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.