Loneliness, Libertinism, Anxiety: Recollections of a Peace Corps Volunteer
by RACHEL LU (Uzbekistan 2002-04)
November 6, 2017
Surely we can maintain some standards of decency and decorum, even if we don’t all agree that fornication is a sin.
I’d been in the United States Peace Corps for all of 48 hours when I received my first bag of taxpayer-funded condoms. In the Peace Corps, they don’t waste time with foreplay.
This was in 2002, when I was stationed at a health sanatorium north of Tashkent, one of 50 Volunteers in training.
After dinner on our second day, we were ordered to report to the clinic for the first of several rounds of vaccinations. First came the needles and then came the candy, but along with the sweets I was given a brown paper bag. I looked.
“Oh, thanks,” I said, “but I don’t need this.” I handed it back. “You should take them,” the nurse assured me. “Just in case.”
I blinked. I opened my mouth and closed it again. I set the bag on the table and left the room. “I’ll omit the slap this time,” I thought. “But consider yourself lucky.”
This is not the stuff of #metoo. I believe I had recovered from the trauma of that particular encounter by the time I exited the building. Still, as Hollywood’s hunt for celebrity-predators intensifies, I’ve been reflecting back on my own experiences of aggressively libertine environments. It remains to be seen how far the present round of scandals will spread, but this much is clear: Inappropriate sexual behavior is widespread in the entertainment industry, and in some cases has provided camouflage for serious crimes. If you’re accustomed to thinking of Hollywood as a cesspool of sin and vice, you may not find this surprising. Many were surprised, though. Progressives assume that their own mores protect and affirm women while the traditionalists objectify and repress. It’s worth thinking through the logic of a libertine environment, to see how mistaken this reasoning may be.
Over my two years in the Peace Corps, I would get many more openings for that cinematic slap. It’s the only place I’ve ever worked where one steps up to a conference check-in desk expecting to receive a room key, welcome folder, and bag of condoms. There was, to be sure, a method to this madness. For the most part, the Peace Corps was a magnet for educated, unwed twenty-somethings with broadly left-leaning views. Our Washingtonian handlers wanted us to spread goodwill abroad, but in an Islamic society, a recent-college-graduate approach to the bodily appetites was likelier to spread resentment and venereal disease. Thus, an implicit compromise was struck. We were not technically forbidden to have sex with locals, but we were urged to be “culturally sensitive” at our assigned work sites. Then, periodically, we were summoned to conferences at health sanatoriums deep in the mountains, where we were issued condoms and left largely to ourselves for a couple of days. Some Volunteers started referring to these scheduled get-togethers as “shore leave.”
“Shore leave” was more or less what one would expect. The scheduled sessions mostly seemed like an inconsequential appendage to the (ahem) night life. Ironically, in establishments meant to restore health, the air seemed to be permeated by this raw, unmediated collision of appetite and loneliness. Both were intense. The carousel of beds, bodies, and beer bottles precipitated a different kind of culture shock for a young religious conservative.
It’s important to understand that a Peace Corps assignment, especially in the early months, could be quite difficult. Many Volunteers were intensely isolated at their work sites, coping with culture shock and feverishly trying to develop their minimal language skills. We weren’t issued cell phones in those days, so some might go several weeks at a stretch without really being able to converse with anyone. When “shore leave” finally arrived, there was a palpable yearning for catharsis via intimacy. Given that the conferences lasted only a couple of days, people were highly motivated to dispense with the chase.
The carousel of beds, bodies, and beer bottles precipitated a different kind of culture shock for a young religious conservative. I didn’t find it liberating; I found it foul. Even so, the chastity soapbox looks monstrously unappealing when you’re 22, a freakish ideological outlier, and 12,000 miles from home. I settled into a pragmatic routine. Following my ritual refusal of the condoms, I would open a Peace Corps conference by quietly looking for a roommate agreeable to a no-sex-actually-in-the-room rule. (I wasn’t terrified of being raped, but I do prefer to have a wall between myself and the closest copulating couple.) Books and solitary walks infused some sanity into the next few days, and I completed my term of service in 2004 without ever availing myself of the free condoms, free therapy, or free trip to Planned Parenthood. (Under George W. Bush’s administration, the Peace Corps couldn’t pick up that particular bill, but we were promised that we would be delivered directly to the doorstep should relevant circumstances arise.) I won’t betray personal secrets, except to say: Some fared worse.
I still feel a real affection for the 49 other members of “Uz-14,” my assigned Peace Corps unit. Some behaved badly, but it’s hard to judge too harshly when one recalls the details of the setting. In the mountains of Central Asia, riding a wave of hormones and hurt, insane things can start to seem quite normal. Even I, a quiet conscientious objector, felt my standards of normalcy shifting. This is one reason I made it a personal rule never to drink at Peace Corps conferences.
