When Cultural Divergence Involves Sex, All Bets Are Off

While most of us try to respect the belief systems of other cultures, it’s not something that comes naturally.  It requires effort.  My experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in India taught me that embracing cultural differences in theory is infinitely easier than embracing them in practice.  And not to indulge in wild generalizations, but the recent sexual assault of CBS New correspondent Lara Logan, in Egypt, is a case in point.

India was an impressive, wonderfully diverse country, and my two years there were, without question, the most memorable and developmentally important period of my life.  But to a group of 22-year old Americans, India was shockingly alien.  The sights, the sounds, the food, the languages, their sense of time and space, all of it.  And it was decidedly different in regard to sexual customs.  In fact, sex, as a component of human nature, didn’t seem to exist.

As repressed or “puritanical” as Indian society seemed to be, sex was a popular discussion item among the men.  Whether it was professors at the local college, students, our neighbors, co-workers, the guy at the tea stall, our bosses in the Irrigation Department, whoever—once they got to know us well, they invariably wanted to discuss U.S. sexual mores.  Specifically, they wanted to know if what they’d heard about American women was true.

There were many related questions (some of which were bizarre), but these seemed to be the Big Three:  (1)  Is it true that most American brides aren’t virgins?  (2)  Is it true that women commonly engage in sex with men they not only don’t intend to marry, but men they barely know?  And (3) is it true that American men have no problem allowing these shameless, sluttish sex pigs to be the mothers of their children?

Because the Peace Corps, at least in those days, was still seen as this noble experiment in bringing together people from disparate cultures, the last thing we wanted to do was antagonize our hosts by getting into a pissing match with them.  Still, it was clear that these guys had absolutely no idea what the U.S. was all about.  Moreover, through ignorance or cultural arrogance, they had insulted American womanhood.  And whether motivated by pride, chivalry or the need to educate, we felt it our duty to defend it.

There’s no point drawing this out, so I’ll fast-forward to the end.  Nothing we said mattered.  None of our attempts to explain to these people the tenets of a sexually liberated society made the slightest bit of difference.  I can’t emphasize this enough.  They didn’t accept any part of  it. And I’m not speaking only of the uneducated (shop keepers, rickshaw drivers, cultivators); this also represented the view of professionals (academics, engineers, accountants, artists, journalists).

Not only did the Indians not think their country was sexually repressed, they thought the exact opposite; they considered their sexual attitudes to be morally “perfect.”  Their sexual morality was perfect and ours was a teeming cesspool.  That we American men would willingly take these “tainted” women as our wives was shocking enough, but that we’d wish them to be the mothers of our children struck them as insane.

We should have been prepared for this, but we weren’t.  Despite more or less knowing in advance what to expect (during training we’d learned that there was no courtship in India, no dating, no pornography, very little divorce, no kissing shown on movie screens, etc.), the extent to which the Indians reviled American sexual mores came as a genuine shock.  Maybe we were more naïve than we thought, but their disapproval was mind-boggling.

Which brings us to Lara Logan.  The fact that a mob of Egyptian men would grope her, tear at her clothing, beat her, attempt to sexually assault her, was all too predictable.  Let’s be clear:  No one is making excuses for their actions.  What they did was not only reprehensible, it was illegal under Egyptian law.  Indeed, these assailants have already been disgraced, roundly criticized by their own countrymen.

But because cultural sovereignty counts for everything, these Egyptians undoubtedly saw Logan as a shameless, fuck-happy Western woman commingling with a group of men.  That’s what they saw.  Accordingly, groping her didn’t seem entirely illogical.  Also, it would be a mistake to label their act a purely sexual one.  Given their pristine view of womanhood, it was a form of punishment.

David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and author (It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor), was a former union rep. He can be reached at: dmacaray@earthlink.net. Read other articles by David.

