The curious path to change

These videos were shown in a training for young LGBTQCI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, cisgender, and intersex) I recently went to. I laughed when these were shown. I have forgotten all about them. Almost a decade ago, we utilized the very same material in discussions with village men and women for a women’s reproductive health project in CAR.

I now refer to those community dialogues as therapy sessions. For the reason that we touched on topics which in polite society are only spoken of in private quarters and probably with a licensed therapist. But the project had formed me, then a single and relatively naive twenty something, into a pseudo-therapist whose job it was, for the sake of gender equality and women’s health and empowerment, to instigate and facilitate, with confidence, topics on sex, more sex, reproduction, and gender.

I spewed out words like ‘orgasm’ and ‘masturbation’ and explained coital positions like I was their inhouse sexpert ala Dr. Margarita Holmes. What did I think about the regularity of sex between a couple? how often is best? For god’s sake. I who had zero experience at the time about family planning and child birth elicited the very same from village couples like I was their longtime doctor-confidante. What differentiates Venus the woman from Mars the man? and issues surrounding domestic violence which to be honest it was a shock listening to myself talk about these things as if I had dissected the sexes in minutiae and lived in the world longer than my audience.

The truth of the matter was although I looked and spoke easily and objectively, what I agreed to be paid for in the first place, I was trying hard not to go under my own embarrassment; inside, I squirmed from the talk my rather virgin ears were made privy to. Everybody else in the project team came with a relevant educational background i.e. nursing, social work, midwifery. I was the only one with the economics background. So, tell me all about fellatio, I’d say to a colleague, a nurse and a man at that. This was pre-Internet pre-cellphone time and face-to-face communication is the only alternative to letters, landline, and telegram. Keeping a straight face, he’d explain these things to me. Maintaining an even straighter face, I absorbed it all. It was real funny actually and I’ve thought about documenting that and send it in as why-did-the-economist-cross-the-road joke. But on most I was brainwashed enough or should I say trained enough in the concepts and theories to believe I had it in me to go at the subjects confidently.

Then there was the matter of my religion. I was raised in a very strict Catholic household, it’s influence on aspects of my life I haven’t quite entirely uncovered but which as an adult I am determined to balance with a more pragmatic outlook. All those talk about sex, family planning, and convincing people to get on methods were throwing my then iron-clad beliefs out of orbit. Many nights I’ve lain wide awake battling with myself, wondering if my colleague sleeping like a babe on the next bed did not have the same struggle. When I finally had the chance, I referred the situation to a sister in my convent days who has since become a dear friend. Among the questions I asked her was, do you think we’re unleashing communities of sextroverts? Am I leading people to sin? Her first words to me were “what makes you happy?” I was momentarily disoriented. What has my happiness got to do with what bothered me? But eventually I got her message. What she said made practical sense to me. With her words giving rest to my internal battle, I continued with the community sessions.

Reflecting on that experience, the village couples had been rather lucky and spoiled by me. One, they had an eager pseudo-therapist in their midst. And I was so ever patient with the entire process of dialogue.

What they perhaps had not seen and which I realized only afterward was, more than having me initiate discussions that seemed out of place in their rough highland landscape my real value in their lives had been as facilitator- who organized safe spaces for them to open up through candid and respectful sharing and discussion in the presence of their own partners and other couples in the village and then eventually guiding them toward resolution of their own issues and problems. Near the close of the project, the participants have become more open about that side of their lives, a significant change from the early sessions in which the response I got from them were either stony faces (like hell if we’d tell you about what we do in the bedroom!) or fits of embarrassed giggles.

The solution to their issues was in them all along. All they needed was someone to get them to identify and articulate their problem, center them on that, and before anyone of us was aware of it happening they’ve already provided the solution.

Likewise, the same process changed me as well and by far the biggest one was having been mentally de-virginized and de-sensitized on fundamental human truths which Freud and Jung spent their entire lifetimes studying! As for my personal struggle with campaigning for family planning, it was only when I got married several months afterward that I was finally and completely convinced that I did not go wrong teaching others to get into it.

So explains my laughter upon seeing the videos again. It happened so long ago yet the lessons from that time fly into my present reminding me of essential things I have forgotten.

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