Opening taboos 

Privates made public in The Vagina Monologues

Eve Ensler’s play, The Vagina Monologues, is a performance of monologues (hence, the title), freckled with chorus sections and facts about the vagina—historical, statistical, and scientific. The play, written in 1998, has since found numerous audiences nationwide. Though at times the monologues seem forced—as though Ensler was trying too hard to produce an “outrageous” work—the fact that people see and read her play is important. Whether they love or hate The Vagina Monologues as a work of art is not the point. Rather, the play creates a dialogue where one did not exist before. There is a reason, even in today’s world where we fancy ourselves so open and sexually unfettered, that the average person will not say the word “vagina” without pausing, looking away or feeling a slight heat spread across his (or her) face. For the average person, “vagina” has a ring of the pornographic, the X-rated, the taboo. There is not nearly the same foot-shifting or blushing going on when the word “penis” is spoken.

“The Vagina Monologues is a tool to create a conversation about vaginas and about violence against women,” says Thea Delamater, outreach coordinator at the University of Montana’s Women’s Center. For the past three years, the Women’s Center, a resource for women on and off campus, has sponsored The Vagina Monologues as part of V-Day, a nationwide campaign planned around Valentine’s Day to bolster public awareness about violence against women.

“We don’t know when violence toward women will stop in our country or in the world, but it is our mission to provide women with the ability to talk about their bodies and know that they have a right to be safe,” says Delamater. The play, based on guidelines Ensler has created for the national V-Day campaign, will be performed by students and women of the community and will have a local, accessible feel about it. Ensler’s play, which is being performed nationwide on college campuses, is meant to produce increased awareness, and not imitate the Broadway production.

The show itself is based on interviews Ensler conducted with more than 200 women from all walks of life: young women, old women, single women, married women, lesbians, college professors, actors, corporate professionals, sex workers, white women, black women, Native American women, Catholic women, Jewish women, rich women, poor women. In the introductory monologue, Ensler (or the narrator) explains: “At first women were reluctant to talk. They were a little shy. But once they got going, you couldn’t stop them. Women secretly love to talk about their vaginas. They get very excited, mainly because no one’s ever asked them before.” Through her research, she found out that nine times out of ten, women have special names for their vaginas, names created so they do not have to use the real word, which carries a negative, dirty connotation.

The monologue continues: “In Great Neck, they call it a pussycat…In Westchester, they called it a pooki, in New Jersey, a twat. There’s powderbox, derriere, a poochi, a poopi, a poopelu, a pal…toadie, dee dee, nishi, dignity, monkey box, coochi snorcher…a Mimi in Miami, split knish in Philadelphia, and schmender in the Bronx. I am worried about vaginas.”

As Delamater explains, “Besides being funny, fascinating, and entertaining, The Vagina Monologues also brings out the fact of violence in a lot of areas not necessarily considered violent, at least not in a totally black-and-white way.”

For example, “Hair” is one of the monologues that falls into this gray area: “You cannot love a vagina unless you love hair. Many people do not love hair. My first and only husband hated hair. He said it was cluttered and dirty. He made me shave my vagina. It looked puffy and exposed and like a little girl. This excited him. When he made love to me, my vagina felt the way a beard must feel. It felt good to rub it, and painful. Like scratching a mosquito bite. It felt like it was on fire. There were screaming red bumps. I refused to shave it again. Then my husband had an affair. When we went to marital therapy, he said he screwed around because I wouldn’t please him sexually. I wouldn’t shave my vagina…I realized then that hair is there for a reason—it’s the leaf around the flower, the lawn around the house. You have to love hair in order to love the vagina. You can’t pick the parts you want. And besides, my husband never stopped screwing around.”

Says Andrea Shipley of Intermountain Planned Parenthood, in Montana, where many schools teach an abstinence-only policy, it can be very difficult and discouraging for girls to learn about sex education, their own bodies or even that their body is theirs alone.

“It’s a dangerous policy,” Shipley says. “In school, kids are not getting accurate information about their own reproductive selves. The Vagina Monologues is empowering, it’s awesome. It creates an awareness in our community and world for both men and women.”

Interspersed between the monologues, the play cites some sobering facts and statistics about rape and violence toward women worldwide. “Vagina Fact #2,” from The Women’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, notes, “In the nineteenth century, girls who learned to develop orgasmic capacity by masturbation were regarded as medical problems. Often they were ‘treated’ or ‘corrected’ by amputation or cautery of the clitoris or ‘miniature chastity belts,’ sewing the vaginal lips together to put the clitoris out of reach, and even castration by surgical removal of the ovaries. But there are no references in medical literature to the surgical removal of testicles or amputation of the penis to stop masturbation in boys. In the United States, the last recorded clitoridectomy for curing masturbation was performed in 1948—on a 5-year-old girl.”

To many women, 1948 was not that long ago.

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