18 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. bozh said on February 23rd, 2011 at 9:30am #

    it is not sexual behavior that matters to me. what matters to me is that it is practised with full respect for each other. and particularly in marriage.
    the hell with love at first, second or any other site but full steam ahead to respect for each other and their children.
    love is not a thing but a process. first act in a humane way. be civilized. ask, don’t demand!
    alas, no school teaches kids to first of all respect self and others. schools actually teach brutality, incivility, supremacism, etc! tnx

  2. MichaelKenny said on February 23rd, 2011 at 9:46am #

    Respect is the key word. Evening assuming that this happened and that it wasn’t an Israeli black op, this woman should have known her “beat” and therefore, known how to dress and conduct herself in a way that didn’t give offense. European female reporters are very careful in that regard: head always covered, no tight-fitting or unbutoned clothes, standing alone in front of the camera, never in the middle of a crowd of men etc. All that is just good manners. In other words, if Lara Logan was so utterly ignorant of how to behave in public in Egypt, how reliable is her reporting? One might add that it was very unwise of the network to send a white South African to a place like Egypt.

  3. penelope said on February 23rd, 2011 at 11:18am #

    bozh “alas, no school teaches kids to first of all respect self and others. ”

    your statement is so obviously absurd it is difficult to know where to begin – but the summary is: you are visiting the wrong schools – visit any of the thousands of typical schools where decent, courteous behavior is basic to the curriculum.

  4. bozh said on February 23rd, 2011 at 11:50am #

    penelope,
    why don’t u and u.s. children visit iraq, gaza, and afgh’n and u’d find how u.s. children [and adults who were also once children] treat children of those lands. with uttter carelessness-disdain-hate-disregard of their right to live or not be maimed! that well they are educated! tnx

  5. commoner3 said on February 23rd, 2011 at 12:17pm #

    This is a very excellent educational article for would be US travellers abroad.
    It is an invaluable advice to know and show respect , even feigned respect, for the culture and customs of the country the traveller is visiting.
    Any naive or arrogant traveller who ignores, disrespects or try to teach the “natives” how “absurd their customs and culture are”, might get a very painful surprise.

  6. kalidasa said on February 23rd, 2011 at 4:21pm #

    Forgive me for not being deductive or perhaps over deductive, but isn’t the answer to all three questions YES? (just the facts ma’am)

    OK, #3 answer could have been answered sans the adjectives but the point (answer) remains the same, does it not?

    If so, why do you say “Still, it was clear that these guys had absolutely no idea what the U.S. was all about.”?

    Three out of three is batting 1,000 is it not?

    And since the 1 and the 0 ( zero) originated in that oh so alien culture I imagine there are 1 or even 2 other alien but nonetheless correct (sans the adjectives) thoughts these folks might also proffer.

  7. Maien said on February 23rd, 2011 at 6:44pm #

    Very sad to learn that the author believes , “sex, as a component of human nature, didn’t seem to exist.” I would hope that one would accept that even here, communication styles would differ. Perhaps it would have made a difference to speak with women. Or watch some dance. Or upgrade your observation skills.

    Simply because other cultures are not as open or as loud as North Americans does not mean they are unconscious. There might be actual reasons for why America specifically has the nickname of ‘the vulgarians’ in european and eastern lands. Perhaps next time you are in India or anywhere… it would be worthwhile to ask new questions as you explore.

  8. hayate said on February 23rd, 2011 at 8:30pm #

    There is a lot of assumptions in this useless piece. The guy is mostly talking out of his arse. I noticed he didn’t mention any conversations with any Indian women (he didn’t mention a lot of other things he should have, but I’ll limit this to that). Did he? The reason I mention this is because I have. Some were very “conservative” about sexual matters, some were very “liberal”. It all depended on who one talked to, their background, their beliefs, a lot of things. What macaray is doing here is generalising about a people in the same manner to which he objected was generalised about americans (there are much more variations in Indian cultures than in the usa). And he has no clue that he is doing this or that it is a supremacist attitude he is expressing. IE: he reinforces the view people around the world have of american cultural ignorance and american’s extraordinarily anal cultural supremacist attitudes.

