Topic: Professions & Institutions

The Vagina Dialogues

One unfortunate consequence of school administrators across the nation periodically over-reacting to student conduct is that their judgement has lost all credibility with the media and school critics. This has occurred to such an extent that school decisions on student discipline which would have caused nary a ripple a few short years ago now receive national scrutiny.

Two female students at Winona Senior High School in Minnesota have been sporting buttons that say “I [heart] My Vagina.” School officials ruled that the buttons are offensive (fancy that!) and have forbidden the girls from wearing them. Despite repeated threats of suspension and expulsion, one student, Carrie Rethlefsen, has continued to wear her button. Wonder of wonders, Minnesota’s ACLU has offered its assistance in the looming battle between the button-wearing girls and the school.

Who’s in the right here? Are you kidding me? It’s no contest: the school has the conduct properly pegged as offensive, inconsiderate of others, uncivil and potentially dangerous. As far as the students are concerned, wearing the buttons is naïve at best and arrogant, inconsiderate and reckless at worst.

“We can’t really find out what is inappropriate about it,” says head button-rebel Rethlefsen. “I don’t think banning things like that is appropriate.” After all, she says, she is only wearing the button to raise awareness about women’s issues.

The Ethics Scoreboard will endeavor to enlighten Ms.Rethlefsen and her allies.

To begin with, “I (heart) My Vagina” has to be one of the most inarticulate statements to “raise awareness of women’s issues” ever devised. Just because she says that’s its purpose doesn’t change the clear meaning and implication of the words themselves, and the words themselves could strike a rational person (or an irrational teenaged male) as just a salacious sexual come-on. Amazingly, many newspapers that ran this story included a parenthetical note that “I (heart) My Vagina” was “inspired by the play The Vagina Monologues” as if this somehow elevated the status of the button’s message. Utter nonsense. It is not as if Eve Ensler’s cult one woman show is so well known that the association is obvious or even apparent. Jim Peacock’s usually rational and fair website “” even goes so far as to headline this story,”Vagina Monologue buttons forbidden at Minnesota school.” That is (sorry, Jim) both intellectually dishonest and unfair. The buttons are only Vagina Monologue buttons to someone familiar with the play, which means, I would guess, about 15% of Americans generally, less than 5% of males, and a fraction of 1% of teenaged boys. And this isn’t “To be or not to be, that is the question” we are talking about here; someone isn’t going to read the button and wonder, “Gee, what play is that a quote from?”

But even if it was obvious to everyone seeing these buttons that “I (heart) My Vagina” was inspired by The Vagina Monologues…so what? Who decreed that a vulgar phrase suddenly loses its vulgarity because it can trace its origin to a work of drama or literature? How about a button that reads “F*** you, you c***-s*****! (with the asterisks removed for the proper letters, of course) that is “inspired by David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross” (or anything by David Mamet, come to think of it.) That makes it OK to wear it in a school? Does anyone really and truly think that way, and if so, when did they escape?

Next: let’s look some of the values that the button violates:

Civility. That is an ethical value that makes the interaction among people in a society easier and more pleasant. There are few ideas or thoughts that cannot be effectively communicated in a civil manner, and ethical people consider civility when public discourse is involved. If the students want to promote awareness of women’s issues, they should do so in a civil manner, and it is both responsible and essential that the school remind them of that.

Respect. Some, indeed many people regard verbal and graphic references to sexual organs and acts discomfiting and offensive. Their sensibilities should be respected: they are not unreasonable.

Responsibility. Two seconds of thought should have told the students that the buttons would stir up a hornet’s nest that had nothing to do with women’s issues, and three more seconds should have been able to cause them to anticipate what the next wave of buttons could bring: male students wearing: “I (heart) Your Vagina, Too!” “Let ME (heart) Your Vagina!” “If You (heart) Your Vagina, Just Wait Until You Meet My Penis!”

Etc. And yes, the Minnesota ACLU would undoubtedly think these are “political statements” too.

Citizenship. Caring about one’s social unit and obeying its rules make up an important ethical value. Setting out to disrupt an environment and undermine its rules without a very good reason (and good reasons do not include promoting an over-hyped Broadway play or displaying a sexually provocative message to make an incomprehensible political statement) is unethical.

Caring, Proportionality, Consideration… oh the list of basic ethical values the girls have chosen to ignore in order to disrupt their school with this stunt goes on and on.

That hasn’t stopped Charles Samuelson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, from talking as if Carrie Rethlefsen is Patrick Henry reincarnated. “Free speech is a messy thing,” he has intoned. “People need to understand that opinions that they are not comfortable with, or even opinions they disagree with, need to be allowed.”

That’s fine, sir, if that had anything to do with the matter at hand. I’m sure Carrie and her friend love their vaginas. I think it’s great that they love their vaginas, and I certainly don’t disagree with their right to love their vaginas…if I had one, I’m sure I’d love it too,


Without common sense, ethical conduct is very difficult indeed.


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