by Michael Bowen
Yes, they advocate masturbation, open discussion of sexual desire and lesbian love. But they also put incest, sexual abuse, rape and clitoridectomy under the spotlight. Oh, and there are a few four-letter words.
Political, or merely pornographic? Valuable, or vice-ridden? They're lining up and taking sides over these questions at Gonzaga, clinging to their opinions about
The Vagina Monologues like, well, bulldogs.
Bringing the Monologues to the Gonzaga University community has proven arduous. The Women's Studies Club, particularly advisor Cate Siejk and student leader Krista Benson, have been working since last April to arrange an on-campus production, over the objections of the top administrators advising Gonzaga President Father Robert Spitzer.
The administration didn't want the production to use Gonzaga's resources directly or to be identified with the University as a whole; and they would not permit any performances on campus. The Women's Studies group responded that, the further off-campus the production was exiled, the less likely student attendance became, because of accessibility and transportation issues.
A compromise was worked out: the production could go forward, as long as it appeared under the aegis of the Women's Studies Club and without any affiliation to the University proper. Performances could take place adjacent to campus at the WestCoast River Inn.
While other Catholic universities -- Santa Clara and Georgetown among them -- have staged on-campus productions of The Vagina Monologues, and while every other single college or university with a campus organization has been listed on the V-Day Web site as being affiliated, Gonzaga stands as the sole exception on both counts.
The University appears to be making four claims: 1. The content of the Vagina Monologues is pornographic; 2. The play's content isn't in keeping with the University's mission statement; 3. V-Day, the organization that oversees productions of VM on college campuses all over the country, has sponsorship links with Planned Parenthood, a pro-choice organization; 4. Gonzaga is not committing an act of censorship that violates academic freedom standards; instead, it is simply refusing to sponsor an event clearly antithetical to Catholic teaching.
In response to the charge of obscenity, philosophy professor Mark Alfino argues that, if restrictions on sexual content are enforced, he "won't be able to create symposia and events on campus." Siejk, a Religious Studies professor and the director of the Women's Studies Program, makes a similar point when she says that restricting certain topics "will get ridiculous. I mean, there's sex, there are murders in Shakespeare." She continues, "You can't claim to be open to intellectual inquiry and then make a decision about what that will be."
The Gonzaga Mission Statement speaks of the "free intellectual inquiry characteristic of a university," and of providing "for our students some understanding of... the ideological differences that separate the peoples of the world."
In a Feb. 8 commentary in the campus newspaper, The Gonzaga Bulletin, philosophy professor Tim Clancy -- himself a Jesuit -- asserted that, far from being out of line with the university's stated goals, performance of the Monologues "embodies precisely what it means for us to be a Catholic university." Catholicism, says Clancy, "has never understood itself as something separate from the rest of life," and what more urgent issue for involvement than violence against women?
Similarly, Gonzaga's Catholic mission and pro-life stance explain its opposition to Planned Parenthood.
Jason Hagglund, president of the GU College Republicans, says that "Planned Parenthood's raison d'etre is clearly in conflict with the Catholic message on abortion, which is the most significant social justic issue in the church."
Alfino, who will debate engage Father Spitzer in a public debate on Monday, wants to place the Monologues controversy in the larger context of the conflict between alleged censorship and academic freedom.
"It's been billed as a debate," he remarks, "but it's really an opportunity to carry out a discussion about academic freedom. It's important to remember that the Catholic Church has endorsed academic freedom in various pronouncements."
Alfino adds that Spitzer discussed this topic in a faculty assembly last November, which Alfino followed up with an unmoderated e-mail exchange among faculty members. "A huge majority disagreed with the president," he says.
Hagglund defends Father Spitzer's position. "The major thing to grasp here is that there is no real censorship taking place. The students to whom the VM's are valuable can always gather informally and speak their peace. It's not as if Fr. Spitzer has the place bugged... Academic freedom is really a non-issue as far as The Vagina Monologues are concerned."
But academic freedom is the larger issue in the minds of many on campus, and the Gonzaga-Vagina controversy is likely to crop up next year and remain unresolved. Asked if the Gonzaga administration might prove more receptive in the future, Siejk laughs dryly and says, "I think that's an immovable rock. I just can't imagine there'd be an openness to this sort of thing."