Monday, November 23, 2015

Vagina Monologues: Loosen my tongue

(Note: All of the pictures in this post come from my trip to Haiti earlier this year.  It may not seem entirely relevant as you're reading at first -- but it felt right).

I recently came across an Audre Lorde quote I had not seen before. The quote reads: "Mother, loosen my tongue or adorn me with a lighter burden."  (Audre Lorde,  "Call," 1986).

It's funny how the universe sometimes gives you what you need to hear.

Girls in Haiti, photograph by autodidactpoet
January 2015
 What feels like a very long time ago, I somehow agreed to participate in a performance of Eve Ensler's "Vagina Monologues" with my church.  I had seen a production of the monologues several years ago, had read the book, was well-versed in Eve Ensler's work like all good feminists should be, and had even written my own monologue for a speak-out against sexual violence event.  This was not a new thing for me to be involved in.

But here's the thing: not new does not equal "easy."  Not new does not mean "not hard."  Not new does not mean that all those old thoughts and feelings and hard things stay in the past.  It just doesn't.  I hoped it did.  I lied to myself, and told myself it would.  But it didn't.  Of course it didn't.  That's not how that works.

It was hard. 

Guys, it was really hard.  It was so much harder than I like to admit.  After the first rehearsal, and then the second, more than one person gently asked me if I should continue to participate.  I considered excusing myself...a choice I told no one in the cast I was pondering...because I was embarrassed.  Because I get tired of things being hard.  Because I am stubborn, stubborn, stubborn.  Because I wanted to be brave.  Because I want to show myself that I make decisions that are not based in fear. 

There were a long few days when I almost backed out.  It was just hard, you know?  Sometimes, I rationalized to myself, we don't have to be quite so brave.  Sometimes, we don't need to DO the thing -- it can be enough just to know that the thing is being done.  That's what matters, really.  

But the thing was that, while choosing to participate felt hard, choosing not to participate also felt hard and - perhaps - felt harder. 

And then came that quote -- "Mother, loosen my tongue or adorn me with a lighter burden."  I don't know for sure, but it doesn't seem that a lighter burden is coming my way anytime soon, right?  However, participation in "Vagina Monologues,"...that seems like a pretty good opportunity to loosen ones tongue, does it not?  I mean, to get up in front of 100-and-some-odd friends and strangers and talk about watch ones friends moan, reclaim "cunt," rant about all the "dry wads of fucking cotton," and pontificate about loving their vaginas, or shutting down their vaginas, and losing and finding their clitoris...that seems like a pretty decent tongue loosening opportunity.
MPP school, photograph by autodidactpoet
January 2015

So I stuck it out, even as it felt big and hard.  Even as it took my breath away.  Even as I loved it, and hated it, and even as it sometimes made my body shake.  Even then.

When I distill it down to the bare bones, now, the day after, here is what happened:

I stood up with my friends and said things that were hard.  And I survived.

My friend and I performed the monologue "My Vagina Was My Village," which is drawn from interviews conducted with survivors from rape camps in Bosnia.  We told their story out loud.  We made an audience sit and listen as we told them, in first person, details of what no woman should ever have to endure.  The story is horrific.  It is not mine, and I do not understand the intensity and horror of that violence.  I spoke the words, but I cannot embody the sort of pain one must hold to have lived it.  What a privilege it is not to even be able to imagine it.

But to hear these stories, read these stories, see these stories in live theater, they become more real than they can when read only on a page.  When heard in first-person narrative, read in shaky-voice innocence of someone who cannot even fathom, there is still flesh and blood and breath given to the story that makes it real.  Reading it is painful, and hard, and a privilege.  It is right to give it voice.  It is holy to give it voice.  It is hard as hell, and it is holy.  This  particular story, and this particular violence is not mine, but I do understand this violation.  I understand the invasion of your skin.  I know what it is to feel your body is no longer a place you want to inhabit.  To feel you must move elsewhere.  To feel you do not have a voice. I know the kind of grace I wished for.  I know the ways I have wished to speak truth to my story.  I know the ways that I have.  I know the ways I have not.

In her introduction to the monologue (which we did not read), Ensler writes how horrified she was to learn that between 20 and 70 thousand women were raped as a war tactic in the former Yugoslavia in 1993, and how devastated she was by the fact that the US was not doing anything about it.  She says, "...a friend finally asked me, 'why are you surprised?'  In this country [the US], in one year [in 1993]'s a documented fact ...over 700,000 women are raped.  And in theory, we're not at war."

