I found myself at Donovan’s Pub last week with friends, when a cast member of The Vagina Monologues asked if I had seen the critique of the play in The Colgate Maroon-News. I responded that I hadn’t and couldn’t wait to read it, presuming a feminist was taking on the play’s lack of intersectionality. To my dismay, the piece was not, and it contained several dangerous inaccuracies about gender-based violence. So let’s drop the issue of the play for a moment, and consider what has been implied:
“[The Vagina Monologues Cast] stand on the graves of sexual and domestic abuse victims in order to advance a political agenda.”
No, they really don’t. The implication here is two-fold: that there are no living survivors of domestic and sexual violence, and that no one in the cast of The Vagina Monologues could be a survivor of sexual and/or domestic abuse. Therefore, no survivors exist among us in our society, or in our community at Colgate, despite the protest last semester which featured a speak-out of survivors on this campus. They’re alive and they’re here. Statistical probability would say there are between one in three and one in five women alive today who have survived or are currently surviving this kind of violence. Not only is this presumption that all victims are dead empirically false, it is also a dangerous and hateful assumption. To presume that none of the narratives of child sexual abuse, rape and sexual violence, domestic and intimate partner violence could apply to the living, especially the living human beings presenting this play at this campus, erases survivors from any conversation on their safety, justice or healing. It assumes that people cannot survive sexual or domestic violence. The rates of mental illness, substance abuse and suicide for survivors of these crimes are alarmingly high. We needn’t spread a message which purports there is no life after rape; many victims are already made to feel this way by their abusers.
The victim-blaming in this sentence is also jarring: “The play also demonizes men, which escalates, instead of reduces, tensions between genders.”
The play is largely about structural violence. The U.S. Department of Justice cites that 98 percent of women who experience sexual assault were raped by a man and 93 percent of men who experience sexual assault were raped by a man. There is an undeniable gender dynamic present, and that should be deeply uncomfortable for men. Perhaps men need to recognize their role is not to lead here but to follow. Perhaps men need to do more for the male survivors and victims who exist among them, as people (mainly trans and cis women) within the anti-rape movement have been doing. Additionally, men could consider the ways in which they could deconstruct toxic masculinity, which is a key factor in rape culture (the ways in which our society perpetuates and condones the high prevalence of rape). During the #notallmen vs. #yesallmen Twitter fiasco of 2014 (which was sparked by a killing spree of six women committed by a wealthy, young white man named Elliot Rodger), someone made this excellent analogy: Imagine a bowl of M&M’s. Only some of them are poisoned. Do you eat a handful or do you point out that there is something toxic in that bowl?
The author is correct in asserting there are indeed other ways to raise awareness and funding for victims and survivors of sexual and domestic violence. So, to the author I ask, what are you doing in your life to dismantle rape culture? What are you doing in your life to support the groups tirelessly doing this work? What are you doing in your life to support survivors?
Finally, are The Vagina Monologues useful to us?
I would welcome this debate among those of us who have been in this fight, both personal and political. Among the majority of us, there is a recognition that critical analysis is essential here. The play centers Eve Ensler’s experiences as a middle-class, white, cisgender woman, and we need to de-center this experience. Where are the trans women’s voices in this play when transgender persons are one of the most vulnerable populations when it comes to sexual and domestic violence? Where are the voices of those with disabilities, who are also overrepresented as victims of sexual and domestic abuse? What about incarcerated women? Is the intersection of anti-Blackness and misogyny explicitly addressed? Is white supremacy’s role in sustaining violence against survivors of color explicitly addressed?
As a staff advisor to the show, I’ve been privileged to work with some of the individuals on the production team, who have been having these conversations since last semester and working to bring them to the audience. Our Women’s Studies Publications Intern created a zine that covers the issues of exclusion and erasure found in the play. Certainly, this play is a piece of feminist history, reflective of the problems within our society and within our feminist movements. My personal suggestion would be to research and amplify the voices of those erased here. Just because a social group (trans, homeless, imprisoned, etc.) is being erased in a conversation doesn’t mean they aren’t speaking their truths and organizing for their safety, welfare and human rights. We need to join them.