In just about any context, the topic of vaginas would never be boring, but this is perhaps most true at a Jesuit university. Last Wednesday at New Orleans' Loyola University, the Women's Studies Committee chaired a forum to discuss whether students may produce a public performance of The Vagina Monologues as a fundraiser to support the YWCA Battered Women's Program. Faculty, students and Loyola's interim president, the Rev. William Byron, all attended the meeting -- which started politely, but quickly turned contentious.
Loyola senior Bethany Culp first got the idea for a local production of The Vagina Monologues from a friend who had coordinated a production at Chicago's Loyola University. In mid-January, Culp and senior Erica Ciccarone, who is co-president of the student-run Women's Issues Organization, sent out an email to faculty, students and administration to announce auditions for the play. The students quickly received word that Byron "had concerns" about the production and wanted to talk to them. He had already received letters of complaint from alumni about the proposed staging.
"I left a copy of the play for him to read because at that point I didn't know he was going to shut us down, so we were trying to work with him," says Culp. "When we met him, he made it clear right away that the production was off because the language was inappropriate for the Loyola community. He said the word 'vagina' was just there for shock value and that the play had no educational value."
"He also mentioned 'c--t' and 'f--k,' except he called them 'the c-word' and the 'f-word,'" says Ciccarone. "The reason he thought this was a big deal is that there were incidents of people defacing bulletin boards with bigoted comments, and he equated the use of these words in The Vagina Monologues with derogatory racial slurs. Then he said it was really important to raise awareness about violence against women, but that there were better ways to do that. He told us that instead we should talk about how women on campus are dressing inappropriately and provocatively. And that we should get women students to stop smoking."
Byron declined to be interviewed for this story, but prior to the forum, he issued this statement through the Public Affairs Office: "There are no plans to produce a public performance of The Vagina Monologues."
This was the same statement he made in a Jan. 24 Times-Picayune story about the controversy -- yet in an interview for that story, Byron also suggested he was still deliberating on his decision. This apparent contradiction led to last Wednesday's open forum, which was announced -- but not specifically restricted -- to the Loyola community.
"The purpose of the forum is to ask Father Byron to clarify his views to us and to share our perspectives with him. And also to discuss what are the limits of censorship at Loyola," said Nancy Anderson, a history professor and chair of the Women's Studies Committee, speaking before last week's forum. The Committee opposes censorship of the students, she added, saying that some on the faculty share the president's discomfort with the play, and yet they still strongly support the students' right to produce it.
"We want to look at how we may reconcile all three of our identities," Anderson said. "We are a Jesuit institution devoted to social justice and intellectual excellence, a Catholic institution grounded in a respect for Catholic doctrine, and a university that advocates academic freedom and the discussion of all ideas."
Catholic orthodoxy claims that Eve brought sin into the world. It was another Eve who brought The Vagina Monologues into the world. Author Eve Ensler wrote her play from an accumulation of interviews with women and girls who voiced with candor their feelings and thoughts about their vaginas. The material covers a wide range of emotional terrain, including funny, sad, joyous, exuberantly sexual, tender, awestruck and horrific. One section titled "My Vagina Was My Village" recounts a Bosnian woman's story of being raped along with all the other women in her village -- rape as a "systematic tactic of war." There is also an interview with a 6-year-old girl who says her vagina smells like snowflakes and that "somewhere deep inside it I know it has a really smart brain."
Since the play first appeared in 1999, it has enjoyed renown as a means to raise awareness for and about women and their right to speak frankly about their bodies. Ensler offers the play as a fundraiser to help end violence against women. The organization working with Ensler, V-Day, has created a college initiative for students to produce Vagina Monologues performances on their campuses and donate the proceeds to local charities for women who have been victimized by violence. More than 600 colleges are participating this year. V-Day schedules its events around Valentine's Day in order to make this traditionally romantic holiday -- when women typically receive tributes to their femininity -- an opportunity to bring attention to the crisis of violence against women.
Tulane University students also participated in V-Day with a recent campus production of The Vagina Monologues; the student group that sponsored the play invited members of the Loyola Women's Issues Organization to attend the Tulane performance last week, so they could collect donations for the YWCA Battered Women's Program.
The V-Day College Initiative has also come to the attention of the Cardinal Newman Society, a group whose stated mission is "to assist college leaders, educators, students, and alumni in their efforts to preserve the religious identity of Catholic institutions of higher learning." Toward that end, the Cardinal Newman Society attempts to stop Catholic colleges from producing The Vagina Monologues -- this year, as in past years, there are scheduled performances in about 32 Catholic colleges, many of them Jesuit.
In December, Society president Patrick J. Reilly sent an open letter to all Catholic college presidents, including Byron, asking them to forbid their students to perform The Vagina Monologues, which Reilly characterized as "vulgar." One passage in his letter states: "Most disturbing are reported plans to present the play at Loyola University of New Orleans, where the president, Rev. Bernard Knoth, S.J., was recently removed because of sex abuse charges, and at Boston College, located in the diocese most affected by the priest sex-abuse scandals."