    This is the sort of piece one finds in the Jewish run, zionist corporate media, because it reinforces negative stereotypes of “forunners” which the Jewish zionists love to use to maintain cultural distrust, misunderstanding and animosity. All of which works to ziofascist advantage. Divide and conquer. I’m afraid that now when I see an article authored by macaray, I’ll probably pass on reading it. Seen one ugly american, you’ve seen them all. I have lived amonst them most my life, I see no point wasting time reading their asinine shite.

  9. jayn0t said on February 24th, 2011 at 5:07am #

    Macaray is right. My experience of India, Egypt and several other countries is similar. Macaray isn’t defending the ‘corporate media’, he’s countering political correctness with unpalatable truths. In some countries, women are not regarded as reliable witnesses. At the opposite end of the spectrum is Sweden. Julian Assange has just been told he will be extradited there, but he can appeal. The charges depend entirely on the word of two jilted groupies, and are impossible to prove, therefore should be dropped. Normally, Sweden has the same standard of proof as the USA, but not where women allege sex crimes. If he gets extradited, he may be sent to the USA, legally or otherwise, which is less likely to happen in Britain. Even Blair’s government refused to allow the CIA to kidnap people.

  10. Maien said on February 24th, 2011 at 8:43am #

    Hayate, I must agree regarding the assumptions. Is it really a surprise that these types of attitudes remain present ? I notice that this site is offering a place for new authors to explore and expand their ability. As the author is willing to express, to communicate, then in the interests of fostering learning, change… you know all the good stuff… can we not remind, question, expand alongside some corrections or advise?

    I would even agree with Jaynot a little bit…if he was willing to also look at some “unpalatable truths” about western culture. The problem on all sides is that most ‘complainers’ are unable or unwilling to recognise that it is their own blindness about themselves which is also a large contributor to the problem.
    In the western world, we have been taught to participate through competition, through either being a winner or a loser. This truly limits thought and understanding of all life in hugely significant ways. Ultimately, it is difficult to tell the guy who has the guns that he might have a problem with the way he is thinking. He’s already ‘right’. He doesn’t have to work very hard at being observant.

  11. catguy00 said on February 24th, 2011 at 10:11am #

    “Respect is the key word. Evening assuming that this happened and that it wasn’t an Israeli black op, this woman should have known her “beat” and therefore, known how to dress and conduct herself in a way that didn’t give offense. ”

    So how exactly did she give offense?

  12. commoner3 said on February 24th, 2011 at 11:00am #

    hayate,

    I am not sure what is your problem with Macary, dumping all these accusations on him. He encountered a completely different culture and described the situation honestly as he experienced and reacted to it. He was just a young man in his very early twenties and didn’t have a chance to accumulate all of your “wisdom” and “insights” yet.
    In the Indian culture where sex is “underground”, it is very hard, possibly risky, to talk with women about sex, and remember that was decades ago!
    Yes, sex do exist in India, and the enjoyment of sex by women is no more or less than any other culture and may be MORE, but all that has to be behind closed doors.
    There are some Hindu temples which are mostly adorned by sexual statues and drawings on the walls. There is a Hindu sect devoted mostly to exploring the role of sex toward “enlightment”, called Tantra Yoga!
    I am not sure how many “liberal” Indian women did you encounter and where?
    Were the women in India or here in the West. Did the women say that they slept or are sleeping with men before marriage?
    I am sure 99.99% of women in India whe sleep with men before marriage will have no chance of marrying an Indian man unless she kept her activities secret and have her hymen surgically restored before the wedding!!!
    I am not Jewish and I am not Zionist and I hate Zionism and I hate Israel, but please don’t bring Zionism and “Ziofascist” in every discussion.! You discredit yourself this way.
    Yes, Zionism is evil, but many evils in the world have nothing to do with Zionism!!

  13. Alice de Tocqueville said on February 24th, 2011 at 11:14am #

    Hayate, although your criticisms of generalizing, over-simpifying and the other attitudes you heard in Macaray’s piece are on the mark, I didn’t perceive his points the same way as you did, perhaps because I’ve read other articles of his, and found no chauvinism there.

    I thought his emphasis was to take seriously that people with different mores and belief systems are as sure of them as we are of ours, and that to respect those ideas, and the people who hold them is NOT to assume we can explain them away, as many Westerners, especially Americans, do. I think his concluding paragraph makes this more clearly than the rest of the article, also his saying the profound effect his visit had on him.

