Virginity or Bust: Sexual Politics Around the Globe

21 10 2009


A good friend of mine recently returned to the States after two years of living in Sweden, followed by several months of traveling in Mali.  When I asked her about her adventures and experiences exploring these countries, she painted this mental picture of two places so vastly different from each other that one wonders how they fit onto the same planet.  

Sweden borders on socialism.  It’s taboo to ask what someone does for a living, and gender equality is extremely important.  There are virtually no homeless people in Sweden because everyone works in order to provide each other with a decent standard of living (income taxes run as high as 56% for the wealthiest).  Healthcare is free, education is free, sex change operations are sponsored by the government.  If you lose a job, the government pays your rent until you find a new one.  A huge proportion of Swedes don’t believe in marriage, because the government automatically treats a couple as an economic unit if they live together.  Men receive paternity leave if the mothers want to keep working, women feel insulted if men offer to buy their drinks.

By stark contrast, Mali is extremely religiously and politically conservative.  Women are considered to be inherently sexually dangerous and transgressive.    As an African-American woman traveling with her Swedish boyfriend, Connie was shocked at the way she was treated.  While the locals went out of their way to show respect for her boyfriend, they assumed she was a prostitute and, on one occasion, actually pelted rocks at her.  

Most of the young girls (about 94%) in Mali must undergo female circumcision at some point to ensure that they never enjoy sex, and they must bleed on their wedding night to prove their virginity or face being beaten or killed.  Men use these sexually oppressive traditions to control the women, and the women live in constant fear of being physically punished or branded a “whore” for displaying any kind of sexuality.  Connie couldn’t even stand to look at young girls in Mali, knowing what they had been through and what they would likely be enduring in the years to come.  


In the wake of our conversation, I read this article from Slate entitled “The Beauty of Artificial Virginity ,” which describes a fake hymen kit that produces blood so that women in these extremely culturally conservative communities can appear virginal on their wedding nights.  This kit offers a cheaper alternative to “hymenoplasty,” a surgical procedure that reattaches the hymen for the same purpose.

Egyptian lawmakers are outraged and have threatened to punish and even “exile” anyone who threatens to import or use this kit because the product “encourages illicit sexual relations” that Islam strictly forbids (Associated Press).  “If this thing enters Egypt, the country is going to go to waste. God protect us,” commented a reader on the Web site of Egyptian newspaper Al-Youm Al-Sabie.

To this comment, Slate writer William Saletan responds:

Pause for a moment to consider what these men are asking God to protect them from: a cheap, mass-produced insert that releases fake blood.  It’s the technical equivalent of a Halloween gag.  But to them, it is no gag. It’s an offense against God. 

In this way, the artificial hymen serves as a useful test of religious idiocy.  If a $30 item that leaks fake blood violates your faith so profoundly that you must ban it, then what you have isn’t really a faith. It’s a fetish. And your fetish won’t survive globalization.

While I agree with Saletan about the fact that some of these faith-based, “virginity-preserving” practices are absolutely barbaric and abusive, I don’t think that tactlessly insulting an entire religion or community of people is the most effective way to enact change.  These Egyptian officials are not going to read that Slate article and think, you know what?  He’s right, we are idiots!  Thank Allah someone told us!

Americans have this uncanny way of imposing our values on the rest of the world as if ours is the only reasonable perspective, and an approach like that is only going to anger and alienate.  Extreme religious beliefs are often fear-based, and thus very deep-seated.  I may be naive, but I really think the only way to begin to petition for change is from a stance of tolerance– not tolerance of physical abuse and gender oppression, but of the cultural differences that enable that sort of behavior.  From there we can attempt to negotiate.

Americans don’t understand the way things are done in Sweden any more than we understand extremist Muslim practices in Mali (and if you disagree, refer to articles on widespread outrage over and fear of  Obama’s alleged “socialist” agenda, which doesn’t even come close to the working socialism in Sweden).  We are all products of different environments, different cultures, different educations, different religions and different economies– without taking all those factors into account before passing judgments on another major population of people, we’re never going get anywhere.

Taxis for Chicks!

