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Emergency Sex (And Other Desperate Measures): True Stories from a War Zone

4.06  ·  Rating details ·  3,853 ratings  ·  348 reviews
In the early 1990s three young people attracted to the ambitious global peacekeeping work of the UN cross paths in Cambodia. Andrew strives for a better world through his life-saving work as a doctor. Heidi, a social worker, is in need of a challenge and a paycheck, and Ken is fresh from Harvard and brimful of idealism. As their stories interweave through the years, from R ...more
Paperback, 352 pages
Published February 3rd 2005 by Ebury Press (first published June 1st 2004)
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Aug 13, 2007 rated it really liked it
Contrary to what the title suggests, this is not a funny, lewd book. The authors are UN staff, who in various circuitous ways, end up as a tight trio in Cambodia and serving in missions in Rwanda, Haiti and Liberia in particularly bloody, and probably avoidable, times. These are their personal accounts in journal-like entries that bounce from person to person.

The UN made a big stink about denouncing it because it was "unfairly" critical; the mainstream press and non-profit orgs got excited abou
Marion Grace Woolley
I spent two years in Rwanda. In the Programme Office, one wall was devoted, floor-to-ceiling, to books that people had brought with them or received in aid parcels from home. Every now and then something so special would come along that people would literally write their names on a list to read it.

This was possibly the most widely read book of my time overseas. It tells the story of three American civilians who wind up working for the UN during one of their most volatile periods in history. It c
Apr 12, 2009 rated it liked it
Quick, entertaining read - but somehow I thought it'd be better. Good look at what it's like working for the UN/any horrible bureaucracy, but two of the three main characters were really annoying - one just fucks her way around the world because she can't get a real job back home, and another seems shocked to realise going to law school doesn't mean you have all the answers. I thought they'd come to some deeper realisation than 'oh wow, we can't really do much to help anyone maybe the UN isn't t ...more
Sep 25, 2014 rated it it was ok
This would have been a far more interesting read if it had just focused on Andrew's story. I'm honestly not sure why the other two got into humanitarian careers, as they only seem interested in bragging rights for tough locations but show little respect or interest for the people living there. Kenneth gets enraged about bureaucracy but suggests few solutions, Heidi seems to be constantly on the lookout for her next bed buddy, and only Andrew appears to actually make connections with the people h ...more
May 29, 2008 rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction, africa
During the long anticlimax of this book, when all three authors start writing their final reports, Ken summarizes their effort: “Collectively we experienced—maybe represent—all the exultation and catastrophe of a decade spent trying and failing to do well by doing good in a new world.” He and his role model Andrew can’t shake this tragic tone; instead, they use their respective religions to contextualize themselves as martyr heroes in a brutally flawed machine that converts youth, trust and idea ...more
Sep 17, 2008 rated it liked it
Shelves: memoir
Overall, this three person memoir was interesting, especially if you have wondered what it is like to be a humanitarian aid worker for the UN. I was disheartened by the inefficacy of the UN and its missions and I am glad the authors were honest about the realities and limitations of the UN.

The reason I am giving this book 3 stars is because I felt most of the writing was weak. One of the narrators (Ken) was quite melodramatic and, at times, seemed to romanticize the events. Heidi, who appears t
Ken Deshaies
Nov 05, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Most of us learn about the more daring aspects of life through the news media, via gossip and through friendly conversation. It takes a rare breed to launch into learning where guts leads a truly inquisitive nature, where danger is the morning meal. The authors are three of those people. Unsettled or unhappy with just living out their professions at home, they each join the U.N. at a young age as volunteer peacekeepers. What follows is staccato learning, being thrust into situations where they f ...more
Apr 30, 2015 rated it it was ok
Like a lot of other people I found the book interesting, informative and sad.

However, I also found Heidi patronising and annoying and very colonial. Also obsessed with shagging.

