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'Vagina Monologues' Becoming College Phenomenon

Originally published in:

By Mary Beth Marklein

The Vagina Monologues made its name in 1997 as an off-Broadway play that explores female sexuality and strength through a series of stories that are at times funny, sad, graphic or horrifying.

But over the years, the production has metamorphosed into something of a phenomenon. And nowhere, perhaps, has the play been embraced — or opposed — more passionately than on college campuses.

College groups represented 66 of the 70 organizers staging productions in 1999, the first year playwright Eve Ensler made it available for benefits shows. This year, more than 650 of the estimated 1,100 groups planning productions worldwide are affiliated with a college.

"We have never tried to get anyone to do The Vagina Monologues," Ensler says. "It just took off."

Now, it's not just a play. With violence against women a key Monologues theme, groups that put on a benefit performance donate proceeds to anti-violence charities such as rape crisis centers and women's shelters. This week, during the high season of February and March, the non-profit V-Day anti-violence group that Ensler founded, is helping human rights group Amnesty International launch a campaign to end violence against women.

Students often put their own stamp on the campaign. At the University of Notre Dame this year, an open-mike session enabled students to share their stories of sexual abuse. Organizers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison invited students to send valentines to campus housing officials highlighting unsafe dorms. And students at the University of California-Berkeley used the opportunity to raise awareness of violence against its community of transgenders, people whose identity does not conform to the gender they were assigned at birth.

But with its emotionally charged subject matter and graphic language, the productions also attract controversy. The play unfolds through a series of monologues that address issues ranging from sexual assault to sexual pleasure. In one piece, a Bosnian woman recounts her rape; another catalogs the various sounds women make during sex. The word vagina is used 132 times.

"Theater seems to be a really great way to reach people," says Elizabeth Ellcessor, 22, a senior at Georgetown University, where the play ran last weekend for the sixth year in a row. "It really gets people talking."

Others say the message is potentially damaging to young women. The content "guarantees a certain level of interest among many college students," Cate Brumley, 20, a junior at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., wrote in a recent column for the Independent Women's Forum, a conservative non-profit group. But among other things, she writes, the play also "reduces the full potential of a human person" to a single body part and "encourages college women to be sexually promiscuous."

The title alone created a quandary this year for administrators at College of the Sequoias, a community college in Visalia, Calif. Worried about ruffling feathers during a bond campaign, the campus staged the play but chose not to sponsor it. An anonymous donor paid campus theater rental costs.

And in a twist this year, about 10 women, duct tape across their mouths, handed out fliers before the start of the University of Oregon production to protest what they said was an under-representation of minorities, large women and lesbians in the cast.

The most high-profile complaints, though, have come from conservative Catholics. At Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, about a half-dozen protesters, including students, parents and alumni, held a prayer vigil outside the campus production last month. The Cardinal Newman Society, a national group that calls the production an "assault on young peoples' minds and morals," ran an ad in some editions of USA TODAY recently urging readers to demand that presidents of Catholic colleges prohibit it. So far, 16 have said they would not support a production, though several cancellations were unrelated to the society's campaign. In some cases, students have moved the play off campus.

But most of the 27 Catholic schools where the play is scheduled to run this year take a position similar to Georgetown's. "It's important for students to be able to engage in dialog," says Georgetown spokeswoman Julie Green Bataille. "It doesn't mean we specifically endorse the way in which the views are presented in this particular case but that the student has the right to do it."

Some Catholics say they support the anti-violence message — just not the messenger.

"Universities and colleges can choose much better avenues than making the point with vulgarity," says the Very Rev. David M. O'Connell, president of Catholic University, Washington, D.C. He says he would not allow the play on his campus.

But Lindsey Horvath, 21, a senior at the University of Notre Dame who has participated in her campus production for three years, says the church "calls us to act, and we found this vehicle to act and respond to these problems."

Two years ago, the group raised $5,000 for local anti-violence charities; last year $6,000. This year, she estimates raising even more.

"I question these people who say there are better options. What are they?" Horvath says. "I don't think I need an alternative."

Related Articles and Statements:

"At Religious Universities, Disputes Over Faith and Academic Freedom" (New York Times)

V-Day Update On Providence College Banning Of “The Vagina Monologues”

Letter from the president of Loyola University, New Orleans- Kevin Wildes, S.J.

14 Feb 2005