Gender Violence & State Violence: Reflections on the Vagina Monologues

by ursavoice

Andrea Smith
J.D. Candidate 2013, UCI Law

The Vagina Monologues has had a powerful impact on promoting public conversations about women’s sexuality. At the same time, it has created controversy because of its lack of an intersectional analysis of how gender also collides with race, class, colonialism, etc. It is not that women of color are not depicted in the Vagina Monologues. It is that their portrayal reinforces the idea of the oppressed “third world” woman in order to create a fiction of global sisterhood, rather than looking at the complexity of how gender violence is also used to serve the interests of white supremacy, colonialism and capitalism.

I remember seeing the story of a Native woman who talks about her particular experience of violence. In that story, the woman talks about the abuse she suffered from her husband, but the story about how gender violence became an epidemic in Native communities is absent from the narrative. In particular, gender violence in Native communities is the result of settler colonialism. Sexual violence was a central strategy of colonialism. For example, Native massacres were always accompanied by sexual violence and mutilation. Soldiers cut off the breasts of Navajo women during the Long Walk and played ball with them. They also cut off the genitals of Native women and men during the Sand Creek Massacre and made saddle pouches with them. The goal was not just to kill Native peoples, but also to kill their humanity. Sexual violence was designed to render Native peoples as inherently rapable, and by extension their lands inherently invadable and their resources inherently extractable.

Sexual violence later became institutionalized in Native communities through United States boarding school policies. During the 19th century and into the 20th century, American Indian children were forcibly abducted from their homes to attend Christian and U.S. government-run boarding schools as a matter of state policy. The boarding school system became formalized under Grant’s Peace Policy of 1869-1870. The goal was to turn over the administration of Indian reservations to Christian denominations. As part of this policy, Congress set aside funds to erect school facilities to be run by churches and missionary societies. These facilities were a combination of day and boarding schools erected on Indian reservations.

Then, in 1879, Richard Pratt founded the first off-reservation boarding school, Carlisle. Pratt argued that as long as boarding schools were primarily situated on reservations, 1) it would be too easy for children to run away from school, and 2) the efforts to assimilate Indian children into boarding schools would be reversed when children returned home to their families during the summer. He proposed a policy where children would be taken far from their homes at an early age and not returned to their homes until they were young adults. By 1909, there were 25 off-reservation boarding schools, 157 on-reservation boarding schools, and 307 day schools in operation. The stated rationale of the policy was to “kill the Indian and save the man.”

Administrators of these schools ran them as inexpensively as possible. Children were given inadequate food and medical care. In addition, they were often forced to do grueling work in order to raise money for the schools and salaries for the teachers and administrators. As a result, children routinely died in mass numbers from starvation and disease. Overcrowding within the schools contributed to the widespread disease and death. But attendance at these boarding schools was mandatory, and children were forcibly taken from their homes for the majority of the year. They were forced to worship as Christians and speak English (native traditions and languages were prohibited).     

Sexual, physical, and emotional abuse was rampant at these schools. However, boarding schools refused to investigate, even when students publicly accused their teachers. In 1987, the FBI found that one teacher at a Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) Hopi day school in Arizona had sexually abused over 142 boys, but the school’s principal had never investigated the allegations of abuse. Another teacher, J.D. Todd, taught at a BIA school on the Navajo Reservation until twelve children came forward with allegations of molestation. Additionally, between 1971-1985 Paul Price taught at a North Carolina BIA school before he was arrested for assaulting boys. In all cases before teachers were arrested, the BIA supervisors ignored complaints from parents about the teachers. And in one case, an individual admitted on his job application that he had previously been arrested for child sexual abuse. He was hired by the Kaibito Boarding School on the Navajo Reservation anyway, and was later convicted of sexual abuse against Navajo students.

Despite the epidemic of sexual abuse in boarding schools, the Bureau of Indian Affairs did not issue a policy on reporting sexual abuse until 1987 and did not issue a policy to strengthen the background checks of potential teachers until 1989. The Indian Child Protection Act was passed in 1990 to provide a registry for sexual offenders in Indian country, mandate a reporting system, provide rigid guidelines for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Indian Heath Service for doing background checks on prospective employees, and provide education to parents, school officials, and law enforcement on how to recognize sexual abuse. However, this law was never sufficiently funded or implemented, and child sexual abuse rates continue dramatically to increase in Indian country while remaining stable for the general population. Sexual predators know they can abuse Indian children with impunity. While not all Native peoples see their boarding school experiences as negative, it is generally the case that much if not most of the gender violence in Native communities can be traced to the boarding school era.

The limitation of the Vagina Monologues depiction of gender violence is that it fails to look at how it has operated as a tool of racism and colonialism. The implied solutions to violence against indigenous women and women of color tend to be what Gayatri Spivak terms “saving brown women from brown men” rather than addressing how the state itself is the primary perpetrator of violence against women of color. As Beth Richie notes in her important, recently released book, Arrested Justice, the solutions to gender violence based on this narrow framework have focused on increased use of state violence in the form of the criminal justice system as the primary solution for addressing gender violence. Anti-violence organizations have relied on the criminal justice system without looking at how this reliance has strengthened the prison industrial complex that is brutally oppressive to communities of color. Consequently, in the name of ending violence, we have proposed policies that have endangered the lives of women of color rather than freed their lives from violence. Furthermore, because prisons are an ineffective means of reducing crime, as a plethora of studies have found, our law-enforcement strategies have not reduced gender violence. Fortunately, there are increasingly more anti-violence organizations such as the Audre Lorde Project, Creative Interventions, Incite! Women of Color Against Violence, and the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, which recognize that we cannot address gender violence without simultaneously address state violence.