The title of the book is rubbish. Mostly the book is nothing to do with sex. (apart from Heidi's input.

As other's have noted it is the Australian Dr's story that is the most eloquent, cohesive and engaging - and he is the most likeable character.

worth reading, but not sure I would recommend.

There are other books out ther
Jul 06, 2007 rated it really liked it
Incredible. Three UN aid workers - one trained as a lawyer at Harvard, a doctor from New Zealand, and a divorcee from New York and homeless shelter worker - pen their memories of life on the front lines of conflict zones in the 90's. The book starts in Cambodia, where Dr. Andrew has been providing medical care for victims of the Khmer Rouge's reign of terror, and the first mission for Ken and Heidi as UN peacekeeper staff. The book follows them through Haiti, Rwanda, Bosnia, Liberia, and Ethiopi ...more
Jun 07, 2008 rated it it was amazing
This was a fantastic read! I was hooked to it from the beginning and couldn't put it down. It was absolutley not as racy as the title implied. Following the authors from their entry into the UN world and following them on their missions, made me feel like I was there. It was a little hard stomach some of the details and I had to take breaks in between.

While it does showcase the inefficiencies of the UN and how it failed terribly in Rwanda, Bosnia, Somalia etc., it nonetheless brings out the pot
Three U.N. workers recount their experiences working overseas during pivotal international conflicts (including the genocides in Bosnia and Rwanda, political turmoil in Haiti, and the drive to establish the democratic vote in Cambodia). Despite one of the author's almost single-minded focus on sex (and a disturbing, almost colonial, habit of sleeping with as many "exotic" and "brown" locals as possible in her quest for feminine independence and social understanding -- there is a line in the book ...more
Apr 12, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Gripping, honest stories from three UN workers who met in Cambodia, where they assisted in monitoring a successful election in 1993. They spent the next seven years unsuccessfully trying to recapture that experience in Somalia, Haiti, Rwanda, and Liberia--sometimes together, but more often spread across the globe. Unflinching, very critical of the UN, and fascinating even if the writing is not always fabulous. A reminder for those of us who grew up in the 1990s and tend to think of the pre-9/11 ...more
Feb 13, 2018 rated it it was amazing
A journey from naivety to a mature realization and acceptance of the horrors and evil of this world, as well as hope for humanity's future. It has been a long time since I've read a book that has enamoured me.

There is truth in these stories, and one might want to puke after reading about the hyposcrisy of governments and institutions. It's a book that challenges and questions our morality and beliefs. There is a Rwandan quote somewhere in the book that says, "Bury the dead but not the truth."

David Burns
3.5 stars. Worth reading this book which is a cult classic among humanitarian aid workers, foreign service officers, and other long-term travelers who have decided to make their homes in some of the world's most beautiful and dangerous places. ...more
Carolyn Swaisland
Jan 17, 2020 rated it really liked it
A book that is by no means easy to read, but which has opened my eyes to the realities of being a humanitarian aid worker and the harrowing, often helpless experience of operating in a war zone.
Feb 19, 2021 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Best book of a year so far!!
Apr 09, 2011 rated it liked it
Ken Cain, Heidi Postlewait, and Dr. Andrew Thomson have given their readers a realistic account of something most will never have to see with their own eyes, let alone experience in person. From Nigerian soldiers murdering nine year old sex workers in Liberia before decapitating them and placing their severed heads inside their genitals to mass graves with thousands upon thousands of intertwined bodies in Rwanda to Scud missiles trailing across Israeli skies to pitched combat in the middle of a ...more
Sep 02, 2018 rated it it was amazing
A jarring depiction of humanitarian work in conflict zones. It doesn't glorify the work. It challenges you to think about the systemic failures through first-hand traumas. A reminder that savage acts were not all that long ago. The authors did work worth doing. ...more
Feb 24, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
Absolutely my highest recommendation; the best book I've read this year (2008). The authors were UN Peacekeepers during the 1990s and into the early 2000s and these are their tales. If you are at all aware of the existence of other countries you should read this book. If you are a firebreathing conservative and think the UN should be shut down, you should read this book. If you are bleeding-heart liberal and think the UN should take over the world, you should read this book. If you think it matt ...more
Sarah Nosworthy
Nov 21, 2015 rated it really liked it
How do you rate who well a book shares such horrific things? Not one of the three set out to be authors, but to do good work, however they sought to do it (lawyer, social worker/secretary, doctor). Not one of the jobs would you wish on your enemy, it's work of saints, and it's demoralising, cause there is never a right decision. Geopolitics are not simple. Ken nor Heidi can offer solutions - and reviewers are far less equipped to critique them on this fact!

