The Vagina Dialogues

It’s profoundly disheartening to see people in political leadership and positions of cultural influence whose understanding of women’s anatomy—and that it is possessed by human beings, not mythical prototype “whores,” “virgins,” or “martyr mothers”—hasn’t progressed much past pre-adolescent hooting at drawings on the boys’ room walls.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m not actually looking for excuses to chat about vaginas or hormones with strangers or friends. I’m fairly comfortable with prudish reserve in daily life, especially when the alternative is coarse humor that’s usually not very funny. Then again, if you watch TV sitcoms or contemporary comedy films, hearing the word “vagina” outside of a gynecologist’s office isn’t the surprise it once was. As Ann Hornaday noted in her March 13 essay in The Washington Post, the word is now so prevalent, “it’s hard to believe that, just six years ago, Grey’s Anatomy producer Shonda Rhimes made ABC standards and practices executives so nervous about the word that she substituted the far more playful ‘va-jay-jay.’”

By contrast, when Eve Ensler’s “Vagina Monologues” debuted in 1996 it was controversial theater for a number of reasons, the most obvious being the first word in the title. The play was groundbreaking in its forthright exploration of women’s experiences—the brutal, the ecstatic, the ambivalent—in relation to women’s distinctive anatomy. It helped many women reclaim the language for their own bodies in the public sphere, rather than being limited to euphemisms and crudities deployed by others. The play opened up more space to talk about sexual abuse and violence against women, a step in weakening the shame that is part of any abuser’s arsenal.

Language is important for both literal health—knowledge of something is the first step toward caring for it—and the health of society. Our bodies are, as the psalmist writes, “fearfully and wonderfully made,” not inherently a source of shame.

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