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Archive for the ‘taboo’ Category

It’s that time of year — for what’s euphemistically called “Romance on the Road.” Getting your groove back in foreign zipcodes. Shirley Valentine’s Day.

In 2006 I reviewed for Perceptive Travel a somewhat academic book about the controversial practice of “sex pilgrimage”, traveling for the purpose of sexual adventure. I’m no proponent of behavior that often falls outside the bounds of a traveler’s own culture as well as severely straining mores at international destinations. I warned the assigning editor he probably had more optimistic reviewers in his stable of cutting-edge travel writers. But he couldn’t find anyone who wanted to be associated with the dense “history & how-to cum memoir”. Shipping it from Nashville, Tennessee to Istanbul was his best option.

Viewing the situation from the sex-toured Near East and my five years in South East Asia, it’s clear that one forgettable fling has the power to affect systems far larger than the person, family, village or region which witnessed and absorbed the behavior. Plus, the environment of sexual predation many Western women face overseas is bound to be heightened by the wanton choices of sex pilgrims. Travelers and expatriates like me strive to modulate our behavior to find social acceptance with native friends, families and colleagues, aware we must differentiate ourselves from sexual opportunists who don’t have to lie in the messy bed they’ve made.

Which cultural product are sex tourists exporting? Is the practice of hot-and-bothered globetrotters empirical evidence that Western culture is morally corrupt?

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I’m looking forward to attending TEDGlobal in Oxford next month especially since the conference’s theme is “The Substance of Things Not Seen”.  Invisibility, hiddenness, misapprehension — all are threaded  through my own work.

Consider Expat Harem‘s anachronistic, titillating concept. It taps into robust yet erroneous Western stereotypes about Asia Minor and the entire Muslim world: a forbidden world of cloistered women. When infused with a modern and virtual positivity — the Expat Harem as peer-filled refuge and natural source of foreign female wisdom  — a masked reality emerges: the harem as a female powerbase. This is an Eastern feminist continuum little known in the Western world.

“Help people talk about what they’re most afraid of,” is a mantra I’ve been hearing a lot from thoughtful personalities in my life. But first we have to surmount our own resistance to the topics.

I’m discovering with my latest book project, a forensic memoir of friendship, that taboo has an unintended cloaking effect. Societal taboos may be meant to protect us from harmful practices yet banishing from our thoughts the most unimaginable and unspeakable human acts only makes us blind to them happening in our midst.

By finding it so unthinkable, we make possible for taboo behavior to continue in our communities.

Name a taboo from your life.  When you hear it mentioned, what’s your reaction?

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For an anthology* I recently wrote an essay about why the practice wasn’t cool in my Berkeley family — even though our 1969 Volkswagen bus was a hitch-hiker’s dream, even though it seemed everyone in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1970s was hitch-hiking. My parents were big city people who didn’t buy the hitch-hiking compact.  Plus, hitch-hiking was at the heart of serial killer lore for this California kid —  the Zodiac Killer’s San Francisco, the Hillside Strangler‘s Los Angeles.  One September 1978 day my family’s mindset — and a half a mile — separated me from a teenage girl who was mutilated after sticking out her thumb.

*In 2005 Tom and Simon Sykes produced No Such Thing As A Free Ride? in the UK, serialized by London Times and named Travel Book of the Week by the Observer. The new volume aims to capture what hitch-hiking means to Americans, and America.

What did hitch-hiking mean to your family (and your community) when you were a child and how did it affect your practices when you reached adolescence/adulthood?

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