20 10 2009


Men, you’re in luck: It looks like feminism has officially “hit the road.”  AP reports that the little town of Puebla, Mexico, of all places, has enlisted a fleet of 35 hot pink, girls-only taxis for ladies that are fed up with “leering male drivers.”   The fem-tastic taxies come equipped with a beauty kit, a GPS system (cause everyone knows women can’t navigate to save their lives), and an alarm button…. in case of a surprise man-attack, I suppose. 

Some feminists are up in arms because these pink taxis do nothing to actually curb sexual harrassment among male taxi drivers– they only offer women an alternative.  Perhaps we need to deal with the problem of inappropriate cab-drivers first, instead of simply gender stereotyping… wait… did you say these pink taxies come with a beauty kit? Awesome! I wonder if it has eyelash curlers and everything, or just the basics?  Do the female cab drivers gossip with their passengers about men? Cause if not, it’s not much of a “female-oriented taxi” is it?  I digress.


According to the internet, these lady cabs are not unique to Mexico.  I’m reading about pink taxis in Beirut, Moscow, Dubai… what about America?  The male cabbies here can be as creepy as anywhere else.  I once had to leap out of a cab at a gas station at 2 am and make a run for it after the driver reached back and put his hand on my knee while suggesting that I sit up front with him.  Oh Hell no. 

I think I’m going to start a pink taxi branch in D.C.  We’ll call them the Maxi-Taxis, or the Gab-Cabs.  In addition to a beauty kit and an alarm button, they’ll have tampon dispensers, emergency cell-phone chargers and litters of puppies crawling around the back.  The drivers will make a fortune because the ladies will never get out! 

Why hasn’t anyone thought of this yet?!

Guilty Pleasures

19 10 2009

Saturday night I found myself perched on a bench in the sweaty basement of Saint Ex.  The DJ was a dead ringer for Biggie Smalls, and he was jamming out all night to 90s R&B and hip-hop.  He played Trick Daddy’s “Dro in da Wind,” followed by Mary J. Blige’s “Family Affair,” followed by a little Outkast until my muted head-bops had escalated into full-on, unabashed grooving.

When I could no longer contain my enthusiasm for these old-school tunes, I boogied over to the DJ booth to start making requests.  Biggie was wearing headphones and juggling records, and I could barely see over the turntables, so it took him a minute to notice me.  When he finally did make eye contact for a hot second, I squeezed in a request:


He completely ignored me.  So I decided to press on.

Hey you got any BoyzIIMen? How about Bel Biv DeVoe?

I know he heard me, but instead of acknowledging my requests he shot a glance at the large man standing next to him (lover? pimp? parole officer?), who then looked at me with a mixture of boredom and disappointment.

I slumped back over to my seat.  Apparently there’s an obvious difference between “cool” and “uncool” 90’s tunes, and my taste crossed the line.

I used to spend way too much time being embarrassed about my “guilty pleasures.” If a music guru were to borrow my iPod for a run, I would quickly delete all the Mariah Carey, most of the country songs, and definitely that heinous Sting song about desert roses (…”I dream of raaain, eleyele”… yea, I secretly love it).

But guess what folks– I’m 26, and I’ve decided to stop caring.  Why should we feel “guilty” about our pleasures?  Who decided that Biggie was cool and that Boyz II Men wasn’t, and why should everyone subscribe to that judgment?  What’s wrong with reading a tabloid mag and a Faulkner novel on the same plane ride?

The only way to take the “guilt” out of “guilty pleasures” is to own up to them, like a sinner to a priest.  So here they are, my guiltiest of pleasures in no particular order:

Dancing with the Stars— that’s right folks, I can’t get enough of that show.  The sparkly outfits, the choreographed routines, the burgeoning pro/celebrity relationships, they all light my fire.

Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men, the early stuff.  Pure euphoria.

People and USWeekly magazines–  I especially enjoy the pictures of celebrity toddlers.  What are you gonna do about it?

The Trouble With Love Is,” That Kelly Clarkson song from Love Actually. Boom.

Win a Date with Tad Hamilton!— I went through 4 boxes of kleenex during that movie and it wasn’t even sad. All bad romantic comedies get me going, for that matter, especially if they star Hugh Grant.

Eat, Pray, Love Being a literature major, this one was especially difficult to admit.  It’s as fun to read as it is completely uncool.