Reilly refers to one particular scene in the play in which an adult woman recounts her sexual encounter at age 16 with a 24-year-old woman. The speaker in the scene, who earlier in her life had been savagely raped by a man, recalls her teenage lesbian experience as pleasurable, calling it her "salvation." Reilly calls it "a classic scene of molestation," saying it "parallels what the priests did in the sexual abuse of those young boys."
After sending his letter to Byron, Reilly says, he attempted to reach him by phone when he saw the recent Times-Picayune story because, like the students and faculty of Loyola, Reilly thought Bryon's remarks sounded like waffling. Reilly says he has not heard back from Byron, but he feels encouraged that the performance dates for Loyola's production of the play have been removed from the V-Day Web site.
The Wednesday forum took place in a lecture hall on Loyola's campus. Byron sat between two members of the Women's Studies Committee at a table in the front of the room, facing a large crowd of students, faculty and other Loyola community members. He began by stating, "I never said they couldn't do the play."
One woman interrupted him by standing up and demanding that someone read Byron's quote from the Times-Picayune article. Anderson read the sentence aloud. Byron again denied telling the students they couldn't produce the play. "Yes you did," the woman protested. "I'm an English major. I know what it means."
"I don't think a line has to be drawn around what students may voice on campus, and I place no arbitrary limit on academic freedom ... except prudence," Byron continued. He cited an example: If a professor is teaching a class on war, that teacher should not take students into live machine gun fire in order to learn about it.
Byron went on to say he does not see any connection between The Vagina Monologues and the worthy cause of stopping violence against women. He said that he finds the language in the play "inappropriate" -- and, he went on to say, "I think we all know what 'inappropriate' means." Specifically, he cited "the f-word, the m-f-word and the c-word." (At various times during the evening, a couple of the students filled in the blanks for him.) He also said he finds fault with the play's humorous celebration of sexual themes -- and referred to the same lesbian love scene cited by Reilly of the Cardinal Newman Society. Byron described the scene as "sexual molestation, and that's a crime."
Byron acknowledged that his earlier comparison of the language in The Vagina Monologues to racial slurs "is not a perfect parallel." But he defended his remarks about smoking and students' clothing by elaborating that "smoking is a form of violence and sometimes inappropriate dress will trigger violence. It will. You can talk to the police about that. There is still something to be said for modesty and chastity."
At this, a loud wave of protest erupted in the room. Later, a student raised his hand to ask Byron, "How can we trust you to help us end violence against women when you say you believe rape victims are in part responsible for being attacked by triggering the violence with the way they dress?"
"I never said that!" Byron replied heatedly.
Getting the discussion back to art and censorship, a drama professor told Byron that her department is currently staging a public performance of a play titled The Oldest Profession, a story about five prostitutes. The play contains strong sexual language, treats sex with humorous celebration, and takes an indulgent view of prostitution, which is also a crime. She asked Byron if he will put a stop to that play as well.
"No, that play has a faculty sponsor," he replied. "The Vagina Monologues doesn't have a faculty sponsor. I'm looking for some adult professional representation." (The Vagina Monologues' sponsor, the Women's Issues Organization, is run by the students; faculty advisor Susanne Dietzel has stated she sees her role as one of offering guidance, not permission or sponsorship.)
Despite repeated requests, Byron did not explain why a faculty-sponsored public performance containing the 'f-word' is acceptable for the Loyola community, but a student-sponsored performance is not. An English professor suggested that the English Department might produce a performance of the play. "I'm not saying we're planning to do it, right now," she said. "It's just hypothetical."
"I'll be candid," Byron answered deliberately. "I hope you won't do that." He paused. "Because I would perceive that as a confrontation. And when you push me into a corner ...." An awkward silence followed Byron's last words.
Throughout the meeting, Byron, the school's former Dean of Arts and Sciences, equivocated on what the consequences might be for the students if they go ahead with The Vagina Monologues.
"You said leadership should be transparent and responsible," one faculty member angrily reminded him.
"Yes, that's right," Bryon replied.
At one point, Ciccarone practically jumped out of her seat with frustration. "You're just using language to manipulate us!" she accused. Her friend and co-president of Women's Issues Organization, Julia Sorrentino, stood up to speak. "Father Byron, I want a direct answer from you," she said. "I am asking you a direct question. You've said the play is inappropriate. I don't agree with you. We have everything we need to put on the performance. If we do that, will we be violating some rule of the university? Will we be punished?"
"Oh, now we're not going to get into that sort of language," replied Byron, who took other questions for several minutes before Sorrentino stood up again.
"Father Byron, you haven't answered my question," she said. "I want an answer, yes or no, are we allowed to put on a public performance of The Vagina Monologues?
"All right," he answered. "You're pushing me, and so I am saying, 'no.' The reason I'm saying 'no' is that you didn't come into it the right way with a faculty sponsor."
"We obviously have no faculty support," snapped Ciccarone sarcastically, referring to the teachers in the room, none of whom spoke in support of Byron's interference with the production.
Ciccarone now says she is looking to the future. The Women's Issues Organization is still raising money for the battered women's program by selling ribbons. "And next year there will probably be a new president -- we'll be graduated by then -- but there's been so much talk about The Vagina Monologues that maybe some other students will do the play then."