"Mother, loosen my tongue or adorn me with a lighter burden."

Damn, Audre Lorde.

This is what these monologues are for. 


In discussing the Vagina Monologues with people over the past several months, two questions have come up - both more than once - that have given me pause:
  1. Is there a male version of the Vagina Monologues?  Why not?
  2. Are the Vagina Monologues still as needed/still as culturally relevant today as they were when Ensler wrote them back in 1996?
Not that you asked, but here are my answers anyway, to both questions:

Penis Monologues?  Really?  Does anyone really think that is something we need? 

If we wanted to talk about a few monologues on the ways patriarchy can hurt men...the ways stereotypes of masculinity can harm men...the ways gender roles can be harmful for men...then I guess we can talk about a set of monologues for men.  But that's not really a male equivalent of the Vagina Monologues, is it?  These aren't the Women Monologues or the Female Monologues -- these are, very specifically, the Vagina Monologues, and they are created and designed to be a direct actionable force against the worldwide silencing, shaming of, and violence towards women and girls bodies and sexuality.  The monologues are, of course, about saying the forbidden words aloud: period, tampon, vagina, orgasm, clitoris, cunt -- and to make female sexual pleasure a thing that is acknowledged and celebrated.  The monologues are absolutely about celebrating vaginas, and women, and female sexuality. 

MPP School -- photograph by autodidactpoet
January 2015

And, unfortunately, we cannot yet celebrate vaginas, and women, and female sexuality without recognizing the very real impact of violence and oppression on female bodies worldwide.  That, perhaps, is the point.  We need the space "Vagina Monologues" creates because there are so few other spaces created where female bodies can even just take up space.  Where they can be freely and apologetically sexual.  We need space to name the things that are done to us and to our bodies.

"But it is not so taboo to say these things anymore," people said.  "It is not so shocking.  People aren't taken aback by the word vagina at this point."

Perhaps not.

  •  There are girls getting "dress coded" on a regular basis in our middle and high schools.
  •   There are girls being "slut shamed" by their peers.  By their teachers.  By their school administrators.
  • I was asked what I was wearing.  I was asked if I had been drinking.  When I was deemed to have been both sober and "decent," I was blamed for having been out at all.  Victim-blaming still happens.  All the time.
  • In the US, 65% of women report experiencing street harassment.  Of those women, 23% reported they had been sexually touched, 20% had been followed, and 9% had been forced to do something sexual.  (From: Unsafe and Harassed in Public Spaces: A National Street Harassment Report).  In New Delhi, these numbers go up to 88% of women who report experiencing verbal harassment, and 92% of women who report experiencing sexual violence in public spaces (From:
  • Every year, approximately 293,000 people are sexually assaulted in the US. Approximately 68% of these are not reported to the police.  98% of rapists will never spend any time in jail.  (
  • The US Military has a serious sexual assault problem. 
  •  One in three women worldwide will experience physical or sexual violence in her lifetime, most likely at the hands of her partner (
  • Of all the women who were victims of homicide worldwide, it is estimated that almost 50% of them were killed by intimate partners (compared to less than 6% of men).  (
  • More than 700 million women today were married as children (under age 18).  (
  •  Approximately 133 million girls and women have experienced some form of female genital mutilation. (
  • Women and girls account for 80% of trafficking victims globally (
  • Maternal mortality continues to be unacceptably high: every day, approximately 830 women die from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth worldwide. (
  • Two-thirds of the illiterate people in the world are female. (
  • There are still 31 million primary school age girls not in school.  There are 4 million fewer boys out of school than girls. (
So we ask -- is Ensler's work necessary?  Is performing "Vagina Monologues" necessary?  Is my participation in "Vagina Monologues" necessary?

The answer is yes. 

It is hard.  It can be fucking brutal, y'all.  It leaves you shaking, and breathless...but it is necessary.  Even though this little performance goes no further than my corner of Columbia - for me, and for you, and for all of the millions of women across the globe with whom we stand, it is a way of loosening our tongues, and that is holy.

It is holy.

May we -- all of us -- work hard, and harder, and harder still to loosen our tongues, for it shall be so very long until all of us can be adorned with an equally lightened burden.

Women of Haiti, photograph by autodidactpoet Jan. 2015

                   "Mother, loosen my tongue or adorn me with a lighter burden." - Audre Lorde

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