V for Vendetta

Free Cupid! The plea was repeated today on fliers spread around the campuses of the University of Missouri-Columbia, Arizona State, and a handful of other colleges across the country. The image? A cherub shackled to a ball and chain, head hung low, weeping. The culprit? The Vagina Monologues.

"The V-Day movement is about taking away Valentine's Day, the one day a year used to celebrate every form of love, in the name of stopping domestic violence," Amber Hanneken, president of the University of Missouri campus Republican group, told the student newspaper.

As if! To Hanneken, talking about violence against women on Valentine's Day is a total buzz kill. Today is a day that's supposed to be about Hallmark, diamonds, and the Whitman's Sampler. How can true romance flourish if you're raising awareness of domestic and dating violence while bluntly discussing your ladyparts?

Hanneken is part of a counter-campaign, run by the conservative group the Independent Women's Forum, to "Take Back the Date." The program, whose title mocks anti-violence "Take Back the Night" marches, implores student to reject the vulgarity of the "v-word" and initiate a return to a more chivalrous era.

The Vagina Monologues have always provoked controversy. When Eve Ensler first performed the play off-off-Broadway more than a decade ago, The New York Times didn't want to accept ads for the show. (The paper later reversed its position after it was pointed out that it had published a review of the play that said, "Sex just doesn't get funnier, or more poignant.") In 1998, a celebrity-studded Valentine's Day fundraising performance was the first V-Day, which later became an official organization dedicated to ending violence against women. This year the play will be performed on hundreds of college campuses across the country, where, especially on Catholic campuses, it will be met with protests.

It's only within the past few years that campaigns like IWF's "Take Back the Date" and the Claire Boothe Luce Policy Institute's "V-Day Unveiled" have gained media attention for their efforts to "reclaim" the traditional Valentine's Day date, which is apparently endangered. Forget what every jewelry commercial, greeting card, and women's magazine has been telling you for the past few weeks: Cupid is on life support, and it's up to college students to save him with candlelit dinners.

These outfits acknowledge that V-Day festivities bring in money for a good cause, but they ask students to raise money for local domestic violence shelters by hosting date nights and selling roses. IWF's campus coordinator Allison Kasic described such a fundraiser in a recent podcast: "Their money wasn't tainted. It was raised in a very positive, romantic way. Boys from the conservative club delivered all the flowers on Valentine's Day in tuxedos, in formal attire. It was this very retro-chivalrous atmosphere around the event." Flowers not your thing? Alternately, Kasic suggests, "I highly encourage you to sponsor a shooting class."

The Claire Booth Luce Policy Institute suggests ignoring all the vagina-talk at the Monologues, and instead honoring men by hosting a "Chivalry Rocks / Take Back the Love" event featuring a "knight-time scavenger hunt." Winners receive a "Proud to be a gentleman" badge or button. One can only imagine the criteria for being a campus-conservative-approved Trojan man.

The group's "V-Day Unveiled" fliers say, "V is for VALENTINE. Stop the insanity and bring back the love. Because men aren't monsters & real women look up." I'm assuming that means "gaze adoringly up at your man rather than look down at your vagina," but who says you can't do both? It bears mentioning that the play does not take 14 hours to perform. Surely there's plenty of time for students to see their campus production of the Vagina Monologues and have a romantic dinner afterward.

Not so, writes IWF's Carrie Lukas: "The hyper-sexualization of V-Day directly opposes the romance associated with Valentine's Day. It replaces the idea of courtship (flowers and candy and maybe even a candlelight dinner) with women chanting the names of what used to be their private parts."

The idea that a play featuring women's ruminations on their bodies and sexuality is at odds with "true romance" is deeply disturbing. Personally, I have numerous problems with the Monologues, but one valuable thing about the play is that it communicates to young college-age women, many of whom aren't self-identified feminists or women's studies majors, that it's okay to talk about their bodies, to explore their sexuality. I fail to understand how this -- a frank discussion of women's physical selves -- and romance are mutually exclusive.

Moreover, I would argue that women being knowledgeable and vocal about their own bodies does indeed help curb violence. Women who "find empowerment by embracing their vaginas," as the IWF scornfully describes it, recognize and are comfortable talking about what they want (and don't want) to do with their bodies. While certainly not every acquaintance rape could be prevented by simple assertiveness, such women may be less likely to sit silently and demurely as "heavy petting" turns to full-on rape. A woman who is comfortable talking about her body may also have an easier time reporting such an incident and seeking help afterward.

The "chivalrous" dating practices venerated by IWF thrive on outmoded, restrictive gender roles and an inherently lopsided power dynamic. This type of dating has always placed the onus on women not only to suppress their own sexual urges, but also to control those of their male suitors. In her book, From the Front Porch to the Back Seat: Courtship in Twentieth Century America, Beth L. Bailey reminds us that the courtship system "took for granted that men would naturally want some form of sexual activity," and "in order to control and limit sexual expression, the woman had to have absolute veto power over her male partner ... By the logic of the system all unsanctioned sexual acts were the woman's fault: either she had not set limits or she was not truly virtuous."

Sounds remarkably similar to modern conservative rhetoric, the sort of stereotypes perpetuated by abstinence-only programs. Groups like IWF still believe that all women are to be pure, the sexual gatekeepers, while men are little more than animals unable to control their sexuality. As Genevieve Wood of the Heritage Foundation has said, "What we ought to be doing is trying to raise men's standards on sex, not bringing women's down to where men's are. I think that's what this kind of stuff has done. That's why we have the one-night stands. Because women are acting like men."

This is at the heart of why conservative groups hate V-Day. Not because they're truly offended by the word "vagina," but because the play is a public display that women, too, are sexual beings -- a stance that's at odds with traditional gender roles. By advocating a return to chivalry, IWF wants to restore a pre-feminist power dynamic. Their solution for ending violence against women is in step with popular thinking of 50 years ago: A 1960 Datebook guide to teen dating informed girls ominously, "Act like a lady, and you'll be treated like one." In other words, display a lack of embarrassment about your own body, and you're asking for it. To save Cupid, you must keep your legs closed and your mouth shut -- except to say, "Thank you for the flowers."

Ann Friedman is associate web editor of the Prospect. Her biweekly column usually appears on Thursdays. She also blogs at Feministing.com.

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