Country music from the 90’s, mainly George Strait, Garth Brooks and Alan Jackson. Listening to these artists is acceptable in Louisiana, but apparently not elsewhere.  Call someone who cares.

Ace of Base— I don’t know if they count because everyone loves them, but I especially love them.

…and finally (gulp)….

InStyle WeddingsOuch!  No I’m not getting married any time soon, but yes, I love looking at the pretty flower arrangements and… wait what?  Someone opted for cupcakes instead of a traditional wedding cake?! My mind has officially been blown!

Wow, I feel like a new person.  Can anyone top this?  I know someone here watches Celebrity Fit Club or listens to Barbara Streisand on the DL… out with it!

Best Dives in the District

17 10 2009

D.C. is not exactly the world’s dive bar capitol.  Most bars in this city characterize themselves as clubs or lounges, where you’ll find so much hair gel that you could light a single match and the whole place would explode.  But there are definitely a few diamonds in the rough, and today’s post is a tribute to those D.C. dive bars that continuously manage to keep it real.

Before I deliver the gravy, we need to define what constitutes a dive bar.  A dive bar is the antithesis of a nightclub.  It should feel like a basement, where are all of your unemployed friends have gathered to booze and ramble.  A worthy dive should have a great jukebox (no DJ’s), a single grumpy bartender whose name you know, cheap beer, and a dirty, graffiti-riddled bathroom.  Lastly, and most importantly, a dive bar should be a little bit weird.  Be it the patrons, the bartender, or the décor, something about this place should scare away the amateur, mainstream bar-goers.

Alright, now that we’ve laid out some ground rules, I present you with the Best Dives in the District:

Best Overall Dive:

The Raven Grill

3125 Mt Pleasant St NW

Washington, DC 20010-2752


The Raven is dark, dingy and sprinkled with the dirtiest of hippies.  It’s tucked away between two hole-in-the-wall El Salvadorian restaurants in quiet Mt. Pleasant, difficult to find if you don’t know where you’re going.  The bartender is sufficiently bearded and cranky, PBR’s are two bucks, and the cash register is so dusty and outdated that the place can’t take credit cards.  Don’t expect any barfood- The Raven sells little bags of cheetos, cheap beers, and that’s pretty much it.  Oh, and there’s a fantastic jukebox.  It’s a glorious dive if you need to get away from the hustle and bustle of huge, obnoxious dive-wannabes in Dupont like Lucky Bar and The Big Hunt (gag).

Best Dive for a Rainy Day:

Toledo Lounge

2435 18th St. NW

Washington, DC  20009


Sweet Toledo– my personal favorite neighborhood dive.  I couldn’t rank it first because that would betray my bias, and honestly, Toledo’s über-crowded Adams Morgan location detracts from its dive points.  But considered on its own merit, Toledo is a damn fine contender.  Amazing jukebox, red-tinted lighting, janked-up booths that look like they’ve been slashed with pickaxes, WEIRD waitresses, and best of all: $2 drafts on rainy days!!!  It’s doesn’t get any better than that.

Plus, Toledo’s food is absolute crap (except for the delicious nachos), so they let you bring pizza in from nearby Jumbo Slice to satisfy your late-night munchies.  This easy, laid-back attitude is what it’s all about.

Best Weird Dive:

Galaxy Hut

2711 Wilson Blvd

Arlington, VA 22201


Galaxy Hut puts the “we” in “weird.”  I’m not even sure what that means, but the last band I saw there was wearing electric blue spandex, blowing bubbles into the air and playing unlikely Jimi Hendrix vs. Michael Jackson mash-ups.  Normally I wouldn’t consider a music venue a dive bar, but Galaxy Hut still qualifies based on its pinball and Ms. Pac-Man machines, cozy atmosphere, quirky patrons and creepy murals.  Live music is only played on Sunday and Monday nights, and you’ll never have to wait for a table or a spot at the bar.  Best of all, this extra-special dive is located in Arlington, which makes it even more intriguing and unexpected.

Best Liquor Dive:

Dan’s Café

2315 18th St. NW

Washington, DC 20009


How does this sound: a full glass of pure Jack Daniels, a full glass of Coke, 2 glasses of ice and a smile?  It may just sound like a waste of glasses to you, but if you enjoy pouring your own drinks, then look no further– Dan’s is the place for you.  The bartenders can’t be bothered with making mixed drinks because they’re too busy being awesome.

