“GET YOUR PUSSY READY,” screamed a performer as she ran up the aisle in Wheeler Auditorium during a rehearsal for Berkeley’s 13th annual performance of “The Vagina Monologues.”
Her fellow actresses — they call themselves “vagina warriors” — followed soon afterward, whooping and hollering in solidarity.
Theirs was an outrageous gumption: the type of unapologetic confidence that’s often reserved for girl-power movie scenes or political conventions. But then again, “The Vagina Monologues” is a demonstration in and of itself.
Students performed “The Vagina Monologues” on campus from Feb. 7 to 9. Based on Eve Ensler’s interviews with more than 200 women, the play serves as a vehicle to bring forward issues of sex and sexual assault. Each of the monologues features a different aspect of the feminine experience. This year, 40 UC Berkeley students acted in the show, which centered on the theme “Womyn Making Change: What’s YOUR Revolution?”
Inspired by the success of the play, Ensler began a global movement called V-Day in 1998. V-Day aims to end violence against girls and uses revenue generated from various events and performances — including the preferential “Vagina Monologues” — to benefit victims of sex-related crimes.
“We should be hysterical,” Ensler said in an interview with the Guardian this month. The article insinuated that although the war against sexual assault has progressed, total eradication of violence against women is still a lofty ideal.
“Sometimes, I think we’ve all learned how to be so well-behaved and polite,” Ensler said. “There are many clever people (…) but the world is still falling at its knees.”
This year’s performance was akin to the progression that accompanies one’s foray into sexual experiences. The first act was uncomfortable; succeeding acts, taboo. The novelty of mature women speaking bluntly on sex-related topics covered the audience in what seemed to be an unnatural discomfort. But desensitization occurred as the night rolled — and moaned — on. Whatever mock disdain had penetrated the audience to block enjoyment (the indecency of talking about vaginas!) was sexiled, indefinitely.
The audience’s eventual acclimation to the play created a nice atmosphere. But it was also indicative of the production’s primary underlying issue: People can become accustomed to anything. The quagmire that seems to plague modern society is that people are inured to sexual violence — it is viewed with a perverse nonchalance. By dispersing facts about sexual violence throughout the production, “The Vagina Monologues” suggested that many people are both undereducated and uninterested. This combination engenders a culture of silence around issues of sexual assault.
“Everything that has to do with the private parts is kept in private, shrouded in silence,” said Lilly Sedaghat, a UC Berkeley senior and cast member, in an email. “Sexual violence and assault often goes under the radar because those who are hurt are burdened by the heavy silence. No longer. This message is one that I believe should not only radiate across the Berkeley campus, but our respective communities and the entire world in itself.”
The monologues were particularly poignant given the recent media hail — on a campus, state and national level — about sexual violence. Spurred by student criticisms that college campuses neglected sexual assault cases, California’s state Legislature ordered the state auditor to investigate the way sexual assault cases are handled. In addition, UC Berkeley has introduced a new sexual harassment and violence agenda that expands upon certain aspects of pre-existing policy.
On a national level, President Barack Obama announced the dispatching of a White House task force addressing sexual assault on college campuses. The task force plans to develop an action plan within the next few months.
UC Student Regent-designate Sadia Saifuddin, who performed in the monologues, said she thinks there is a systematic assault on women in the way that college authorities address sexual violence.
“I think, often, the administration will come in and try to do the best thing for the campus, instead of thinking, ‘What can we do for the student community here?’ ” Saifuddin said.
Sexual violence has been a major issue at UC Berkeley as well as other universities across the nation. According to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 19 percent of undergraduate women have experienced attempted or complete sexual assault since entering college. Additionally, one in five women nationwide reported experiencing rape at some time in their lives.
“‘The Vagina Monologues’ is one of those spaces where the paradigm between men and women is totally flipped,” Saifuddin said. “If people go in with an open heart and open mind, then they can understand that the discomfort people feel in that space — that’s what a woman deals with every day of her life.”