BOOK REVIEW: A Stranger Truth by Ashok Alexander

A Stranger Truth: Lessons in Love, Leadership and Courage from India's Sex WorkersA Stranger Truth: Lessons in Love, Leadership and Courage from India’s Sex Workers by Ashok Alexander
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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In 2003, Ashok Alexander left a prestigious job at the advisory firm McKinsey and Company to head up the Gates Foundation’s HIV/AIDS prevention program for India. He had no experience in public health and faced an HIV prevention challenge on a scale and of a nature that hadn’t been seen before. This book describes his experiences — and sometimes those of others in Avahan (the Indian HIV Prevention program.) However, the emphasis isn’t on patting himself and his team on the back so much as pointing out the lessons they learned from the high-risk populations they served – mostly sex workers, but also their clientele, as well as intravenous drug users.

The nineteen chapters of this book are arranged into two parts. The first part (Ch. 1 thru 11) explores Alexander’s travels around the country to meet with various high-risk groups and learn about their needs. The second part (Ch. 12 thru 19) takes a deeper dive into the building of Mysore’s program, Ashodaya, which became a global educator on HIV prevention.

Part one offers insight into bits of India that most of us never see. When I mentioned that the problem in India wasn’t just it’s large size, but also the peculiar nature of the environment, that can be seen throughout these chapters. What do I mean by the peculiar nature? In India, not only is prostitution rarely practiced in brothels, but sex workers are largely indistinguishable from the general population. The biggest portion of the group is women in saris who look like much of the female population. Also, the societal stigma is great, which creates all the more incentive to not let your work be known. For these reasons, just finding the at-risk population was challenging, they were dispersed and hid in plain sight. There were also problems of thinking that ranged from politicians who wouldn’t admit there was potential for massive HIV / AIDS in India because they insisted that Indians don’t engage in any of the “immoral” acts seen elsewhere in the world, to johns who honestly believed that drizzling lime juice on one’s manhood would prevent infections.

Among the most intriguing chapters in part one are those that reveal the issues with long-haul truckers (the single biggest demand-side high-risk population), intravenous drug-users in the golden-triangle adjacent states of the Northeast (i.e. Manipur and Nagaland,) and one that explained the unique cultural traditions of the transgender populations in India. There’s also a chapter (Ch. 6) that discusses the leadership traits that were found among the sex workers.

Part II, which dealt with the Mysore program, also had its fascinating elements. Two of the chapters discussed the life stories of two particular sex workers (one female and the other male) who worked in the Ashodaya program. There was also a chapter that dealt with the discussion of violence. That might seem like a diversion, but apparently violence and lack of prophylaxis go hand-in-hand, and had to be dealt with together.

The book has an Appendix of general information on HIV / AIDS and its occurrence in India. Other than that, a few maps and annotations are the extent of the ancillary matter.

I found this book fascinating — if heartbreaking in places. As someone who’s lived in India for over six years, there was a great deal of insight offered into segments of the population of which I had little awareness. Even learning about the trucking industry (divorced from the sex work / HIV angle) was intriguing. I’d highly recommend this book if one is interested in the topics of: leadership, public health, or the unseen side of India. The author uses a narrative approach throughout to great effect.

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BOOK REVIEW: A Brief History of Vice by Robert Evans

A Brief History of Vice: How Bad Behavior Built CivilizationA Brief History of Vice: How Bad Behavior Built Civilization by Robert Evans
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book’s title and subtitle suggest its central theme, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. As the title suggests, drugs, sex, and sundry bad behavior aren’t just the abhorrent actions of a marginalized few who society seeks to reign in. In some cases, culture and civilization are built on said behaviors. Evans devotes a fair amount of space to discussing research on vices’s role in the growth of civilization. These hypotheses and theories run a gamut from the non-controversial and well-established to more sweeping claims such as that the agricultural revolution was largely driven by the dictates of beer production (i.e. both the need to produce a lot of grain and to be homebodies through the fermentation process) and that the dawn of religion may be linked to the ingestion of mushrooms of the magic variety. Despite the book’s light and humorous tone, it should be noted that the author treats the latter type of claims with the requisite skepticism.