I’m much less reluctant to judge the so-called adults who considered that it was a good idea to encourage casual sex among isolated and emotionally vulnerable youth. In retrospect, I wish I had slapped someone, especially on behalf of the young women in my group, who were placed in a deeply uncomfortable position. I’m reticent to use a word as strong as “exploitation,” but it does at least come to mind. Libertinism was a convenient solution to one managerial problem: the need to prevent American testosterone from spilling over into an international incident. It didn’t exactly make for a pleasant professional environment for a young woman.
Of course, we were not actually ordered to relieve the sexual frustrations of our male companions. What were we supposed to think, though? We’d hardly walked in the door when bags of condoms were thrust into our hands. A cursory self-examination would be sufficient to ascertain that they weren’t intended for our bodies. Our training included instruction in correct condom use (just in case?), as well as lectures and videos urging us to plan responsibly for our sexual needs. (One speaker, who had contracted HIV during his own Peace Corps service, explicitly warned us that extended celibacy was “not a realistic option.”) This was all deemed appropriate instruction for 20-year-olds, but I don’t recall any warnings that sex might have emotional consequences, for us or for our sexual partners. I was skeptical, having already received several years’ worth of chastity training from the Mormon Church. Lacking that, I would have, I expect, accepted the widespread consensus that casual sex was not just the done thing but really the sporting thing.
If pressed to explain themselves, the bureaucrats in charge of this grim scene would presumably point out that they had been tasked with managing a challenging social situation, that sermons on sexual morality would have seemed like a colossal joke to this crowd, and that they had no right to preach at us anyway. What do I take them for: religious patriarchs? Be realistic. ‘Consent’ offers at least some standard of behavior, as a lowest common denominator that no decent person can reject. That principle is grossly inadequate, though, for grounding a healthy sexual dynamic.
That response would actually throw the problem into sharp relief. Challenging social situations are becoming less exceptional in modern life. Whether we’re looking at the entertainment industry, the news room, the Peace Corps, the military, the college campus, a scientific expedition, or the kitchen of an Antarctic cruise ship, men and women now find themselves thrown together in all sorts of strange settings, often at odd hours and under emotionally fraught circumstances. Even as our labor markets and educational experiences have diversified, we’ve lost confidence in the moral principles that might once have provided some guidance as we navigate this thorny sexual landscape. “Consent” offers at least some standard of behavior as a lowest common denominator that no decent person can reject. That principle is grossly inadequate, though, for grounding a healthy sexual dynamic. Rape, after all, is not the only form of sexual misbehavior. If it’s the only one we discourage, we’re likely to end up with more rapists.
In the absence of a more elevated sexual ethic, baser realities tend to assert themselves. No social engineering can really change the fact that men have a higher sex drive than women, while women remain more vulnerable in sexual encounters. Any sane response to this will demand that men take reasonable steps to discipline themselves, and women to protect themselves. Society at large should support both efforts, while providing especially strong protections for children, the most vulnerable of all. Obviously there is much room here for debating what is “reasonable,” but if we reject even that broad framework, we inevitably set the stage for uncomfortable professional and social dynamics, which may also facilitate more-serious forms of sexual predation.
Looking at a monster like Harvey Weinstein, we find ourselves debating the extent to which he should be viewed as a symptom of social sickness, as opposed to a horrifying aberration. It’s something of a false dichotomy. Weinstein’s depravity was extreme. At the same time, it’s hardly a revelation that powerful, unscrupulous men may wish to aggrandize themselves through sexual domination. When such behavior rages unchecked across years and even decades, that may be a symptom of some form of social disease.
Diagnoses will vary. The kangaroo courts of the “campus rape crisis” represent one unsuccessful attempt at a solution, which is nevertheless sure to be repeated in some other guise. Taking a different line, many would argue that we could avoid the debauchery of a Peace Corps conference quite easily, simply by not sending hormonally charged young people to far-flung outposts as ambassadors of goodwill. That’s certainly defensible, but how much must we ultimately sacrifice, just to keep our appetites in check? In earlier periods of history, these difficulties were often addressed through a more rigid separation of men and women. That often meant that women were excluded from professions or educational environments where they might have excelled. I don’t especially care for that solution.
So maybe it’s hopeless. But whenever I start thinking that way, I remember those bags of condoms. Maybe we can’t ask everyone to march to a Judeo-Christian drum, but do we have to be that obtuse? Surely we can maintain some standards of decency and decorum, even if we don’t all agree that fornication is a sin. It’s time to start teaching young men that it’s wrong to treat another person as just a means to physical gratification (even if she consents). It’s time to start teaching young women that they aren’t weak or fragile just for acknowledging that sex carries risks, not all of which can be mitigated by a condom (or a bag of them). If we want to redeem Hollywood (and perhaps more than just Hollywood), it’s time to bring back the cinematic slap.
Rachel Lu (Uzbekistan 2002-04), a Catholic convert, teaches philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota where she lives with her husband and four boys. Dr. Lu earned her Ph.D. in philosophy at Cornell University.