Politics & Policy

Eve of Destruction

Sending the wrong message.

Campus couples seeking romance on Valentine’s Day are hard pressed to find it ever since playwright Eve Ensler took ownership of the holiday, redubbing it “V-Day.” That’s “V” for Ensler’s Vagina Monologues, which is performed at colleges on and around February 14 to raise money for her V-Day campaign, “a global movement to stop violence against women and girls.”

Ensler’s 1996 Off-Broadway smash adapts easily to the economies of campus theaters, requiring no sets and no special costumes, just one or more actresses capable of spouting things like, “I would say that, if my vagina got dressed, it would wear a bindi.”

The playwright’s genius, if you can call it that, is in realizing that such childish pronouncements–as at the play’s beginning, where the word “vagina” is repeated ad infinitum to remove the “stigma”–feel liberating for female college students. As one Vagina Monologues actress at the University of Washington, Seattle, told student newspaper The Daily, “I think a show like this is important because half of the population has vaginas, but we don’t ever talk about them.”

One University of Washington student group is doing its part to get out the V-Day message by making “Consent is Sexy” buttons to pass out to the Vagina Monologues audience before the show, according to that same article. “[They] do this to visually show the statistic that one in four women and one in five men will be sexually assaulted in their lifetimes,” explained ASUW Women’s Action Commission director Marissa Hackett.

In other words, students are being told that they’re safe from violence–if only they consent to sex.

That’s not the intended message, to be sure. The “Consent is Sexy” campaign means to show that sex should only be consensual. Fair enough. But changing the concept of consent in teenagers’ eyes to something “sexy” and therefore desirable–as in “everybody’s doing it”–gives them the false message that their best option is to engage in premarital sexual activity.

Picture students, many of them teenagers, wearing “Consent is Sexy” buttons on a college campus. What kind of message does that give? It’s intentionally provocative. By using the words “Consent” and “Sexy” together, it implies, “Say yes! I’m easy! Do me!”–a message that is, or rather should be, the exact opposite of the V-Day campaign’s intended mission.

But perhaps it’s asking too much to suggest that a group affiliated with the V-Day campaign should work seriously to reduce sexual activity among unmarried youths. One of the campaign’s most prominent supporters is Planned Parenthood, which just issued a press release blasting President Bush’s bid to increase funding for abstinence education.

Absent from Planned Parenthood’s anti-abstinence campaign is any mention of a new study by three Centers for Disease Control researchers in the medical journal Sexually Transmitted Infections. The study reveals that more women die of cervical cancer–caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV), against which condoms offer no protection–than die of AIDS. Now, that’s violence against women–and its name is “consent.”

Examining American mortality data from 1998, the study found that while HIV killed 4,234 women, the leading cause of death for women was cervical cancer, claiming 4,921 lives. The researchers also calculated the disability-adjusted life years–the loss of healthy years of life–for victims of illnesses brought on by sexual behavior. They found that sexual behavior cost women 1,224,953 disability-adjusted life years while men came in at under one million.

Faced with such a high rate of death and illness from sexual diseases–particularly ones that, like HPV, are preventable only through abstinence and monogamy–the Planned Parenthood-led anti-abstinence stance betrays an agenda that steamrolls over any real concern for women’s health.

Meanwhile, The Vagina Monologues goes on this week at the University of

Washington and, according to Ensler, 650 other colleges worldwide, all for the purpose of raising awareness of violence against women and girls, with one bizarre exception to the message.

One of the show’s monologues, “The Little Coochie Snorcher That Could,” is spoken from the point of view of a formerly abused 16-year-old girl. She describes how a 24-year-old woman plied her with alcohol and brought her sexual healing. Apparently, consent is sexy, but consent from a drunken teenager is even sexier.

The University of Washington article lauds the student actresses of The Vagina Monologues for their lack of shame in “structuring a performance based on women talking about the ‘unnamed’ subject.” The real unnamed subject is abstinence, with all its benefits–including the prevention of cervical cancer. But don’t expect Eve Ensler to publicize that anytime soon. She’s too busy putting the “con” in “consensual.”

Dawn Eden blogs at “The Dawn Patrol.”

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