The sex and me monologues


How do you discuss virginity with a class of American university students without the conversation sounding irrelevant to their lives or, worse, an exercise in exoticizing another culture?

Women, sex and culture can be a Bermuda Triangle that threatens to demolish discussion through either defensiveness — when students feel compelled to defend a cultural practice — or superiority — when students feel compelled to parade their culture as being above whatever cultural challenges are being discussed.

The personal is not only political, but it demolishes that Bermuda Triangle. I got a powerful reminder about that in September when I taught a course on gender and new media in the Middle East, in Oklahoma. We had watched the Lebanese film “Caramel,” directed by and starring Nadine Labaki, as the owner of a Beirut hair salon whose friends and co-workers portray a cross-section of Lebanese female experience.

One friend undergoes hymen reconstruction just before her wedding to a man she fears will reject her if he finds out she isn’t a virgin. Students didn’t miss a beat.

“Have you heard of purity balls?” asked one young woman, referring to formal dances in the United States between fathers and daughters at which teenage girls pledge to remain virgins until marriage.

Yes, I thought! It was an especially sharp class. Most of them were majoring in women’s and gender studies. They were comfortable with the personal and with making those connections. I had, indeed, heard of purity balls through news articles, but they seemed to be as foreign to me and to the class as hymen reconstruction.

Until the personal shook us out of our complacency. “I just want everyone to know that I signed a purity pledge with my father,” one of the students said.

I could not have engineered it better myself. Her courage in sharing reminded us all that virginity wasn’t just over there, in Lebanon. It was right in class with us. Oklahoma kept doing that to me. I joke that going there was like going to the Middle East: a similar mix of religion and conservative politics. (Oklahoma is the only state in which every county was red after the 2008 presidential election.)

Some of the other students tiptoed toward questions for the student who had shared her purity pledge experience. We were all adjusting.

“I respect that you think you’ve made a free choice,” one student told her. “But [U.S. playwright] Eve Ensler said that when you sign a pledge to your father, your sexuality is being taken away from you until you sign it to your husband when you get married.”

Teaching is like alchemy: You take a few students, mix them with some difficult subjects, and you are bound to be stunned by the results.

I make my classes as personal as possible. I offer my experiences to keep a face on the issue we’re talking about, and so the least I could do to appreciate the generous sharing we had all witnessed — and to express solidarity with a conservative position I once shared — was to tell the class how long I had waited to have sex. There were no purity pledges in my past. But there was a time when I, too, believed I should wait till I got married before I had sex — but then it took forever to get married, and I got fed up waiting.

When I was younger, I had no one to share that with. The guilt was exacerbated by secrecy, and for a long time I could talk about sex only with non-Muslim women friends.

But I’ve become bolder. It’s not always reciprocated or appreciated. At one Muslim women’s conference, after I shared how difficult it had been to overcome the guilt of premarital sex, another Muslim woman bluntly told me that the Koran clearly stated that “fornicators were for fornicators,” so there was a “fornicator” out there for me somewhere.

Charming.

Undeterred, sometimes driven by an insatiable need to share — share and shed the guilt — my skin has thickened. It was made more resilient in Oklahoma — so familiar that some evenings, alone in my hotel room, weeping was the only way to let go of memories, some as far back as 20 years, but still close to the bone.

Oklahoma prepared me well for Amsterdam. Differences in moral ethos aside, my reward for all that sharing with my students was a group of Dutch Muslim women of Moroccan descent with whom I could talk honestly about sex — safely and without any self-righteous references to “fornicators.”

“When I first had sex, it was as if my mother, my father, my grandparents, the entire neighborhood, God and all the angels were there watching,” one of them said. The rest of us convulsed with laughter and all-too-familiar memories.

Male-dominated religions and cultures that cater to male sexuality, with barely a nod to women’s desires, are difficult enough without the judgments of fellow women. I know where it comes from; I recognize its need to conform. And, like our virginity discussion, the best way to defang the self-righteousness is with the personal.

Women’s stories are too often dismissed. A male editor I once worked with tried to dissuade me from the personal: “Who cares about what happened to you?”

The most subversive thing a woman can do is talk about her life as if it really mattered.

It does.

This essay originally appeared in The Jerusalem Report and is reprinted with permission of the author.

Mona Eltahawy is an Egyptian-born columnist and public speaker on Arab and Muslim issues.

Monologuist Pulls Plug on Ben Franklin


Josh Kornbluth grew up in a secular, communist household in New York City. He says that he’s not trying to be flippant when he notes that his parents had an almost “Talmudic reverence for Marxism.” Though he never set foot in a synagogue and wasn’t bar mitzvahed, “I was circumcised,” he says, adding, “I did sacrifice something.”

Yes, Kornbluth has sacrificed a lot over the years, including sometimes his own career prospects. Aspiring to be a mathematician, he quit math as a major in college because when he started calculus, “I wasn’t even in the ballpark of doing it.”

He switched his major to political theory and “did everything except graduate.” He froze up when writing a senior thesis. “I couldn’t face it,” so he dropped out of college. “I was floundering.”

Sometimes out of such humbling circumstances, though, a person can attain a level of success, even if it’s not the greatness of Ben Franklin, the subject of Kornbluth’s one-man show, “Benjamin Franklin: Unplugged,” which is having its Southern California premiere at the Rubicon Theater in Ventura.

In the show, Kornbluth shows both the rigorous and creative sides of the man who has been mocked by some for his almost yuppie-like desire to better himself, yet showed a fertile imagination in inventing the Franklin stove, discovering electricity and helping to revolutionize the nation.

