While the Socrates experience has grown from the concept of convening a variety of youthful American professionals of diverse views over a topic of burning interest [past topics have ranged from the Dilemmas of the Digital Age (the initial seminar, led by Charlie Firestone) to Leadership (David Gergen, moderator)], perhaps no topic has brought quite such a sense of cautious expectation and anxiety as "Sexuality, Power and Culture" offered this year.
The seminar is moderated by the highly gifted team of Kate Roberts, founder of YouthAIDS, reaching some 600 million people in 60 countries with life-saving messages, products, servics and care, and Prof. Amita Vyas, a Johns Hopkins professor specializing in reproductive health who is among those who once journeyed to Calcutta to work alongside Mother Theresa in the Missionaries of Charity.
Even the first day's readings were eye-opening.
Some revelations had to do with inequities, others with the extent of misinformation, distortion, myth and a sense of what is taboo which often feed violent and life-threatening behaviors.
An early essay in the inch-thick binder, "Why Can't a Man be More like a Woman?" describes the dual standards of decades of slowing or preventing drugs to help women control their reproduction in many countries, while male sexual dysfunction drugs were often rushed to market. Perhaps this is most extreme in Japan, where oral contraceptives were kept off the market for decades for various reasons (an assertion in 1967 that Japanese women were physiologically unique, a suggestion in 1990 it would accelerate spread of HIV, and in 1998 "because artificial hormones in sewage might feminize fish") whereas after the accidental discovery sildenafil could overcome some cases of erectile dysfunction, it was approved for the Japanese market in six months.
Early on, was a treatise on celibacy in Northern India and the interpretations of brahmacharya, including a lengthy discussion of whether men may attain greater power through the discipline of not emitting sexual fluids [described here, though not in the writing, in gender neutral terms in part to note that the moderators said they had not been able to discover any similar concept for women and their physiology].
Others stretch into Sub-Saharan Africa - where 70 percent of the world's HIV positive people reside - and Iran, where a sexual counter-revolution is described among well-educated, unemployed youth otherwise suppressed under Islamist rule as girls and young women wear scanty clothes under their loose-fitting veils and gowns so they may frolick with boys and young men at exotic parties in private homes despite the risk of lashings from 'morality police' if they're caught.
Our discussion is brisk.
Kate asks us to identify ourselves, what brought us to the seminar, something unusual not in our biographies, and - tormenting some - explain our definition of sexuality, what it means for each of us.
In keeping with the tradition of Socrates, the conversations themselves are confidential, but we learn a lot from each other about diverse experiences among our group alone, even if we come largely from a professional background of a certain age living in America in the early 21st Century:
[in no particular order]:
* Taboos and stigma of sexuality are still sufficiently strong that the notion of sharing even in a reasonably 'safe' group of peers is felt by a significant number of participants.
* We have several physicians, one of whom says three patients in their late teens had presented themselves in the last month or so as planning to change gender, and all three had mentally made the transformation already despite no physical alterations as yet.
* One of the participants recounts Mormon ancestry, including an earlier generation in which one polygamist man fathered 64 children.
* Another participant shares having been abused as a toddler and still struggling with that, eliciting gentle expressions of support and sympathy from around our circle.
* Some of the descriptions of sexuality are simple and beautiful, one participant describing simply as "life force" and many touching on its role in self-identity and in intimacy.
* This last reflection contrasts SHARPLY with ghastly descriptions shared by the moderators of rape and mutilation, often born out of myth or social belief.
* Several participants describe the challenges of addressing sexuality with teenage children and relatives.
* One participant loves trampolines.
* Several, especially women, cite how women are controlled in relationships via sexuality... more on this to come, no doubt, as inextricably linked though perhaps not as much in this first day was spoken about empowerment of women as we were being encouraged not to become too focussed on gender per se.
* One participant described to everyone's amusement a mother who was on the forefront of National Institutes of Health-backed contraceptive research, and yet never spoke once about sex or sexuality with her children - except to say, once they were married - "now you're married, you need to have kids."
The discussions that ensued ranged broadly - with several poignant interjections by the moderators on issues such as America's policies against supporting HIV prevention programs which also addressed reproductive rights - which could of course be a seminar in its own right.
It is very clear how much rather than how little our cultures, our governments and our religions dominate our expression of sexuality, and conversely how the expression may become a strong, even violent outcome.
We discuss a picture of two Iranian men being prepared to be hanged because they were found to be gay, and another photo of two young girls wearing t-shirts proclaiming "GOD.HATES.FAGS.COM". We also discuss sex education in our families, and our middle schools, and the roles of stigma, fear and acceptance of wide-ranging opinions and practices in individual and social lives.
On Day Two, however, we move onward to the subject of where Sexuality is Power, and where it's Taboo.
More to come.
NOTE to readers: While this is the first coordinated effort to blog from Socrates, we also realize it is darned near impossible to provide the ambiance of each of the five groups simultaneously, no matter how much we enjoy multitasking. For you, however, there is some reprieve. Long-time attendee and good friend Pascal Levensohn, who incidentally heads the program's community-building activities, is participating in the "Media and Our Conflicting Values," seminar moderated by former FCC Chairman Michael Powell.
Find his post "Am I My Brother's Keeper? Stewardship of Media Content in the Internet Age," here.