Best Secret Dive:

Jimmy Valentine’s Lonely Hearts Club


I’m sorry, to give you an address or website for this bad-ass spot would be to betray its secrecy.  All I will say is that it’s in Northeast DC, that it’s extremely difficult to find, and that it’s ideal to go post-midnight.  Ask around, if you’re interested.

These are the 5 winners.  I have purposely excluded some seemingly obvious choices, such as The Wonderland Ballroom and Stetsons, the former because it’s gotten too crowded and the latter because it tries too hard to be a cowboy saloon (uncool).  Aside from these, have I missed any of your favorites?

The E-lationship Phenomenon

16 10 2009



A good friend was telling me about her latest man troubles over coffee at Tryst the other day.  

…So I log onto facebook, and there are pictures splattered all over his page of him hanging on this other girl.  So I text him, “Who’s Caroline?” And he BBMs me this morning to say that we’re over, and that he didn’t realize we were ever dating in the first place because we’ve only actually seen each other in person like twice this month.  And I was like, well you clearly had plenty of time to see that bitch in person…

Now somehow, despite my immense corporate worth, no company has ever felt the need to buy me a Blackberry, so I had to ask what a BBM was.  Honestly, it sounds like a taboo bodily function.

BBM, she said, Blackberry Messenger.  Anyway, so I BBMed him back…


As her voice trailed off, my mind began to wander.  How many of us are conducting the majority of our relationships on-line without even realizing it?  

The “e-lationship,” defined as  a relationship conducted almost entirely through texting, e-mail, internet chat and social networking sites, is an ever-growing phenomenon in this new millennium.  It’s not all bad– divorcees and busy workers worldwide are finding love through, eHarmony and J-Date, which, if you ask me, is much better than trolling for men/women at bars. Facebook has allowed me to keep up with many friends with whom I would otherwise reluctantly lose touch, and let’s be honest– I really wouldn’t want to go back to life without texting.  A short “where r u?” is so much more effective sometimes than having to actually call the person, hope they’ll hear the phone ring, and do the whole, “Hi,” small talk, and “Bye” thing.  

Still, in terms of romantic relationships, I think much is lost in translation from person to the web.  So much of physical chemistry has to do with actually experiencing another’s physical presence.  Have you ever gotten to know someone online, developed a huge crush on them based on their cleverness and sense of humor, and then felt absolutely nothing when the relationship went “live”?  

I’ve been there.  We spent so much time chatting while he was at work and I was at the library that it felt like we developed real chemistry- he would say something funny over gchat, and I would actually giggle to myself and my face would turn pink in a room 2 miles away.  But every time I saw him in person, the whole thing went completely cold, and it had nothing to do with his looks.  He exuded some kind of confidence online that he didn’t exude in person, and I was put in the awkward position of having to tell him, in person, that it wasn’t going to work out for reasons I couldn’t put my finger on.  

Sometimes, the opposite holds true.  Two people get along great in person, but the sense of humor is lost over texting because you can’t see the person’s expression.  Like that time I called a boy “my sweet rotisserie chicken leg” in a text message and he never responded.  You see, he was weirded out because he didn’t realize I was joking, and I was weirded out because he didn’t get the joke.  This is why it’s so important to see someone’s face, hear their tone of voice, gauge the appropriate response. 

Cyber-stalking might be the biggest culprit of all. Through Facebook, Myspace, Linked In, online news sites and crazy invasive search engines, we can easily find out what a person looks like, where he works, where he lives, who he hangs out with and what kind of burrito he ordered at Chipotle last night without even meeting him.  I’ve googled a man before and found out the score of a baseball game he played when he was twelve.  Then I took a scalding shower, fasted for a month and promised myself I would never, ever cyber-stalk anyone again, because how creepy is that?  

I will never hate on internet dating (, eHarmony, etc.) because a lot of people I know have found real love that way.  But I do think that once you’ve met someone you like, it’s extremely important to make sure the majority of your interactions with him/her are in person.  

Otherwise you might pop out robot babies, terminator style, and they’ll take over the world.

