Recently, I participated in a student organized benefit production of The Vagina Monologues at the Institute of American Indian Arts. Written by Eve Ensler, an American playwright, performer, feminist and activist, The Vagina Monologues recounts tender, funny, compelling and horrifying stories based on interviews she conducted with 200 women about their views on their bodies, their sexual experiences and of course, their vaginas.
All proceeds of The Vagina Monologues go to Eve Ensler’s V-Day foundation, the global activist movement to end violence against women and girls, which has so far solicited over $85 million to prevent violence and protect abused women as well as a local organization of the organizers’ choice. In this case, it was Tewa Women United, a non-profit whose mission calls for the ending of “all forms of violence against Native women and girls, Mother Earth and to promote peace in New Mexico.”
The monologue I recounted was about a woman who thought her vagina was “incredibly ugly” and had been embarrassed to even think about it, but changed her mind because of a sexual experience with an attentive man. Learning and performing this monologue was a challenging and empowering experience for me, as well as the entire cast, mostly 20 something Native women. Sadly, many of our students, staff and local Native community were not present and many seats were in fact, empty.
There was laughter, raucous laughter, and even a few tears shed as those attendees, mostly women, were moved and inspired by the monologues: a survivor of a Bosnian rape camp, a young lesbian describing her first sexual experience with an older woman, a recollection of witnessing the birth of a baby, all the while repeatedly using the word “vagina.” Such an odd word, most would agree. But even more important than semantics, what is it with us women and our inability to talk about our vaginas?
This morning over coffee, as we were discussing the performance, my husband brought up an interesting point from his male perspective. We all want to see that full frontal nudity but no one wants to hear women talking about their vaginas. Guys sure seem to be able talk about their junk all the time. He didn’t use the term junk but I’m keeping it PG. Anyhow, it got me thinking. I guess on some level I’m very aware of the facts he expressed, but the way he said it, so simple and to the point, really got to me.
I began thinking about my own vagina’s history. I can’t recall ever really hearing my mom, grandma or aunties talking about their lady parts. Growing up in L.A., there was no puberty ceremony or celebration when I reached “womanhood.” At age 13, my mom just took me to the store, we got pads and that was about it. No discussion of what it meant or its significance. In my teenage years my girlfriends and I did plenty of talking about “girl stuff,” (mostly boys) but never much vagina talk. I had to learn a lot of things on my own. Simple things like how to use a tampon, to more serious concerns like how to protect myself from pregnancy and those cute boys who would say anything they thought you wanted to hear to get “in there.” Thankfully, I had one brave friend who took me to the local low-income clinic where you could get birth control and attention for all things vag related. I am forever grateful to her for her sisterhood.
Why does she feel the need to be talking about vaginas? You might be asking yourself as you read this. I’ll tell you why. According to the most recent U.S. Bureau of Justice statistics, the country’s 310 Indian reservations have violent crime rates that are more than two and a half times higher than the national average. Additionally, American Indian women are 10 times as likely to be murdered than other Americans. They are raped or sexually assaulted at a rate four times the national average, with more than one in three having either been raped or experienced an attempted rape. On a personal level, I will tell you why I fully committed to participating in The Vagina Monologues.
On December 28th of last year, in my Pueblo community, a 27 year old tribal member that I knew, committed an atrocious sexual assault on a local Native woman, which led to her hemorrhaging to death. I was additionally shocked to learn there was at least one other male present that saw what was happening to this woman and did nothing to stop it; in fact he stole her cell phone out of her purse! I could not help but wonder what happened to this young man during his lifetime to make him take out this level of hate and rage on this innocent, woman. Granted, they were both drunk but that is no excuse. How will her husband and family be able to process and accept what happened to her? The more I thought about it, I couldn’t help but mourn for all of them.
During the Q&A at the end of the performance, the director asked the audience to close their eyes and raise their hand if they themselves or anyone they knew had been a victim of physical and/or sexual abuse. Then she asked us to open our eyes and look around the room. More than half the hands in the room were raised.
This is why we need to speak up as Native women. This is why we need to learn how to speak about our lady parts. We must learn to say the words that are so difficult for us to speak so that we are able to talk about these things that are going on right here in our very communities. Don’t act like you don’t know what I’m talking about. In fact, I challenge you to go find the nearest mirror. Using the word for your lady parts that feels most comfortable, look at yourself in the mirror and say it several times. Hell, yell it! If you’re feeling really gutsy, grab a hand mirror and take a good, long look at your lady parts. Our survival depends on it.