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The Vagina Monologues: A Wake Up Call for Men?

Rob Okun

Will men ever "get it?" That's the thought that came to mind when the male owner of an Amherst, Massachusetts karate center spearheaded a drive in the local and national media to try and prevent female students from presenting The Vagina Monologues at Amherst Regional High School the night before Valentine's Day.

Those supporting both women's empowerment and men redefining masculinity owe the play's local critic, Larry Kelley, a thank you for illuminating the need to bring more men into this crucial conversation. Certainly, Eve Ensler's play is about women's lives. But it's also about men waking up to women's reality.

Mr. Kelley's discomfort with the "c word"—"I can't say it," he told the school committee at a meeting last month, "but it rhymes with bunt"—symbolizes men's discomfort with admitting how little they know about the dangerous world their mothers and daughters, wives and sisters live in: a world where sexual harassment and sexual assault are commonplace. A world where personal security means checking the back seat of your car before getting into it. A world where going out at night means carrying a whistle, or a can of mace. A world most men, myself included, have a hard time relating to. It is not easy for men to acknowledge how widespread violence against women is, or to admit how much further we have to go to create a safe, egalitarian society. Hardest of all is men admitting that to get there means giving up some of the privilege we enjoy. Mr. Kelley's appearances on "The O'Reilly Factor" or "The Today Show" are distractions from the real work men have to do.

It is understandable that men are confused and insecure about male and female roles nowadays as relationships and power are re-examined at home and school, on sports fields and in the workplace, in faith communities and the halls of government. And it's natural that men are going to stumble crossing this new, unfamiliar landscape. I certainly have. But such insecurity is not an excuse to try to censor women, including female students meeting life's challenges head on. Even if those challenges appear years earlier than either they or the adults in their lives would like.

The male students at the high school, and men in general, owe a debt of gratitude to the brave young women who discovered in The Vagina Monologues an artistic and educational forum to draw attention to women's plight. Perhaps the support the 40 female students involved in the production are showing one another will inspire their male counterparts to find their collective voice to challenge the box of conventional masculinity most are trapped in. As the father of a son at the high school, I hope so.
Despite Mr. Kelley's media campaign, the superintendent, school administration, and school committee all reaffirmed their approval of the production, assuring parents that any staff members assisting students were doing so on their own time after school hours.(Mr. Kelley never acknowledged that no students are required to attend, the performance is in the evening when school has recessed for vacation, and that five days of voluntary educational workshops will precede the performance.) As for the students? One involved in the production wrote: "Is the content of The Vagina Monologues appropriate for high school students? No. Absolutely not. Teenagers should not be dealing with issues of rape, domestic violence and abuse… however…[we] already deal with these [problems] on a daily basis…It is absolutely appropriate for women (and men) to have a forum to deal with these issues in a safe and positive environment."

Given the highly sexualized nature of so much of popular culture—from video games to teen magazines, from MTV to Hollywood, that The Vagina Monologues is being performed at a high school is a refreshing educational strategy. With parental permission, students can attend the workshops on dating violence, healthy relationships, and men's role in preventing abuse.

I am relieved to know my son will have an educational setting in which to discuss these sensitive issues. I expect the workshops will serve as an antidote to the non-stop, one way misogynist conversation pop culture directs at all of us, particularly the young. Still, like a growing number of men worldwide, I know we must redouble our efforts to address these issues. For women's sake. For men's sake. For our children's sake. Perhaps one day Mr. Kelley and men like him will no longer see a need to endorse what might be called the "Patriarchy Monologues" and instead will join those men working to create what I think of as the "Egalitarian Dialogues." I'm hopeful the ensuing conversation would be worthwhile for all of us.

Rob Okun is executive director of the Men’s Resource Center for Change, one of the oldest profeminist men’s centers in the U.S. (www.mrcforchange.org). He is also editor of Voice Male magazine. His essays on men and masculinity have appeared in numerous print and online publications and have been broadcast on public radio. He speaks on issues of evolving masculinity on campuses around the country. His essay, "Confessions of a Premature Profeminist" appears in Men Speak Out: Views on Gender, Sex and Power (Routledge, 2008). He maintains a psychotherapy practice in Amherst, Massachusetts where he is also a justice of the peace.

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