The Vagina Monologues, as part of the national VDAY campaign founded by Eve Ensler, claims it will continue "until the violence stops". This year with VDAY's newest campaign, 1 Billion Rising, the message is stronger than ever with the powerful UN statistic that 1 in 3 women in the world will be subject to violence at some point in her lifetime. The success of the Vagina Monologues on campus and the overwhelming support of over 500 attendees sent a clear message: Colgate cares, and Colgate also wants to end this international war on women. Colgate wants the violence to stop.
...but what does that mean? What constitutes violence? And how does one translate the desire to end violence to action? How far away or close to home are these statistics and what are the faces of these women we are helping?
These are the questions posed at the Vaginas Against Violence brown bag which took place earlier in February in the Center for WMST with panelists from the cast of Vagina Monologues. The first portion of the brown bag was spent dechipering what constitutes a violent act. To illuminate the complexity of the issue, the panelists asked the audience to determine whether the following were instances of violence or not:
- domestic violence - rape - name calling - Female Genital Mutilation - sterilization - BDSM - sex trafficking - prostitution - vaginal cosmetic surgery
Some of these were more obvious instances of violence (ex. domestic violence which quite literally has the word "violence" in its title) while others were met with more mixed reactions. Some audience participants debated whether instances of cosmetic surgery or prostitution should be considered violence against women's bodies because they seem to involve more "personal agency and choice". On the other hand, voluntary and consentual instances of BDSM were not considered to be instances of violence despite the physical impact it has on the body. It became clear "violence" is strongly tied to issues of consent and personal choice (or rather, the lack there of).
However, to add another layer of complexity, how do we distinguish between personal choice on an individual versus systemic basis? Especially in our privileged social location at Colgate, it's easy to understand why Female Genital Mutilation in Africa is a form of violence against women's bodies, but what about middle class women in western nations who voluntarily choose to get their labia reduced via vaginal cosmetic surgery? What forms of cultural constraints are those women subject to? Even with this seemingly personal decision, how much control do women in the latter case really have over their bodies and bodily satisfaction? This is not to say that vaginal cosmetic surgery as a whole should be written off as an act of violence - that would be reductionist and discounting the agnecy that does go into such decisions - but it certainly complicates the issue of consent and personal choice.
If anything can be concluded from the first part of this brown bag, it is that there is that violence is not a black and white issue, it is not easily categorized, and it has many different faces.
But what can we do? When the topic of "violence" seems so vast and never ending, how does one act as an activist against it?
EDUCATION: dispel myths about violence, educate others and educate yourself. Find out what resources your local community has to offer. Victims of Violence is an excellent local resource for survivors of assault that provide a 24 hour hotline.
AWARENESS: the biggest fuel for violence is SILENCE, don't be silent! This does not have to happen on a large scale, even talking to close friends and family will help to destigmatize.
SPEAK UP IN ANY WAY YOU CAN: write poetry, share an article, make art, make this issue VISIBLE.
Break the silence so we can end the violence.
- Christina Liu '13