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Panel discusses sexuality in ‘Monologues’

Peter Ninneman | Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Emotional testimonies and conflicting reactions marked the panel discussion following Tuesday’s performance of “The Vagina Monologues,” which featured an anthropologist, a priest and a theologian examining the issues and goals of the production.

Notre Dame students performed the play Tuesday for the second of three times this week in DeBartolo Hall – a change from last year’s DeBartolo Performing Arts Center venue spurred by University President Father John Jenkins’ ongoing discussion on academic freedom and Catholic character.

Anthropology professor Carolyn Nordstrom brought to the panel discussion her personal experiences with victims of rape camps and child trafficking rings on the frontlines of wars.

“I have seen entire towns where every single woman, even children, were raped,” Nordstrom said. “I have documented hundreds of cases where peace has been built from dialogues like this.”

She said that whenever she has witnessed child trafficking rings or rape camps being busted, she has seen women gathering together to tell their stories, much like what occurs in some of the skits in “The Vagina Monologues.”

“How do they heal? Whether we like it or not, it’s by writing plays [like ‘The Vagina Monologues’] … Kids write these plays,” Nordstrom said.

Nordstrom requires students in her anthropology classes to write ethnographies of themselves, some of which have dealt with campus rapes perpetrated by both males and females. She said she has had more males than “you would expect” come to talk to her in her office about being sexually violated.

“It really is an unspoken reality,” Nordstrom said.

Nordstrom was not the only panelist who brought personal experience to the table. Father Paulinus Odozor, an associate professor of theology, was born and raised in Nigeria – a background that made him aware of the prevalence of crimes against women.

“I can relate to some of the issues [Nordstrom] was talking about,” Odozor said. “I saw the kinds of atrocities people commit in wars.”

But Odozor differed from Nordstrom in his opinion of the play. One of the things he found problematic stemmed from what he saw as the agenda of the play, reflected in the subtitle of the official script, which states the play’s involvement in the worldwide V-Day Campaign – a movement that works to end violence against women.

Campaigns, Odozor said, are organized courses of political action meant to convert people’s hearts and minds. In the case of “The Vagina Monologues,” Odozor said he was concerned with the values it presented, though he supported its anti-violence goals.

“[In ‘The Vagina Monologues’], sex is little more than genital activity, [there is glorified] sex with adults, [and] sex is something we should feel free to do whenever and with whoever one wants to,” he said. “This play should not be viewed as a presumption-less production.”

Odozor discussed the view of sexuality in the eyes of the Catholic Church, and said Catholics have a responsibility to stand up against advocates of “sinful” sex.

He said the “Monologues” present a “distorted view of sex that doesn’t offer concrete ways to combat sexual injustices.”

“We don’t need any more one-sided views of sexuality that parts of this play seem to advocate,” Odozar said.

This “one-sided propaganda,” Odozar said, “cannot go unchallenged in a Catholic university.”

Theology professor Mary Doak also brought experience and a different perspective to the panel.

“There are five girls in my family… [so] I always thought the statistics [on sexual violence] must be skewed.” Doak said, referring to statistics that about one in three women nationwide is a victim of rape or sexual abuse.

But after receiving tearful phone calls from some of her sisters about sexual violence perpetrated against them, Doak said she has since realized the statistics were accurate.

As a Catholic theologian, Doak said she agreed with Odozor that sexuality is a gift from God. But she also said she viewed the play as a two-way street that opened up dialogue.

“I would like to challenge the views of the play to promote the ideal of sexuality as a self-giving love, but then the play challenges me to think about how we get there from where we are,” Doak said.

Doak also said that people don’t “just one day spring up as sexual adults,” but instead internalize sexual feelings even during childhood.

After the panelists were finished, they fielded emotional questions and comments about the “Mono-logues,” rape and gender relations at Notre Dame from students and faculty members in the crowd.

Vice President for Student Affairs Father Mark Poorman, who attended the “Monologues” for the first time Tuesday, said after the performance and before the panel he was “not too surprised” by the content, but was “really struck by the quality of the acting.”

“I wanted to see it as an academic event,” said Poorman, who said he attended the play on his own accord. “It seemed to go pretty well [in the DeBartolo classroom setting].”

He said he was looking forward to the second half of Tuesday’s event – the panel discussion.

Another panel discussion will take place tonight at 9:15 p.m. in 102 DeBartolo following the third and final 7 p.m. showing of this year’s “The Vagina Monologues.”