“I was worried about what we think about vaginas, and even more worried that we don't think about them.”
Eve Ensler, a survivor of physical and sexual violence, held interviews with over 200 women from different cultural backgrounds regarding their diverse experiences and views on relationships, violence, and sex. Many of these women had never been asked to talk about their vaginas, “but once they got going, you couldn’t stop them.” Opening this door to such an ignored and repressed topic exposed these women’s true perspectives about existing in the world as a woman.
Each year, Boston College’s Women’s and Gender Studies Program puts on a performance of Ensler’s most celebrated work: The Vagina Monologues,an episodic play that discusses issues like female genital cutting, consent, sex, body image, trans women's experiences, and vaginas. The play seeks to make people uncomfortable, thus sweeping away the illusion of awkwardness and encouraging difficult conversations on sexuality and violence against women.
The monologues range from humorous accounts about sexual pleasure to serious recounts of relationships and sexual violence. In recent years, The Vagina Monologues have partnered up with the V-Day Foundation, an activist movement that aims to end violence against girls and women. All proceeds of the Boston College production went to Rosie’s Place—a Boston area women’s shelter—and the V-Day foundation.
On the opening night, the theater was filled with the performers’ close friends, faithful annual viewers, and scared first-timers. An air of warmth and respect quickly brought courage to the audience, urging them to willingly sit through discomfort and to leave empowered.
One of the most impactful monologues was “My Vagina Was My Village,” which told a powerful story about rape, dedicated to the thousands of women of Bosnia that were raped as a war tactic. The monologue compared how the speaker thought of her vagina and self-worth before and after being raped with the imagery of a wonderful and peaceful village before and after it was obliterated by violence. This monologue reminded the audience that women often experience beauty as internal, and that external beauty may not always reveal the pain someone is going through.
The play first aired in 1996, but it holds just as much—if not more—relevance today. Critical issues such as female genital cutting, child brides, physical abuse, and sexual abuse are inflicted on millions of victims each year. According to UN Women, South Asia has had the largest decline of child marriage from 49% to 30%, yet 12 million girls under the age of 18 are married each year in sub-Saharan Africa, where the practice is more common. At least 200 million girls and women have undergone female genital mutilation. They estimate that 35% of women worldwide have experienced physical or sexual violence at some point in their lives. Recent global attention on this issue has inspired a lot of hope regarding how we can progress for the better, but millions of girls and women are still struggling to have their voices heard, and they yearn for safer environments.
There is still so much more work to do. The V-Day Foundation grounds its mission in the belief that “until these themes are addressed, these violations named and taken up by whole communities as an unacceptable desecration of human dignity, the violence will continue." The annual attention that The Vagina Monologues receives is not just to remind us to be comfortable with our vaginas, but to remind us that the urgency that motivated Ensler to create this movement is still needed. In this sense, the play is successful in inviting women to be courageous and break the silence surrounding issues of women’s body negativity, violence, and sexuality.
Throughout the play, the vagina represents a tool of female empowerment and the ultimate embodiment of individuality. Even though different cultures have diverse practices surrounding women’s rights and positions in society, stories like these provide an open conversation about what it means to be a woman today, and what it should mean as we progress. It urges the audience to take responsibility for their own role in the conversation, and how they will choose to become a part of it.