    I must say, though that kalidasa’s point is also on the mark – the answers to the 3 questions is ‘yes’; however, that doesn’t mean the same thing to a Westerner that it does to the men who asked them. I think he was trying to say that we need to check ourseves more carefully, and not flaunt our customs in front of others in their own countries.

    We aren’t as far apart as it would seem, though. Older American men are closer to the Indian men Macaray met in their views of women than younger men are. But for the most part I share your opinion that far too many Americans are just as jingoistic and chauvinist as they can be, and that is a great fault.

    I’d gently suggest, though, that you might give him another chance and try reading another piece by him; he’s pretty good on labor issues.

  14. hayate said on February 24th, 2011 at 12:15pm #

    Maien

    Cheers

  15. 3bancan said on February 24th, 2011 at 12:52pm #

    jayn0t said on February 24th, 2011 at 5:07am #

    jaynot has a “pristine view” of the justice being dealt out in zionazified American and European courts (and politicians).

    Btw, he forgot to include the most just of the justices, ie that one the Jewish nazis are using in the ME…

    PS: I’ve read somewhere that Assange has been ordered by a judge to be extradited to Sweden to face sexual assault charges…

  16. mary said on February 24th, 2011 at 1:07pm #

    Whatever Ms Logan’s experience was (it has been hyped up to a high level by the Western media I would say) it is being used to demonize the ‘duskies’ and the ‘darkies’ as ME people are still thought of. There is endemic racism in the UK and the rises in petrol prices are now being blamed on the protesters and upheaval in the ME. Nevermind that the cruel regimes were propped up and armed by us.

    It is not so long ago that people with skin of a darker hue were referred to in the UK as ‘wogs’ (short for golliwogs) and latterly the Iraqi people were called ‘ragheads’ and ‘towelheads’ by some members of the US military.

    Logan used to work for a trashy breakfast programme in the UK putting out the war propaganda from warzones like Afghanistan. Another one of her missions was reporting from the camps across the Channel where illegal immigrants started their journey to the UK. Get the picture?

    This from the equally trashy tabloid Daily Mail where cleavage is the watchword on their website.

    ‘The South-African born veteran war correspondent was tipped at one time to be a presenter on GMTV before leaving to work for CBS in 2002.
    She found herself at the centre of a row over sexism on the front line after ITV correspondent Julian Manyon wrote in a Spectator article about ‘the considerable physical charms of my travelling companion, the delectable Lara Logan, who exploits her God-given advantages with a skill that Mata Hari might envy’.

    Ms Logan angrily hit back at the claim, saying good contacts and a devotion to her job were the reason she enjoyed such good access to Northern Alliance leaders in Afghanistan.

    She was also featured in a front-page tabloid report claiming her skimpy tops were upsetting soldiers in the combat zone.

    During her two years with GMTV, she covered floods in Mozambique and land invasions in Zimbabwe as well as the war in Afghanistan.

    She has regularly filed reports from Afghanistan and Iraq for CBS over the last decade.

    Ms Logan was previously married to professional basketball player Jason Siemon, whom she wed in 1998. The pair separated while she was in Iraq.

    In 2007, about two years after her separation, she began a short-lived relationship with CNN correspondent Michael Ware, after she began dating Joseph Burkett.

    She met Mr Burkett in Iraq, where he worked as a U.S. defence contractor.’

    Enough said for now I think. Perhaps she also suffers from prejudice.

  17. catguy00 said on February 24th, 2011 at 8:01pm #

    “Whatever Ms Logan’s experience was (it has been hyped up to a high level by the Western media I would say) ”

    Could you give some specific examples?

  18. Pseudo Named said on February 25th, 2011 at 8:39pm #

    This article reveals two things. One the author meant to convey. The other he may not have intended to convey. The first was the distain the Indians and Egyptians have for the sexual mores of heterosexual American men and women. The other was the utter distain the author has for the attitudes of the Indians about our sexual mores. The blindness clearly goes in both directions.