What I learnt with the timeline of the
Oct 29, 2008 rated it it was ok
I thought this was a well-done story but it's interesting how one of its inherent traits is a self-absorption (necessary for the work these people do) that winds up being a turn-off. It's an interesting internal debate: on the one hand, to really admire and be thankful for these people doing work that I doubt I would have the stomach to do; and on the other hand, to be so annoyed by their narcissism (especially Heidi's - good grief). In the end, I am glad I read it but I don't think I'd like to ...more
Jan 02, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2017
I've finished this collective memoir with mixed feelings. Three former UN workers share their perspectives of work and life from behind the UN camp fences in some of the saddest and most desperate parts of the world during the 1990s. Their individual voices ring out initially with naive optimism, but as the toll of genocide, war and futility wears them down, their stories become depressingly similar. I had hoped for a more uplifting tale but this was not the case.

Not a book I'd recommend for a
Jun 26, 2007 rated it really liked it
I just finished reading this book that my friend Sara passed on to me with extremely high recommendations. In this memoir written by three international workers for UN peacekeeping efforts, the friends take turns telling the stories of why they joined the UN effort, how they met, and the inside stories of the war-torn countries where they worked together. Funny, tragic, heartbreaking, irreverent and thrilling--I couldn't put it down. ...more
a book that make you realise that only the people and countries themselves can make peace and progress - and that if international help were to be provided, only those who has tangiable, technical skills, such as being a doctor or engineer can contribute to improving people's lives - others can perhaps be largely self-ego of aid workers being more in love with the idea of being the middle of conflict.. ...more
May 17, 2012 rated it really liked it
I picked this book up at my hostel in the Cameron Highlands and I'd bet it came from Cambodia - it was a photocopied book. It was also incredible. Three people, out to change the world, meet during a UN mission in Cambodia to supervise an election. From there, they travel to the hot spots of 1990s peacekeeping missions, slowly growing more disillusioned with the peacekeeping process. I found it education and entertaining. ...more
Dec 05, 2007 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Overseas aid workers
This book is the true story of three UN peacekeepers and their expereinces through the 1990's. Working overseas my self for Peace Corps there are things I could totally relate to, but there were also lessons I have yet to learn that have made me think hard about my future. ...more
Heather Twidle
Jul 07, 2009 rated it it was amazing
It sounds dirty (I giggled when Heather L told me about it) but it's one of the grittiest accounts of the personal cost of frontline aid work I've read - captivating. It should be a movie, it'd be brilliant. ...more
Apr 03, 2013 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
this is a joint collaboration of writing by a few people. The woman, you will be wishing to tear from the book, as it is her accounts,and actions that bring this book down, and lowers its impact, by making it cheap!.
Jacqueline Jamieson
Nov 17, 2013 rated it really liked it
The ending is so insightful and beautiful. The character/authors are all figures of moral authority and wisdom in contemporary politics and ethics. Interesting analysis of the effectiveness of UN humanitarian interventions throughout the 1980s/90s.
May 19, 2009 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: kimber
Recommended to Fuschia by: michael
Liked the premise/story, hated the authors. Andrew should have written the whole book. And worst book title ever.
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