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Thinking Sex: Sexual Cleansing Forum

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Welcome Back
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2003-09-05 15:05:57
Link to this Comment: 6352

Welcome back to Day 2 of Thinking Sex...

where we reviewed the essay of that title by Gayle Rubin, another linked one ("Sex for Thought," by Robert Darnton) and then tried out a case study: how useful were Rubin's call for "benign sexual variation," and her challenges to

for understanding/talking about/educating around the practice described in Emily Wax's article, "Though sex, they 'cleanse' African villages," in The Philadelphia Inquirer, 8/31/03?

Taking the roles of "sexual cleanser," "widow," and "sexual educator," we broke into small groups.The sexual educators have been asked to report here on those conversations...

What happened? Of what use were Rubin and Darnton's thinking for...our thinking here? And/or: related thoughts??

Sifting Through the Bias
Name: Ali
Date: 2003-09-08 14:56:41
Link to this Comment: 6376

Our group began by separating Emily Wax's heavy (and judgmental) bias from a more objective view of the situation of sexual cleansing. How DO the women in "need" of sexual cleansing feel about this practice, specifically considering the extremely high risk of becoming infected with AIDS? Wax leads us to believe that the general female consensus is opposed to it (consider Margaret Auma Odhiambo: "We don't want it, and won't accept it anymore"). As a health educator, it then seems that the target is the elders who possess the authority to change this practice (perhaps the use of a condom would be a compromise?). It then becomes an issue of health versus culture/custom/tradition. But in reference to Rubin's list, we found it impossible to lump this dilema into any of the 6 categories. Perhaps one could contrast the point of sexual negativity in that sexual cleansing appears as the OPPOSITE of this (sex disperses evil spirits from women, thus cleansing them versus the construction of sex as 'bad' or 'dirty'), but even this is stretching it. This suggests that Rubin's list is not universally valid (perhaps only valid in Western cultures).

a quick p.s.
Name: Ali
Date: 2003-09-08 15:00:29
Link to this Comment: 6377

And what's the deal with the village drunk/idiot being responsible for something so important?

Sexual Cleansing
Name: Anjali
Date: 2003-09-09 01:58:58
Link to this Comment: 6383

When our group first approached this exercise, we were confused as to how to interpret our roles. We began by discussing the different ways we read the article and some key points we believed were important. When we began our role playing we were unsure who should start, as it seemed unlikely that these three people would be having this very random conversation of the pros and cons of this practice. We began to warm up to the idea as we discussed the ability of women to overcome their cultural duties in light of a more "educated" outlook on health and safety. I put educated in quotations for the simple reason that what constitutes educated for one society may not for another (so eloquently expressed by my dear roommate and friend, Ingrid Hansen, also a member of this class). We discussed how education in our terms means more along the lines of a continuous explanation of how one action (namely sexual intercourse with the Cleanser) may then lead to other reactions (contraction of HIV) and eventual negative outcomes (death).

The Cleanser brought up the key point, however, that for many communities the elders are less in tune with the concept of HIV, which, as a consequence of sleeping with the cleanser, is less tangible than bad crop yield, a consequence of not sleeping with the cleanser. Dealing with this huge cultural obstacle proved to be our biggest part of the discussion as we considered how many women are actually at this point where they don't want to sleep with the cleanser and are beginning to see the risks associated with it, which is the first step to changing the tradition.

When trying to mold these concepts into Rubin's list, we struggled to find ways they both fit together. Eventually we agreed with the class that it is difficult to put real life into theory when the theory is not necessarily applicable to all cultures and societies (maybe it only deals with Western cultures or maybe it isn't really applicable to any culture or society). Rubin's list addresses many of these issues on a different plane yet somehow loses its ability to connect to the very simple realities of life, as represented by this article.

sexual cleansing exercise
Name: Laurel
Date: 2003-09-09 02:11:31
Link to this Comment: 6384

