The Providence College monologues

Below is a commentary by Rev. Brian J. Shanley, O.P., Ph.D., which appeared on May 11, 2006 in the opinion-editorial pages of The Providence Journal.

Providence College was subjected to intense national media scrutiny this past winter because of my decision to forbid the theatrical production of The Vagina Monologues on our campus. One criticism was that my decision demonstrated a lack of commitment to educate students about the ugly reality of sexual violence against women.

In making my decision, I refused to accept that The Vagina Monologues was the single litmus test for determining whether we were committed to educating about and eradicating this particular offense to human dignity. I envisioned a better way for us to achieve this goal, and recently the Providence College community devoted five days to educational programming about sexual assault and violence against women, known by the acronym Project SAVE. While no one from the media judged what we did worthy of note, I think it was.

We opened the week by sharing a meal and then celebrating Mass. By opening with prayer, we acknowledged both the element of sin involved in the commission of sexual assault and the need for God’s grace to heal those who have been victimized by sexual violence. In the days that followed, we offered workshops on women’s safety and self-defense, on understanding sexual assault, on how women are often portrayed as sexual objects in the media, and on how to have healthy relationships.

We sponsored two one-woman theatrical productions dramatizing different aspects of sexual violence. The first, A Rose by Any Other Name, drew upon the experience of the performer and others, illustrating what it is like for a woman to bring a rapist to trial. The second, The Yellow Dress, dramatized an abusive relationship that ends in deadly violence. After each production, there was a discussion led by the performers.

Two exhibits that hauntingly portrayed sexual violence against women were prominently displayed throughout the week. Our students sold T-shirts and bracelets that, combined with other fundraising efforts, yielded a substantial sum, which has been donated to local agencies serving women affected by sexual and domestic violence.

The culminating event was an evening outdoor gathering, “Take Back the Night.” At that event a number of women in our community courageously shared personal stories about how sexual violence has affected their lives. With sadness, mourning, and outrage, their monologues narrated powerful stories that also bore witness to healing and hope. Because these women are our sisters, their stories aroused in us deep sadness for their pain, deep admiration for their strength in sharing their experiences with us, and deep determination to prevent that kind of suffering in others.

As I listened to these monologues, I found myself alternately crying in sadness, marveling at the courage of our women students, and praying to God for their healing.

This extraordinary time on our campus brought together as one family those who had stood on both sides of my decision on The Vagina Monologues. Instead of politicizing violence against women by linking it to other causes, we acknowledged it as the sad and sinful reality that it is. We worked and prayed for healing. We educated about the causes and the consequences of sexual violence. We helped those who are survivors. And I hope we may have prevented future violence.

We know, however, that one Project SAVE is not enough. Working to eradicate sexual violence is something that we must do continuously. We recently announced a new, comprehensive sexual-misconduct policy, because we also know that it is not enough to educate — there must also be clear rules to ensure that victims have recourse to both healing and justice.

It is difficult to determine the frequency of sexual assault on our campus, because many victims do not report their assault. Some are ashamed, some do not believe they will be taken seriously, and some have memories impaired by the alcohol abuse that is usually associated with sexual assault on college campuses.

All our educational efforts are guided by core Catholic convictions about the intrinsic dignity of the human person and about the sacred significance of human sexuality. Sexual violence violates both the dignity of women and the God-given meaning of human sexuality, as ordered to mutual love and the gift of life. It belongs to the mission of a Catholic college to approach sexual violence within this larger moral context.

I am proud of what our campus accomplished through Project SAVE. We did not do what was PC in the sense of “politically correct” but, rather, what was PC as in “Providence College.” One of the strengths of higher education in America is a wide variety of institutions with different missions. We approached the problem of sexual violence against women in a way that was consonant with Providence College’s identity as a Catholic and Dominican institution.

We would not expect every college or university to do exactly what we did but, rather, we encourage others to do what accords with their own unique mission. Trusting in God’s loving providence, we will continue to strive to live up to our own.