Onstage, Kornbluth opens a refrigerator that is neatly packed with Franklin paraphernalia, each box, each parcel in its own precise slot inside the appliance. He also shows flashes of insight, signaled by spotlighting and a sound akin to chimes.

One of those onstage epiphanies occurs when the stocky, bald Kornbluth recounts his discovery while shaving one morning that he looks like Franklin. Though his face may be more cherubic than the famous man’s, Kornbluth does share the same shiny dome and paunchy midsection.

“Unplugged,” like Kornbluth’s entire repertory of monologues, developed through improvisation. He workshopped the work with David Dower, a director based in the Bay Area, before he finally performed it in 1998 in San Francisco. He staged it across the country at obscure venues like a Jewish community center in Washington, D.C., and Public School 122 in New York.

He may still be on the fringes of legit theater, but in conjunction with this year’s tercentennial of Franklin’s birth, Kornbluth and Dower have brought the show back, reconceiving it in a number of ways. In the original production, there were “some boxes, a table and a rolling chair.”

The new production features a stage that is “like, though a little bit nicer than, the apartment I was living in” years ago, Kornbluth says. The set is a ’50s-looking kitchen, with cupboards filled with documents, the aforementioned refrigerator and decorated with muted yellow wallpaper.

But the changes are not limited to the set. In the first act, Kornbluth wears a purple, floral T-shirt that reminds one of the psychedelic era. Where he once wore a vest and white shirt in the first act to give a hint of the colonial transformation to come in act two, his new garb shows “the way I usually dress. All the shirts are made by my wife.”

The wardrobe difference suggests a more comfortable Kornbluth, one who has a greater understanding of himself and Franklin.

“It’s evolved where I continually feel more of a kinship with Franklin. Not to compare myself to him but to be close to him,” he said.

Beyond Spalding Gray, whose monologues Kornbluth first saw at the Brattle Theater in Cambridge, Mass., Kornbluth says he has been influenced by the Borscht Belt comedians like Mel Brooks: “They had almost a hysteria in being out of control but not completely out of control.”

When Kornbluth comes out in the second act of “Unplugged” wearing knickers, stockings and bifocals, he shows a bit more of a physical brand of humor, like his legendary Jewish comic forebears.

And Jewishness informs his work in other ways. He talks incessantly on the phone with Aunt Birdie and regales us with stories about Stalin, the blacklist and even Jewish savories: “This is the only theatrical presentation involving Franklin to have a matzah brie joke.”

Josh Kornbluth performs “Benjamin Franklin: Unplugged” at the Rubicon Theater, 1006 E. Main St., Ventura, through March 5. For information, call (805) 667-2900.

 

7 Days In Arts


Saturday

Entertainment comes at no price today in North Hollywood
and West Hollywood. Take your pick: The NoHo Theatre and Arts Festival offers a
variety of theater performances that includes musicals, kabuki, sketch comedy,
improv, poetry jams and children’s shows. Also on the agenda are dance
performances and fine arts including chocolate portraits by Sid Chidiac and
Jewish-themed art by Dover Abrams. Those in WeHo can partake in the city’s
“Movies in the Park” free screening of Disney’s “Finding Nemo,” which features
the voices of Ellen DeGeneres, Albert Brooks and Alexander Gould. NoHo Festival:
11 a.m.-8 p.m., May 15-16. Lankershim Boulevard, between Chandler and Magnolia,
in North Hollywood. (818) 763-5273. “>www.laemmle.com

.

Tuesday

Debbie Gibson, Larry from “Three’s Company” and Angela from “Who’s the Boss?” all share a special place in our popular cultural nostalgia, and starting tonight, a stage as well. UCLA’s Freud Playhouse presents Stephen Sondheim’s “Company,” starring the now-mature Deborah Gibson, Richard Kline and Judith Light. The musical comedy centers on the theme of relationships.
8 p.m. (Tue.-Fri.); 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. (Sat.); 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. (Sun.). $55-$65. MacGowan Hall, UCLA, Westwood. (310) 825-2101.

Wednesday

Grade school show-and-tell could’ve been more fittingly referred to as show-off-and-tell. But tonight, thankfully, “Show and Tell” the event, is not what you think it is. No need to feel anxious. You’ll be doing the spectating as professional comedy writers, journalists and playwrights take the stage to perform monologues in support of the Westside Food Bank. So leave the Western Barbie with special winking eyelid at home. You won’t need her.
8 p.m. $25-$50. Silent Movie Theatre, 611 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles. (310) 828-6016.

Thursday

Issues of “wardrobe malfunctions” and “The ‘M’ Word: Morality and the Business of Entertainment” become the topic of conversation this evening at Valley Beth Shalom. Does the “Industry” have a moral responsibility to its viewers? L.A. Times TV critic Howard Rosenberg sounds off, along with fellow panelists Jerry Offsay, president of Parkchester Productions; Frank Pierson, president of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences; and writer-director Lionel Chetwynd.
7:30 p.m. Free. 15739 Ventura Blvd., Encino. (818) 788-6000.

Friday

Singer-songwriter Stephanie Schneiderman’s latest album is titled “Touch Down.” Intimate, at turns bluesy, sexy and a little bit raw, “these new songs are about courage,” she says on her Web site, “not about the absence of fear but the strength to move through it.” She graces you with intimate lyrics and an elastic voice tonight at Genghis Cohen.
8:30 p.m. $7. 740 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 653-0640.