Our group faced an initial awkwardness when we realized the inevitable position the educator must take as judgemental and culturally ignorant. We agreed that a way to solve this dilemma might be to involve both cultures in a joint discussion about practices unfamiliar and foreign to both. We came to the depressing conclusion that the AIDS crisis in Africa could be seen as a very convenient justification for criticizing the sexual practices Western culture finds repulsive. I think this comes out in the article when the suggested compromise of condom use is immediately dismissed because "they say it has to be skin-to-skin to work." Who exactly is saying this? If we are so quick to shoot down ideas like condom use or testing before the practice occurs (an idea our group thought of) and enter into an all or nothing situation, perhaps we should question what exactly our intentions are and what exactly disturbs us the most--the spread of AIDS or sexual practices we find unacceptable?

we don't care about your evil spirits -- sexual ed
Name: Jessie
Date: 2003-09-09 20:13:09
Link to this Comment: 6399

Our group, like many of the others, hesitated a bit before beginning to play out our scene, our main obstacle being the unbelievably opposed, nearly antithetical, cultures. The sexual educator certainly wouldn't be able to influence the villager's beliefs if s/he couldn't bridge the enormous cultural differences. (This is also why our group found it difficult to apply Rubin's ideas.) As Omaira pointed out, in order for the ritual to be affected, the entire culture needs to be educated, not just a group of two or three people. The educator should be speaking to the elders of the village, since they have a more direct influence on the culture. Also, the elders would probably respond better to educators from their own culture the women themselves who resist the ritual. As Tia pointed out, the women's groups seem to be an invaluable resource for women to resist the cleansing ritual. Until the villagers are aware of the HIV risk and no longer deny un-"cleansed" widows privileges such as inheritance, the best way to influence the ritual may not be through the sort of interference Emily Wax seems to suggest, but rather through support of the organizations already present.

Also -- like Ali (somewhat capriciously :) ) added, our group thought that the cleanser's position in the village was quite strange. The cleanser is essentially a sex worker which of course, in our culture, is hardly a job worthy of praise and honorary banquets. That the cleanser seems to be so exalted (albeit retaining the lowly "village idiot" role) demonstrated to us what an entirely different culture this African village has from what we're used to.

sexual cleansing
Name: Ingrid
Date: 2003-09-11 03:49:30
Link to this Comment: 6430

Our group's experience, like that of many others, was that it was challenging--if not completely impossible--to assume the roles of sexual cleanser and bereft African woman, and very easy to assume the role of educator. We were wary however to do that which some Western feminists have been accused: condemn cultural practices that run counter to ideas of women's liberation (we also questioned whether this practice was reciprocal for widowers, and surmised likely not). Had the monkeywrench of AIDS not complicated Western evaluation (ours, Emily Wax's, readers of the Inquirer's) of the sexual cleansing rite, Rubin's six ideological beefs with sexuality would indicate why Western ideas about sex don't work for other cultures. The politics of AIDS scrambles the question education or imposition, and does it matter that a major motive is at saving lives and promoting a healthy population?

Name: Ro
Date: 2003-10-06 08:44:35
Link to this Comment: 6806

I'm posting on this topic long after the fact, largely because I didn't feel equipped with enough insight and knowledge to make a sensible recommendation for what could be done. Our topic discussion sub-group tried all the angles--including respecting that fact that we have things to learn from their culture as well as them from ours. Intervention by total foreigners--and I mean that in every sense of the word "foreign"--is fraught with mistrust, misunderstanding, fear, discounting, etc.

It's a very sad situation to imagine from my vantage point, and it sounds as though the women in the middle of it feel trapped and used. How can we help them help themselves? And what would that be, given all the variables involved?

need more voices in this discussion...
Name: Sarah
Date: 2003-10-07 23:52:30
Link to this Comment: 6839

Like Ro, I'm posting very much after the fact. My memory of this exercise is feeling that the choice should be the woman's, but that our group didn't have enough information to make the choice (other than the biased news article that I didn't think got enough of a sample of women's opinions). I suppose this reflects the situation in Africa as it is--that women don't have voices as strong as we westerners would like them to be. Like the other groups we found the academic theory we read largely useless because of a) the complication of AIDS and health issues and b) its foundations in western culture. What we could've used, in my opinion, would be theory from a scholar on seems unreasonable to expect any bit of critical theory (Rubin, in this case) to be universally applicable. But now I feel like I'm creating inside/outside categories, I'm not creating them--they already exist. Africa in the 1990's is not America in the 1980's, and one can only expect that the frameworks of one would be of questionable use in analyzing the other. I'm sticking by my guns here!

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