But this isn’t just a book of history, anthropology, and evolutionary biology as pertains to the origins of vice and its linkage to civilization and culture; it also offers humorous anecdotes of the author’s experiments into how to replicate some of the vices of the ancients – as well as offering step-by-step directions for readers to conduct their own such investigations. As might be expected, there’s a lot of humor in the book. Just the idea of debauchery building civilization offers plenty of opportunity for the subversion of expectations that makes comedy, but then one adds in stories of people (and occasionally other species) making decisions under the influence of mind and mood altering substances (or even under the influence of horniness) and one enters territory ripe for hilarity.

The book consists of 15 chapters that cover both expected and unexpected topics. Not surprisingly, discussion of drugs – legal and illicit — takes up a large portion of the book. [I should make clear that the discussion of illegal substances is purely historical, and the “how-to” sections describe “experiments” that were legal in the author’s jurisdiction and that will be for most readers.] Ten chapters are about various consciousness and mood altering substances including: alcohol (ch. 1 & 4), psychedelic substances (ch. 7, 8, and 10), tobacco and marijuana (ch. 9; treated together because historically they had more in common than in their modern use / legal status), the ephedra shrub and derived products ranging from Mormon tea to Methamphetamine (ch. 11), coffee and caffeine (ch. 12), designer drugs ranging from ayahuasca [made from two different plants that don’t live together and which only work when used together] through pain killers and on to the dangerous scourge of synthesized substances created in labs to get around drug laws for a few days until they will be added to the schedule of illegal substances.) The final chapter (ch. 15) is devoted to the search for the mythical salamander brandy of Slovenia (claimed to have hallucinogenic qualities owing to a toxin emitted by the submerged reptile.) I should point out that I have oversimplified with this division of chapters for simplicity’s sake. Some of the chapters dealt with more than one type of substance. For example, Chapter 10 is really about drug cultures and how they kept people safe in, for example, shamanic tribal societies, and how the loss of such culture is part of the reason we have a more severe problem with substances in modern society.

No investigation into the role of vice on civilization would be complete without discussing sex, though there are only two chapters about it. The first, chapter 6, discusses prostitution / sex work. There’s a widespread tongue-in-cheek reference to “the world’s oldest profession” that hints that sex work is both ancient and that past civilizations sometimes viewed these activities in a much different light than do we in modern, Western society. The second chapter on sex, chapter 13, addresses a different question altogether, but one which has captured the attention of many a scholar (as well as being fruitful territory for humorists), and that’s why there’s such a vast range of sexually titillating activities. It’s not difficult to figure out the evolutionary advantage of extreme pleasure being linked to sexual intercourse. However, it’s much less clear why there are such a huge range of fetish behaviors that are intensely arousing for some while ranging from being boring to disgusting for others. [It’s not cleared up by thinking that there is just a tiny fraction of the population that is into everything. A person who gets excited by wearing a head-to-toe rubber suit while being failed with a halibut might find a foot fetish utterly disgusting.]

For those who are counting, that leaves three chapters on miscellaneous forms of vice. Chapter 2 discusses music, particularly as a lubricant of social activities, and it presents an intriguing theory that Stonehenge may have been built for its acoustic qualities – i.e. to facilitate ancient raves. Chapter 3 explores celebrity worship, an activity which we tend to think of as both recent and as harbinger of doom for humanity, but which actually has a long history – so long that it may date back further than humanity, itself, does. That leaves chapter five, which delves into a grab-bag of bad habits that would today be collectively labeled “douchiness.” This includes narcissism, inexplicable overconfidence, and a tendency toward lying, bragging, and delusions about self or others.

The book has a range of graphics from photographs to diagrams. Some are for educational purposes (e.g. to help the reader conduct their own experiments) and some are mostly for comedic effect. The “side-bar” discussions of how to reproduced the results of the ancients (and the author, himself) are presented in text-boxes for the sake of clarity. There are one or two of these text-boxes in most chapters. As mentioned, the subjects for these “hands-on” activities are chosen to avoid running afoul of the law.

I enjoyed this book. It’s at once amusing and thought-provoking. I think the author hits a nice medium between doling out humor and educating the reader. I’d recommend reading it (though not necessarily conducting every one of the experiments) for anyone who finds the subject intriguing.

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