The DSU auditorium stage is warmly lit as nine readers take their places. Six sit at the back, binders in hand, quietly listening and following along as the other three stand front and center.
They are practicing for the well-known Eve Ensler play, “The Vagina Monologues.” Made up of a series of monologues that combine both humor and drama, the play has become notorious for its unapologetic discussion of socially taboo subjects dealing with women’s experiences with their bodies.
After scratching out a few jokes and changing a couple of lines to make them more locally relevant, Greensburg senior Katelyn Calhoun, Bowling Green alumna Kelly Fritz and Elizabethtown junior Alyssa Javier reach the end of their collaborative piece and open the play with a few cheeky jokes about vaginas.
“And around here, we call it the Bowling Green Massacre,” Calhoun said.
“The Kentucky sinkhole,” Fritz said.
“And the Lost River Cave,” Javier said.
Performing “The Vagina Monologues” is a long-running tradition at WKU. It has taken place every spring at WKU for the past decade. It is performed in April, which is “Sexual Assault Awareness Month.” And although many have heard about the event through word of mouth or simply know the title, few outside of this seasoned group know exactly what the play entails or even what purpose it serves.
“The Vagina Monologues is about the empowering of women through the vagina, which is a very stigmatized thing to talk about,” said Javier, who is not only acting but also serving as one of this year’s Vagina Monologues co-directors. “So we have stories about experiences with women and their vaginas … Just like everything that is very personal about the vagina that no woman gets to really talk about in public — it’s always like hushed tones. So this is a way to let women know that we experience the same thing as you all do.”
Fritz, who graduated from WKU in 2010 and was co-director of the event during her time as a student, said the monologues serve as a way to break down stigmas and start conversations.
“I think that in our society today people are afraid to talk,” Fritz said. “It’s like ‘vagina’ is a dirty word. But when you can talk about vaginas, then you can start other conversations. You can talk about women’s health. You can talk about consent. You can talk about abortion rights. And I think it’s important that a mixed audience gets to see it and feel more comfortable with it.”
The event also serves to raise awareness of sexual assault. The WKU event, specifically, raises funds for Hope Harbor.
Hope Harbor is a local, non-profit rape crisis center that helps victims of sexual assault get through their experiences by providing hospital visits, counseling and support. These services are all given free of charge to victims.
Kristi Branham, Gender and Women’s Studies Department director, said every dollar the event raises — through ticket sales, donations and baked goods — is given directly to Hope Harbor at the end of the night. None of the event’s proceeds are kept by the department or WKU.
However, even with the raised awareness and other benefits “The Vagina Monologues” brings, some students at other universities have taken a stand against the play. At Mount Holyoke College, for instance, students boycotted the play and created their own version after feeling that the monologues were not inclusive of enough experiences with regard to race, sexuality, and gender.
Although there has not been a boycott on WKU’s campus, the actors recognized some of the issues these students were protesting.
“We’re not trans-inclusive,” Javier said. “We try to be, but we’re not. There’s so little that we cover, and I feel like that’s the biggest issue — that we’re kind of ‘TERF-y.’”
In the LGBT+ community, “TERF” refers to “Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists,” or feminists who do not advocate for the rights of trans women.
Inclusivity is the very reason Owensboro sophomore Sam McCain chose to participate. Although “The Vagina Monologues” includes one monologue about a transgender woman, it was not going to be read this year due to low participation, McCain said. So, McCain stepped up to read the monologue to ensure others could hear it.
Other participants in the event also said they thought including that particular monologue was important, and even though diversity could and should be expanded in the future, the play itself is still inclusive.
Magnolia senior Amarah Reed, a first-time reader in the play, took it a step further when discussing the unity within the monologues.
“It’s for everyone in the community because everyone can be sexually assaulted,” Reed said. “We need to realize that sexual assault is still alive, and it is coming at you full force, especially with a president who can sexually assault a woman and brag about it and still be elected president. We’re all allies fighting against the same thing. We’re all fighting against sexual assault.”
More than anything though, all participants emphasized how powerful the event is.
“It brings different groups of people together,” McCain said. “This allows all different races, social classes, gender identities, to come together and learn about the experiences outside of their typical social sphere.”
To anyone who is nervous about attending, the readers stressed how welcoming the event is.
“What I would say to someone nervous about coming to ‘The Vagina Monologues’ is that we’re very welcoming,” Javier said. “For men, it can be kind of awkward hearing the stuff we’re talking about, but they have to realize this is what women go through.”
Ultimately, whatever nerves may exist for audience members, the key is awareness of sexual assault and fundraising for Hope Harbor.
“When we’re doing this thing, that’s all we think about is the victims who were assaulted,” Javier said. “We just want to give them a happy life, and by doing this, we raise enough money to help them get through their experience.”