexuality, I believe that an understanding of the audience to whom its message is addressed may be lacking. The message that I have heard and read so far is a “one-size-fits-all” approach. It is not tailored to specific experiences, least of all victims of sexual assault.
In a Church where chastity education is fostered among teens and young adults, there is a lack of understanding regarding how that message is perceived by someone whose boundaries have been violated since she was a child and whose ability to comprehend her own sacredness has been robbed from her. Furthermore, these women may perceive the defensive responses to The Vagina Monologues as a rejection of their experience and evidence that they cannot safely turn to the Church with this matter. They may not be able to understand why on the one hand the Church is involved in many areas of social justice, but the injustice they suffer is “taboo.” While I don’t believe this is the message the Church wants to send, I have little doubt that’s what is heard by many women on Catholic campuses and elsewhere who struggle with their experience.
Perhaps this is an area where the Monologues could aid us in getting to know our audience. Rather than offering ready-made lectures or violence education from the “one-size-fits-all” approach, can we start with the audience’s experience and allow it to frame our response? Is there a creative way in which Catholics can listen to the Monologues and respond from within the tradition of the Church and yet respect the fact that so many girls and women are extremely broken in this aspect of their lives? If there is, it hasn’t been found yet.
Until we come up with an alternative that engages an audience’s experience just as effectively as The Vagina Monologues, I have little doubt that women on Catholic campuses—and elsewhere—will continue staging it.