Last week I went to see the Vagina Monologues for the first time. I went with two friends who had also never seen it. Originally performed off Broadway in 1994 with its first U.S. tour in 1999, community productions of the Vagina Monologues have run annually in Portland ever since. In the early years of its Portland performances there was so much hype around it I had no desire to sit through a show where participants and audience members alike seemed so excited because they got to say the word vagina out loud every time they said the title of the script. Tee-hee-hee. It was worth waiting all these years until the executive director of Portland Women’s Crisis Line announced that she had been invited to read one of the monologues. The Vagina Monologues are just one vehicle of expression in the movement to respect women as the whole people we are, and to create a gathering place for exposing the common ground necessary to end gender-based violence.
The day of the performance we arrived early so we could find the best seats in the house. As we walked into the theatre Aretha Franklin was belting out Natural Woman over the loudspeakers. There was something warm and fuzzy about being received by the voice of a woman who spent her whole life expressing so publicly and artfully her experiences as a woman. The babies crying only added to the ambience. There was no virgin sacrifice as at Rocky, though with a cult following I wondered what such a ceremony might look like at a live production all about women. As the show started the audience was told we might expect to laugh, cry, and blush. Indeed we did all three.
We laughed at tampons and ice cold speculums, blushed at the joy and true love of womanhood, and cried in saddness and fear of war, humiliation, and stolen self. In the end we were asked to stand if we knew anyone who had been affected by sexual violence. The entire audience rose in unison as if a standing ovation, only there was no applause. This moment was by no means a shock. I am certain that 100 percent of women in our community have either experienced gender-based violence or are very close to someone who has. The rate that women have experienced violence directly would probably alarm even the experts, at least those experts who are not women. Perhaps the gulf between the anecdotal evidence and reported statistics is what moved Ensler to write the play.
We had spent an hour and a half listening to public declarations of the thoughts and feelings that everyone experiences, but that no one can say out loud because they are taboo. Then, there we stood as an audience, as witness to one another’s interpersonal violence and no one said a word. While it is easy to persuade ourselves that gender-based violence is something that happens to other people, standing in that full house the evidence was irrefutable that interpersonal violence is something that happens to all of us as women and as humans. I will challenge anyone who argues selection bias, that people who have experienced violence in a relationship are more likely to attend the Vagina Monologues. I would argue that people who have vaginas and people who are friends with cast members are more likely to attend the Vagina Monologues.
It is time to start talking, out loud, not in secret. In Oregon there are about four times as many calls for help on crisis lines responding to domestic and sexual violence as there are traffic accidents. If you know five people who have been involved in traffic accidents you probably know at least 20 who have experienced violence in a relationship. We make cars safer, we pass laws that help people protect themselves and feel safe, we create legal and social incentives for people to behave responsibly as drivers, and we sanction those who do not. But still, sometimes accidents just happen, no matter how well behaved and responsible everyone involved might be at a given moment. Violence, on the other hand, never happens on accident. It can only occur intentionally. The pervasiveness of gender-based violence suggests that the social and legal pressures are wholy inadequate to motivate everyone to behave responsibly toward one another, and treat others with respect and as whole people.
The incidence of violence does not have to be so normal. To reiterate a previous essay, community education at the Portland Women’s Crisis Line and many other agencies working to end interpersonal violence often revolves around three primary points: (1) Listen and believe. Look around and see that the unbelievable is undeniable. See it and hear it. (2) Speak up and speak out. Interrupt it. Be pushy and get in the way, and talk openly about it. (3) Take action. Talk openly and loudly so that others might start to see the invisible and believe it too. Do something. Be heard in insisting that violence should be unacceptable and shocking, not a normal part of our existence.
Don’t know what to do? Start by answering the call for help. PWCL is one among many crisis lines in the region, it just happens to be the busiest in the state with about 24,000 callers a year. PWCL and its sister agencies need an ever-growing pool of volunteers who can be there to listen and believe survivors in their time of need, whether they are experiencing immediate crisis or residual trauma. All these organizations need volunteers who can speak to the community, and help train people to see the violence and put an end to it. Other groups, such as the emerging Oregon Violence Against Women PAC and Oregon Alliance need volunteers to vet and educate lawmakers, and lobby for changes in law and in spending priorities so that public policies can reflect a respect for whole personhood. All these organizations need cash to support their infrastructure, so attend a fundraiser or simply send a check. If you live in a community without similar services or organizations, rest assured it is not due to lack of need. Host a V-Day event yourself. Create a zone of safety. Start small and see the results as gender-based violence becomes a thing of the past.
Everyone can take a stand, firmly, against violence. You need not acquire a collection of vagina-shapped artwork to be heard, though it is available for those who want to be inspired by it. As for me, I’ll be inspired by the likes of Aretha and Etta among many others across a range of genres and disciplines. There is no right way to express the shared experiences that allow us as sisters and brothers and others to unite in the quest for interpersonal and community peace and respect and safety, so long as we each find our inspiration and the courage to say it out loud.