A Tribute to High Fidelity

15 10 2009


John Cusack in High Fidelity

John Cusack in High Fidelity


I would normally argue that seeing a movie before reading the book that inspired the movie is a really terrible idea, because it ruins your imagination’s ability to visualize the characters and settings on its own.  But in the case of High Fidelity, the opposite holds true.  John Cusack so embodies the character of Rob Gordon that I don’t want to ever imagine any other face in that role.  If you haven’t seen the movie or read the book, please stop reading here and do so immediately.  It’s a classic. 

For those of you who, like me, fell completely in love with Rob Gordon and his endless top 5 lists, I am creating a High Fidelity Top 5 List debate using my favorite of his lists: The Top 5 Side One, Track One songs of any album.  Here’s his list:


Rob’s Top Five Side One, Track Ones (p. 147): 

1. “Janie Jones“, The Clash, by The Clash

2. “Thunder Road“, Born to Run, by Bruce Springsteen

3. “Smells Like Teen Spirit“, Nevermind, by Nirvana

4. “Let’s Get It On“, Let’s Get It On, by Marvin Gaye

5. “Return of the Grievous Angel”, Grievous Angel, by Gram Parsons

And here’s mine:

Laura’s Top Five Side One, Track Ones

1.  “Gimmie Shelter,” Let It Bleed, Rolling Stones

2. “Girl from the North Country (with Johnny Cash),” Nashville Skyline, Bob Dylan

3. “And It Stoned Me,” Moondance, Van Morrison

4. “Everything in its Right Place,” Kid A, Radiohead

5. “Let’s Get It On,” Let’s Get It On, Marvin Gaye


Only one overlap– I couldn’t cut out Marvin Gaye, he’s a legend.  What’s on your list, fellow music nerds?

The Vogue Blackface Spread: Provocative or Insensitive?

14 10 2009
Vogue's Blackface Shoot

Supermodel Lara Stone in Blackface for French Vogue

The latest issue of French Vogue features Dutch model Lara Stone donning African-inspired garb and painted black, head to toe.  Trés chic?   Mais non, chérie.

The text blurb in the mag says something to the effect of, We chose this particular white model because she has funky teeth and isn’t anorexic.  This woman is a whopping size 4, ladies and gents, and her mouth is closed in all the photos.  Plus, what do funny teeth and a “normal-sized” body, in model dimensions, have to do with painting her skin black?  Why didn’t they just use a normal-sized, funky-toothed black model?  They would have saved a whole bucket of charcoal.

On top of this controversial photo shoot, an Australian TV equivalent to SNL called “Hey Hey It’s Saturday” featured 5 white men performing a blackface Jackson 5 skit this week:

Harry Connick, Jr. (what, who cares?) wasn’t impressed, and neither am I.  Sure, I understand the fact that neither the stylists/photographers/editors at French Vogue nor the men in the “Hey Hey” skit meant to offend the African-American community, but SURELY they understand the complex, demeaning history of blackface and its implications.  Like Hitler’s extensive anti-Jewish propaganda, including posters, movies and books exaggerating certain stereotypes of Jews in order to solidify anti-Semitism, the tradition of blackface in theatre and printed art played a significant role in the proliferation of racist attitudes and stereotypes.

I remember back when I was in college at UVA, two seriously idiotic frat boys decided to dress up in blackface for Halloween (as Venus and Serena Williams).  They were both suspended, to my delight, but I was shocked at the number of people on campus who jumped to their defense.  It was a joke!  People dress as other people on Halloween, that’s the whole point!

No- a white man dressing up as Bill Clinton and a white man dressing up as Venus Williams send two very different messages.  To participate in the blackface tradition nowadays, even without any kind of malicious intention, is to rub salt in a centuries-old wound.  You should know better than that, educated college man.

Now the Vogue photo shoot is decidedly not blackface minstrelsy, since none of the model’s features have been exaggerated and she is not performing any kind of stereotype.  Still, why paint a white model black if not to purposefully allude to the controversial blackface tradition?  And to further fan the flame, in choosing a white model for an African shoot, especially since Vogue has been criticized in the past for its lack of black models, the magazine’s editors are only highlighting the lack of racial diversity in their publication.  I could suggest a ton of stunning black models Vogue could have chosen for that shoot, my personal favorite being Alek Wek:


Swoon. Look how fabulous she is.  I just forgot what I was even talking about.