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COLUMN

Bawdy For Noble Ends

Guest Column
Adam B. Glassman

I am writing in response to Maral Shamloo’s column “Inappropriate Use of the V-word” [Feb. 26] in which she voices many of the reservations The Vagina Monologues are intended to address.

I appreciate that Shamloo wrote her piece after seeing the performance rather than dismissing the play outright. Producing and performing The Vagina Monologues has been a very fulfilling experience for us -- the directors, producers, cast, and crew -- and I’m sorry it did not prove as positive for Shamloo or anyone who shares her feelings. They are entitled to their reservations, and I intend to address those; however I feel I must first address some implications made in the column, particularly the last paragraph.

The Vagina Monologues were not performed as an opportunity to talk about “certain issues in ... a bold and presumptuous way” with the pretense of protecting women slapped on to legitimize it. Regardless of the show’s content, it was produced under the guidelines of the V-Day college campaign as a benefit to raise money for charities dealing with women’s and family issues. Money was raised, and it is making its way to local charities, including the Network/La Red, Transition House, Rosie’s Place, and Cambridge Women’s Center, as well as the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan. Even if staging a play of this nature was uncouth, there are people benefiting from it in uncontroversial ways.

Another reason for producing The Vagina Monologues at MIT was that several people involved had a very personal stake in doing so. Of the 30 or so women involved in the production, many simply wanted to help get the monologues’ message out while others did it to become more comfortable with their sexuality. Still others participated in order to come to terms with certain issues in their own lives, and it was they who had the most passion for the project. If only 30 women feel a little better about themselves as a result of the production, then I’d consider it a success.

The third reason for producing The Vagina Monologues at MIT was to address the same taboos and reservations that permeate Shamloo’s column. The word “vagina” is often given the same reception as the f-word and the s-word, as it did in Shamloo’s column, in spite of the fact that it is a proper term and appears in the dictionary without the distinction of being a slang word. The Vagina Monologues don’t ask you to run through the streets reciting words for female genitals, or to discuss your vagina with as many people as you can pack into an auditorium, but rather to show acceptance of vaginas in such a way that you can refer to them without feeling like you’ve said a dirty word. Language has a powerful influence on thinking -- by disengaging the shame attached to the word “vagina,” we hope to disengage the shame attached to the vagina itself in many cases.

It is for the same reason that “the most intimate details of a woman’s experiences and relationships” were related through the monologues. As stated at the beginning of the performance, the intention was to establish a context of vaginas -- to make known that the trials and tribulations of having a vagina, though experienced in private, are not a woman’s secret shame but rather something natural shared by all women. The script is frank, explicit, and funny to make the material accessible and to take a potentially preachy message off its soapbox without losing sight of its purpose. The Vagina Monologues were intended to be entertaining, perhaps on a bawdy level, but only as a means to a nobler end.

In Shamloo’s column, she quoted my director’s note, and then asked me how I think “being comfortable with saying or hearing the word ‘vagina’ could help prevent violence against women.” There are many answers to this question, of which I will only give a few. The Vagina Monologues were written to empower the women who might be victimized, and not to reeducate potential victimizers. A woman more aware of her own identity, and sexuality, who can speak about her own body without undue shame is less inclined to accept abuse, and more likely to come forward or seek help if she is victimized. Furthermore, as is all too apparent in this country nowadays, we tend to fear what we don’t understand, and hate what we fear. By promoting better understanding of women, The Vagina Monologues subvert that hate and fear.

There is so much more to say on this topic than space allows. If Shamloo or anyone else is left with uneasy feelings and unanswered questions about the play, I would encourage them to e-mail the production staff at v-day-admin@mit.edu, the actresses who performed the monologues at vagina-cast@mit.edu, or the production staff, cast, and organizers of V-Day at MIT at vagina@mit.edu. For more information about how the V-Day program is helping women worldwide, visit <http://www.v-day.org>.

The Vagina Monologues were produced and performed at MIT by a group of individuals who are passionate about realizing a world in which women are more comfortable in society and, more importantly, in their own skins. I assure you, whatever your discomfort at the thought of hearing the word “vagina” or at hearing detailed information about vaginas, it is far outweighed by our discomfort that even in the 21st century, the repression of women continues to the extent that they cannot publicly utter the name of their defining anatomical feature without shame.

Adam B. Glassman co-directed The Vagina Monologues at MIT and is a member of the Class of 2002.