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Panel discussion caps ‘Monologues’ performance, addresses sexuality

Maddie Hanna | Tuesday, February 14, 2006

After the first of this week’s productions of “The Vagina Monologues” ended Monday, two theologians and one social scientist delved deeper into the discussion of female sexuality and violence against women – an academic approach that retained almost 100 people in DeBartolo 101 after the performance.

Theology professor Robin Darling Young, theology and law school professor M. Cathleen Kaveny and sociology professor Jackie Smith spoke Monday night on the ability of “The Vagina Monologues” to confront often-unspoken issues and bring them to the forefront of debate.

While she presented the Church’s point of view, Young made her opinion perfectly clear before she even began speaking – by slapping the heavy “Documents of Vatican II” volume onto the table.

“This is theology, as good as it gets,” Young said, provoking a few laughs. “Now that we have Catholic theology here, let me say what I have to say.”

Young, a specialist in early Christianity, said throughout the history of the Church, universities and bishops have “occasionally clashed,” since their roles in teaching can overlap.

South Bend Bishop John D’Arcy’s duty in the Notre Dame community, Young said, is to voice his objection to a production he believes is promoting “masturbation, abortion, lesbianism and seduction of an underage girl.”

D’Arcy is “genuinely concerned for the University and its wellbeing,” she said.

But there aren’t many Church documents on violence against women to provide the official Catholic viewpoint, Young said. Women are frequently silenced, and there has been little consideration of “how the culture inside the Church can be violent.”

The tension between Church and culture, however, began quite a while ago.

“It’s very interesting that in the history of early Christianity, you can often see a kind of tension between social custom and the nagging of conscience … of people who have read and heard the Gospel,” Young said.

This trend of silencing women continues today, Young said. She cited a “local Catholic high school where girls are told they must not tempt boys.”

Young said this historical background combined with current context gives the ‘Monologues’ an important role at Catholic universities nationwide.

“I think it’s possible to … not take the statements of ‘The Vagina Monologues’ as advances of particular practices,” Young said. “[That’s the] malicious interpretation of groups trying to take them off Catholic campuses.”

It also comes down to keeping the Church in touch with the times, she said.

“We must understand the aspiration, yearning and often dramatic features of the world in which we live,” Young said.

Kaveny, who also spoke from a theology-based background, added a legal perspective to the analysis.

The first step in discussion, Kaveny said, is to understand “what kind of a piece ‘The Vagina Monologues’ is.”

“Unless you encounter it in the right way, you’re going to misunderstand it,” she said. “If you’re taking it as a set of theological doctrines … you’re going down it the wrong way.”

The “Monologues” are about “women’s feelings of embodiment,” she said.

She drew parallels between the styles of the “Monologues,” Saint Augustine’s “Confessions” and victim impact statements in a courtroom.

“Victims of crime get to stand up before the court, before the community, before the perpetrator and speak about what happened to them,” Kaveny said.

The Supreme Court has upheld the practice as legitimate, but Kaveny said the statements can be both “important and dangerous” – important in that they give victims a voice, dangerous in that they are insufficient in “the formation of general norms.”

Drawing heavily on the teachings of Augustine, Kaveny outlined a list of reasons why she believes the Catholic Church should pay attention to the content of the “Monologues” – the first being the previously mentioned comparison to the “Confessions.”

“Augustine places all of his experiences, good and bad, before God,” she said.

Kaveny focused on the idea of embodiment, simultaneously present in the “Monologues” and Catholic teaching.

“We’re not all body or all soul, but embodied souls,” Kaveny said.

She recalled Augustine’s humorous description of the connection between original sin and male genitalia: “If we hadn’t had ‘the Fall,’ we could look down and say ‘Arise,’ and it would have risen.”

This lighthearted approach, Kaveny said, should be granted to women, as well.

“So why women cannot reflect with humor on embodiment is beyond me,” she said.

Another of Kaveny’s arguments tied closely to one established by Young earlier in the discussion – Catholicism’s relationship to modern culture.

“Catholic thought does not isolate itself from human experience,” Kaveny said. “We cannot live in a bubble.”

The Church must listen to the voices of victims, she said, “because [it] needs to reform itself.”

Smith, the last to speak, examined the silencing of women and gender inequalities through a more scientific, statistical lens while commenting on the goals of the “Monologues.”

“The only way things change is when people who don’t have power stand up and demand change,” she said, describing the “Monologues” as “an attempt to empower the powerless.”

“The performance of ‘The Vagina Monologues’ is a political statement. It’s meant to be shocking.” Smith said. “The playwright [Eve Ensler] has shown us the tip of the iceberg … [and] is asking us to imagine the rest of the iceberg.”

Social studies research reveals that the systematic silencing of women “allows them to be dehumanized, fosters intolerance,” Smith said.

She gave examples of oppression against females, such as the delayed right to vote worldwide, the relatively small number of females in power in the U.S. – 15 percent of government officials are women -and the prevalence of untreated HIV among the female population.

“Treatment is denied to a vast majority [of women],” Smith said. “In South Africa … 15 percent [of women] have access to a drug that costs less than $50. That’s violence.”

Smith said unequal economic distribution is another form of violence against women.

“Women in the U.S. make just 80 cents for every dollar a man earns,” she said.

Considering time taken off during and after pregnancy, that statistic drops to just 56 cents per dollar, Smith said.

But “The Vagina Monologues” and V-Day campaign are helping raise awareness of these issues, she said.

“The V-Day activities in 81 countries shows the resonance these themes have around the world,” Smith said.

Gail Bederman, organizer of the panels and history professor, introduced the discussion by explaining it was not meant to be a response to University President Father John Jenkins’ recent addresses on academic freedom and Catholic character.

“There’s been a great deal of talk – I think good talk – about the values, or lack of values of ‘The Vagina Monologues,” Bederman said. “That’s not the purpose of the panels … I envisioned the event as being an exercise of academic freedom rather than a debate over academic freedom.”

Bederman said people “sometimes forget” about issues of female sexuality and rape.

“[The ‘Monologues’] make us remember,” she said.