Editor's note — This column contains language some readers might find offensive.
Imagine, you’re alone on a dark stage. You hear the blood pumping in your ears. The spotlight feels warm on your skin. The sound of soft shuffling and the occasional throat-clearing remind you that hundreds of people are in the audience, waiting for you to speak. You swallow, take a deep breath and say your first line.
This is not a bad dream. This is what I’ll be doing on Saturday night.
I’m a member of a group that uses the word “vagina” more than most gynecologists. I’m a performer in the University of Missouri’s eighth annual production of "The Vagina Monologues."
It all started in the mid-'90s when a woman named Eve Ensler noticed that she and her friends, despite all being women, rarely talked about vaginas. She began to ask questions about vaginas and waited patiently through the awkward silences that followed. What she found was an intricately rich tradition of stories that were sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes hilarious, but always about vaginas.
Ensler took her discovery to the streets, interviewing hundreds of women and recording the stories that emerged. She asked simple questions — What would your vagina wear? What does your vagina smell like? — and discovered stories about sex, love, rape, sexual abuse, menstruation, masturbation, female ejaculation, tampons, domestic violence, orgasms, pelvic exams and much, much more. She wrote the stories up and began performing them in a one-woman show, "The Vagina Monologues."
Today, Ensler’s show has developed into a full-fledged movement. Thousands of productions of the monologues will show around the world this year as part of V-Day, a global movement to end violence against women. In Columbia, our production of the monologues raises thousands of dollars for the Shelter and the L.E.A.D. institute, resources for survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence. In 10 years, the V-Day movement as a whole has raised more than $60 million, according to the V-Day Web site.
I’d never seen "The Vagina Monologues" or heard of V-Day when I auditioned for the first time four years ago, but I knew I desperately needed to take a stand against the violence against women I saw here. I was only two weeks into my freshman year of college when a friend was raped. It was the first time I’d been confronted with the overwhelming idea that men in my city wanted to hurt my friends and me simply because we were women.
And it didn’t stop. Throughout that semester, more women I knew were raped, beaten or assaulted by a partner, friend or stranger. I tried to comfort my friends and educate those around me, but I never felt like I could do enough to stop the violence I saw. I felt powerless and scared. When someone posted a flier in my dorm for "The Vagina Monologues" auditions, I realized I didn’t have to be alone in my fight. For four years now, I’ve been a member of a group of women who dedicate their lives to fighting for women all around the world.
As a freshman, I performed a monologue about reclaiming the word “cunt,” a beautiful word to describe the vagina that has been twisted and manipulated into an insult. The next year, I joined three other women to talk about menarche, or a girl’s first period, as a powerful, transformative experience. Last year, I told the story of a woman who hated her body and her vagina because no one had never explained to her that she was a female ejaculator. This year, I’ll take on the role of a prostitute who works exclusively with women to bring them deep, powerful orgasms.
Every year, during the show’s final monologue, all the women in the cast stand on stage and hold hands behind the performers. For our audience, our stance represents the unification of all women — all people — dedicating their lives to ending gendered violence. For us cast members, it’s our last chance to make a stand together before dispersing into the waiting arms of friends and family who came to see us.
As for me, I’ll cherish that final stand more than any other — my last act as a "Vagina Monologuer." And years from now, when I feel overwhelmed and alone, when I’m scared there’s nothing I can do to make an impact in the lives of women, I’ll think back to this final show, to standing hand-in-hand, connected, with the powerful, brilliant and passionate women of Mizzou.
They will be my reason to keep fighting.
Lindsay Toler is a four-year cast member for the Vagina Monologues and a volunteer for the Shelter, where she works in hospitals with survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence. She is a former reporter and copy editor for the Missourian.